The 500 Days of Summer Dilemma and How to Manage Your Unreliable Narrator

Spoilers for 500 Days of Summer. Obviously.


I’ve read an amazing amount of feminist critique about this film for something that’s a bit of a guilty pleasure. I like it, but I don’t like it as much as say, Bruce Willis action films. The story is about an emotionally manipulative man, the Nice Guy (TM) even, who subsequently unleashes his misogyny and feelings of entitlement on an ex-girlfriend after she breaks up with him. I think all feminists agree on this point. But people seem to divide into two camps when analysing the underlying message of the film:

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.

8 thoughts on “The 500 Days of Summer Dilemma and How to Manage Your Unreliable Narrator”

  1. I can’t see how people can justify a #1 interpretation based on the text. Summer makes it clear at every step what she’s after and Tom repeatedly chooses to ignore it. I really hope society has not degenerated to the stage where women telling the truth about what they want now counts as manipulation.

    As an aside, how uncritical do you think a filmmaker should assume the audience to be? While Tom may not have realised his misery was due to his assmillinery, it was obvious to the large group of people I went to see it with. I tend to think a film should be about what the audience learns, rather than the protagonist.

    How can you be unequivocal about condemnation without it appearing as a ‘teachable moment’? Do have any good examples off the top of your head that manage to slide in between the two or ways that you would like to see it done?

    1. I think I view it as artistic risk management so it exists on a continuum of how clear of your condemnation you’re going to be vs how jarring or overly condescending it might sound in the text. I think it will vary from case to case and you’re always going to people who don’t get it. For example, there are apparently some people who aren’t child abusers and who don’t understand the Humbert is an unreliable narrator in Lolita which is pretty disturbing.

      I think my Firefly example was a good one – although there is some disagreement about that within SJL. I don’t think the bigoted person needs to “reform” or have a sudden moment of revelation either, as long as it’s signalled that the action is wrong. I don’t think the film as a whole is particularly good on feminism or race, but the first scene of The Social Network is one of those instances where a woman tells Zuckerberg exactly what is wrong with his attitude – and he ignores it completely. But it was one clear signal that the creators were aware of the misogyny in these characters – in the context of the whole film I’d just liked to have seen more of it.

  2. I just saw He Was A Quiet Man with Christian Slater, which ended up having many of the same problems, which of course were all exacerbated by a poor and ambiguous ending. I haven’t seen 500 Days of Summer, so I can’t make any comparison but it sounds like there’s a certain kinship going on here, even though there’s a world of difference in plot. The things that were similar were unreliable narrator whose perspective on the female characters was problematic on many different levels, to the point where I had a hard time figuring out what was what, and more importantly what the perspectives of the filmmakers was.

    Anyone here seen He Was a Quiet Man and 500 Days of Summer and can compare the two? I ask because your reaction/perspective here was pretty similar to my feelings on He Was A Quiet Man and for the same reasons.

  3. Yeah, it’s not hard for me to believe that some people saw Tom as the hero and Summer as the villain – I feel like Tom was portrayed way too sympathetically to get through to people who are viewing with a pre-existing subconsciously sexist mindset.

    I also want to point out that the narration in parts of 500 Days of Summer reinforces the gender binary, like when the narrator says “There are two types of people in the world, men and women”. This could be intended to be satirical, since it’s so obviously ridiculous, but there was no indication in the text that it was satirical so I still have no idea what I am supposed to take from it.

    1. Yes! Agreed. Having only watched the film properly (in one sitting and not walking in and out of the room while it was on TV one time) since reading this (awesome!) article, I have to say the narration is what put me off watching it initially. I thought ‘this HAS to be a joke’ but then Tom’s friends were pretty misogy too, and they were clearly meant to be funny… so I sighed and did something else cos I wasn’t in the mood for dissecting.

      Having watched it all after reading this post, however, I can see #2 justification clearly – most obviously when his set-up date pretty much tells him that Summer didn’t owe him anything. At all.

      But even watching it, having read this post and JGL’s interview, I still found myself feeling pangs occasionally for Tom. And I don’t know if I could honestly say that if I hadn’t read this article I wouldn’t feel perhaps even a bit more sorry for him. Not only does he get the benefit of having his male privilege, it also just sucks to watch someone break up. So he gets that added sympathy (or did from me occasionaly – please dont judge :P). Although, I guess that’s part of what the film covers, how break-ups and the emotional turmoil they cause clouds perception.

      I don’t really have a conclusion of the film in terms of what I think it could have/should have done differently but it really is a dilemma! One one hand, I think it was very clever, not condescending and worked well. On the other hand, it kinda scares me just how many people and NiceGuys(tm) have watched the movie and feel their bigoted views are completely valid. It’s exhausting!

      I really enjoyed this piece. Thank you!

      1. I think one can feel pangs of sympathy for Tom on the level that he is clearly experiencing unrequited love for Summer. And most of us can relate to the pain of a breakup. But really, for me, that is about it.

        I assume you meant to thank Connie for her post, not me! 🙂

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