The initial brouhaha surrounding Blue Valentine‘s rating by the MPAA has receded to the background–the filmmakers won their appeal for an R rating rather than an NC-17. The film, now circulating in limited release, is being met by strong critical praise. Upon seeing the film though I wonder if it is unintentionally misogynistic?
MAJOR SPOILERS THROUGHOUT
I went into Blue Valentine expecting to see both Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) behave terribly to one another along the way to the marriage’s disintegration. Instead, it seems to be about Dean falling for Cindy (via flashbacks to their initial courtship) and then realizing she is done with him.
True, film’s beginning highlights the shortcomings of both partners equally: Dean joins his daughter’s criticisms of Cindy’s cooking; when the family dog is found dead Dean callously whispers to the already distraught Cindy, “I told you to shut the fucking gate;” and when Cindy offers to hold Dean’s hand after an argument, he cruelly brushes it away with an emotional violence that rings out like a slap in the face. Meanwhile, Cindy remains opaque, unwilling to intimately interact with Dean, and is a killjoy during tender moments shared between her husband and daughter. Thus far, the portrayals of the two seem evenly matched.
Where Blue Valentine strays into problematic gender politics is with the first match cut, which is a flashback to Dean and Cindy prior their first encounter with one another. From then on, most of the Past segments skew toward Dean’s perspective and we aren’t granted the same access to Cindy’s inner life. We do get to see her coping with an asshole father and insensitive meat-head boyfriend Bobby, but she doesn’t open up to the audience in the same way as Dean. Nor are the audience’s insights into her story as sympathetic as the glimpses of Dean–who, after meeting Cindy, is shown asking a coworker whether he believes in love at first sight.
The imbalance carries over into scenes of the Present, such as one in which Dean is begging Cindy to re-consider her thunderclap request for a divorce after a particularly brutal fight. The truth of the matter is plain as day: Cindy has been done with the marriage for a while and, when pressed by Dean, finally has to tell him the truth. It comes across as being less about the two falling out of love with one another and more about Cindy being finished with the marriage with nary a possibility for reconsideration – even in the face of Dean’s pleadings.
This leaves Dean looking like the better person. The initial third of the film showcases his worst moments, and the next two-thirds don’t neglect his warts, but overall he comes across as a charming, nurturing guy fighting for his marriage. We aren’t privy to Cindy’s inner life or to the particular set of circumstances that finally made her give up on her marriage–which occur somewhere between where the Past sequences end and the Present sequences begin. Because of this, and because her demeanor is more distant and less charming than Dean’s, she’s left looking like a cold-hearted wife.
Even before the film’s climax with Dean on his knees, Cindy is saddled with several negative “wife stereotypes”:
*Working mother/wife with better job than husband
*Killjoy to anything fun
*Sexually frigid, hurting Dean’s feelings each time he’s spurned
*First up divorce
*Uninterested in trying to fix the marriage, in contrast to Dean’s desperation to do so.
These negative stereotypes concerning wives are all too familiar. Annette Bening’s portrayal of Carolyn Burnham in American Beauty immediately comes to mind. Like Carolyn, Cindy is joyless by her marriage, but we have trouble seeing why when Dean’s constantly trying to reach her.
These tropes are topped off with a subtly unsympathetic scene in a liquor store. Cindy is out shopping for the couple’s motel getaway when, in a lingering extreme close up, Cindy smiles like she’s never smiled before. It’s like seeing a summer sunrise. She sees someone she knows in the store, who we later find out was her ex Bobby, the one who destroyed Dean’s face in a fit of jealous rage. Once the audience puts together the reveal of Bobby beating Dean in the Past, with the liquor store scene in the Present, Cindy seems the most terrible of the two. How could she be filled by such joy upon seeing someone so cruel? The implication seems to be that seeing Bob reminds her of a life without marriage, a child, and unfulfilled career goals (she wanted to be a doctor, but ends up a nurse). Cindy’s request for divorce and the scene in the liquor store seem to imply that Cindy wants to run away from Dean and Frankie.
Ultimately, is the film misogynistic? It’s hard to say that the film is intentionally siding with Dean, considering the film’s respect for honest portrayals and the amount of collaboration between director and cast (Gosling and Williams lived together for a month on a blue collar budget prior to filming, among other pre-production exercises). Although, it could be that director Derek Cianfrance didn’t want the audience to hate both characters and end up despising the whole movie altogether. To avoid this he may have had to lean on one character to be the bad guy: if it’s the guy it’s a Lifetime movie; if it’s the girl, it’s patriarchal and anti-feminist. Which just goes to show that completely fair representations of a demographic at all times is a high goal, but one that doesn’t always fit the story.
