Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Feminist Defense of LA LA LAND

Mia (Emma Stone) strides ahead of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling).
La La Land is one of the most talked-about, most awarded, and most love-it-or-hate-it films of 2016. But in all the critical conversation, I feel like something’s been overlooked: if it wins Best Picture in six hours or so, it’ll be the first Best Picture winner in over a decade to feature a female protagonist.

Much of the La La Land criticism I’ve seen focuses on the male lead, a jazz pianist named Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), and his “out-of-touch,” “white-savior” attitude toward jazz music. Comparatively little attention has been devoted to the female lead, a struggling actress named Mia (Emma Stone). Often, when that happens, it's because the female character is no more than an accessory or a prize for the man—something that still happens depressingly often in prestigious Hollywood movies.

But I want to argue that La La Land is really Mia’s story, and that the movie subtly but persistently centers her perspective. Partly, this is because Stone acts circles around Gosling (IMO). Partly, this is because of my personal connection to the character of Mia: she is a woman in her mid-twenties who self-produces an original play and dates a jazz musician, which were also the defining events of my mid-twenties. But mostly, I think, it’s due to the inherent structure of the film.

Literally and figuratively, La La Land is Mia's story before it is Sebastian's. Her character, her life, her ambitions are introduced to us first. Moreover, her introductory sequence shows her as sympathetic and relatable: she gets coffee spilled on her, gives a thoughtful performance at an audition only to be ignored, goes out to a party with her pals, and gets caught in a jam when her car is towed and her phone dies. Sebastian's introductory scenes make him out to be a far less sympathetic character: his sister calls him out for his jazz-snob pretensions, and he gets fired from a gig as a restaurant pianist because he sees the job as beneath him and can't resist going into jazz improvisations when he was hired to play Christmas tunes. I don’t agree with the charge that La La Land takes an un-critical view of Sebastian; I think the film is well aware of his character flaws. It wants us to think that his attitude to jazz is kind of arrogant, while still being happy for him when he finds professional success.

As the film continues, Mia's backstory is fleshed out more than Sebastian's is. She's the character who gets to sing a climactic solo song, "Audition (The Ones Who Dream)," whose lyrics sum up the movie's message. And I read the fantasy sequence at the end as her fantasy, a trip through her thoughts. (It resembles an old movie musical because Mia loves old movies.) Significantly, Mia gets a surname, “Dolan,” while Sebastian only gets a nickname, “Seb.”

I’ve seen the criticism that Mia succeeds only because of Sebastian: he's the person who suggests that she write and produce a show, and who convinces her to go to the audition that makes her a star. But, while Seb bucks her up when she doubts herself, it’s false to say that her success is entirely due to his influence. Take it from one who knows: self-producing a play is a huge task that requires a lot of time, effort, and sacrifice. And the film doesn’t indicate that Seb gives Mia any practical help with her show, just occasional words of encouragement. Her own talents and ambitions are what allow her to complete the project.

Furthermore, La La Land shows Sebastian benefiting from Mia's advice, too. His longtime dream is to open up a jazz club called “Chicken on a Stick” on the site of a storied former jazz venue that is now a tapas bar. Mia tries to persuade him that “Chicken on a Stick” is a terrible name and that he should consider other locations, but Sebastian seems unmoved. At the end of the movie, though, we see that Sebastian has opened his club, it's in a different location, and it has the name that Mia suggested—“Seb's.” Sebastian's instincts were right when it came to Mia's career, but Mia's instincts were also right when it came to Sebastian's.

