A Star Is Born: A Cold Hard Look At A Feminist Masterpiece
A Star Is Born came out back in 2018 but I just managed to watch it this past week. Much to my surprise, I loved it.
As I often do when I see a movie that I really enjoy, I hit the Internet to see what other people thought of it. I was dismayed to see no one seemed to see it the way I did -- as a feminist masterpiece. In fact, a lot of people were calling ASIB antifeminist.
While I can see where they’re coming from, I completely disagree. Sometimes (ok, pretty much always) I feel #feminist critics are unable to differentiate between a morality play and a movie that explores morality.
The problem with demanding that every story ever told should be a simplistic, straightforward morality play is twofold. Firstly, those who make such demands presume they know what a moral world should look like. They presume their personal moral compass is 100% correct. Assuming any code of ethics is beyond reproach doesn’t leave room for questioning beliefs, for challenging the status quo, for a philosophy to evolve and mature. Secondly, this presumption leaves no room for other people. Morality plays alienate everyone in the audience who doesn’t hold precisely the same set of values. A movie about morality that explores human foibles and gray areas instead of just damning bad people while praising good ones, is capable of fostering a deeper understanding of ethically complex issues than straightforward sermonizing both for those who agree with the moral of the story, and those who don’t.
As you probably surmised, A Star Is Born is not a morality play. It’s not a dramatization of the way people should behave in an ideal world. There are absolutely problematic and disturbing elements in this movie. A woman suffers due to the actions of a man, it’s true. Regardless, ASIB is still highly feminist, because it investigates issues of male-female interaction in a thought-provoking and entirely necessary way. And it pulls it off so well precisely because it’s telling a story, not preaching a sermon.
Or, in the words of critic Owen Glieberman, writing for Variety: “…I don’t mean to suggest that A Star Is Born is a political drama in romantic clothing. What I mean is that the film, precisely by NOT being that, is able to touch the nerve of what’s going on now, socially and emotionally, between the genders.” By showing a closer approximation of a sometimes ugly reality than, oh, I don’t know, let’s say a Ghostbusters remake starring female actors instead of male ones, A Star Is Born relays a tale of authentic female experience that really resonated with me on a number of levels.
I’m assuming most people have seen some incarnation of ASIB by now but for those who haven’t, it’s the story of a famous entertainer (in this case, writer/director/star Bradley Cooper playing fading country-rocker Jackson Maine) helping a younger unknown (Lady Gaga playing Ally, who I am not entirely sure has a last name) break into show business even as his own star is fading. They of course fall head over heels for each other, even as she eclipses him.
The criticism of A Star Is Born centers around the fact that Jackson doesn’t treat Ally that well at times. But you can’t have a feminist movie if the female character doesn’t have some obstacles to overcome. I found little difference between the flyboys in Captain Marvel sniggering “You know why they call it a COCKpit, dontcha???” and Jackson smearing a frosted doughnut in Ally’s face as a “joke” because he’s jealous. (Cooper does something pretty courageous here -- he allows his character to be both love interest and antagonist, and that, I think, rings true for a whole lot of women.) Ally has a problem with male behavior and she has to solve that problem using the weapons at her disposal. Just because the male in question isn’t an obvious caricature of a sexist pig and Ally isn’t smiting him with a sword or blasting away with the power of a Tesseract, doesn’t diminish her struggle, in fact quite the opposite. It was all the more moving because it was a real battle Ally was fighting and not a cartoon.
Some have faulted the romance in ASIB as a depiction of violation of consent -- and it absolutely IS. I suspect this was done completely by design. There was a disturbing undercurrent to Jackson right from the get-go. He exploits his fame to get backstage to meet Ally, he badgers Ally into having a drink with him even though it’s late and she’s tired, he doesn’t want to leave when she tries to send him away, he demands that she comes to his next show and even sends his driver to hound her until she does. He even coerces her out on stage to sing with him. Yet ASIB is not endorsing Jackson’s behavior. It’s revealing his flaws through it -- you know that whole “show, don’t tell” thing writers are supposed to do? Through his actions, we quickly learn the type of person Jackson is -- spoiled, used to having his way, accustomed to using his fame and power and charm to get people to do whatever he wants.
Much has been made of how Jackson compliments Ally’s strong features, particularly her nose, but even that seemed more manipulative than romantic. If you loved that scene, I don’t mean to take away from that, I liked it too -- but as lovely as it was, it still felt calculated. To me, it seemed like Jackson spotted a potential inroad into Ally’s heart, or maybe her pants, and went with it. Being a rockstar and all, I felt Jackson had likely run a similar game on plenty of other women in the past only to discard them when he was through, and just happened to fall in love with Ally probably because she came along at a point where he was in a dark place and needed someone to cling to. Through Jackson’s eyes, Ally was less a person with her own thoughts and hopes and needs, but a means to an end for Jackson to meet his own needs, first for sex and then later on, love.
