Water for Elephants: How Hollywood continues to embarrass its female audience

Water for Elephants movie poster 300x199 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.

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  • Markus Aspland

    Where on earth did you get the idea that this film was pretending to be something more?

    It is clearly being pushed as the film equivalent of mills and boons and pretty much delivers on that level.

    You are correct in that this movie is just as cardboard and empty as Fast 5 is but you seem to forget that a lot of people are perfectly happy with that. If you expected something else then I suggest that is a problem with how you have read the promotion than with the promotion itself.

  • Gary Wintle

    The recurring theme of romantic fiction is that whatever problem a woman faces, a man can solve everything. Speaking as a man, I find it a depressingly submissive ideal. What happened to feminism?

    We need more female protagonists like Motoko Kusanagi, women who define themselves and don’t need men to define them.

    Cinema is about escapism, its about going to another place, for this reason I enjoy Pans Labyrinth, Moon, Thor, Iron Man, and Dark Knight. That said I like a film to be reasonably smart while itsdoing that. I laugh when stupid critics denigrate films for being visual; well, film is a visual medium, a film damn well should look striking.

  • caitlin

    good looking actors need to surprise us?!

  • Marie Bellows

    This was right on the money! I never could pinpoint it exactly but you did. I thought Titantic was stupid what women wouldn’t noticed the man she loved was freezing and dying while she laid on a huge board. I laughed through most of Water For Elephants the romance didn’t fly at all. I kept thinking dump both of them! Plus that stupid look Robert Pattinson gets in his eyes I don’t know how his costars keep a straight face. Along with bad movies we have such access to these actors lifes that believability is getting harder and harder to swallow. For one who would believe this boy(Robert Pattinson) who squirms in his seat during interviews and constantly pulls his hair and if he’s not drunk he’s stoned or looks like a crackhead. Not to mention what kind of female he likes. Yeah this guy is a real winner! Then so many media sites are claiming it’s a success when the fact is that Water For Elephants has to make 110 mil to break even. (So nobody attacks the math on this is 38 mil production budget the marketing budget is between 22-25 mil. That’s 60-63 mil to cover but the studios only make 55% of the gross which means the movie needs to make between 110-115 mil just to cover the movie. The longer a movie is out the percentages get lower for the studios and the actual theaters make more money.)

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