Over the years, film and TV have fostered the birth of lots of female stereotypes: the Fast Talking Dame, The Fashionista, The Woman who has to hold Matthew McConhaughey upright, and of course, the Manic Pixie. Now, meet Mrs. Uptight.
Described in The Onion as the girl sent to "re-adjust the attitude of even the broodiest, most uptight male protagonist," the Manic Pixie is every male's on-screen fantasy. Flaky, free-spirited, and possibly dying (see Sweet November and Garden State). If she's the girl you don't bring home to mom, then Mrs. Uptight is mom. The common thread? Both seem born from the mind of a disgruntled male teenager. (Though they're usually not, for the record.)
Usually in her late 40's, perfectly coiffed and obsessed with 'French Country' home decor, she's the re-enforcer of stupid rules. The kind of rules that real women don't have time to care about: constant coffee-table coaster demands, 6 throw pillows to every bed, perfect Christmas dinners, no shoes in the house, no eating off of paper plates, no wire hangers, no sloppy drunken moments, no feeling comfortable around people of any race besides white, no fun pets, no intentional cleavage, no sex ever ever ever and especially not with a disgusting, sweaty pig husband. The list goes on.
And then suddenly, she has a breakthrough. Her trigger may be an affair with a young hot man, a kinship with a grouchy old neighbor who threatens to resemble her future, a friendship with a person of another race, or a fatal disease. In Showtime's new series, "The Big C", it's all of the above.
And even though you're supposed to like the character more since she's starting to live every day like it's her last. "I'm only having dessert and liquor," Cathy Jamison (played by Laura Linney) quips at dinner with her husband. It's hard to root for someone so material and sexually reserved that indulging in sweets and a cocktail is defiant and uproarious.
While Mrs. Uptight only really surfaces in movies and TV shows geared toward women, she the kind of a one-dimensional female character only a one-dimensional male character could love, or at least secretly want to have sex with. "Just to loosen her up," he might say. What this fictional character really needs is to live in a mud hut in the wilderness for about 5 years with nothing but a spear and a rock catapult until she gets over the real thing that's bothering her: aging. It is impossible to see a middle-aged woman portrayed on screen without the underlying motivation of age-anxiety. That always seems to be at the root of her coldness, and the trigger of her breakdown: she's losing her looks. In one scene Linney complains to the dog that nobody wants to look at her breasts. In another she probes her young doctor for physical compliments. Mrs. Uptight is at once insecure about her body and a stallion in bed. That's goes with the turf, no matter what kind of fatal illness she's grappling with.
Getting handed down a death sentence makes for strong reactions. Laughing is one of them. But really laughing. That's another thing Mrs. U (or Linney's Cathy) hasn't really mastered. The kind of snorty, panic-inducing spasms that threaten never to end, that's a reaction. Our leading lady only knows how to smile through tears, or reminisce with about a time and a place the audience can't imagine, with a few chuckles. Cancer isn't funny, but the anxiety and anticipation, the humanness it brings out in its victims can be. It's Mrs. Uptight that's not funny. She can't take a joke and the only thing that makes her laugh is her own sexual and social defiance. Inspiring maybe, but funny? Not in the least.
So we've got descriptors like perfectionist, frigid, fragile and humorless. How is this stereotype good for women? Ask any serious actress of a certain age. They hunger for this kind of role. And proven female talents like director Nancy Myers and Big C writer Darlene Sloan keep creating them. It's Oscar/Emmy-bait. It's comeback material. The Motown dancing, plate breaking, food tossing, telling off a cheating husband scene is primed for awards season.
Who is this woman and why do so many leading ladies embrace her? Perhaps because she's derived from more nuanced characters. Brought to life with variation in Woody Allen's "Interiors" and "Deconstructing Harry", or conquered through parody by Meryl Streep in "She-Devil" and even "The Devil Wore Prada", she's never a clear-cut heroine. And her truly subtle or truly over-the-top breakthrough moment takes us by surprise. Suddenly, we kind of like her.
What's changed is that the same middle-aged, upper-class mother type, whose perfect life is underscored by insecurities, is now supposed to be our unquestionable heroine. Whereas in a Woody Allen film, blatant racism is knowingly attributed to the character, the creators of "The Big C" don't seem to be aware of how offensive their heroine can be. Linney's teacher offers to help Gabourey Sidibe's sassy high school student lose weight—her scrawny, anemic white-bred figure is supposed to serve as a model. She flirts with the African-American pool guy, making a 'size' joke, and we're supposed to think she's rebellious for flirting. She resents her husband for staining the couch, and we're supposed to understand it's not really about the couch. But these aren't traits of a complicated woman, they're the cartoonish qualities of Disney villain: manipulation, senseless rage, ignorance and blind self-adoration. So why is a decent middle-aged woman so hard to find in movies and TV? Maybe the better question to ask is what happens to manic pixies when they grow up?
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