Last night I had an argument with a woman about Feminism and the movie ‘American Beauty.’ The woman – lets call her Ann – said that she had severe problems with the movie, and after giving a brief explanation of what those problems were (more on that later), and seeing that I wasn’t buying what she was selling, she shrugged the whole thing off, saying “Well, you know I’m a feminist.”
Now the more I think about that, I realize what I should have said to her. I am a Feminist. with a capital ‘F.’ In fact, I’m the best feminist I know. And yet, I disagreed with Ann strongly about this movie. And she was trying to tell me that I didn’t get her explanation because I wasn’t a feminist.
The fact is, I did ‘get’ her explanation, I just didn’t agree with it, and not because I’m not a feminist but because what she was trying to tell me wasn’t a legitimate view point.
Here’s what she was saying: she had a problem with the fact that they showed the breasts of two teenaged girls (or at least women who were protraying teenaged girls) in the movie. She didn’t see any reason why they should do that, didn’t think that it advanced the plot, and decided that it was gratuitous and therefore made the whole movie invalid.
I totally disagreed with her, but I didn’t really push my opinion, mostly because we were in someone else’s living room in a social situation, and I didn’t want to cause any more discomfort in the room than was already present. When I waved off the conversation, Ann said “well, that’s right, because you’re not going to change my mind.”
That also pissed me off – I wasn’t crying off because I realized I couldn’t change her mind – I could change her mind under the right circumstances. I just wasn’t willing to be rude to my hosts my taking over their living room while doing it. (Not that any such nicety stopped her.)
So now were in my living room, so to speak, and I’m going to hold forth on the subject. They showed the breasts of these two teenaged girls for a reason – to make a point about the image each of them had about their own bodies.
Jane Burnham, the dark-haired daughter of the movie’s protagonist, doesn’t think she’s attractive. She’s saving all her money to have breast enlargement done – something she refers to several times during the movie.
And Jane is envious of the attention her friend Angela receives. Jane’s friend Angela Hayes, a blond bombshell that catches the eye of Jane’s dad, knows darned well she’s attractive. Not only does she say so often, so does everyone else. She seems to have no problems with her body.
When you see Jane’s breasts – she’s showing them to her voyeur/boyfriend who’s filming her from his bedroom window – the first thought that crosses your mind is that there’s no way she needs to have a breast enlargement (not that anyone really does, but still). Jane had fairly large, very beautiful breasts.
Toward the end of the movie, when Angela is attempting to seduce Jane’s father, we see Angela’s breasts – and the contrast is startling; her breasts are much smaller than Jane’s; the exact opposite of the original impression I had of the two characters at the beginning of the movie, and obviously the opposite of what the characters think about themselves.
So why do these two teenagers have totally different feelings about their bodies? Jane has a distorted self-image. Part of that is based on the amount of attention she receives in contrast to her friend – she thinks that the attention is because of her friend’s physical appearance, when in reality it’s Angela’s demeanor and attitude that attract attention.
In fact the film is taking a pro-female point of view about women’s body images and the messages we give to young women about their appearance. Young women who have very normal, healthy bodies, like Jane, feel they need to alter their appearance to get attention and feel a sense of value in this world, when in reality it’s their sense of confidence in their identity and abilities that cultivate attention from other people.
I think that’s a very legitimate point to make in a movie.