Defending Those 'Boring' Women in Indie Films

Some critics are arguing that independent movies lack interesting, complicated female characters. But is mysteriousness being confused with dullness?

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Touchstone Pictures


Last week, Elizabeth Greenwood complained that independent movies of the last decade have developed an unfortunate tendency towards their female characters, turning them into dull surface characters devoid of interior lives or purpose other than to animate the men around them. They "remained amorphous," she writes. "All you saw was all you got."

Maybe Greenwood should have looked closer. Respecting the rich mysteriousness of a woman's inner life doesn't mean she doesn't have one—and some of the women Greenwood calls out as boring are deeply sympathetic, brave characters, even if the people around them on-screen don't always see them for who they are. And those people often get punished for underestimating these heroines, or assuming they are less complex and fully human than they are.

Among the species of character Greenwood criticizes is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a character meant to jolly a depressed young man into getting on with his life, "has no interior life, and she's disposed of once she's taught her lesson." Greenwood singles out Rachel (Mila Kunis), the woman in Forgetting Sarah Marshall who jollies Peter (Jason Segel) out of his funk after a wrenching and surprising breakup, as an archetypal manic pixie dream girl who "functions as a utility [but] is at least a memorable character. You can see a movie and remember what she does, even if it's cloying and grating."

Segel, who wrote the movie, and other members of the Frat Pack of actors and directors are certainly sometimes guilty of giving women dramatically short shrift. But Rachel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall is not one of those occasions. The movie carefully traces Rachel's interest in Peter from professional responsibility—she works at the hotel where Peter comes to escape his depression—to genuine affection. Rachel has a past. She is a college dropout with an ex-boyfriend who appears to have been dangerously unhealthy for her, and her work at the hotel appears to be a distraction from her past failures.

After hurting her by having a fling with his ex-girlfriend, Peter steals back a picture of Rachel drunk and flashing the camera from a local bar and getting himself beat up in the process—the only way to redeem himself for having misjudged and mistreated her is to inflict actual pain on himself, and to give her back a piece of her past. Ultimately, Peter is as much inspiration for Rachel as she is for him. After their split, he finishes his musical, and she comes to Los Angeles to give college another shot.

But even quieter types who don't meet the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl archetype have more going on than Greenwood gives them credit for. Take Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow), the adoptive daughter of a wildly eccentric family in Wes Anderson's breakout movie, The Royal Tenenbaums. Margot, a failed playwright, is in a miserable marriage with an older anthropologist when the movie begins, and spends most of her time locked in the bathroom of her apartment watching bad television in the tub. "She never develops past a sullen girl with her arms crossed against her chest and too much eyeliner," Greenwood complains."

But that's the point: Margot, like her siblings, is stuck, trapped by a false preadolescent myth of greatness. "You used to be a genius," her adoptive father Royal tells her at some point. "No, I didn't," she tells him. "Anyway, that's what they used to say," he moderates.

She's not the only person who suffers the consequences of the gap between who she actually is and who the world perceives her to be. Margot's husband (Bill Murray) and her brother Richie (Luke Wilson), who has loved her secretly for years, are both devastated when a private detective tells them that she has had an expansive and varied sexual life that neither one of them had any idea about, and that varies wildly with their ideas of her as a faithful wife, and an object of artistic purity (Richie has painted dozens of portraits of her since they were children). For her husband, the result is abject humiliation. For Richie, it's worse—in one of the movie's most beautifully-shot, emotionally devastating sequences, he shaves his head and beard, faces his agonized countenance in the mirror, and slits his wrists.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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