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Is 'A Star is Born' a failure in the #MeToo era?
Since its release, the latest iteration of the musical drama A Star Is Born has had both the audiences and the critics buzzing. Predicted to be the 'movie to beat' at the Oscars in 2019, the much loved Hollywood story of the "gorgeous heartbreak" continues to capture people's hearts.
But amidst the flurry of rave reviews, not everyone is convinced. Does the movie, with its focus on romance - even if tragic - fail to address some of the key questions on gender and power? And why is its depiction of masculinity problematic? Take a look below.
Here is an unpopular opinion: A Star is Born, while visually stunning and audibly gorgeous, is not a great movie.
Lady Gaga’s performance as Ally is outstanding; her character is believable, her voice bold and powerful and the cornerstone songs are fantastic. Similarly, Bradley Coopers’ directorship and embodiment of Jackson is deserving of the praise it has received.
So, where does it fall short?
#MeToo and the Man Box
The film retells a story of a highly successful country-rock singer and performer who panders to his addictions and flaws, but does little to query why his behaviour is problematic and what lessons can be garnered from it. Instead, packaged as a romantic drama, it idolises the swift passion and adoration the leads succumb to while simultaneously taking the audience on a visual and visceral journey of success and failure: Ally’s success, Jackson’s failure.
In a still unravelling post #metoo era, the film fails to problematise the question of gender and power, how they relate to each other and what they express to audiences. The industry’s sexualisation of Ally, her negotiation of authority, male gaze and personal and professional agency all go without mention, as does how Ally’s age, gender and ethnicity move within these areas of contention.
The men in the film have varying degrees of power over Ally. She answers upwards to her boss, her father, her father’s friends, her lover/husband, and later, her manager. Aja Romano links this dynamic to notions of consent; where the presence and legitimacy of Ally’s opinions and desires are habitually disregarded, for varying reasons and within varying power dynamics.
This is done with the underlying belief that any ‘no’ is only a breath away from a ‘yes’. Translated into her relationship with Jackson, and the hetero-normative romance trope, Ally’s ‘nos’ form the backbone of the 'romantic' chase; with Jackson the chaser and Ally the chased.
The film takes great pains to construct a version of man and masculinity that fits a rigid socio-cultural ideal
The film takes great pains to construct a version of man and masculinity that fits a rigid socio-cultural ideal. Jackson, for all his on-stage passion, can barely express himself and his emotions to those closest to him, let alone confront and voice his own faults. He bottles his fears, insecurities and past traumas, and washes them down with copious amounts of alcohol, letting the mix fester within.
Outwardly he is tough, assertive and confident, sometimes brash and indifferent. He lives within the Man Box; “a set of beliefs within and across society that place pressure on men to be a certain way – to be tough; not to show any emotions; to be the breadwinner, to always be in control, use violence to solve problems; and to have many sexual partners.”
Jesuit Social Services recently released the findings of their study around 'attitudes to manhood and the behaviours of young Australian men'. The study found that the young men who sat within the Man Box goal posts were more likely to engage in risky or problematic behaviour, such as excessive drinking, acts of violence, sexual harassment, and (online) bullying.
In addition, young men whose behaviours most ascribed to the rigid ideal were also “twice as likely to report having thoughts of suicide” in the two weeks prior to participating in the survey than those who did not sit within the Man Box. The authors conclude that conformity of the ideal of the strong and self-reliant masculine model results in poorer mental health, a finding consistent with other research on mental health and young men.
This begs the question as to why the film chooses to perpetuate a troubled romance that relies on Jackson’s turmoil as he struggles within the Man Box. And as Jackson turns his own insecurities outward, why is the emotional abuse within the film glossed over?
This is particularly pressing during the bathroom scene where Jackson and Ally speak as the latter takes a bath. Ally is unarmed, defenceless but for her own skin and words, and they are not enough. Not while Jackson leans over her, fully clothed and armed with his size, anger and viciousness. Should Jackson’s behaviour in this regard be tolerated because of his artistic “genius”?
The idea of ‘creative genius’, has gendered currency.
Aditi Natasha Kini argues that the idea of ‘creative genius’, has gendered currency. The title, used by men to explain their rise to fame and success, grants them power and moral scope. Ultimately, however, it is a myth. In this vein Jackson is indeed hailed a creative genius. He is venerated under the three-syllable title of 'Jackson Maine', his voice is given an epic form, he suffers for his art and his passion.
And yet, Jackson’s art rarely suffers because of him. He can drink and snort drugs until he can barely walk straight on stage, but he can flawlessly shred a guitar! What’s more, his artistic virtuosity cannot exist alongside Ally’s, and vice versa: Ally’s career can only succeed if her husband sacrifices his own. This message perpetuates suffocating gender stereotypes and neglects to provide alternate and balanced potentialities to contemporary audiences starved for them.
Contemporary knowledge tells us a failure to unpack such discrepancies further contributes to gendered prejudices
Problematic is not that A Star Is Born is not an entertaining film; it has its moments. What is challenging is that the gendered inequalities running rampant throughout are masked under the praise heaped upon the romance. Contemporary knowledge tells us a failure to unpack such discrepancies further contributes to gendered prejudices. Such preconceptions promote damaging stereotypes and are further used to dismiss gendered violence.
The film should be called what it is: a tale of tragedies exacerbated by conformity to gendered fallacies.