With ‘Spy’ and ‘Felt’, the patriarchy takes a serious hit at the movies this week
In discourse on feminism, scholars and casual debaters alike will occasionally speak to vaguely-defined goals of the movement, or imagine a larger “endgame” in which some ultimate objective will finally be achieved. This practice doesn’t even rank in the top ten most deleterious misconceptions one can have about feminism, but it still fails to take a crucial aspect of the woman’s fight for equality into consideration: It’s an ongoing effort, a day-by-day struggle to build a better world for future generations of women and girls to live in. There’s no endgame, because there’s no end. In the most abstract terms, that equality represents the principle around which feminism is organized, but even then, that doesn’t demand a projected exit strategy. Feminism isn’t about winning a war; it’s about building a nation.
Two films in release this week continue that effort on the hotly contested front of the media, and though Paul Feig’s espionage spoof Spy will undoubtedly receive more exposure than Jason Banker and Amy Everson’s eccentric indie Felt, both depict women who forcibly claim control of their environment and themselves, albeit through radically different means. In Melissa McCarthy’s goofball FBI agent Susan Cooper and Amy, the fictionalized version of herself played by Everson, women have a pair of instructors and aspirational figures. Though the films vary wildly in tone and content — a sloppy, drippy cheeseburger and a homemade hard candy that finishes bitter — they’re united in their commitment to displaying the indignities, strength, and profound humanity intrinsic to womanhood.
A nuclear weapon the size of a suitcase provides Spy with its Macguffin#, but mild-mannered Susan Cooper’s developmental arc propels the film in earnest. As the audience first meets her, Susan’s passive and awkward, highly effective but socially ineffectual, hopelessly pining over a dashing agent (Jude Law) who thinks of her like a younger sister, or perhaps a comfortable chair. During a scene in which Susan’s crush presents her with a jewelry box, only to discover it contains a toy pendant of a demented cupcake monster, the extinguished embers of hope on McCarthy’s face tell it all. By virtue of her status as a woman, and a woman not considered physically enticing by the dominant cultural narrative, she’s lesser-than. The core conceit of the film hangs upon the comic notion that someone as plain-looking as Susan would be the perfect agent, all because nobody pays any attention to her. Feig and McCarthy turn the fish-out-of-water comedy on its side, underscoring the fact that this humorous juxtaposition is rooted in a nonconscious cultural bias from the audience.
And Feig doesn’t take it easy on Susan, either; Spy heaps embarrassments aplenty on valiant McCarthy. A certain measure of humiliation is par for the course when signing on to star in a studio comedy vehicle, but the film goes to deliberately extensive lengths to highlight the ridiculousness of our heroine. In one of the film’s finest running jokes, each new secret identity that the FBI assigns to Susan comes out dowdier and duller than the last. (The film redefines “pathetic” when specifically noting that Susan’s latest persona is the Vice President of her pathetic small-town hobby club. “I can’t even be the President!?”, McCarthy groans.) Susan enters the field with fantasies of glamour and intrigue, but she’s quickly disabused of those notions by a profession that functions like it’s designed to strip her of her dignity. Spy also plays like a serviceable satire of the showbiz industry, how the casting-industrial complex discards women who fail to meet an arbitrary standard.
But with the comforting sureness that only three-act structure can provide, Susan finds her confidence and takes control of her life. After discovering depths of competency she barely knew she had, Susan becomes a not-so-lean# mean, killing machine. By the film’s end, she’s brushing off her former crush to enjoy a night in with her trusty best pal. It’s a rallying cry for women, female friendship, and self-esteem. It’s the best kind, too, the kind filled with gleefully profane humor and jokes about 50 Cent.
Felt certainly matches Spy in terms of simple profanity, though Banker and Everson could not be less preoccupied with humor. The film embodies the same qualities as its protagonist, Amy: it’s aggressive, hostile, intelligent, loudly unafraid of sexuality and the human body, all with an undercurrent of tender pain. And the film’s got a hell of a hook, out-there enough to sound drawn from a far more whimsical film: As a psychological response to an assortment of traumatic experiences at the hands of men, Amy fashions herself a suit made from various fabrics and prosthetics to give her body the outward appearance of a man. (The camera all but shoves Amy’s prosthetic penis into the audience’s face. It’s an ideological tea-bagging for the ages.)
The loosely-structured film focuses on Amy and her experimental attempts to reject society’s male-dominated architecture. One scene that finds Amy wearing a grotesque woman suit (complete with unsettlingly realistic erect nipples) over her own body to a nudie photo shoot harkens back to Vera Chytilova’s proto-feminist lark Daisies in its playful, mocking irreverence.
But as the film shifts into its second half, the tone darkens and the gender satire grows more vicious. The film’s most powerful sequences come when sectioned-off areas of Amy’s heart open for business once again, as she gradually falls for the harmless, sensitive Kenny (Kentucker Adley).
But just as Amy’s entertaining the possibility of emotional intimacy with another human being, Kenny has to go and ruin everything by stepping out on her with another woman. At this point, the commentary on gender politics sprouts fangs and goes for the jugular. In a none-too-subtle symbolic gesture, Amy lures Kenny to the woods # and coaxes him into donning a woman-suit while she dresses as a man. The graphic, discomfiting flip of the gender script primes the viewer for Amy’s next move, which is to castrate Kenny and take his penis with her when she leaves, holding it against her pelvis as if it’s her own.
The violence and totality of Amy’s destructive gesture imbues Felt’s denunciation of the patriarchy with a more radical spirit than that on display in Spy. At the heart of the matter, it’s about power structures. Susan chooses to ascend the ladder of the FBI and claim her happiness by functioning as another component of the institution, whereas Amy dismantles the social iniquity entirely. Instead of working to insinuate herself within a male power structure, Amy chooses instead to destroy it completely, go back to square one, and construct a new one. To truly alter the gendered landscape of power, it takes foundational change on a deep scale. It’s not intended as any knock against Spy or its legitimacy as a feminist text, but Felt goes the extra mile by literally obliterating masculinity.
It’s a nifty realization that only hits you after the movie has ended; the title of Felt doesn’t refer to the crafting material, but the past tense of “feel”. Both of these films attend to emotions, and the painfully real responses that women have to a world that rejects, objectifies, or demeans them. The tribulations of womanhood rattle Susan Cooper and Amy alike, at first. But in their individual ways, they seize agency and exert power over their own lives. Their methods differ, but the effect is the same. They assert personhood. Being, surviving, living — it’s a defiant act.
Like what you read? Share it.
(That helps us.)
Love what you read? Patronize Charles Bramesco.
That helps us and the writer.
What is Patronizing? Learn more here.