Water for Elephants: How Hollywood continues to embarrass its female audience
On Wednesday as I walked into the tube station on my way to work, I was handed a copy of women’s magazine Stylist (obviously if I had been handed ‘i’, I would have read that instead, but you know beggars can’t be choosers).
On the outside of the magazine was an advertorial for ‘Water for Elephants’, the new romantic drama starring romcom stalwart Reese Witherspoon and Twilight tween heart throb Robert Pattinson. ‘Aah,’ I thought, ‘a stylish period piece set during the Depression with a bit of a romantic storyline and a circus backdrop, that looks pleasant’. When really, alarm bells warning me to stay far away from this film should have been ringing in my head. After all, the film wasn’t appearing anywhere in the male equivalent magazine Shortlist: This was one exclusively ‘for the ladies’.
I generally tend to hate films that are aggressively marketed towards my particular sex. It’s not that I don’t like films about romance and emotions and all that; it’s just that films that have been dreamed up by Hollywood studios with the sole intention of tapping into a female audience are generally terrible films. ‘The Notebook’ and ‘Love Actually’ – despite being cherished by millions the world over – are amongst two of the worst films I have ever had the misfortune of seeing. And ‘Water For Elephants’, as I discovered later that night, proved to be no exception to this ‘looking exclusively for the female vote equates rubbish movie’ rule. The characters were cardboard cut-outs, the plot was thin on the ground – despite the movie being based on a novel by Sara Gruen – and the dialogue was embarrassingly schmaltzy and clichéd. All that truly existed in this film was an apparent desperate desire by women everywhere to be thought to be of worth by someone as good looking as Pattinson, reflected back at them on the screen in patronizing, humiliating fashion.
In the film, Pattinson plays a veterinary student called Jacob who joins a struggling circus, only to fall in love with its star performer, played by Witherspoon. They bond over their affection for an unruly elephant called Rosie. Jacob eventually convinces Marlena that she deserves a better existence and to run away with him but her masochistic husband August, the director of the circus, is hot on their trail. Not much else of note happens besides a lot of bad lines and plentiful cringing.
Of course, I’m aware that it can work the other way round. I have no doubt for example, that Universal’s ‘Fast & Furious Five’, specifically targeted towards a male demographic and currently riding high at number 1 at the international box office, is not exactly the greatest film ever made. But that film is not pretending to be something it’s not; it’s part of a massively successful franchise of big silly movies about cars that men the world over enjoy on a ‘mindless fun’ level. These films make a great deal of money for Universal, thus allowing them to fund more interesting projects that don’t have anywhere near the same profit margin.
What is the point of films like ‘Water For Elephants’ then, that masquerade as something more credible, but in reality are just as vacuous and generic as the car racing franchise and are appealing to women on just as basic an emotional level? With modest opening weekend takings in the US of $16 million compared with ‘Fast & Furious 5’s impressive $86 million, ‘Water For Elephants’ won’t exactly be giving the big summer action flicks a run for their money. But it will certainly embarrass a fair few female audience members in the process.
If you look at the top ten most successful films each year for the past three years worldwide there isn’t one romcom or a ‘romantic drama’ in sight aside from odious teen fave ‘Twilight’. Instead, we find films like ‘Toy Story 3’ and ‘The Dark Knight’ with broader mass appeal. The Titanics and Pretty Womans of the movie world are the rare occasion when the femme formula happens to strike gold due to a combination of factors – generally speaking because there are other levels and enjoyable aspects to the film apart from a lightweight romance storyline.
Halfway through ‘Water for Elephants’, Robert Pattinson utters the ridiculously cheesy line, ‘You’re a beautiful woman. You deserve a beautiful life.’ One thing is for certain: In the year 2011, women definitely deserve better films. Hollywood, give us a little more credit – not another knight in shining armour.Tagged in: hollywood, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, sexism, Water for Elephants
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