Every American who doesn’t live under a rock knows that Mitt Romney once had a binder full of women. By 6 a.m. the morning after Romney made his now infamous remark at the presidential debate, the Facebook page “Binders Full of Women” had 200,000 likes. The Internet exploded with memes parodying his phrase. Entire Tumblr pages are now devoted to Romney’s slip of the tongue. Among my favorites is magicbinderfullofwomen.tumblr.com, which displays the ’90s phenomenon that was Magic the Gathering cards, altered to feature famous women along with their “creature type” and “special skills.” Jackie Kennedy’s hat, for instance, makes an appearance as “totem armor.” When placed on a creature, it makes it “Exalted.”
The national reaction to Romney’s faux pas might imply that, in today’s media-obsessed culture, the chances of getting away with a misogynistic comment, when said comment is projected on a screen before the eyes of the nation, would be slim. Yet, the presidential election recently reminded me of what I would consider two hours of misogynist blundering that went largely, if not almost entirely, unacknowledged: George Clooney’s 2011 film “The Ides of March.”
The film follows the political campaign of presidential candidate Mike Morris (Clooney). It focuses primarily on the promising and charming assistant campaign manager Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) as he maneuvers the intrigues of the political domain. Both Morris and Meyers become sexually entangled with an attractive young intern (Evan Rachel Wood), spiraling the campaign into a whirlwind of dirty politicking. According to Clooney’s directorial perspective, the world of politics is a completely male-dominated one. Every influential participant, from Morris’s high-level staff members, to his opposing candidate, to the important senator Morris must woo, is male. In fact, the film only has three female characters at all, each of whom fulfill a stereotype: the devoted wife, the self-serving career woman and the self-defined slut.
Cindy Morris (Jennifer Ehle), the potential first lady, has the smallest role of the three women and absolutely no substance that is not a reflection of her husband. She is eternally loyal, constantly watching him from the sidelines or lovingly caressing his shoulder and soothing him with kind words. Despite his adulterous dalliances, Morris uses his wife to gain voter trust, telling them of his “normal marriage.” She never learns of Morris’s promiscuities, remaining ignorantly at his side until the film’s end.
Playing a slightly larger role in the drama is Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei), an ambitious political journalist. Of the three women, she is the only one focused on a career, and for this Clooney decidedly masculinizes her. She wears her hair cut short and consistently dons stereotypically men’s attire: collared shirts, vests and trench coats, never a dress or a skirt. The men treat her as one of the boys; she is the only woman in front of whom they make indecent comments with hardly a second thought.
Throughout “Ides of March,” the characters maneuver and backstab each other to attain their goals. Stephen and his boss (Philip Seymour Hoffman) each have the other fired; a leader of the opponent’s campaign (Paul Giamatti) woos Stephen only to let him go. The characters accept these maneuvers as part of the political game, and through their repetition, so too does the audience. Although the victim of each scheme may react with hurt, he always seems in some way to understand that it’s all “just politics.” The exception to this rule, however, is Ida. When Ida decides to print a column that will ruin Stephen’s reputation, he acts completely astonished. “You’re supposed to be my friend,” he cries, suddenly shocked that a reporter would try to do her job. His lines seem intended to garner sympathy. “I gave you everything you ever wanted. Every story, every scoop,” he whines. Although political intrigue is allowed and even expected from each of the plot’s male players, coming from Ida it is viewed as shocking, self-serving and abhorrent.
The most clearly stereotypical character in the film is Molly, the intern. She is never depicted as particularly interested in or adept at her work. Rather, her character can be summed up in a single word: sex. She wears tight, low-cut outfits to work. Her conversations at the office serve primarily to boost the confidence of the men she works with through comments such as, “You’re the big man on campus. I’m just the lowly intern.” Although Molly is portrayed as the aggressor in her sexual escapades, this is not to say she is a shining example of the sexually liberated woman; after sleeping with Stephen, she actually refers to herself as “pretty slutty,” a self-description that I don’t think I’ve ever heard in a film before.
Soon after, Molly reveals that she is pregnant, likely with Morris’ child. “We’re Catholic,” she weeps to Stephen. One might perceive this attempt at garnering sympathy for Molly as the film’s taking a pro-choice stance. However, this plot point does little more than portray abortions as a punishment for sluts who commit adultery. Further, Molly reveals herself to be completely helpless in this situation without male assistance. When faced with her pregnancy, Molly first calls Morris, and when he does not respond, depends on Stephen to fund and take her in for the procedure. Afterwards, feeling deserted by both men and unable to cope alone, Molly commits suicide by overdosing on the drugs from the abortion clinic. Neither man seems particularly grieved by the state of affairs, and Stephen actually uses the information he now has about Morris’s and Molly’s sexual encounter to finagle a promotion naming him the head of the campaign.
Walking out of the movie theatre last October, I was appalled at what I had seen and couldn’t wait to get home and read all of the horrified reviews that the film must have received. I was shocked to find that, beyond the critiques of a few feminist blogs, nothing had been said. A. O. Scott boils Molly’s character down to “hot campaign sex.” Roger Ebert waves the problem of women within the film away in a mere three sentences, claiming that in the high-pressure environment of politics, “imprudent sex under these circumstances is explicable.”
Ultimately, the film not only marginalizes women, but also restricts men to the stereotypes of ambition, aggression and callousness towards women, thereby enforcing the divide between the sexes. What I am criticizing, then, is not the film’s individual creator, but a culture in which these atrocious stereotypes are so familiar and accepted that they go unnoticed.