Friday, February 13, 2015

Selling Feminism in In A World




Lake Bell's 2013 film In a World has received a great deal of praise from critics, audiences, and award ceremonies. Bell wrote, starred in, and directed this comedy, choosing to shoot the film in the style of drama (natural lighting, framed shots, mounted camera). This style choice reflects the deeper nature of the film's plot: a woman competing in a sexist job market, but at the same time, Bell constructs the comedic element of the film to balance the seriousness of gender-bias and underrepresentation of women in an industry. 

The protagonist, Carol, competes for a highly valued role as the first female voice-over to be used in an epic movie trailer. Her father's career as a voice-over artist has dominated her family and reduced her own career to a childlike shadow. Carol works as a vocal coach, and she enjoys this line of work, but the challenge and aspiration of becoming the first female voice artist to use the revived famous line "in a world" tempts her to at least try for the job.

Throughout the film, the male characters display blatant sexism, telling Carol, for instance, that no one wants to hear a woman voice film trailers. The decision of who gets the job is revealed during an awards ceremony, and Carol is elated to hear her voice paired with the film. She and her sister, Dani, grin and accept this huge win for women. . . until Carol goes to the restroom.

There, she meets Katherine Huling (played by Geena Davis), who chaired the committee that selected Carol for the job. Carol professes her undying gratitude for the selection, but Katherine stops her. She reveals that Carol was chosen for the bigger reason of having a woman in that role, not because she earned the job herself. Carol is crushed.

This ending is a feminist twist; Carol has won the job, but not because she earned it on her own merit.  What to make of ending like this? As an audience, we want Carol to succeed, and technically, she does-- but not because of the reasons we originally thought would get her the job. Though the ending is a bit of a paradox, it is, ultimately, more realistic in that we aren't always in such cut-and-dry scenarios. Arguing whether the outcome is for or against women advancing in an underrepresented field is purely preferential.

What is interesting to note is the casting of Geena Davis in the role of Katherine Huling. Davis heads the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media, an organization that lists the objectives of increasing a fair and equal representation of women in film and media. During the filming of In a World, the Institute was heavily promoting various studies, backing women in film, and promoting numerous female filmmakers. The Institute even announced that it would organize a film festival that centered around female filmmakers and their works. Recently, the Institute announced that this festival was, in fact, happening. . .and it is being sponsored by Wal-Mart, a company that has been fending off lawsuits from its female employees for unfair workplace gender discrimination.

The ending of Lake Bell's In a World is rooted in realism-- but perhaps, a little too realistic.


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