Again, ASIB is not a morality play, it’s a character study, and suffice it to say, Jackson Maine from the first minute we meet him is one effed-up dude.
For those who think we shouldn’t have to watch any more movies with effed-up dudes in them, while I do sympathize, answer me this -- if you’d never witnessed controlling, manipulative behavior firsthand and you’ve never encountered it in fiction either, how would you recognize it?? I’m not sure that never seeing controlling male behavior onscreen is a great way to prevent women from encountering it, because controlling behavior doesn’t always look like you might expect. Sometimes it looks like concern, sometimes it looks like an innocent offer of help, sometimes it looks exactly like someone who is totally into you and sometimes it comes at the hands of someone who would swear on a stack of Bibles they love you more than their own life.
After they hook up, Jackson takes Ally on the road with him for a while. Everything is great -- for Jackson. Ally wears a lot of country-western shirts and plays music he likes and he seems pretty happy with all that. She’s meeting his needs and Jackson Maine is all about having his needs met. But then trouble comes knocking in the form of a business manager who wants to make Ally a star. She says yes, and the wheels come off the cart. Not only is Ally no longer able to be out on the road with Jackson, she doesn’t even want to be a rock star like Jackson. She wants to be a pop star instead (the horrors!) Becoming a pop star in 2018 means embracing a certain ethos and that ethos is contrary to the wearing of country-western shirts.
As Ally’s fame grows and Ally herself grows outside of the cozy niche Jackson so generously created for her, Jackson accuses her of becoming fake -- but Jackson Maine himself is pretty fricking fake. For example, he has a really obvious fake tan at the start of the movie. He claims to have nostalgia about his family farm but didn’t know it had been sold years ago. He accuses Ally of selling out even though he’s a sellout himself and he knows it.
Honestly, Ally’s orange-haired popstar persona was probably more real than Jackson’s rockstar one was and was almost certainly more real than Ally’s newly adopted alt-country persona. Jackson didn’t even KNOW who Ally was before they met, not really. He assumed, I suppose because she was willing to wear those goddamn shirts for him, that she was happy being the same flavor of fake as he was. But for all we know it was Ally’s “Jackson’s girlfriend” persona that was a put on. After all, at the start of the movie Ally was singing in a drag club, wearing heavy makeup, dressing provocatively, working the crowd. That was just as much the real Ally as anything that came later. She was an entertainer long before she ever met Jackson Maine. We never learn what kind of music Ally would have made if left to her own devices -- Jackson immediately took that over, snatching up a song she barely sang for him once and turning it into a country-rock ditty without any input from the person who actually wrote it. Then he all but forced her to sing it for the first time with HIS arrangement in front of thousands of people, ensuring even if she didn’t like what he’d done with the song, she was stuck with it forever.
Please understand, I’m not saying Ally changed herself to be with Jackson per se. I’m just pointing out that Ally may have had room for lots of Allies within herself (many of us gals change up our styles and our passions depending on our mood) yet Jackson saw only the one Ally -- the incarnation who suited him best -- and decided that was the real one, while ignoring or not even bothering to get to know all the others. And then he blamed his own tunnel vision on her and accused her of being fake when she dared to step out of that narrow role he’d cast her in.
Every woman who has ever been told by a man “this just isn’t LIKE you” when all along you know it’s exactly like you and your dude friend just never acknowledged that side of you, knows it’s a form of control. Controlling men want their partner to act only a certain way and not any of the other ways a girl might like to act, and so they only officially recognize her in one of her many tremendous forms. Step out of that role and you become a stranger to them even when you’re totally being yourself. It’s not enough that you should love a guy with all your heart, it’s not enough to forsake all others and stand by his side, you have to cut off this piece of yourself and that piece of yourself till you resemble the person who he thinks you ought to be, even if that person is just one part of who you really are. Being in a relationship with a controller is like living with Procrustes -- a serial killer from Greek mythology who ran an inn and if people didn’t fit in the bed he provided, he’d cut off pieces of them or stretch them longer till they did.
In addition to being a controlling a-hole, Jackson is also a drunk and a drug addict, and as anyone who’s had to actually live with a drunk or a drug addict knows, drunks and drug addicts like to blame their addictions on other people. “If you didn’t make me so unhappy, I wouldn’t do this to myself!” they say, as they pour another round or pop another pill. In the first video I posted above, Jackson sees Ally singing a song he doesn’t like, dressed in a way he doesn’t like, acting in a way he doesn’t like, and he just moseys on over and has himself a drink. That’ll learn her.
