Overboard: Stockholm-Syndrome Sex And Class Comeuppance

The horrifying rumor is that Jennifer Lopez will star in an Overboard remake. She's no Goldie Hawn, though, as my sister says, Matthew McConaughey is inevitable for the Kurt Russell role. Let's look back at the flawed but addictive original.

As with many previous Girls On Film subjects on heavy television rotation in the late 80s, I loved this film unreservedly as a kid. That is, until I read Susan Faludi's Backlash, which saw it in the context of late 80s Hollywood being "preoccupied with toning down independent women and drowning out their voices — sometimes quite literally." She observes,

"Keep your mouth closed," orders the carpenter (played, curiously, by Hawn's real life partner Kurt Russell), and she learns to like it....Overboard's haughty heiress refuses to reproduce. But by the end of the film — after she is humiliated, forced to scrub floors and cook meals, and at last finds happiness as a housewife — she tells her tyrannical new husband of her greatest goal in life: having "his" baby. Women who resist baby fever, by controlling their fertility or postponing motherhood, are shamed and penalized."

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Interestingly, the screenplay for Overboard was written by a woman, Leslie Dixon, who also wrote Mrs. Doubtfire. (It was directed, of course, by schlockmeister Garry Marshall.) Revisiting the movie this week, it's clear that Faludi was dead-on in her assessment when it comes to the humiliation of Hawn's character — but she left out the class analysis, without which all this is incomplete. (And to be fair to Overboard, she doesn't say she wants "his" baby. As seen in the clip below, she says the one thing he can give her that she doesn't already have is "a little girl.")

As the stuck-up Joanna, Hawn doesn't just need to learn to appreciate the salt-of-the-earth men around her; she also needs a good lay. In the beginning, she refuses to have sex with her effete, ridiculous husband because he wants a child (her mother coos, "But if you have a baby, you won't be the baby") or perhaps because she doesn't want to get dirtied up. "No job will ever be done to your satisfaction," taunts carpenter Dean Proffitt in their first dispute (seen above), shortly after grabbing his crotch, and the double entendre is clear. When she sobs, "Don't touch me," he hasn't actually touched her, and it's a hint at that menacing threat that women allegedly use against men: the false accusation of sexual assault.

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Joanna gets her comeuppance when she falls from the boat and gets amnesia, and no one wants to claim her except the wronged Dean, who pretends she is his wife in order to punish her for her contempt and refusal to pay him for his work.

She essentially becomes his slave, and then she falls in love with her captor. But I find it so difficult to fully hate this movie faced with Hawn's underrated comedic acting. Here, she struggles to understand the life to which she has returned. "A falsetto child" still cracks me up every time.

Joanna, re-christened Annie, has to contend with the domestic disaster that is the all-male Proffitt home. At first, following a hilarious montage of housekeeping mishaps, she nearly has a nervous breakdown. But then, slowly, like the Berenstain Bears' messy room, she transforms the household into a model of order: spotless, if still humble, full of kids doing their homework and learning to read. And her own resistance dissipates.

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But interestingly, Dean also has to change — and it's the newly in-control Annie who calls him on his buddy-style parenting and Peter Pan ways.

When Joanna is reclaimed, reluctantly, by her real-life husband, she returns to their yacht to find that she is utterly unsatisfied by her old life. And it's not necessarily because she wants a broom in her hand. It's because she wants a beer, to her mother's utter horror. And to say what she really thinks. And she still isn't interested in having sex with her doltish husband, who in her absence had been gleefully partying with Rielle Hunter and Tofutti Klein, her name an Eighties joke if there ever was one.

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So she goes down below and takes shots with the staff and apologizes to her attendant for how awful she was for him. He in turn provides her with some vintage Hollywood "sage servant" wisdom, about how very few people have the chance to live another person's life, another person's class roles and expectations. He has a point, and maybe this movie is as much about class empathy as it is about shaming the rich bitch.

How is it, though, that the movie so neatly conflates female liberation with a life of spoiled privilege and elitism, rather than say, the freedom to work and pursue one's life goals? There are no working-class women in Overboard, aside from glimpses of Gertie at the bowling alley. There is a dour, middle-class teacher, but she's a cartoonish villain. Otherwise, the life of the true, solid worker is represented only by men: by the put-upon, all-male staff on her boat, and by the good old boys in the toolbelts. Prototypical he-cession meme, anyone?

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In any case, by the end of the fairytale, Dean and his son's stations are about to change radically, since it turns out Joanna doesn't have to choose between her money and her love, and everyone gets a Porsche. Her one wish here is to have that little girl. Let's hope that little girl grows up with choices that are broader than either the yacht or the kitchen.

p.s. Should the costume designer get a prize for swimsuit selection or what?

Illustration for article titled emOverboard/em: Stockholm-Syndrome Sex And Class Comeuppance
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Illustration for article titled emOverboard/em: Stockholm-Syndrome Sex And Class Comeuppance

Earlier in Girls On Film: Just One Of The Guys: An 80s Stealth-Feminist Sex Comedy
Dirty Dancing Is The Greatest Movie Of All Time
Teen Witch: Feathered, Ruffled, Locker Room Dancing Splendor
Reality Bites: In Which The Girl Never Has To Play Dumb

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DISCUSSION

So I saw this in the theater as like an 11 year old (I think it was a summer matinee special or something) and I thought it was awesome then, and I think it is awesome now.

Joanna/Annie is actually a really capable woman who adapts to ridiculous situations. Yeah, she's a whiny bitch at the beginning, and she lets Dean trap her into doing housework, but it's not about that. It's about her being able to say, once she regains her bearings, "THIS IS HOW IT IS, BITCHES. GET WITH THE PROGRAM." She's making up problems at the beginning because she's so unsatisfied with her life that she's looking for something to fix. I think she's depressed, and people are telling her, "Oh, honey. You're not depressed! You're rich! You've got everything!" Sure, everything but fulfillment and purpose.

Then she ends up in blue collar hell, and she suddenly has (what she perceives as) a responsibility to her children. No one's ever required anything from her prior to this point. They've just degraded her when she tried to do anything fulfilling, because, "Oh, honey, you don't have to work because you're rich!" So here she is, working and achieving goals, and suddenly she discovers that achieving goals, even mediocre goals, feels good. OF COURSE she doesn't want to go back to her old life.

I have always read the end as a beginning. Here she is, embarking on a new life. She doesn't NEED anything from Dean. He can't GIVE her anything but a little girl. And she's in a place where she can go take over the world, without the naysayers telling her that she can just be rich and that's fulfilling enough. She's like, "EFF THAT. I AM GOING TO BE RICH **AND** AWESOME NOW!" Like, she can run a business and whip those boys (and Dean) into shape and manage her assets and look smoking hot in a bathing suit. She has finally realized that she can get dirty and have fun doing it.

(OMG I love this movie. Also, it is hilarious.)