As a political movie junkie I got really excited when I saw the previews for the new film Ides of March, about a political staffer (Ryan Gosling) who becomes disillusioned working for an initially-impressive Presidential candidate (George Clooney).
But I was disappointed. Though the acting and dialogue was okay, I didn’t like the soundtrack, which came across as overly dramatic. And I thought the plot was a bit slow, boring, and politically unbelievable.
But all of that wouldn’t have made me angry. What was worse was the treatment of what few women characters there were in the film. I’ve got to agree with Taraneh from The F-Word blog that: “The Ides of March omits women in power even from the minor roles and relies on a generous handful of three-dimensional male characters to tell its hackneyed tale.” (We could also add that with the exception of the Senator played by Jeffrey Wright, all the speaking characters in the entire film were white.)
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The woman character with the most agency is a journalist, Ida, played by Marisa Tomei. Though she has some degree of power given the ability to affect the male characters’ careers through her coverage, she is also reliant on them for information and she never seems close to discovering the truth about their behind-the-scenes shenanigans. Overall Tomei does her best with a fairly boring role and limited screen time.
The woman character with the most screen time is the 20-year-old intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), first seen fetching coffee for her male colleagues, a motif repeated with a later intern character that indicates female interns’ role on the campaign is to take orders from the boys. When Stephen asks her how she got into politics she says she’s the daughter of the DNC chair.
Molly ends up sleeping with Stephen (Gosling’s character). After Molly has fallen asleep, a late-night phone mixup results in Stephen’s discovering that his boss, Morris (Clooney), has slept with Molly and gotten her pregnant. Stephen’s reaction is immediately accusatory toward Molly as if he’s angry at her for tarnishing his boss’ reputation, rather than questioning Morris’ conduct. When he finds out she’s pregnant he gets even angrier. He gets the money together for her to have an abortion, asks her to make the arrangements, and tells her he’s kicking her off the campaign and she should go home the day after the procedure.
Molly gets upset and promises she’ll be discreet if he’ll let her stay but Stephen yells at her, telling her “it’s the big leagues” and when you mess up, you go home. This is the point where I started to wonder whether I was supposed to feel at all sympathetic to this guy.
The only remotely kind thing he does is offer to drive Molly to the clinic and pick her up, though it’s partially implied this is just so he can make sure no one knows where she’s going. But when shit hits the fan at the campaign and he looks like he’ll be losing his job, he forgets to come get her, leaving her to take a cab back to her hotel. This is the point where I started to question the advertised premise that Gosling’s character is a true-believer turned cynic in the course of the film. To me, through no fault of Gosling’s, Stephen seemed like a guy who started cynical and narcissistic, ordering attack media and playing coy with journalists, and ended up even more cynical and narcissistic.
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I won’t give away the rest of the plot. Suffice it to say The Ides of March does a disservice to its women characters and to all the women politicians and political staffers who would watch that video and see themselves and their hard work in no way reflected. While women aren’t equally represented in politics there are many who do more than fetch the coffee and who have strong voices and opinions.
Oh, and there are lots of women who got into politics of their own volition, not just because their dad was into politics. Molly was a pathetic character, but could’ve been slightly improved had she been given more agency in her back story about how she got involved. As someone involved in politics, I often meet people who assume I got involved because of my parents or my boyfriend. I find it irritating, ageist, and sexist, so seeing it reflected in Ides of March didn’t help with the whole feminist anger thing.
Another point Taraneh made that I agree with was the fact that the film really missed an opportunity in its treatment of abortion:
“Let me assure you: the film is not about abortion. It could have been – that would have been great. But in order to do that you’d need to develop the female character who gets the abortion. Alas, rather than telling a young woman’s story of making a bold career move to a male-dominated field and then deciding to have an abortion, the audience isn’t shown how Stearns feels leading up to the abortion or following it. “
Nor was the film a commentary on sexism in politics. Instead, it reinforced the idea of men having power in the public sphere while women only occupy insignificant roles on the sidelines.
In the end it comes down to agency and voice. In Ides of March the women don’t have either.