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Review of Country Strong, starring Gwyneth Paltrow

Last night I rented and watched Country Strong, directed by Shana Feste, and starring Gwyneth Paltrow as country music star Kelly Canter. There was no hype about this movie when it opened in theatres (Jan 7, 2011), so I really wasn’t expecting much, but country music plots rarely let me down. This movie was not great, but it definitely had some good moments. I loved the duet between Leighton Meester and Garrett Hedlund (Give into Me)—the song is beautiful, and the on-screen chemistry between the two is palpable. Paltrow did an acceptable job as Kelly Canter, even though her singing voice is mediocre and her southern accent makes me cringe. To her credit, Paltrow played a convincing drunk musician attempting to make a comeback in an industry that places a heavy value on youth and beauty. Kelly’s pain seems authentic enough as she recognizes that she is slowly and inevitably being upstaged by the sober ex-pageant queen Chiles Stanton (played by Leighton Meester). And the fact that Kelly ultimately accepts Chiles and offers her advice (although this scene is woefully short) helps to reverse (if not completely obliterate) the vile message that women are always in competition with one another.

What really prompted me to write about this film, however, was not the acting or the music, but the anti-women connotations in the underlying plot (note, from here spoilers will ensue). Beautiful successful Kelly Canter has it all, but is miserable. Miserable enough to drink herself into oblivion and fall from the stage one night while she is performing, causing herself a miscarriage. This seems to be the one thing for which she is unable to forgive herself. There are two issues here, both equally problematic. First, as the New York Times Movie Review from Jan 6, 2011 points out, (http://movies.nytimes.com/2011/01/07/movies/07country.html), “the only successful woman is a desperately unhappy woman.” This message is sadder than a washed-up country music star. And it is a message that does seem to proliferate in popular culture. But what the New York Times review missed was how this message is complicated by Kelly’s miscarriage. For example, Kelly blames herself for the miscarriage instead of a music industry that drove her to drink, or her husband/manager who seems more concerned with making money than with her health and mental status. Kelly cares for an abandoned baby bird (yeah, this one is over the top) because her maternal instincts have no other outlet. Kelly overcomes her aversion to Chiles and offers the younger woman motherly advice about stardom. Do you see where I am going with this?

Kelly Canter personifies not only the successful women who is unhappy, but more importantly, the successful women who is unhappy (or crazed, or mentally unsound) because she does not have children (the Cate Blanchett character in Hanna also fits this bill: see my earlier post ). I suspect that portraying childless woman as aberrant in film or fiction is a backlash to the increasing number of women who are choosing to forego motherhood in favor of other options. I suspect that mainstream society still fears and/or resents women who remain childless, and especially fears women who are sexually active (like Kelly Canter) for pleasure rather than for purposes of reproduction. The stigma that women without children are terribly unhappy thus proliferates, to deter real women from remaining childless. Portraying Kelly as an addict who is unable to heal because she is unable to conceive sends a clear message: If you have no children you are going to regret it. It may even drive you to suicide.

And that’s the final thing I want to mention, how much I hate that Kelly kills herself. In my book about vigilante women I discuss how authors condemn their heroines to mental or physical illness as a way for their characters to resist emotional entrapment (like the nameless narrator in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and the mother character, Anna Holbrook, in Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio). Writers alternately invent heroines who attempt suicide to escape constrictive circumstances (such as Edna Pontellier from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Esther Greenwood from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar). Contemporary authors more often amend these dismal endings by featuring empowered heroines who turn their resistance outward– to oppose the laws that restrict their personal rights, or toward the people who most represent oppression in their lives. Such characters are modern day vigilante women. A better ending (in my estimation) for Country Strong would allow Kelly Canter to live up to the movie’s title—she would find the strength to oppose those who disregard her best interests, thus permanently improving the country music industry for other women artists (like the up and coming Chiles) in some small way.

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Movie Review: Hanna (2011), directed by Joe Wright

Be forewarned: There are spoilers in this movie review.

The movie Hanna, directed by Joe Wright, pits young
and culturally naive Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) against an
evil CIA agent (Marissa Weigler, played by Cate Blanchett),
who is attempting to eradicate all traces of Hanna’s existence.
Hanna is the last surviving “evidence” of a morally
questionable DNA experiment conducted by the government.
The experiment was designed with the intention of creating
an army of super soldiers—humans better equipped than their
non-meddled-with counterparts to decimate and destroy. As an
infant, Hanna is rescued by a rogue CIA agent. He raises her
in the wilds of Finland, teaching her not only how to survive
in the harsh conditions, but also how to fight and defend herself.
Most importantly, he instills in her the drive to destroy
agent Weigler before Weigler destroys her.

Although enjoyable, from a feminist perspective, the film has
some flaws.  For example, I found it interesting that Hanna’s
great adversary is a woman. I suppose the writers thought it
would be too problematic to pit Hanna against a man. It might
alienate the audience to have this young beauty destroy a
full-grown man, or alternately, it might not be perceived as
a fair fight.  Instead, Hanna must assassinate agent Weigler,
a CHILDLESS yet sexualized female, who, because of her
childless status, is portrayed as monstrous. Scary, yes, but
not in the way the writer intended.  In this case, the childless
woman completely lacks the maternal instinct that would make her
sympathetic to Hanna’s plight. Childlessness is thus equated
with monstrosity—Agent Weigler is an aberration, a freak of
nature, somehow less than woman.  This depiction is reinforced
with her cold, ruthless demeanor. Even in private she is deranged
enough to make her gums bleed intentionally when she cleans her
teeth. I can almost guarantee that childless men are never
depicted as monsters.

The ending of the film is also problematic. Whereas the film
could have ended with Hanna showing Agent Weigler mercy and
letting her live, instead, Hanna predictably kills Weigler
without mercy. Thus, the moral of this story is that free will
is nonexistent. Hanna has learned nothing during her foray into
civilization. She is the product of her genetic makeup and nothing
else. She is, in fact, the killing machine that the CIA feared.
Moreover, nothing can be chalked up to her personal strength as
a woman—she has been engineered and trained by men and has
done exactly as they asked.

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