No Boys Allowed

Male critics have panned "The Women," and maybe that's why you should see it.


These are interesting times for women of a certain age.

Not only has much of the presidential campaign season centered on the concerns of women voters, but Hollywood appears to have discovered us, too.

Since last spring, feature film versions of Sex in the City and Mamma Mia! have scored millions at the box office, a development that surprised no one except the ranks of the predominantly male establishment of movie critics. Then there's the gender debate on the campaign trail inspired by Sen. Hillary Clinton's historic run and the late-breaking appearance in the presidential campaign of a certain 44-year-old, gun-toting, woman governor from Alaska.

Now comes the timely remake of the film The Women, which stars a clutch of talented, under-utilized women of a certain age—Annette Bening, Debra Messing and Meg Ryan, along with Jada Pinkett Smith, who, at age 37, is among the youngest of the cast.

The Women brings a mixed bag of expectations: On the upside, the story, originally produced in the 1930s, now has a black character. It is also written and directed by Diane English, the creator of Murphy Brown, the '80s sitcom that topped the ratings with its enlightened portrayals of professional women. On the downside, The Women is a remake, and those usually fail. (Did you catch "Shaft" in 2000? Me either.)

The 1939 film version was a witty look at a group of New York upper-crusters who spend their days at bridge tables and beauty salons when they aren't busy stabbing each other in the back. (The film was based on a hit Broadway play by Clare Boothe Luce, whose virulent anti-Communist streak led her to undertake a multitude of interesting professional pursuits, including playwriting and journalism.)

Pinkett Smith's character, Alex Fisher, is not only black in the remake, but also a "lesbian writer." This is arguably the most gratuitously "edgy" update to the original film. What—adding a mere straight black woman to the list of main characters wasn't enough to bring the story up to date? For truly 21st century bona fides, she should be lesbian, too. Alex has a knack for cutting to the chase, but her words of hard-headed advice arrive in clunky, women-studies lingo, best described as "speaking truth to power" speak.

Although the gender/sexuality/race undercurrents in the role are clumsily bludgeoned into the film, Pinkett Smith's character does go beyond the typical magical Negress role, that reliable black woman there to comfort and enlighten her younger white woman friend. (Or, as with the case of poor Jennifer Hudson's character in the film version of Sex in the City, a BBF to comfort and enlighten an older white woman friend and employer.) And of course, way back in the day, black women were usually mammies, maids or tragic mulattoes, as the film scholar Donald Bogle has expertly discussed.

The best part of Boothe Luce's original conceit was the fact that no men are ever shown, despite their prominence in the lives of the women in the plot. That absence is a sly way of emphasizing the ways that women cope—or don't—with men. It works in this version, too. How refreshing to not have some male character popping in to leer at them.

The film does cross into Lifetime territory. There are bittersweet "sister-friend" laughs aplenty. There are fabulous Narciso Rodriguez fashions to die for. Still, the story's heart is revealed in the exchange between Bening's character, Sylvie Fowler, who calmly advises Mary's 11-year-old daughter, Molly, about how to survive her parents' ugly divorce. The girl has been acting out, cutting school and tarting herself up with skanky make-up and clothing. "I hate my body," she tells the childless Sylvie, a hard-charging but insecure editor of a venerable women's fashion magazine. "Why can't I look like those girls in your magazine?"

Sylvia blinks, contemplating her role in an industry that casts millions of pre-teen girls into anorexic flights of fancy. Don't be fooled, Bening's character tells the stricken girl. Life is filled with hypocrisies; it is complicated and tricky. But, "No one really looks like that...those girls don't even look like that." Be your best self on your own terms, she tells the girl. Simple advice, yes, but not simple-minded.

Movie critics—primarily the male ones, including reviewers at The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Boston Globeand other leading outlets—haven't been kind to this remake, but that simply reinforces Boothe Luce's point: Women are often seen as essential appendages to men, but appendages nevertheless. They don't help their case through counter-productive diva behavior and backstabbing among themselves. If women—whatever their race or sexuality—can manage to avoid that fate, it'd make for a refreshing picture, indeed.

Amy Alexander, the Alfred Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute, is completing a memoir on race and media.