Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Feminism CAN be Funny! -- Reflections on "The To Do List" (2013)

Gloria Steinhem, the noted feminist and spiritual guide for The To Do List, famously said: “Any woman who chooses to behave like a full human being should be warned that the armies of the status quo will treat her as something of a dirty joke. That’s their natural and first weapon. She will need her sisterhood.” This quote may well be the thesis statement of Maggie Carey’s sex comedy. The To Do List is a remarkably political film in a racy package; American Pie for feminists.

The typically deadpan Aubrey Plaza stars as Valedictorian virgin, Brandy Klark, who gets a wake-up call at a post-graduation kegger in the form of male Adonis Rusty Waters (Scott Porter). Her libido, repressed by years of focusing solely on her education, is stirred, and in order to conquer it, Brandy compiles a “to do” list of sexual activities to help her prepare for the Herculean task of having sex with Rusty. The majority of the journey follows Brandy as she uses a variety of male teen clichés for sexual favors, from the sensitive dweeb Cameron (Johnny Simmons) to predatory nerd Duffy (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) to pretentious grunge rocker Van (Andy Samberg). Along the way, she’s aided by her two sexually experienced friends (Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele) and her older sister (Rachel Bilson).

Maggie Carey’s intent with this film is to show us what a romantic sex comedy would look like with a woman as the lead. The To Do List picks up where Bridesmaids left off last year. And while that film focused almost exclusively on female friendship and used female sexual aggression and liberation as a dirty joke, The To Do List takes the opposite tact. Sex is front and center, but the physical act is only part of it – the dirty secret is that this film wants us to reconsider what sex as gender means to us. In this movie the female is the aggressor, taking charge of her sexuality, and challenging the status quo. She is reading both Cosmo and Penthouse to understand her role in the physical act of lovemaking, but also determine the role she wants to play. Brandy is not a woman upon whom sex is thrust, but who thrusts herself upon sex.

By putting Brandy in the traditional male role, the film completely objectifies its male characters, especially Scott Porter’s Rusty Waters. His name itself implies that he is unclean, impure, and despite his physical beauty, worth nothing of true value to Brandy. She pursues him for pure lustful reasons, just as any boy pursues a girl in similar films, and the effect is not just funny, but uncomfortable. Looking at Internet Movie Database, The To Do List has a score of 5.4/10. I suspect many men are confounded by this movie, even a bit upset, because Brandy’s pursuit of sexual fulfillment puts her squarely in the driver’s seat, and no matter how much testosterone a man has, or how many sensitive tears he cries can make her submit to his will. At one point in the film Brandy brings up a quote by Steinhem about how women are only seen as virgins or sluts, and I believe this holds true for the majority of our society, who are unwilling to allow women to “behave like a full human being,” which involves exploring sexuality.

Throughout the film, men are confounded by the women around them. Brandy’s dad (Clark Gregg) can’t handle her mother’s (Connie Britton) desire to give her daughter the sex talk, and has a hard time handling deeper truths about his own wife’s sexual experience. The boys who get involved with Brandy are just as inexperienced as she is sexually, but are incapable of owning it as proudly as she does. And the one man who is supposed to be her mentor, Willy (Bill Hader) the community swimming pool manager, is so clueless about the sexual seas around him that he literally is unable to swim without Brandy’s assistance. None of the men accept Brandy’s quest on her terms, refusing to see her as anything other than the roles they have assigned her from their perspective: virginal daughter, easy slut, girl next door, virginal conquest, kid sister. She is never Brandy to them.

And that is why this movie is so damn funny. It refuses to allow us to view these men as anything other than objects, just as nearly all of our American male-centric sex comedies have done to women. This movie is a great comedy, and like many great comedies it is also a political statement.

It’s weird to review comedies this way. I imagine most readers will think I’m looking too deeply into a film that is “just a sex comedy.” We are wired to believe that comedies are light entertainment, and all the serious thematic discussions should be reserved for drama. On top of that, writing seriously about comedy seems to strip all the fun out of the gags – after all, who wants to go to the theater to see a comedy and spend 90 minutes thinking about issues of modern feminism while watching Aubrey Plaza force a dude to drink pineapple juice before giving him a blowjob?

But I’d like to think that after you’ve had your laughs – and this movie delivers in that department consistently – you’d stop and think about why you’re laughing. Is it because of the shock of seeing a girl eat shit floating in a swimming pool, or because you suddenly realize that women have been eating shit the shit of sexual oppression and false labeling for centuries and that this film has the balls to make it literal. The best comedy – the memorable comedy – has subtext. Time will tell if The To Do List will join the ranks of feminist comedies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and There’s Something About Mary, but it’s off to a good start.