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IN July 2017, the Advertising Standards Agency vowed to develop higher standards against which adverts are judged to stop potentially harmful and damaging gender stereotypes being created. “A tougher line is needed on ads that feature stereotypical gender roles or characteristics which can potentially cause harm”, they stated, “including ads which mock people for not conforming to gender stereotypes”. How does this transpose onto the world of film and the representations of gender depicted onscreen?
Critically well received on its release in 2009, (500) DAYS OF SUMMER (Mark Webb) provides a refreshing riposte to the conventional boy meets girl formula seen in other romantic comedies released in the same year such as THE PROPOSAL (Anne Fletcher 2009) and THE UGLY TRUTH (Robert Luketic 2009). It paid tribute, both structurally and cinematically, to Woody Allen’s ANNIE HALL (1977), gaining it an immediate indie fan base. Employing a non-linear narrative in recalling events that have transpired, broken-hearted Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is told by his sister Rachel (Chloë Grace Moretz) as the film opens to “start from the beginning”. With this begins a combination of live action and quirky hand-drawn animations that depict the lifespan of Tom’s relationship with Summer (Zooey Deschanel).
Despite widespread adoration for the film, Deschanel’s character prompted a “Marmite” reaction on social media with fans slating her for being a “bitch” for her poor treatment of the beloved protagonist Tom. The film's writer Scott Neustadter revealed in an interview with The Daily Mail in 2009 that he based his script on his own heartbreak from unofficial girlfriend Jenny Beckman - which may or may not be her real name - and the narrative the two characters in the film follow closely mirrors his own rollercoaster journey. Whether this adds a level of realism to the film is beside the point; the tagline is very clear when it states that “Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love. Girl doesn’t” and “This is not a love story. This is a story about love.” Yet when Summer inevitably leaves Tom, albeit with an unexpected twist, our heartstrings are pulled and we tumble into a pit of depression right alongside Tom.
(500) DAYS OF SUMMER PROVIDES A REFRESHING RIPOSTE TO THE CONVENTIONAL BOY-MEETS-GIRL FORMULA.
We are told from that very beginning that Tom falls in love and Summer does not, creating a role reversal of the stereotypical romcom relationship. In her 2009 book ROMANTIC COMEDY, Claire Mortimer explains that the modern day romcom has been reduced to women obsessed with finding “the one” and getting married, sacrificing any kind of career or personal aspirations to do so. (500) DAYS OF SUMMER subverts expectations when it comes to this and Summer appears to be one of the few women in a romcom that does not conform to its conventions. It is clear that Summer’s ultimate goal in life is not to fall in love but to be happy in herself and she will do whatever she wants in order to make that happen.
SUMMER APPEARS TO BE ONE OF THE FEW WOMEN IN A ROMCOM THAT DOES NOT CONFORM TO ITS CONVENTIONS.
In a 2009 interview published in daily newspaper The Journal, Deschanel describes her character as “just a smart, independent, interesting girl”, none of which constitute a “bitch”. There are constant references to Summer playing the more dominant role in her relationship with Tom. When they first meet it is Summer who speaks - or rather sings - first, showing her as the more assertive character, which is stereotypically a more masculine trait; or blatantly obvious accusations of Summer being a “dude” and a “lesbian” for not believing in “the one” - as if these two labels provide the only logical explanation for not believing in true love.
To further this, when Summer and Tom break up, Summer refers to them as the iconic 70s couple: Sid and Nancy. However, Summer is Sid and it is Tom who is portrayed as Nancy, naming herself the accused murderer of Tom if the relationship does not end in the immediate future.
THERE IS A MISPERCEPTION OF SOCIAL REALITY WHEN IT COMES TO SEX ROLES.
The accumulation of these references to conventional masculine qualities in a very feminine character supports sociologist Raewyn Connell’s argument in her landmark 1993 study MASCULINITIES that there is a misperception of social reality when it comes to sex roles because they should not be thought of as fixed but as fluid. (500) DAYS OF SUMMER subverts typical conventions of not just the romcom but gender onscreen, providing a baby step forward to a non-stereotypical and more honest view of gender in cinema.
Responding to fan adoration of his character in a 2012 Playboy interview, Gordon-Levitt called Tom “selfish” and noted that he “develops a mildly delusional obsession over a girl onto whom he projects all these fantasies”. The actor confirmed what The Narrator (Richard McGonagle) expresses in the film, that “Tom believes his life won’t begin until he finds ‘the one’”. Deschanel has stated that Tom is “kind of stuck in a little fantasy world” and that her character “helps him grow”. When he meets Autumn (Minka Kelly) at the film’s close, the animated day counter that has been a trope throughout the film resets, symbolising the never-ending pursuit of love he is forever engaged in. One can only hope he has learned something along the way.
(500) DAYS OF SUMMER has joined a recent number of films shifting its narrative emphasis from female to male, challenging genre and character conventions of this largely female-dominated genre. Telling the story from Tom’s point-of-view certainly adds a level of style to the film but also makes it a more accessible film for audiences. Appealing to the more sensitive male, it begins to move away from the hegemonic male or the playboy towards a film where the character displays a wide range of both masculine and feminine traits.
In Stacy Abbott and Deborah Jermyn’s 2008 edited collection FALLING IN LOVE AGAIN: ROMANTIC COMEDY IN CONTEMPORARY CINEMA, Tamar Jeffers McDonald describes the “homme-com” as a male-centred rom-com where the lead male hero is yet to grow up. This can certainly be applied to the film in question. It could be argued that because the film is told from a male point-of-view, the audience automatically aligns and invests emotions in the lead character, which perhaps explains the bias towards Tom and negative response towards Summer who becomes the villain of the film.
IT BEGS THE QUESTION OF WHETHER A FEMALE DIRECTOR WOULD HAVE PRESENTED SUMMER MORE EMPATHETICALLY.
This is further contextualised by the film’s industrial context. Statistics released by charity Women in Film stated that of the top 250 grossing films in 2016, women represented 4% of directors, 11% of writers, 3% of cinematographers, 19% of producers and 14% of editors, evidencing a vastly male-orientated workplace. Based on the true experiences of the male and with a male director. it begs the question of whether a female director would have presented Summer more empathetically instead of naming her our villain without questioning the other half of the story.
When it comes to gender in the contemporary romcom, there are still many issues surrounding its narrow-minded views and the predictably formulaic storylines that come from that. However, with its indie status firmly paving the way, (500) DAYS OF SUMMER provides a stimulating slant on the romcom that opens up the genre to progressive views on gender and shows that gender is not one fixed thing but a multitude of masculinities and femininities that create complex, intelligent and interesting characters.
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