However, that doesn’t excuse using the wife stereotypes to make Dean look better. Since Cindy is weighed down by several tropes of the distant housewife, we’re never allowed to feel her side of the story. Instead we’re left wondering why mommy is yelling at daddy and comes off as a damning condemnation of women with the film’s final shot: Dean walking down the street by himself after Cindy has resolutely declared the marriage over.*
I have gone to great lengths to discuss the film’s gender inequality, but that’s only because it accomplishes so much in terms of its ability to showcase a palpable relationship and its demise. Everything about the film is starkly honest save this one (albeit major) issue. I’d highly recommend that you check it out (read my review here) – and I’d be curious to see who you sympathize with the most.
*Especially when during a flashback Dean speaks to a co-worker about women pining for prince charming, but settling for Joe Schmoe with a good job; they agree that’s just how women are, and then it actually happens between Dean and Cindy years later.
You reek of betatude, my man.
That tepid milquoasty review made my sack shrivel up.
You missed everything important about the film. Focussing on “negative stereotypes” and “gender inequality” and other tepid bullshit like that, you missed the deeper resonances of human nature that drive this film.
I suspect you’re afflicted with the unfortunate disease of nancyboy white knightism. The cure: Sack up, for the love of God.
It sounds like you don’t know what the word “misogyny” means, you hippie douche.
Although I’ve been dying to see this movie since before it was even released, I just watched it tonight. And it has easily become one of my favorite movies instantly; it’s so beautiful and painful and honest.
As far as misogyny goes, however, I don’t see it. I understand the points you make, and by pure definition the relationship portrayed could be construed as misogynistic. However, I think Cindy’s actions throughout the film are completely justified, and these actions don’t make her any less sympathetic a character. Cindy from the beginning has high aspirations; Dean does not. They’re both fine with that at first, during the infatuation stage of love. However, Dean doesn’t change on this front and Cindy does. Dean has no goals and therefore can’t let himself down, while Cindy doesn’t meet hers because of Dean and her baby and is carrying around that disappointment everyday. She’s reminded of it every time she sees Dean drinking a beer before going to work as a painter. It’s an inner conflict that can drive someone crazy. Cindy knows she has no right to hate Dean because of his career choices; she knew what she was getting into. But she sees all the potential in him and wonders why he can’t pick up some of the slack that she probably felt she was forced to drop. It’s a simple case of all the things you love about someone at first becoming the things you hate.
And Cindy is clearly the one who wants to end things first, and she does withhold physical affection. But someone has to end it first; it never happens simultaneously. And given that Cindy is the more responsible grown up and Dean is the (career) goal-less jokester, it makes sense that Cindy wants out first. That doesn’t make her the bad guy, and it doesn’t make the film misogynistic. As for seeing the ex-boyfriend, it’s easy to only remember the good of someone after so many years, especially when you’re going through a hard time. As soon as he says something inappropriate, she is reminded of all the bad and rejects him. As a woman, I count it a win if a film can have a relationship crumble that does not revolve around the woman cheating on her husband or significant other because she feels so emotionally distant or wronged. I see Cindy as a strong, more sympathetic character because she stays devoted to her marriage whenever she sees her ex and gets propositioned by the doctor. Cindy ultimately loves Dean and does not want to leave him, which is why she comes off so cold. She’s in deep despair.
Sorry, I realize you wrote this seven months ago; I just had to respond.
No need to apologize, I think that’s a good reading of the film. Now that’s it’s been a while, I’m not sure what I could say other than I just thought the film didn’t position her that well. Your comment definitely makes it more balanced.
I was married to an alcoholic for 16 years and this is the best depiction of what it is like to be married to – and end a relationship with – an alcoholic I have ever seen. Many people will judge the alcoholic’s spouse in this situation as being cold and cruel. What the film didn’t fully depict is how terrible it is to be married to a man who drinks at 8am in the morning. I was able to fill in the blanks from my own experience but many viewers would not be able to. I could also imagine an alcoholic ex-husband watching this film and having it reinforce his view that his wife was a cruel, calculating b**ch to finally kick him out. Even though in those situations it is really the only humane choice for all involved.
The alcohol consumption is an interesting element that, as you mention, could have implied alcoholism, but wasn’t pushed. Thanks for the tip.
I’m sorry you’ve received such harsh comments from people too ignorant to see the misogyny. I feel so alone because it’s so hard to find other people that see it, so I was glad to find your article here. Thank you. I wish more people would be open to thinking and talking about these things, however subtle or small they may seem, as all we are trying to achieve here is the best for everyone. And where oppression is concerned, intent is not as important as impact.
I love watching films but I am so sick of almost every film I watch being ruined by some sort of anti-women rhetoric. And it’s usually explicit hate speech too, such as rape scenes, men thinking absolutely nothing of any female characters other than that they are things to look at or touch as they please, outright generalisations, etc, etc, etc.
And to anyone else about to leave a nasty comment, please think about the real people that you are hurting by doing so.