I realize that it will not come as a shock to most when I say that men, at least culturally speaking, are permitted to be adorable assholes. Women, not so much. But it appears that Hollywood, in its anemic attempts to elevate the voices of women, is experimenting with granting female characters the same level of - I'm not sure what the correct noun is here. Jerkiness?
Sadly, it's not going so well.
A couple of recent comedies have been built around a selfish woman. Selfishness, perhaps more than any other character trait, is anathema to the standard cultural template for females. She might be promiscuous or cruel, lazy or dumb as cement, but if she is willing to subordinate her own desires to those of a man, all can be forgiven. This is what made the climax of the best of the recent "selfish woman" comedies - Amy Schumer's Trainwreck - so disappointing. When Amy dons cheerleader outfit and clumsily performs a dance routine as a way of apologizing to her man, you get the feeling that Schumer was winking at the audience. Poking fun at the stereotype. But it was still sad to see this as the only way to resolve their love affair. What may have been truly revolutionary - the two lovebirds going their separate ways because they simply weren't right for each other - was apparently not within the orbit of Hollywood thinking.
The two Melissas - McCarthy and Rauch - took a shot at selfish females in recent comedies. Unfortunately, both The Boss and The Bronze are rather weak efforts. Two other soon-to-be-released comedies - Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates - will also feature multiple actresses behaving badly. Perhaps one of these movies will break through. Then again, maybe not.
I shouldn't have to remind you that this does not apply to men. Selfish behavior is to be expected from some of the most popular male comedians. Think Bill Murray. Think Jim Carrey. Think Jackass. Think Will Ferrell. Think him over and over and over again.
Of course, this does not only apply to comedy. In the world of drama, from Gordon Gekko to, well Gordon Gekko, in the first and second Wall Streets, greed is good, provided greed has a penis. Max Rockatansky, in Mad Max Fury Road, was trying to save himself. His cohort, Imperator Furiosa, was trying to save a group of women. (In case you didn't see it, Furiosa was played by Charlize Theron. And in case you don't know, Theron is a woman.)
So, is there a female Will Ferrell in the world of film? Or a Sacha Baron Cohen? Is there a Jerky Girls movie in the works? Should we consider that a good or bad thing for civilization?
McCarthy may be hovering on the brink of Ferrell-dom. Her 2013 comedy Identity Thief wasn't very good, but it performed well. It will be interesting to see whether she, or any of her co-stars, take on the characteristics of Peter Venkman, Murray's iconic hero of the original Ghostbusters, when the female-centric remake is released this summer. Venkman, like many of Murray's best creations, was a supreme egotist and divinely selfish.
It would be easy enough to say that America is a hard-wired sexist culture which will never accept women behaving badly (selfishly) and Hollywood may as well give up. But a quick look at Hollywood's redheaded stepchild, television, tells a different story.
Television has always been more friendly to nuanced female characters. The traditional thinking was that since television was driven by advertising and since women generally managed the family budget, the medium was more geared toward female viewers. But there's something else about television. It is more personal and it demands more time and commitment from a viewer. It comes into your home every week. If it is successful, it keeps coming back year after year after year. Even in the modern tech era, where "your home" has been replaced by "your mobile screen" and "every week" now means "whenever you feel like it," we spend a lot more time with the television characters we love than we do with our movie heroes. We bring home our television heroes to meet our parents. We just take our movie heroes into a dark room for a few moments of unbridled bliss. Television is solid. Movies are fantasy.
There have been very popular female characters on television who were selfish. From Maude Findlay to Murphy Brown to Miranda Hobbes to the cast of Orange is the New Black, we have a glorious string of selfish women. (The Vice President of the United States actually criticized the character Candice Bergen played on Murphy Brown for her selfishness in wanting to be a single parent.) And if we move into more straight drama, the list gets a lot longer. Blair Waldorf, anyone?
The difference is that on television we get to spend a lot more time with these characters. We get to see the good and the bad. We get to see where the less savory character traits come from. In short, we come a lot closer to seeing a fully formed human.
Television has also provided a seemingly endless supply of traditional wives, moms and girlfriends whose primary function has been to support the man in the story. But television, at least onscreen television, is much better at gender equity than is film.
So, will we ever get a popular selfish hero who happens to be a woman in a movie? Is it simply a matter of matching the right actress to the right screenplay? Or are we too culturally immature for an adorable asshole with breasts?