Katniss. Hermione. Merida. Elsa. Blackwidow.
These are just a few examples of strong, female heroines that have graced movie screens in the last decade. Regardless of the ingrained patriarchy by which Hollywood has created countless films, it would seem that a tide has turned in the way women have been portrayed on screen. Much has been discussed (and I’ve even added to the noise a bit) about gender and media. As a teacher, I’ve brought this up with my students, and actually had some of the best class discussions surrounding this topic. Becoming aware of “The Bechdel Test” reshaped my understanding of this issue, and lead to stimulating conversations with co-workers and friends about how often Hollywood gets it wrong about women. However, even with potentially improved characters, and more opportunities for women in this industry, there is still much to be desired, and progress seems to be slow. But tonight I saw the movie Joy, and was impressed with the fact that not only does it truly center around the story of a woman, but that the movie is neither a romantic comedy, nor an action movie with a female fighter as the heroine.
The discussion on gender in Hollywood and this movie gains a new depth with the fact that Jennifer Lawrence is in the title role. Much could be said about her influence, and the way she both lives into, and yet often defies, traditional roles for women in film. But really, there’s so much to focus on with the characters in this story, since besides Joy there are several other prominent female characters, who serve as both positive and negative support to the overall plot. In fact, I was struck by how the four female leads seem to each represent very different typically feminine qualities, though some provide more caricature than depth.
Joy- Starts off the movie as an apparently working-class divorcee, living with her mother, her ex-husband, her two children, and her grandmother. It’s truly fitting to have her name as the film title, as it really is about her journey from going “nowhere” in life, to being a successful entrepreneur. Though she does have character development throughout the story, even at the beginning, her selflessness, patience, grace, and work ethic are defining qualities. Even so, her strengths are her weakness, and it’s apparent that her selflessness has maybe gone too far; that she’s allowed the people in her life to sabotage her dreams and that she has settled for a life that is far from what she expected (or is capable of). She seems to have some of the stereotypical qualities of a woman who lives for others, and allows themselves maybe some apathy in pursuing their goals because they are required to handle the problems in front of them. Nevertheless, her strength is apparent, as she skillfully handles all her family’s dysfunction with grace, wisdom, and maturity.
Terry- Both tragic and comic relief, Joy’s mother is at times mostly a caricature. She is a woman who seeks escapism by spending all day on her bed watching soap operas on T.V. As she has seemed to cease any sort of real-life activity, she blurs the lines between fiction and reality, even talking as if the characters of the show are real. As a woman, she seems to be an extreme example of the way women can seek the allure of other lives and drama in film. She is a complete failure as a mother, and Joy often seems to really parent her (and her father). Even if she’s not a fully developed character, she works to provide a contrast to the strength and character of Joy that the movie highlights.
Grandma Mimi- Even if Joy is center-stage, it’s her grandma who is clearly her inspiration, and almost spiritual guide, along the way to fulfilling her dreams. She is always presented as a wise visionary, someone who sees Joy’s potential from when she was a little girl. She believes Joy is capable of creating wonderful things, and keeps reminding her of who she really is. Even though she serves as the narrator, it’s actually a shortcoming of the movie that she doesn’t make more than a few appearances here and there.
The men in the story are prominent, but are only important in how they connect to Joy, not as characters who really seem to stand on their own. Even Neil Walker, the QVC executive who gives Joy’s product a chance, is only seen in relationship to her. We only see his role in the network through him agreeing to take her mop and put it on air, not in extra scenes that establish any real backstory to him. Even with this lack of character development in other leads, I still think it’s commendable that the overall film stays true to telling the story of Joy as a strong female persona.
Though the film, in a potential effort to be “edgy” or “clever” delves a bit too long into the messy, crude, family relationships Joy has in her life, the message that audiences can’t help but walk away with is one of inspiration and identity. Of having a clear vision of who you are, even when circumstances in your life don’t seem to reflect that person. Of being confidant in who you were meant to be. For Christians, this is certainly a message that reflects our worldview. We constantly battle against the lure of losing our identity as we are swayed into who our culture says we should be. And this is particularly true for women. In fact, it works well that this is the message of the story of a woman’s journey to success. Often American culture seems to be either confusing, or just downright wrong, on what a woman’s role and identity are, and with the demands of life, any one of us can be Joy at the beginning of the movie-settling for less than what’s best, forgetting who we once were. That childhood pension for dreaming big is something that many of us have lost somewhere along the way, and Joy seeks to have us reclaim it. As Christians, we have the ultimate hope in not only reclaiming that which is good about ourselves, but in having our very identity renewed through our faith in Christ.