Jennifer Phang's haunting science-fiction film, Advantageous, is taking the world by storm. A quick glance at commentary on Twitter will tell you how depressing it is, how watching it will paralyze you with its characters' desperation. But watching it triggers something more potent than that initial sadness. Power. Action. After watching the film, I felt compelled to reach out to Phang herself and ask her questions about it: did she intend to light a fire in her audience? Does she believe we--women and humanity--are doomed to the dismal world Advantageous predicts, or is there hope for us still? As it turns out, Phang is a cinematic arsonist. Here are six reasons you should see the film--which was bought at Sundance by Netflix after the film picked up a Jury Award, or you can purchase/rent it via Comcast, iTunes, etc.--and six questions for its director. You have to read her answers.
#1: Advantageous demonstrates how we can be both complicit in and victimized by sexist frameworks.
In the film, Gwen is employed by the Center for Advanced Health and Living, and finds out that she is in danger of losing her job as the corporation seeks a younger, "more universal" face of the Center. As she realizes that if she hopes to send her daughter to a private school--and prevent them both from becoming part of the exploding numbers of unemployed and homeless women--she agrees to undergo a life-altering procedure at the Center that will allow her to retain her job and secure the kind of "advantage" for her daughter that might save her from making the kind of choices Gwen is forced to make. By consenting to the procedure that will make her the younger, "more universal" candidate the Center seeks, Gwen is, in a way, complicit in the ominous goals of the corporation.
Do you think women are faced with similar choices in our world? Do you think we are forced to choose between survival and equality/freedom?
Jennifer Phang: Each of the Advantageous characters -- especially the women -- are part of a destructive cycle we see in our own world. Most of us are survivors, but some of us have ambition to "be someone great." "Greatness" can come in the form of power, esteem, or wealth. But the obsession with achieving greatness can lead people in positions of power to rationalize greed and the exploitation of those more vulnerable.
In Advantageous, the biotech company is aware of Gwen's desperation for a high paying job to support Jules. And it is selling a technology that allows you to change your body to improve your life. But despite its marketing angle, the company has only profit in mind.
I think women can become vulnerable when distracted by the endless stream of up-to-the-minute tips about what makes a positive woman role model. Sometimes women spread themselves thinly, spending more time on beauty than most men do. The expectation of perfect balance continues a relentless expansion to include education, wealth, beauty, ideal fitness, marriage, and strength in motherhood. These goals are impossible to balance all at once without a safety net.
So yes, women in particular, when focused on disparate goals over their lifetime, become the mostly likely group forced to choose between survival and freedom.
#2: Advantageous addresses ageism, particularly as it is experienced by women.
The subjectivity of Gwen's age is apparent in the film: her daughter's friends see her for the first time and say, in awe, "That's your mom? She doesn't look like anyone's mom." Gwen is stylish, beautiful, confident, and young - she's in what might be her forties. Yet in the eyes of her employer, the Center for Advanced Health and Living, she is too old and too, it seems, "ethnic." The fact that she's a woman isn't a barrier in this specific case--although it's clear that for many jobs, maleness is preferable. Instead, it's the kind of woman she is that keeps her from job security. The film is full of these small bits of horror that are easy to view as terrifying hypotheticals--unless one already knows the truth: that is, that these kinds of problems are already rampant in our world, with speculative sci-fi themes completely removed. We know all too well that ageism in Hollywood, for example, is rampant, with Maggie Gyllenhaal told recently that she, at 37, is "too old" to play the girlfriend of a 55-year old man. We also know that actors perceived to be "too ethnic" already face what Gwen in Advantageous faces: 99 percent of the Academy Awards Best Actress winners from 1927 to 2015 are white. Ninety-two percent of the Best Actor winners are white. Ninety-eight percent of writers and producers are white. Many actors have come forward about being told they are "too black" or "too [Latino]" for a role. The demand that women be young and "not too ethnic" is a real-life trap that doesn't need fiction to make horrifying.
I personally love science fiction that uses its world to address present-day issues. Was that your intention with Advantageous? If so, what do you think a film like this has the power to accomplish in sparking a dialogue about these issues?
Jennifer Phang: In our fictional future-world, the class bifurcation has continued: all the stakes are raised because it's impossible to survive in an essentially non-existent middle class. You have to reach the summit in your field or else fail to achieve any sense of security. And in Advantageous, as in our current society, the imperative that we have to work to "become someone great" often leads to risk-taking that endangers our own survival and the survival of our loved ones. If you have a wide safety net and come from great privilege, you can fail and you'll be okay. If you're more vulnerable, you may be gambling with your life.
The hidden irony is that typically financial rewards are structured such that resources expended by the vulnerable to achieve higher status trickle *up* toward those who already have significant wealth.
#3: Advantageous addresses female homelessness.
Throughout the film, the audience sees women of varying races and ages sleeping and surviving on the street. It's mentioned in passing that masses of unemployed women are "safer" for society than masses of unemployed men, which is particularly interesting (and disturbing) in the context of recent insight into the unique struggles that homeless women face -- especially when homeless services often fail women by more specifically catering to the needs of men. Do you think the reality of female homelessness (and other issues) is similarly viewed by our current world, as an afterthought of the problem of homeless men?
Jennifer Phang: Yes, though it's unclear whether it is always an intentional afterthought, we can easily envision our future where the imperative continues to be to placate the dominant aggressive masculine energy *first* while setting equality for women as a tertiary agenda for most people and governments around the world.
#4: Advantageous explores the tendency of media to use race and ethnicity as an advertising tool.
