“Traditional gender roles seem to be in no danger of evolving.”
Simone de Beauvoir laid it out in The Second Sex: “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.” Indeed, the parts are included in womanhood, but the owner’s manual is something women acquire through societal norms and expectations. There is nothing biological about “womanhood”; it is a learned cultural practice. And judging from New Line Cinema’s Valentine’s Day, the traditional gender roles seem to be in no danger of evolving.
Technically, Valentine’s Day is a romantic comedy, but it almost seems too big and unwieldy to fit in a genre. Its downfall as an example of this genre is the fact that multiple plot lines make it hard to maintain romantic comedy’s zing and snap. As an example of old-fashioned gender roles, however, it offers many examples.
The featured actresses — Jessica Biel, Jennifer Garner, Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Alba — take part in the featured (heterosexual) relationships. Shirley MacLaine, Emma Roberts, Taylor Swift, and Queen Latifah are in this overstuffed movie as well. It is notable that Latifah — the only non-white, plus-sized actress — is the only one in the film without a romantic significant other.
The featured actresses are remarkably similar in their long-legged, Caucasian, and slender appeal. Specifically, Biel and Garner’s characters are problematically powerless. Both characters appear to have established careers but are completely thrown by romantic foibles.
Garner’s Julia Fitzpatrick is ostensibly the center female character, as she realizes her love for Ashton Kutcher’s pink-clad man-child florist. Fitzpatrick is an elementary school teacher and quite the snazzy dresser. As the film opens, she’s dating a dreamy doctor (Grey’s Anatomy‘s Patrick Dempsey). We’re set up to believe Fitzpatrick is going to be the belle of the Valentine’s Day ball.
Unfortunately, Fitzpatrick is being used. Dempsey’s doctor is a two-timer.
As this long-winded movie progresses, Dempsey’s sleaziness is quickly apparent to the audience and to Kutcher’s BFF character. Kutcher’s character advises firmly against Fitzpatrick doing the big romantic gesture. He advises multiple times.
But Garner’s Fitzpatrick is under the spell of romantic possibility. She neglects all reason and prodding to follow the doctor to a nonexistent conference; at the hospital, some nurses deliver the news with “we’ve all been there, sister” poignancy. It takes Fitzpatrick an embarrassingly long moment to process this. After she does, she “gets him back” by pretending to be a waitress and outing his lothario ways to his wife.
It’s troubling that a woman — albeit a fictional character — has such an Achilles’ Heel. She’s a teacher, so she’s been to college. Hopefully at college, she would have loved and lost and would be wiser than to get so wrapped up in a clearly shady character. Additionally, as an educator, she’s no shining example to her kids about how to dissolve an interpersonal dispute.
As a role model for womanhood, Biel’s character Kara Monahan is so much worse. Monahan has the sort of nonspecific PR corporate job that populates much of romantic comedy’s workforce. Biel has a secretary, and so ostensibly has some sort of authority. Yet Valentine’s Day destroys her. She has a yearly “I Hate Valentine’s Day” party at a local Indian restaurant; it’s the He Man Woman Hater’s Club all grown up (and for girls). It’s the sort of supposedly ironic party that only a woman fearing spinsterhood would throw.
Biel’s character gets so despondent over the day that she binges on crappy boxed chocolates and is found by her secretary sprawled under her desk. She vents, a largely irrational spewing of disappointment, to a near stranger (Jamie Foxx). As a modern professional, she’s a hot mess.
But why? Valentine’s Day declines to answer why Monahan hates herself so much. The audience is left to its own conclusion, which is that a woman with everything will never be happy without a man. On Valentine’s Day.
Both Biel’s and Garner’s characters are disturbing portrayals of how to be a woman. Both make women who are professionally successful completely unsuccessful at dealing with personal disappointment. Like thirteen-year-olds dreaming of that boy from math class, they lose all sense just because of Valentine’s Day.
On a larger scale, this sort of foolishness has been permeating all sorts of romantic comedies. Women’s Lib has led to women falling into subservience from higher places; this genre that’s supposed to be for women asserts that no, we cannot have it all unless we’ve got someone to file a joint tax return with.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Romantic comedies were once about defining gender roles and winking at changing mating rituals. Unfortunately, the genre is playing to the crassest commercialism and appears to be uninterested in finding new ways of telling stories of love and romance. And most regrettably, these desperate-women films are box office successes, which gives the industry even less of an incentive to revamp an increasingly moribund genre.