1. The film (and audience) sympathises with the plight of the protagonist and the purpose is to reinforce the dominant sexist narrative that women are emotionally manipulative and “play games” with men, while men get their hearts broken.
2. The protagonist is an unreliable narrator who is selfish and unable to consider anyone else’s emotional needs but his own. As he embodies many of the negative traits commonly given to women in romantic comedies, the film is in fact a subversion of sexist gender stereotypes.
Surprisingly, the latter was the intention and the belief of the writers, the producers and the actors of the film, and they expected the film would be viewed with interpretation #2.* Unsurprisingly, a great deal of people not acquainted with feminism leave Youtube comments about how Tom was too good for Summer and how Summer is a “bitch”.
Thanks to the Death of the Author both of these interpretations are equally correct. But what’s so striking about this case is the divergence of opinion, even amongst feminists who would usually agree (and within SJL for that matter). More importantly, how did interpretation #1 become so popular when it was the exact opposite of what everyone involved in the creation of the film intended?
Some people have pointed out that our post about liking problematic things did not address narratives where bigoted characters were condemned. That analysis is beyond the scope of the post, because the existence of bigotry and bigoted characters do not necessarily make media problematic. This seems like an obvious point to make in say, oh, Harry Potter for example. Voldemort and the Death Eaters are clearly bigoted and racist by any mainstream measure of the word. But they are the villains of the narrative and the plot is a complete condemnation of their beliefs and actions. (I realise Harry Potter is macro-problematic in a lot of other ways though.)
Media is not problematic where bigotry is condemned or punished by the narrative. A character may undertake a bigoted action and it’s not problematic as long as that action is somehow condemned. Ron, who is positioned as one of the good guys, at one point says sexist and slut-shaming things about his sister Ginny. The important thing is that Ginny, another hero of the story, calls him on his prejudices and the audience is alerted to the fact that there is a problem with what Ron has said.
Alternatively, bigotry can be condemned by the position of the character in the text (ie. the actions of the Death Eaters are generally condemned because they’re positioned as villains). While not every narrative will have the more clear-cut good and evil divide of Harry Potter, many characters will often have particular areas in which character flaws consistently manifest. Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly is consistently misogynistic and expresses whorephobic, slut-shaming and anti-sex worker sentiments throughout the show, despite being a “good” guy – an anti-hero really. However, I believe the Firefly text is generally supportive of sex work over all, and presents Inara as a strong, relatable woman who has a lot of agency in her profession (although the show arguably sometimes lapses into positive stereotyping). The audience therefore learns that Mal is unreliable when it comes to views about sex work and perhaps women more generally.
The Unreliable Narrator
Moving back to 500 Days of Summer. The main problem is that the story is told from the privileged person’s point of view. In this case, the point of view of a man who feels entitled to not only a woman’s time, but also entitled to a relationship with her. I believe the intention was to use the unreliable narrator as a literary technique to subvert gender roles in traditional romantic comedies. But, as we all should know, intentions are not magical and do not mitigate marginalisation when it happens. In the context of patriarchy, male experiences are valued over female experiences so this subversion doesn’t work well. No matter where the men are positioned in the text your typical audience will likely sympathise with the men more, because that’s the voice we’re told is more authoritatative and objective.
As a feminist, I read many of Tom’s actions as inherently manipulative and misogynistic. But in the kyriarchy, microaggressions and forms of subtle bigotry aren’t recognised as bigotry at all and people are often told to just “get over it”. While this film might have had some self-awareness in its production, sadly unexamined bigotry from a privileged protagonist is an all too common story played out in Western film. If you want to convey a message or “moral” to a story then subtle bigotry isn’t going to cut it when signalling “THIS IS BAD BEHAVIOUR” to your audience. You’re going to have to unequivocally show how terrible the behaviour is – either by having another “good” character condemning it loudly or by having the bigoted character meet a series of terrible accidents as a consequence of their bigotry.
The narrative in fact relapses into the very tropes it sought to avoid. Summer is at first the antithesis of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl to some extent because she is not interested in a long-term relationship and is not particularly bothered with romance. However, near the end she helps Tom come to grips with his (privileged) (asshat) emotional baggage and idealism, reinforcing the narrative that women are only valuable insofar if they help men realise their true potential or something equally stomach-turning.
While Summer calls out some of Tom’s douche behaviour it’s not strong enough to over-power Tom’s unreliable point of view. More problematically, Tom’s character never really suffers for his bigoted behaviour. (Parts of the film where he is sad and misogynistic about Summer breaking off the relationship is not “suffering for it” in my book.) In fact, he has a “happy ending” where he winks at the camera with the suggestion that he’s moved on to “Autumn” now. At no point does Tom acknowledge how much emotional pain he puts Summer through. At no point does Tom recognise his actions tie into his male privilege (this is all attributed to the fact that he is a romantic and idealist).
I really enjoy the unreliable narrator as a literary device when it’s executed well. I think it’s possible to write an unreliable narrator with deeply problematic views and for the text itself to be unproblematic. But because we’re only getting the narrator’s point of view, the text needs to shout louder and flag more frequently that the narrator is not only deeply biased, but also quite bigoted in action at the very least, if not also in intent.
*All I’ve found is this interview with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but if any one of our new Tumblr fans wants to help me out with additional links I’d much appreciate it.