The Unattainable Female American Dream
Written by Sophia Anderson
Hollywood is no stranger to the white male success story. Most cinephiles would probably agree that it is, in fact, one of the most common types of film. The white male success story defies genre—it can be an action movie, an indie movie, a comedy, a drama, a horror movie… you name it.
But there’s a specific type of film, for me, that accesses something more. Films like The Social Network, Whiplash, Steve Jobs... There’s something about these movies (below) that I can’t quite seem to place—it’s an undercurrent of something. Maybe it’s the feeling that something bigger than the character is happening, or maybe it’s the idea of having something that you are so passionate about, you can throw yourself into it completely. That you can get lost in your work, fall so in love or hate with it, that you ultimately drive yourself to success. The American Dream. Or maybe it’s just the satisfaction of watching someone really tap into a talent and succeed. Whatever it may be, there is a tangible difference between these kinds of stories that star men and those that star women.
In David Fincher’s The Social Network, we see a young man pursuing his incredible talent for developing technology and watch as it leads him down a path of wealth and fame. By creating Facebook, he changes the course of history.
In Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, we see a young man pursuing his incredible talent for playing the drums and watch as it leads him into an incredibly prestigious band at an incredibly prestigious music school. By pursuing his passion for jazz, he becomes a renowned musician and sets himself on a course to becoming the next Charlie Parker.
In Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, we see a young man pursuing his incredible talent for computing and innovation… you get the picture.
But where is a story like this starring a woman? Well, it’s no secret that this kind of success story historically belongs to men. But surely there’s something? Well, I had trouble finding a similar story. The closest I could get to that elusive undercurrent of American Dreamism is Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. It follows a talented ballerina through her dramatic training to be the lead dancer in the titular ballet. It is the story of a young woman pursuing her incredible talent for dancing. By pushing herself to her limits and then past her limits, she nabs the famous role she so hoped for.
So what makes Black Swan different from its male-lead counterparts? Well, it certainly shares the basic structure of the other films, and it also has a lead character who doesn’t seem to know how to socialize or maintain a healthy relationship. But there’s a distinct difference in tone when it comes to Black Swan—it’s almost as if our lead, Nina, has no agency. Where Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs are their own bosses, Nina must answer to her (male) artistic director. Her struggle throughout the whole movie is to meet his standards. And where does this get her? SPOILER ALERT: Dead. So much for that “success” story. Even Whiplash’s lead, Andrew—who is under the instruction of his male band teacher—eventually takes back his power by defying his teacher and ultimately succeeds.
All that being said, I love each of these movies. The undercurrent I’m talking about here is incredibly alluring, and runs through each of these films. They each tell a unique (albeit similarly structured) story and develop their characters incredibly. They are each a rollercoaster journey of excellently crafted tension and pacing, and the outcome is movie magic. But no matter how much the story and the filmmaking satisfies me, I am left with the same sour disappointment that sometimes comes with being female in America—and as a woman, I am impressed with the seeming unattainability of the American Dream.
What I’m asking is this: where are the films in which women are geniuses, facing the trials and errors of throwing themselves into their work without being ultimately usurped by male authority? And is that too much to ask for from a movie?
If you find some, please send them my way.