I saw David O. Russell's movie Joy last night and while it’s not a perfect movie, I was so pleased to see an almost-biopic (Russell says its half-fiction and half-fact) about the obstacles facing a working-class female entrepreneur with a vision. So many narratives celebrate the accomplishments of singular, driven men—think Horatio Alger, Gladiator, The Social Network, Steve Jobs….and these are great and inspiring narratives. But it’s important that we hear the stories of women too--and not just in a cut-and-paste way, but in a way that highlights the distinct challenges that women often face.
In particular, the movie dramatizes the difficulties of being a woman whose family depends on her. In addition to taking care of her two kids, Joy’s ex-husband and divorced parents live with her; she also seems to be the primary breadwinner. I appreciated seeing how caring for others—as rewarding as it may be—can sometimes take the place of caring for oneself or for pursuing one’s passion.
Later in the movie (and I give a lot away here, so beware, although it is a movie about a woman who "makes it," so….) Joy finally gets a break. Her mop will be featured on a HSN, a home shopping station, and the host who will advertise it is one of their top sellers. Things are looking good until…the host botches the job, in part because he doesn’t know how to use the mop.
This scene starts to get at how men can be dismissive and patronizing—especially when they don’t understand what women do or how they do it. That is, Joy and the audience both know that this guy probably has never used a mop before. He not only doesn’t know how to use it, but he doesn’t realize how convenient a light-weight, self-wringing mop might be. It’s only when Joy gets the opportunity to advocate for her own product—a real woman talking to primarily female viewers—that the mops fly off the shelves.
In other scenes, including those in which Joy has to deal with other business people, Russell suggests the persistence of subtle and insidious post-second wave sexism. That is, the men she interacts with never explicitly threaten or bully Joy, but they go ahead and look menacing, cheat her, and lie to her. They underestimate her, not expecting her to be clever enough to understand the details of contracts and patents and designs.
Joy triumphs over it all: her dysfunctional family, her economic hardships, the indifference and/or sexism of the business world. Of course, the message that anyone can rise to the top with a bit of pluck and luck can be both inspirational and dangerous as many people work very hard and are very talented but never “make it.” However, it was exciting to see a depiction of a creative woman who was inspired to create solutions to practical problems. (If she was inventing today, we'd call her a "life hacker" or a "home hacker.") I’d love to see more movies exploring the struggles and victories of real-life women. Here's a great video for anyone looking for ideas for such a film!
by Sara Hosey
by Sara Hosey