HE IS PUNISHING HER WITH HIS ADDICTION! Jackson uses his addiction like a cattle prod to control Ally’s behavior. Addicts often do that -- hurt themselves to hurt their loved ones. But that type of low level punishment isn’t enough. Jackson Maine can’t rest till he wrecks and ruins every positive thing in Ally’s life that didn’t happen directly because of him. He wants her to climb back into the box she was in where she was meeting all his needs and he’ll do whatever it takes to get her there.
Even humiliate himself. Some people thought that the scene where Jackson gets drunk and high at the Grammys, stumbles on stage during Ally’s winning speech, and then wets his pants was over the top. Not me. How many weddings have been ruined by drunks slurring their way through toasts, how many work functions disrupted by a puking, groping boss, how many holidays and birthdays and special occasions and once in a lifetime events have been destroyed by the person who can’t stay away from intoxicants even just for a night?
Winning a Grammy was probably one of the most important moments in Ally’s life, if not THE pinnacle of her life, and Jackson’s not only not there for her, he immediately becomes the biggest problem she has. He manages to taint and destroy Ally’s biggest triumph in order to pull the spotlight back onto himself and to make absolutely sure that Ally’s focus is back where it belongs. And while I don’t ~think~ Jackson did it deliberately, I bet he didn’t mind it quite as much as you might have thought a guy would mind peeing in front of millions of people in this, the era of YouTube. He didn’t even seem particularly embarrassed by it -- but he was sure to mention how badly it embarrassed Ally.
Sometimes being the center of attention, even if it’s for being totally pitiful, is better than being nothing.
For his grand finale, Jackson kills himself (on the night of a huge and important concert, naturally, where Ally was counting on him to show up) to ensure Ally never forgets how badly she failed him. Yet again, when Ally really needed him, not only was he not there for her, he became the biggest problem she had. Jackson frames his suicide in his head as “doing it for her” so he never even ha to face up to how incredibly selfish he is. He gets to go out feeling like a hero, not caring that he’s leaving Ally behind, not caring she’ll undoubtedly be consumed with guilt, leaving the blame resting squarely on Ally’s shoulders because she dared to pursue a career and it gave him the sadz. He even goes so far as to leave behind a hidden-in-plain-sight love song for her called “I’ll Never Love Again” all about how she’ll never get with another guy for the rest of her life since she misses him so darn bad.
Jackson Maine is a stellar example of a selfish, controlling, emotionally abusive man. But the magic of A Star is Born is not what a spectacular piece of jerk Jackson is. It’s not how Ally endures so much pain at his hands and yet somehow keeps going with her head held high. It’s not how hard she pushes back against Jackson when he treats her unfairly, even cruelly, and it’s not even how she keeps fighting to succeed with her music even when it’s so glaringly obvious Jackson doesn’t want her to pursue it.
The magic of ASIB is that despite everything I just discussed, Jackson is still a sympathetic character. He’s likeable, he’s even lovable. You can see what Ally sees in the guy. She isn’t an idiot for being with him; her decisions were always understandable to me every step of the way. It would have been very easy to make Jackson a stereotypical abuser, it would have been very easy to make Ally a beat-down weak-willed moron under his thumb instead of someone in a difficult relationship with a not-even-close-to-perfect-guy by her own choice, and it probably would have been far more palatable to #feminist critics if they had. Yet they resisted doing the easier and more socially acceptable thing and gave us something deeper and darker and better. You might say this is because A Star Is Born is fundamentally a Bradley Cooper vanity piece and you may even be right, but that uncharitable interpretation doesn’t take away from the dramatic effectiveness of fleshing out Jackson’s character beyond being an abusive sexist troglodyte.
We have this vision of a controlling a-hole as a snarling domineering monster and tell ourselves women who stay with them are crazy and self-deluded or patriarchally brainwashed. But controlling a-holes are most of the time really cool and sweet guys who just have this need within them to keep their wives or girlfriends in a spot that’s comfortable for them, usually out of their own fear and weakness and need. If we continue to portray controlling men in fiction as one-dimensional, knuckle-dragging, easy-to-spot villains rather than as a rather common and all-too-often adorable manifestation of the male archetype, women will continue to blindly enter into relationships with controllers because they aren’t bad guys and Hollywood taught us to be on the lookout for bad guys.
In the end this is why A Star is Born is such a great feminist movie. ASIB tells a real truth that women need to hear about the insidious, yet outwardly loving ways that men attempt to control women and how even the awesomest guys aren’t always immune to the temptation. And we need this -- all women need this, but especially young women need it. It’s not enough to simply preach about the way a handful of people think the world ought to be and call that feminism. We need more. Women need to see how people act and think and feel in real world situations to truly understand the challenges we face.
We would have missed out on a cold hard look at how easy it is to mistake manipulation for love if not for A Star Is Born.
I’m just saying I didn’t get any of this from Captain Marvel.
Photo by little-pete