When Gwen is told that her look isn't "universal" enough to continue to be the face of the Center, one might have anticipated that the face they choose for her post-procedure would be a white woman, as that is the face often chosen as the female default in a society that worships Eurocentric standards of beauty. Instead, Gwen's new body is that of an ethnically ambiguous woman--although still with decidedly more European features than the Asian features Gwen was born with--suggesting that while Eurocentric beauty is still a standard, the idea of a "universal" face is one that isn't necessarily white, but one that is absent of an identifiable ethnicity or origin. This erasure is certainly present in the kinds of faces we see in commercials and media today; the near non-existence of dark skin and non-European hair types in mainstream media and especially Hollywood. As Gwen flips through the portfolio of potential new Gwens with her daughter, the constant palette of light skin is evident.
What do you think this erasure's effect is on our world, and do you see the world you created in Advantageous as a reflection of our world, or as a cautionary tale about what could happen if we continue down this road?
Jennifer Phang: You could say that in Advantageous, the fixation on a lighter-skinned Eurocentric beauty is a future projection of the global psychological "post-colonial wound." Because many parts of the world were colonized by people with European features, there are theories that we unconsciously associate these features with access to privilege, power, beauty, and freedom.
As everyone has hopes of attaining more privilege and freedom, it makes sense for marketing groups to associate their products with these values.
But self-awareness is key. As consumers become aware of these strategies, those associations will lose power.
#5: Advantageous highlights the barriers that exist between women in a thoughtful and tragic way.
In the film, Gwen and her daughter are sitting in their apartment when they notice the sound of a woman crying. "Who is it this time?" Gwen asks, with her daughter listening for both the upper and lower neighbor. "Both," Jules says. Later in the film, Jules hears a woman crying and realizes that this time it's her mother. The film often illustrates this simultaneous closeness and distance between women, highlighting both the physical and the nonphysical barriers that exist between us. In a way, Gwen--in her suffering--is "closer" to the unseen women crying above and below her in her apartment than she is to the white chairwoman at the Center whose manipulation (and subtle violence) is what leads Gwen to harm.
These barriers between women are important to note, especially in a landscape where feminism that exists without acknowledging intersections can cause much harm to women who are not white, not straight, not able-bodied, etc. What are other barriers that you think maintain the barriers between women and keep us from coming together against the kind of oppression you show us in Advantageous?
Jennifer Phang: This is a great observation that Gwen is closer to these crying women than to the chairwoman, who by the way Jacqueline Kim named "Isa Cryer." We wonder if the chairwoman cries in private. I think the barriers for women that remain are similar to those that most women and minorities face. Our voices simply aren't yet powerful enough in the mainstream media. Class differences and education are also barriers between us.
The pursuit of personal success and wealth can also put up walls between people. Some of us dream we can carve out our own empire. Some people have given up on the world and wish to create a wealth haven for their family and friends. This value set runs through both women and men and are likely huge obstacles toward long lasting social change.
At the same time I've become so inspired and hopeful by the tsunami of warmth and support from women and men who have been energized to assist in getting this film seen. It was unexpected, because I had never been on the receiving end of a united front of women's warmth and connection until we released this film.
And it made me feel more connected with women of the world in an unprecedented way. This makes me hopeful, because it suggests that those barriers between us may only exist in our head.
#6. Advantageous illustrates how being a woman often means being alone against the world.
One of the most depressing aspects of the film is the very visceral feeling of being out of options. When seeking alternatives to the life-altering procedure at the Center, Gwen runs into brick wall after brick wall. Her family judges her and remains disconnected from her for having an affair with a married man--they don't, however, seem to judge him. She goes to a lunch with other mothers from her daughter's prospective private school and is judged for being a single parent. She is judged for her age. She is judged for her ethnicity. Her daughter is her one true love, which in the end forces her to undergo the procedure.
How do we avoid a future where women are isolated and desperate, and create a future where women are supported and autonomous? Does Advantageous have a role in creating that world?
Jennifer Phang: Some of our viewers have expressed deep sadness and hopelessness after watching. Many have felt the desire to write and talk about their experience viewing it, and discuss how it challenged their preconceived ideas about women's value and voice in the world. There also persisted in our audiences pockets of hope and a thirst for action.
So my producer Robert and I (who formed Good Neighbors Media to make films and TV about the future of women) created a discussion section of the Advantageous site where people could post their reactions and ask questions, and connect with each other's experiences both from watching the film, and in their life.
There is a way for us to thrive and build a world where equality is enjoyed. As someone who has existed in and out of privileged environments and has been around financial stresses at different points in my life, I am always happier around communities where equality and fairness is a priority.
Humankind has proven itself in creating breathtaking technologies and complex production systems. So with the right minds in the right situations, this should be possible. Not without irony, the good news may be that we as a species are selecting toward people with an egalitarian world view. In a way, you could say that women (and men) have that power to choose life partners and raise kids who prioritize working toward broader equality for future generations.
Advantageous seems to be playing in a role in a few ways. It is uniting a lot of people who have concerns about their children's place in this world. It's building a space for empathy and a place for troubleshooting our own value system.
It appeals to teens and thoughtful men and women. It has been connecting with parents, and future parents because it speaks the truth about their struggles. These are the people shaping our future. For so long, people in power have benefitted off of misinformation and sleight of hand in spheres of influence in the government, business, and media. Once we can see our world clearly, we have more hope of working with each other toward a common good. And that's what our Good Neighbors projects will focus on--media that helps viewers see their first steps towards treating the entire earth as their own community.