As a movie lover, I'm used to being frustrated, insulted and bored with female characters. Truly, there are few things quite as annoying as being asked to ignore everything I know and believe to be true about women for two hours, as most movies ask me to do. Then a breath of fresh air in a sea of films featuring damsels in distress, and women who exist solely for the gratification of immature guys appeared on Friday night. It's more formally being referred to as "The To Do List."
This indie film centers around the story of Brandy Clark (played by Aubrey Plaza), a multidimensional female protagonist whose on-screen journey to sexual self-discovery revolves around her growth as a human being -- not a sex object. It is not only a welcome relief from a summer full of male-centric blockbusters ("The Heat" being a notable exception), but from an industry that for most of its history has failed to represent women authentically.
"The To Do List" is generally hilarious, well written and well acted, but there are six specific ways in which it truly is victory for women -- in film and beyond.
1. The protagonist actually resembles a real, live, human woman whose gender does not define everything she says, does and dreams about.
Now, it's not like women haven't made some progress in film over the decades -- most Academy Award winning actresses didn't score their Oscars for playing the ditzy best friend, after all. But more often than not, women in film are typically defined in incredibly stereotypical ways. As writer and director of "The To Do List" Maggie Cary told The Atlantic Wire, "because ['The To Do List' stars] a female protagonist, people automatically assumed it was a romantic comedy...it was like no, this movie is just funny."
The great thing about "The To Do List" is that the protagonist isn't defined by her gender, but by her quest to discover a yet-unexplored part of herself. There is no need for constant references to the fact that Brandy is a woman -- it's just one part of her. Normally, if you're watching a woman-centric film, chances are the female protagonist is either actively looking for or devoid of love, and her journey focuses on gaining a man's affection. It often feels like there's only room for asexual auxiliary female characters, pathetic women consumed with finding love or hyper-sexualized objects.
Brandy Clark, like most women, possesses elements of all three of these categories, but isn't defined by one of them. "Brandy Clark is clearly a feminist, but she's also boy crazy and I think that's totally fine too. She's just like a normal teenager who's curious about sex," Carey said in an interview with Crave. Brandy idolizes Hillary Clinton. She's the valedictorian. And she also wants to have sex with a really hot guy. Kind of like a real, live, high-achieving young woman.
2. There are actually multiple female characters that all defy gender stereotypes.
It's not just Brandy that gets to resemble a genuine human being -- her two best friends do, too, and they don't just exist to support her (although they are supportive). They constantly mention their own sexual experiences and have their own various partners and crushes. They have their own jobs and their own interests -- meaning this movie passes the Bechdel Test, which requires that at least two women are featured in speaking roles and discuss something besides men with each other. (Sadly, most films have a harder time passing than you might think.)
And the peer friendships aren't the only healthy female relationships modeled in this movie: Brandy also has an awesome, sex-positive mom who doesn't try to force her daughter into a chastity belt, but rather has an honest conversation with her about how she can best enjoy sex. Brandy's older sister is also her go-to when it comes to confusing sexual experiences -- neither embarrassment nor shame enters the picture, just questions and answers. Women in this film exist to support each other and help each other become the best versions of themselves.
3. The male characters also defy gender roles in this film.
The relationship between Brandy and Cameron (Brandy's long-time friend and lab partner, as well as suitor) proves that gender stereotypes -- especially the idea that men are emotionally unattached to sex and have no interest in monogamy -- are bullsh*t. If anything Brandy and Cameron reverse stereotypical roles. Carey told Crave that Brandy's approach to sex is "more stereotypically male, where she's methodical, she's almost scientific about sex. It's a goal that she's trying to achieve," while Cameron is very emotional and believes sex is universally tied to love.
Brandy's parents' relationship also defies convention. We find out that while Brandy's father lost his virginity on his wedding night, Brandy's mother had sex long before that. Instead of the typically macho father and subservient mother characters we often see, Brandy's mom is the cool one who encourages openness about sex whereas her father is emotional and somewhat insecure -- about his own sexual experience as well as his daughters'.
4. The teenage protagonist explores her sexuality in a realistic way, free from shame.
Films about sex in high school often perpetuate the idea that it's only OK for a girl to lose her virginity if she's in love. If a girl has sex under any other circumstance, then she's a whore. But in "The To Do List," sex is less about love for Brandy, and more about simple curiosity. And not only is she not shamed for seeking out sexual experiences, she's in control of her sexuality and capable of making decisions that she feels good about. "There's no regret in this story," Carey told Crave. "Everything [Brandy's] doing as she's checking things off the list, she's in control. These are all her choices."
5. The movie portrays sex, and the specific experience of losing one's virginity, realistically as well.
Sex is undoubtedly complicated -- especially for teens who are just starting to figure it out. As Jessica Goldstein of the Washington Post noted, films often treat high school hookups as "either The Biggest Deal or No Big Deal." But, "The Do List," "rejects the premise that those two points of view are mutually exclusive, arguing instead that, sex Is What It Is: a big deal when you want it to be, not a big deal when you don't."
The movie also doesn't pretend that losing your virginity is the most terrifying experience in the world -- or the most gratifying. While Brandy is hardly in love with the boy she loses her virginity to, and feels let down by the physical experience, she states that she regrets nothing, and that it will make a great story to tell her friends. The bottom line is that she's OK with how everything played out, which is arguably a pretty typical experience for many teens.
6. "The To Do List" wasn't meant to be a "statement" -- which means we might actually be making progress.
One might think that Carey was trying to make some grand statement about gender and sexual politics, but she insists that she was simply writing a story she "wanted to tell." She told Crave: "You just write what you know and I know what it's like to be a teenager in 1993 and I'm a woman so I'm definitely going to write from that point of view."
We should be trying to get to a place -- in all realms, not just in film or screenwriting -- where women aren't marked or singled out due to their gender, and where "representation" isn't necessary to seek out because we've reached parity. That a screenwriter felt she could simply tell a compelling story featuring a female character, without having to make it into A Big Deal, is actually incredibly encouraging.
We (unfortunately) are rarely presented with an on-screen woman who has goals that center on her own personal development. The fact that "The To Do List" features a female protagonist who is defined by her individual humanity -- her awkwardness, her sense of humor, her friendships, her motivations, her academic accomplishments and yes, her sexuality -- is actually quite a feat.
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