Spy: Melissa McCarthy on the Center Stage She Deserves

We’ve all witnessed decades of gloomy James Bond clones vying for summer action blockbuster. In their wake, Paul Feig’s Spy is a breath of fresh air in a dark and smoky room. As its title suggests, the film plays with spy movie clichés, turning old tropes on their heads faster than its all-star cast can deliver their delightfully acerbic one-liners.

We are thrown into the opening scene with CIA field agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law) awash in clean-shaven, perfectly tailored charm. As he works his way through a lavish party, his partner—dowdy, shy office agent Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy)–talks him through his every move from an earpiece back at base. Soon, a simple mission goes awry, leaving Fine out of commission and the Agency jeopardized. Cooper is the only one obscure enough to fly under the radar to obtain a suitcase nuke trading hands on the black market.

And so Cooper is sent to Paris, taking us with her on an epic adventure of hijinks and espionage. Her operation is complicated by a rogue agent determined to take the mission for himself (Jason Statham) whom she constantly has to save. Her simple track-and-report assignment quickly falls apart as she works her way into the inner circle of evil heiress Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) when she is forced to save her life. Along the way, she transforms from an awkward, quiet desk jockey to a loud, crude, pull-no-punches, and yes—still awkward—superspy. All the while, McCarthy proves that she can do bad-ass hand-in-hand with slapstick, showing us a range in talent that she’s not had the chance to reveal yet in her career. Now given that chance, McCarthy creates one of the most well-developed and dynamic protagonists in action’s recent history.

In fact, what’s most revolutionary about the film may not be what McCarthy becomes, but what she does not. For a woman who is so often discussed in terms of her weight, Spy might be the only film she’s starred in that doesn’t turn her into a fat joke. Not one reference to her weight is made in the course of the entire film. Her character is still a huge gag, in everything from her disguises to her bumbling attempts to play it cool. But never once is she a joke because of her weight. Meanwhile, she’s not withheld the old superspy treatment of multiple love interests, but her character stays independent from them in the same tradition as every ultra-capable male lead before her.

Instead, her chemistry with the villainous Rayna Boyanov is the unexpected romance of the film. Their forced codependency is the source of an unlikely friendship that gives us a refreshing perspective on the bad guy’s side of things. Rayna isn’t a stoic femme fatale or a buffoonish parody of evil. Rather, she manages to straddle both tropes while retaining a realistic and relatable character. Together, she and Cooper are a perfectly compatible and hilariously dysfunctional team.

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Rayna and Cooper (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

While these two may steal most scenes, Allison Janney and Miranda Hart shine just as brightly as Cooper’s straight-faced boss and jittery best friend. That most of the laughs come from the interaction of these women is a pleasant change from the everyday thriller. Although the film spans three male-dominated genres (secret agent; action; comedy), none of the female characters feel forced into the narrative. In fact, it may escape your notice that the cast is predominantly female at all.

In spite of its more progressive appeal, the film still falls back on some more traditionally bawdy humor. For every whip-smart gag is a scene with someone getting groped for no reason or falling face-first into a rear-end. There are not one, but two sixty-nine jokes, and the character Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz) seems to exist solely to sexually harass and molest Cooper as she tries to do her job.

While the script may take a creative break for the sake of these moments, Spy has made critics sit up and pay attention by giving its story multi-faceted characters gripping twists instead of regurgitating the tired Action Flick blueprints. And it does all of this while poking fun at the spy archetype with more wit and ingenuity than Austin Powers.

Although director Paul Feig has worked with McCarthy before on Bridesmaids (2011) and The Heat (2013), this is his first feature film as both writer and director. In fact, this is Feig’s first solo run in the writer’s room, which may explain why this film is something we haven’t seen before. Feig will take on the dual writer/director role for the second time in 2016 with a genderbent version of Ghostbusters. Starring? You guessed it, the astoundingly adaptable Melissa McCarthy.

Spy Trailer (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

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Representation in Relationship Violence Campaigns

For several months, I walked right past this poster hanging outside the office I work at in the university:

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I’m always in a rush on my way to and from work. It’s not something I would give more than a passing glance to.  Outwardly, it’s not very different from any other poster sporting a kid in a tee-shirt posed in front of a bike rack. I can’t point to exactly what made me give the poster another look, but when I did, I stopped and stared.

