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.