For some time now, a friend and I have noted and discussed the bizarre gender hang-ups and skewed sense of misogyny in Phoenix movie critic Peter Keough’s reviews. This past week, he truly outdid himself in his Oscar predictions roundup, decrying rampant misogyny throughout the list of potential Best Actress nominees, and finding nary a positive female character on the screen.
Let’s put aside for a moment that Keough is the worst kind of movie critic: the kind who seems to think he’s smarter than every movie he sees. Among the reviews that I do read, he seldom seems to praise any movie unequivocally and often causes me to wonder why a man who seemingly does not enjoy movies would choose to make his living writing about them. Let’s face it: snobby, pretentious movie critics are a dime a dozen (and overpriced at that), but what sets Keough apart is his strange brand of hypersensitive, ultra-liberal, overly patronizing sexual politics. It’s as if he goes out of his way to search for the latent misogyny in every movie and always manages to find his quarry no matter how he must wrestle with strained logic and (mis)interpretation.
Nowhere is this more evident than in his review of Knocked Up, which he cites for (you guessed it) “misogyny, repressed rage, and reactionary politics,” among other offenses. Leslie Mann’s scene-stealing performance as the not-quite-happily married Debbie is dismissed as “grotesquely emasculating,” representing “the nadir of the matrimonial and parental state, incessantly berating her husband,” who Keough accurately describes as “sad and witty,” while omitting the equally true “boneheaded and inconsiderate.” Keough completely ignores the lived-in nuance of Mann’s performance, such as her crazed encounter with a nightclub doorman, or the way she manages to steal the audience’s sympathy away from Rudd’s lovably immature Pete just by tearfully stating, “I like Spiderman.”
Keough also chides Knocked Up for its “dismissive” treatment of the ‘A’ word. The fact that Katherine Heigl’s character never considers abortion as a serious option seems to him to be a bold-faced endorsement of right-wing family values and middle American social mores. Clearly, writer/director Judd Apatow is in league with the James Dobsons of the world. Of course, Keough’s knee-jerk liberalism ignores the fact that, all politics aside, Knocked Up is a movie about having a baby, not a movie about abortion; if Heigl’s character had an abortion, the movie would have been a half-hour long.
Abortion, or the lack thereof, also raises Keough’s ire in Juno, this year’s “Little Movie that Could” about a pregnant teen. He sarcastically points to Ellen Page’s titular character as a model of female independence “if you think it’s ‘hip’ and independent for a sixteen-year-old to destroy her life and those around her by having unprotected sex, getting pregnant, and not getting an abortion.” While it would be refreshing to see a movie that deals with abortion in the same kind of funny-yet-poignant way that Knocked Up and Juno deal with pregnancy, in Keough’s worldview having children seems to be tantamount to right-wing propaganda.
Indeed, judging by his treatment of some of this year’s most lauded female performances, anything that does not conform to Keough’s idealized sense of womanhood must be blindly paternalistic and misogynist. What exactly that ideal is, however, remains nebulous. Angelina Jolie’s widow in A Mighty Heart is a “quintessential victim of demonic male violence,” namely, the beheading of her husband by Islamic terrorists; no mention is made of the dead husband being a “quintessential victim of beheading.” Marion Cotillard fares even worse in Keough’s estimation, as her portrayal of French songstress Edith Piaf is sure to “warm the hearts of Academy voters eager to watch the spectacle of an irrepressible, supremely talented woman shrink into a booze, drug, and male-dependent husk.” Taking into consideration that these two characters are based on real life people, reality itself must have a right-wing, woman-hating slant. Indeed every contender for this year’s Best Actress honor seems to be a reinforcement of negative female stereotypes and oppressive patriarchy because what other explanation could there be for all these depictions of women as victims, alcoholics, single-mothers, and dementia sufferers?
The following, is an incomplete list of Peter Keough’s Rules for the Depiction on Women in Film, as I am able to interpret them:
1. No female character can be portrayed in a negative light; that is misogynist.
2. No female character can be dependent on a man; that is misogynist.
3. All women are victims of an oppressive, pervasive patriarchy; to depict them as such is misogynist.
4. If a young woman becomes pregnant out of wedlock and does not terminate the pregnancy, she is caving in to the repressive social mores of the religious right.
Ultimately, Keough’s overly protective patronizing of female characters seems to be a feeble attempt to hide his overwhelming fear of women. He notes that Ben, the immature, irresponsible stoner who learns to grow up in order to be a father to his child in Knocked Up, “gets gelded, renouncing his ‘freedom’ to become a saintly pseudo-spouse catering to her every (increasingly irrational and hormonal) need.” He seems to subscribe to old-fashioned, patriarchal social norms with a healthy does of mommy issues and a madonna/whore complex, then invert them into some perverse form of liberal-crusading feminist politics.
I want to help the guy, though, so here is my pitch for Peter Keough’s perfect, non-misogynist, sexually liberating movie:
A quirky young woman (Amy Adams) with a promising career founding Title IX endorsed girls’ field hockey teams at high schools throughout the Midwest begins to feel her biological clock ticking. Instead of finding a man and settling down, she gets artificially inseminated, and then has a third-trimester abortion just to show the Moral Majority what’s what. In her travels she crosses paths with a sage old feminist warrior (Camille Paglia, in her feature film debut) and they go on a mission to liberate quirky young women with promising careers all over the country from the oppressive yoke of patriarchy (Daniel Day-Lewis). Hearts are warmed, spirits are liberated, and abortions are performed on many a pregnant teen without parental notification.