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A sexual violence campaign? That acknowledges gay men!?? LGBT+ representation on the posters of a public campus!!??? This means something completely new for men and LGBT+ students on our college campuses. Truly, this is a revolutionary direction for self-help campaigns. And I’ll tell you why.

Think about this: A young woman is in an abusive relationship. Even if she’s terrified to do anything, to reach out, to leave her abuser–she has some idea what’s going on and what her options are. She’s seen this narrative play out on TV, in movies, and in the lives of friends and family a thousand times. Such is the unfortunate ubiquity of domestic violence against women.  Yes, men should not hit their girlfriends or wives. We’ve all heard this. But, what are the expectations for how two men treat each other in a romantic or sexual relationship? Does our society give us any script at all for this dynamic? One has to wonder how men conceptualize violence in a same-sex relationship, when interactions between male peers are already so violent in our media. How do young men excuse controlling behaviors of their boyfriends? Perhaps some don’t want to feel diminished by accepting a victim status–Or, worse, resign themselves to thinking this is just how it is between two men. They surely don’t have access to much media telling them how it should be otherwise.

But now, the 25,000 students at the University of Connecticut have access to this poster. And it’s not hidden in some corner of the Rainbow Center; it’s prominently displayed in the middle of one of the most heavily traveled buildings on campus. How many gay, bi, and pan men have passed by this single poster in the time that it’s hung on the window of the Dean of Students Office?

All we had to do was print it and hang it. But think of how many minds will open up to the brand-new concept of a male victim just in the split second it takes to read the red banner. Anyone interested in advocacy and justice can learn from this piece of poster board scotch-taped outside my office. The highest form of education is often the simple introduction of an idea.

 

The Lovable Misogynist

You’ve met him before. He’s your favorite surgeon in every medical drama and your favorite twenty-something in every sitcom. He’s the bad boy, the clown, and the hot one all wrapped up in one. Sassy, acerbic, sarcastic, and funny, he doles out the nicknames, the caustic one-liners, and the last laughs. Above all else, he’s a ruthless womanizer who won’t take no for an answer. I like to call this character the Lovable Misogynist™. Wondering if he sounds familiar? Here are four tell-tale signs that you’re favorite character is another incarnation of this prolific trope. To discuss his most important traits, I’ll be using two of the most recognizable Lovable Misogynists [LMs] in recent history: Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014) and Sawyer from Lost (2004-2010).

He objectifies and sexualizes every woman he comes in contact with.

This character is often used for comic relief. In practice, that often means he can’t resist dropping a sexual innuendo into every conversation with a woman. These remarks come off as non-sequiturs given the random and uncalled-for nature of the LM’s comments. This spontaneity supposedly lightens the tone of conversation, while amounting to little more than rampant sexual harassment. This is one of the most obvious symptoms displayed by a Lovable Misogynist. One could easily think back to Sawyer on ABC’s Lost, as he constantly ‘teases’ Kate. His brand of flirting ranges from cheesy one-liners like “How about you come a little closer and warm me up?” to the suggestive look he gives her after one of their overseers suggests Kate strip in the work field when the two are enslaved by the Others. Barney Stinson’s raging misogyny is less subtle. Suffice it to say that this is his stance on women: “Bimbos. They’re easily confused. It’s one of the thousand little things I love about them. I love their vacant, trusting stares; their sluggish, unencumbered minds; their unresolved daddy issues…”

He pursues women after they say “no.”

Barney Stinson’s entire character revolves around tricking women into sex. In earlier seasons, his strategies are tamer, as when he explains, “every Halloween, I bring a spare costume, in case I strike out with the hottest girl at the party. That way, I have a second chance to make a first impression.” In later seasons, he unveils his “Playbook:” an entire guide dedicated to the idea that when a woman says “No,” she actually means “Convince me.” Sawyer actually does force Kate into a sexual act early in the first season after she had already reacted unimpressed to his previous attempts to flirt. When Kate confronts him as to the location of the inhaler belonging to a girl dying of an asthmatic attack, he refuses to give away the location until she kisses him. Kate is shocked that even Sawyer would demand this, claiming “Nobody’s that disgusting.” But she ultimately gives him what he wants. Only after the kiss does Sawyer reveal that he doesn’t know where the inhaler is. Sexual harassment. Sexual assault. These are not above the character of the Lovable Misogynist. They’re just a part of his charm.