Sebastian and Mia look at the stars.
It’s even possible to read the middle of La La Land as a comment on the imbalance of emotional labor in heterosexual relationships. As Mia puts her one-woman show together and Sebastian goes on tour with a jazz-funk ensemble, their relationship becomes more distant and strained. To heal the breach, he suggests that she should join him for a leg of the tour. However, this implies a lack of respect for the work that she is making, which requires her to stay in Los Angeles. (She is self-producing a one-woman show that opens in two weeks and you expect her to fly off to freaking Idaho for you, Seb?) And, while Seb casually asks Mia to drop everything and go on tour with him, he isn't willing to drop out of a band photo shoot in order to see her show. It's not tit-for-tat; it's Sebastian asking Mia to make a sacrifice that he proves unwilling to make himself.

Indeed, La La Land captures the essential loneliness of being a jazzman’s girlfriend. The nights where he's up on stage playing music for swing dancers so you learn to swing dance, too, because otherwise you'd have nothing to do. The fear that he will always love his music more than you, that it will always come first. (My ex didn't like it if I phoned him before 10 PM because it might interrupt his practicing.) Seb thinks it’s disrespectful to talk over jazz music—my ex thought it was disrespectful if I read a book while he and his combo played jazz in a cocktail lounge.

The end of La La Land flashes forward to five years after Mia and Sebastian have gone their separate ways. Our overall impression is that Mia has moved on, while Sebastian hasn't. She has a husband, a baby, her face on billboards, and a room at the Chateau Marmont. Sebastian, it seems, is still single and living in the same apartment. But, when Mia unexpectedly encounters Sebastian at his jazz club, she allows herself to imagine the life they could have had together. Not only does this sequence allow us into Mia’s head in a way that we never are allowed inside Sebastian’s, but also, as this Vogue piece points out, it’s a fantasy of having it all. Mia imagines Sebastian accompanying her to her film shoot in Paris; she doesn’t imagine turning down a career opportunity in order to stay with him.

Admittedly, I wish La La Land gave us more information about what happened to Mia during those five years (and I wish Emma Stone did more to distinguish thirtysomething movie-star Mia from twentysomething struggling-actress Mia). What kinds of roles is Mia playing, how did she meet her husband, is she still writing? But that's because I came to love her character and therefore am hungry to know more about her. Her journey is longer than Seb's and takes her further. I don't feel particularly curious about Seb's life in those five years.

Decades of Hollywood movies have told women that love is the only thing worth having—a message that can be very damaging. Look at some other popular movie musicals that feature aspiring-actress protagonists. Funny Girl is the story of Fanny Brice’s abject, masochistic love for a no-good man. Moulin Rouge suggests that the upside of Satine’s tragic death is that it makes her boyfriend into a true artist. Never do we get the sense that La La Land’s Mia is just there to serve as her boyfriend's muse. And the overall message of the film is refreshingly modern and realistic: it says that love is wonderful and magical, but it’s not more important than your career. That the world needs dreamers, but you need to back up your dreams with hard work and patience.

I recognize that the feminism of La La Land isn't at all radical or intersectional: its female lead is young, white, straight, and beautiful. Nonetheless, I remain mystified as to why so many people are reading it as the story of a self-absorbed white-guy jazz pianist with a girlfriend who happens to be an actress. Why do people fail to recognize that Mia is the real protagonist, that her art matters as much as Sebastian’s does, and that his self-absorption is precisely why their relationship could never work long-term? Have we become so used to narratives that center the male perspective that we can't even recognize a female-centered story when it shows up before us, singing and dancing in Technicolor Cinerama?

2 comments:

Michael Strickland said...

Nicely written and agree with you on everything. As for what happens to Emma in the five-years interlude, I was under the impression that she'd ended up with her director from that first movie which must have been a breakout for both of them, but I could have been hallucinating.

Marissa Skudlarek said...

Thanks for the kind words, Michael! I'm not sure if her husband is also supposed to be her director from her first film -- we see the casting team at her audition, but do we ever see the director of the film? Actually, what confused me is that her husband looks a LOT like the boring guy she is dating at the start of the movie, though I don't believe that they're the same character. Maybe it's meant to indicate that Mia has a "type" and/or make us think that her husband is kinda boring (since he looks like Boring Boyfriend).