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.

OR

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.


Nudity and the heterosexual male gaze in Game of Thrones

Note: Contains spoilers for all aired episodes of the TV series but none for the books.

 

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a show that contained as much nudity as Game of Thrones (something not unusual for a show produced by HBO and something which also featured heavily in the books), a great deal of discussion has addressed the use of “sexposition” on the show. Though in many ways I feel this goes unsaid, I’m going to say it anyway: nudity, whether male or female, is not inherently exploitative. It can be used in order to make significant character or thematic points, a process which Game of Thrones uses very effectively in many cases.

For instance, in the case of the character Daenerys in the episode “Winter is Coming”, nudity is used to indicate vulnerability and her own lack of agency—she has nothing that protects from the world and, perhaps more importantly, it is used to show that those who you would expect to protect her (first her brother and then husband) are in fact the people she has the most to fear from. Her discovering her sexual agency—in taking charge of her sex life with her husband—is used to indicate her increasing overall agency in her own life. At the very end of the first season, in the episode “Fire and Blood”, Daenerys’ nudity is meant to indicate emancipation and rebirth. There is certainly nothing exploitative about any of that nor do any of the scenes seem to me to pander to the heterosexual male gaze.

Ros, a sex worker who worked in both Winterfell and Kings Landing, is a wonderful character, liberated and funny and comfortable in both her own skin and in her profession. (In case it isn’t clear: no, there isn’t anything inherently exploitative in sex work.)* In a scene between her and Theon in the episode “The Wolf and the Lion”, they have had sex and are discussing Theon’s position in the household. She is funny and confident and deals with Theon’s ridiculousness very effectively. This is certainly a case of “sexposition” and it works fine. The camera does not pan over Ros’ body or linger on her nakedness in any obvious way and her sexuality is her own.

There are many other instances in which nudity is used in a way that is neither exploitative nor offensive, such as in the scene in “Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things” between Viserys and Doreth in which they are in a bath, relating information while having sex. The scene ends jarringly, knocking the viewer (and Doreth) out of the sexy way the scene had gone those far and nailing home the difference between the situation of Doreth (a slave) and Ros (who isn’t a slave). The scene also emphasizes how horrific a person Viserys is, as later in the episode he drags Doreth violently into a scene by her hair.

The instances in which the heterosexual male gaze is used strongly—unavoidably—is in the two lesbian scenes in the series. One is between Daenerys and Doreth, who is teaching Daenerys about the best ways to have sex. The scene is heavily charged with sexual tension, as one would expect such scene to be. However, the scene does not appear to be between two women with same-sex attraction. These are not queer women or, at the very least, they do not appear to be to this queer woman. They are straight women, one teaching and the other learning, not how to please another woman but how to please a man.

This scene is relatively mild, especially in comparison with the lesbian scene that follows in  the episode “You Win or You Die”. This scene has a very strong connection with lesbian porn aimed at straight men. Like the scene between Daenerys and Doreth, these are not queer women. No doubt this time, these are straight women (when the other woman in the scene is going down on Ros, and Ros is moaning, it is implied that she is faking it for her imagined audience) who are performing for a literal male audience, in this case Petyr/Littlefinger. There are many problems with this scene and I’m going to start with the least egregious: Aidan Gillan, who plays Littlefinger, isn’t great in this scene. I wouldn’t go as far as saying he’s terrible but he can’t carry what is basically a monologue.

This, however, is hardly the worst thing about the scene.  As mentioned above, it has a very strong connection with lesbian porn aimed at straight men. Unlike in the previous “sexposition” scenes, one of the participants—Littlefinger—remains fully clothed. He instructs the women in what they’re doing and, in an aggravating show of heterosexism, declares Ros should this time “be the man”. The majority of the scene is designed to mimic sex between a cisgendered man and a cisgendered woman. In the other scenes described the camera lingers on faces and eyes and you certainly don’t get the types of shots you get in the scene with Littlefinger, which occasionally lingers on bodies without heads and the camera panning down the woman’s bodies.

Game of Thrones actually manages to be quite progressive in general in terms of how it deals with nudity—female nudity in particular—and the use of the male gaze. However, in the way it deals with nominally lesbian scenes and sexuality is extremely problematic. I would love more queer ladies on my television. Funnily enough though, I actually want them to be queer, not there for the enjoyment of men who happen to like girl-on-girl.

 


* Though as she is the only sex worker mentioned in relation to Winterfell it could lead one to believe that it is a town with only the one person employed in sex work or, as a friend of mine assumed while watching, that “Ros” was just the standard name given out by sex workers in Winterfell.

 

Disclaimer: The treatment of queer sexuality is not the only problem Game of Thrones has, merely the one I wanted to discuss right now. In particular, the treatment of race and people of colour in the narrative is extremely problematic, and I hope future posts can deal with this.