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Sawyer being his charming self (Courtesy of jamesfords.tumblr.com)

Fellow characters treat his behavior as a funny quirk.

A common defense of the LM character is that their behavior is often condemned by his friends. It’s true that in reaction to nearly every LM character, fellow characters reply with exasperation at his antics. But do they say or do anything in regards to his behavior? No. Even the women at the receiving end of his harassment often just roll their eyes, shrug their shoulders, and get back to their day. This character is the joker of the group. The funny guy. He is ultimately trusted by the members of his group. Despite Ted’s much better treatment of women, he has no problem with Barney being his wingman. And Sawyer works alongside Jack and Kate as one of the leaders of the island’s community, his treatment of Kate notwithstanding.

His long-rejected advances towards the Strong Female Character eventually wear her down.

The final, and perhaps most troubling, aspect of the Lovable Misogynist trope: He always ‘gets’ the Girl. The Girl invariably being the one woman immune to his charms that he’s been chasing from the beginning. Always independent, often career-minded, this woman eventually caves after months or years of supposedly playing hard-to-get, swooning into the arms of her abuser. It’s every friend-zoned dude-bro’s wet dream, played out again and again on the small screen. Although Kate often defends herself against Sawyer, once asking him “You try to be a pig or it just come naturally?” and once calling him out on stalking her when she’s tracking in the woods, she admits to her long pent-up romantic feelings in season 3 and sleeps with him. Robin in How I Met Your Mother follows an eerily similar story line. In early seasons she grudgingly bears Barney’s perusal of other women. However, season 8 culminates with Robin accepting Barney’s sudden marriage proposal after months of his persistence that he didn’t care about her at all.  Lady T at Bitch Flicks calls Barney’s treatment of Robin “one of the most glaring examples of emotional abuse disguised as romance in recent memory.”

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Literally Barney’s catch-phrase when it comes to women (Courtesy of theawesomedaily.com)

Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother.

Sawyer in Lost.

Richard Fish in Ally McBeal.

Howard Wolowitz in The Big Bang Theory.

Tom Haverford in Parks and Recreation.

Schmidt in New Girl.

Gregory House in House, M.D.

Captain Hook in Once Upon a Time.

Dean Winchester in Supernatural…

 

And this is by no means an exhaustive list. I can only speak to the TV shows I’ve seen. But there is an emerging pattern here that’s spread through old and new media like a festering plague. The familiarity of this behavior on-screen can make it seem non-threatening. It’s easy to waive the actions of these men off as jokes, offensive though they may be. But these characters aren’t even the bad guys on their shows. They may act disrespectfully, cruelly, non-consensually—altogether, villainously, but these characters are not villains. They are the protagonists. The ones you root for. They may be anti-heroes, but they are heroes nonetheless. And like any true Hollywood hero, they are rewarded a woman as a prize near the conclusion of their narrative. We are meant to sympathize with these characters, which ultimately affirms their behavior as harmless instead of horrific.

Men who act like the Lovable Misogynist in real life are the bad guys. The antagonist. They’re the rapists, the abusers, the ones all of us women are told to keep away from before we even start to think about liking boys. However fictional his narrative may be, if there is one trait that can sum up the LM, it is his overwhelming sense of entitlement to women. And this sense of entitlement is far from fictional. It’s the very same mindset behind the recent deaths of Mary Spears, Maren Sanchez, and the six victims of the Isla Vista shooting. All were murdered by men resenting their rejection by a woman. (Although in killer Elliot Roger’s case, he defined “rejection” as women not throwing themselves at him since puberty.) By now, everyone has heard of the extensive government survey from 2011 that revealed one in five American women has experienced sexual assault. Why are we even shocked by these statistics? We’ve been laughing at the way men treat women as if we’ve been watching harmless children play. If we expect men to play with women like children play with toys, why are we surprised when they break them?

