May 26, 2010

If you’ve seen the poster for Queen Latifah’s latest movie, Just Wright, you know she’s the star of the film. But if you’ve seen the film itself, or even just the preview, you know that her starring role pits her as a brushed-past, boring-looking heroine against the ethereally beautiful Paula Patton—for the affections of rapper Common, who plays a star point guard on the New Jersey Nets. Hollywood would have us think that, in casting the curvaceous Latifah, they are revolutionizing the film industry’s longstanding depiction of beauty—and, by extension, the female character. Far from it: Latifah’s turn as leading lady is even more demeaning than all those “beauties” (read: Kate Hudson, Katherine Heigl) who played other versions of the role before her.

Yes, Just Wright‘s story is one we’ve heard many times at the movies—one of the several go-to female-driven story-lines that exist in Hollywood. We’ve seen plenty of actresses dowdy up their onscreen look in the name of the latest ugly duckling tale. Eclipsed by another obviously beautiful woman, they stick charitably in the background for two-thirds of the movie, pining for someone—or something—their looks prevent them from. Then they take off their glasses, become beautiful, and win the clueless guy’s heart after all. Everyone learns a valuable lesson: ultimately what’s on the inside is more important than what’s on the outside.

Which is a lesson that goes down easy—when what’s on the outside of the actress in question happens to be a size-two frame. All they need is a sample-size evening gown to go from invisible woman to irresistible siren. Not so in the case of Latifah, of course, whose confident curves have become part of her marketable image. Her charm, and the fact that women relate to her, have driven Latifah to this position; the woman is bankable enough to carry a movie, romantic comedies included. So it’s frustrating that throughout Just Wright, Latifah, as she edges her way out of Patton’s shadow, has to constantly apologize for her appearance. “I’m not one of those salad-eatin’ chicks,” she quips when Common’s character finally asks her out. As moviegoers, as women, we want her presence in this movie to remind us that romance and romantic comedies do not belong exclusively to skinny white girls. Instead, we watch her get forced into cringeworthy qualifications about her dietary choices.

“The number-one rule of leading ladies is that they’re there to get a man, even (and often) at the expense of friendships, careers, and self-respect. Does this happen in real life? Sure. But so does a lot of other stuff.”

It’s a question that indicates Hollywood’s one-foot-in, one-foot-out approach to broadening the definition of onscreen beauty. Which is an issue we’ve been lamenting for what seems like forever—along with most of the hallmarks of Hollywood movies aimed at women. There are so many flat roles (slutty friend! sassy friend!) and hackneyed plots (oh, the heroine wasn’t supposed to fall in love but did? Who saw that coming?) that you’d think by now we’d have given up on chick flicks.

Still, a preview flash of something that seems new—like Latifah playing a rom-com lead—is enough to give us hope and, more importantly, get us to the theater. But merely allowing Latifah to be cast in this type of role doesn’t cut it. Forcing a vanguard of body confidence to play against the literally fatless Patton, spouting paranoid caveats about her looks all the way, undermines whatever progress producers might have been going for. Would it have been that risky to simply let Latifah love, lose, and win it all back without constantly reminding us she weighs more than 100 pounds? Further underscoring the movie’s ridiculous parsing of the definition of ‘beauty’: Latifah looks better than ever. She’s svelte and glowing, even before her Cinderella moment—no wonder producers had to scout out someone as genetically perfect as Patton to show her up.

Now, if you think I’m reading too much into this, if you still doubt Hollywood’s pathetic treatment of women, consider this particularly ridiculous Just Wright plot turn: When Common’s character is injured, Patton’s character, now his fiancé, fires a lithe, white, blonde physical therapist whom she fears will seduce him. Who does she bring in? Latifah, of course, with whom Patton is much more comfortable—because Common would never go for the normal-bodied, natural Latifah over her. This is, perhaps, the most disappointing moment of the film.

And why is that acceptable onscreen behavior? Because in Hollywood—dating back to Audrey Hepburn’s Sabrina, the movie that launched a thousand takeoffs—the number-one rule of leading ladies is that they’re there to get a man, even (and often) at the expense of friendships, careers, and self-respect. Does this happen in real life? Sure. But so does a lot of other stuff. Yet this is the lame story thread we see again and again. It’s common stuff of the worst kind.


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