When the behavior displayed by these men is trivialized as humor, we affirm the behavior of real-life bad guys. We normalize the everyday misogyny experienced by real women. And worst of all, when we laugh at the antics of the Lovable Misogynist, we laugh in the face of his victims.

*Note: The term “Lovable Misogynist” is not actually trademarked.

Barista Blues

With tax, the mug of coffee came to $2.66. His lips thinned as he pulled a crumpled dollar bill from his pocket, and then another. He counted out two quarters, a dime, and a nickel while glaring at the counter.

“That’s a lot for a cup of coffee,” he said, raising his eyes to mine. I’d seen that look before. He was expecting me to go find my boss, strap him to a chair, and force him to change the prices so this man could be spared a few quarters.

I smiled and shrugged my shoulders.

“I know,” I replied. I braced myself for what I knew was coming. The man took a deep breath and shook his head like I had disappointed him.

“We are never coming here again,” he grunted. He proceeded to explain how he and his associates frequented different breakfast spots every Friday, and how he received table service and free refills at any place decent. My smile felt frozen on my face as he stared at me expectantly.

I heard myself say, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” He huffed and walked off. I turned to the next person in line with a wide smile.

On the job, there isn’t much time to think. When I do get a few seconds, I sometimes wonder why people will stuff a few bills into the tip jar without a second thought, but squabble over a price that’s a dollar more than they think it should be. People like to operate with the same tactic as my puppy during barbeques; They think that if they whine enough, they can get whatever they want. And I’ve learned that they pretty much can. I have refunded coffee that was too strong and taken back food prepared as ordered. I’m often expected to bring people something other than what they asked for.  To them I’m just a sham psychic, a failed mind reader. And I am. If a customer thinks I’ve done something wrong, then I have. It’s really that simple.

People always love to ask what you do for work. I tend to settle on “barista” or “waitress.” It’s true that I take orders, wait tables, and make drinks. But I also take inventory, restock supplies, make cookies, wash windows (and dishes and tables and counters and sinks), slice bread, run errands, and water the flowers.

No, I’m not the owner. Or the manager. In fact, I’m the lowest-paid employee. But it does tend to feel like I run the place. The customers certainly think I do. I am held to account for every price and every policy. If there’s a wait on food, it’s my fault, and if that food is undercooked, I’m to blame. My mandatory courtesy is an invitation for complaints. They know their cruelty will have no consequences in this venue. When they get to work, they will have to plaster on the same mask I wear for them. And when a client starts to wail, they’ll be biting the same tongues that have so recently given me the same treatment.

For every ranting and raving customer, there are those who choose a lesser mode of civility. For example, if your response to “Good morning, sir. How are you?” begins with a leering smile and the word baby, cutie, sweetie, or doll, there’s a good chance I want to spit in your coffee. But all l will ever do is lean back from the counter, swallow down my discomfort, and smile. I exist to make customers feel comfortable, even if that comfort rests on the belief that I love to feel threatened and diminished at 8:30 in the morning.

Other patrons hear my greeting as a request for a detailed and exhaustive account of their college memories, their grandson’s grades in school, their second mortgage, and the status of their dog’s arthritis. From these people I’ve come to expect one of three levels of disclosure. I am either their trusted confidant, their therapist, or a priest awaiting confession. They don’t seem to see the tables I have to clear or the drinks I need to make. The line out the door of other customers also escapes their notice.

To these folks I’m a lifeline. They’re here to talk and to feel heard. To others, I’m a punching bag. They need a face to scream at and they need one now. Then there are the regulars who call me by name. I’m a fixture—a decoration—of their favorite breakfast spot. But each and every one of these people expect the same of me. They need me to be who they want me to be. When I punch the clock, the person I am ceases to be, and I become each expectation. I am prepared to fill any role and any request. As many individuals as there are in the world, there exist as many versions of myself. And as many ways of asking for a cup of Joe.

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How I express myself at work (jk I wish) [Courtesy of Michael Jenner at Alamy]