[Note: this article is written under the assumption that those who read it have already seen it. Spoilers.]
On a whim, Andreas and I decided to watch Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland; we love zombies, we love parody, so it seems logical. After coming to the sobering conclusion that zombies have been so parodied and so ingrained into our pop culture that there’s no way they can be scary again (barring some intense, 28 Days Later-esque film coming out and completely rejuvenating the genre) we hunkered down for what we thought would be a relatively good, funny zombie parody. Overall it delivered on the funny (and the blaahhhh when it wasn’t funny) but it also delivered on a few other things: plot holes, sexism, and gender stereotypes.
Hit the jump to see me unload the snark…
Two words: Jesse Eisenberg. I have some major problems with him; I’m currently working on a piece about the casual misogyny and disregard for that misogyny in The Social Network and how Eisenberg’s witty, obsessive, asshole nerd-god performance lends not just to the misogyny in the movie but also invites active audience participation in that misogyny. This is the second film I’ve seen Eisenberg in and I found him to be much more pleasant than when he’s playing Mark Zuckerberg but still a clingy, obsessive, sexist nerd type—a Zuckerberg-lite, if you will.
It’s understandable that Eisenberg would get typecast in this kind of role: he’s a white, skinny, awkward dude who just happens to be a damn good actor (if he and Michael Cera ever starred in a movie together it would probably collapse under the weight of it’s skinny, white, awkward underdogness). These nerdy types get cast in these kinds of flicks because it speaks to the rather large population of nerdy sexists who want to have their cynical opinions about women and life in general validated on screen (it’s not a new thing; Woody Allen’s been casting himself in these roles since the ’70s). And when I talk about this kind of sexism, I’m not talking about a character saying that women belong in the kitchen or something overt like that. What I’m referring to is the constant objectification of women: looking at them not as people but as something to be either intimidated/rejected by, or sexually conquered.
Even the “sweet” stuff like how all he’s ever wanted was to brush a girl’s hair over her ear is kinda seriously icky in context. When 406, his hot, terrified floor mate, comes banging on his door because she was just harassed and bitten by what they think was a crazy homeless person, the first thing Columbus (Eisenberg’s character) thinks of is oh, wow, hot girl near me. Because what’s more romantic than a hot, terrified (emotionally vulnerable) girl making you feel like a hero when she lays her scared little head on your shoulder?
As Columbus is reminiscing about 406’s inevitable zombification and the following show down, his inner monologue goes like this:
You see, you just can’t trust anyone. The first time I let a girl into my life, she tries to eat me.
And I know, you’re gonna whip out the ol’ “humorless feminist doesn’t understand the funny!” argument. But I understand why this monologue is funny. It’s taking typical teenage angst and placing it in an absurd situation; it’s funny because his life is in danger and he’s talking about it the same way you would talk about relationships! I get it, okay. That still doesn’t change the fact that it’s sexist and raises the even bigger question of why we continually find the objectification of women so darn hilarious. So, okay, Eisenberg’s character is your typical sexist nerd. It’s one character, right? Well, then we get into how the film treats it’s two female characters. And man, does it fuck up royally.
After 24 painfully Emma Stone-less minutes, she finally graces the screen. Of course, Columbus’s immediate thoughts are OMG, HOT GIRL, WANNA BRUSH HAIR OVER EAR, DOESN’T MATTER THAT SHE LOOKS DISTRESSED AND OH YEAH, DESOLATE, ZOMBIE-FILLED WASTE-LAND. And his thoughts later, after it turns out that Stone’s character Wichita and her younger sister Little Rock (played delightfully by Abigail Breslin) are some badass con artists his thought process is the same as with the zombie chick:
Of course, the first hot chick in a thousand miles shows up, makes me feel like an idiot and steals my double-barrel, and then says that I’m the one who can’t be trusted.
What a bitch, right? All self-reliant and cutthroat and trying to do what she has to to survive and shit. Total bitch. And again, the objectification: she’s not just a person trying to fucking survive in a post-apocalyptic landscape, nooo, she’s a “hot chick” who dented Columbus’s pride and hurt his little fee-fees. But okay, lemme jump off Eisenberg’s dick(ery) for a minute because honestly, his character’s bullshit attitude towards women is just a concentrated version of the movie’s attitude overall. Because any time we have awesome, strong, smart, self-reliant women, we just gotta fucking knock them down a few dozen pegs.
Wichita and Little Rock are some kick-ass female characters for the first half of the movie. I love female characters who know how to take care of themselves, and these girls are young, fierce, street-smart survivalists who have made their way cross-country by conning the fuck out of people. They con Columbus and Tallahassee (the hilarious hard-ass butch to Eisenberg’s anxious nerd, played by Woody Harrelson) not once but twice and Tallahassee even wonders at one point if he and Columbus are smart enough to pull off a scheme that clever. After the second con, the two groups reach a hesitant truce and decide to make their way cross-country together.
See now, at this point, I have to point out a fundamental flaw with a lot of mainstream blockbusters that explains some of the problems with this movie. American mainstream film is obsessed with two things: morals and love stories. We always want some overly simplistic lesson that ties everything neatly together and we always want to watch motherfuckers fall in love (especially when they’re young and hot). Each of the characters in Zombieland has the defining characteristic of not wanting to fuck around with other people, which makes sense when you’re trying to survive a zombie takeover—less emotional attachment to others, less loved ones you gotta give the double tap in the skull when they go all zombie on you.
But this just doesn’t jive with mainstream demands; we want people in movies to recognize that they just need other people. And we want Emma Stone to stop being so darned focused on the survival thing so she can see how adorable Eisenberg is and that she wants to make sweet nerd love to him. So, to make this happen, the writers spent a great deal time creating a slow development within Columbus and Wichita’s relationship and made it really believable that she would bring her walls down to let someone else in. LOL, j/k, they just threw all previous character development out the fucking window and sent the girls to go play in a carnival.
So…okay. I can’t…it’s hard for me to even explain the events that lead up to this because they don’t make any sense. Earlier in the film, the ladies mention that they’re heading for this amusement park because it’s supposedly zombie-free. Awesome! Makes sense! After Columbus makes the moves on Wichita, she’s unnerved by her feelings for him so she snatches up her sister and hightails it outta the relative security of Bill Murray’s mansion (yes, Bill Murray’s mansion). This is pretty much keeping with her characterization so far. But they go from the safety of the mansion to the amusement park. And turn on all the rides. And the lights. And the music.
This makes sense on no fucking level. First of all, why is the fucking amusement park even a supposed safe haven? Maybe if it was an amusement park in a fucking military base, I could buy that. But this place obviously has no fucking reinforcement of any kind and is not the kind of place you would want to be making a lot of obvious noise during a zombie apocalypse. Why would Wichita and Little Rock go here and do this? Is there any fucking thing in the first hour or so of the movie that would suggest these two, who have swindled, conned, schemed and hell, probably even shot and killed to ensure their safety, would EVER fucking do something this dangerously insensible? No. There isn’t. And what do you do when you’re two main females are peskily self-reliant in your first two acts and don’t lend themselves easily to being damsels in distress by the third act? Fuck it, do it anyway. Then everyone wins!
Except for the growth of female characters and destruction of gender boundaries in film. But who wants that! Look how cute they are when they kiss!
So, Zombieland, while a pretty successful genre parody, is ultimately not as good as Shaun of the Dead (which just needed to be said at some point) and perpetuates some very tired gender stereotypes. Even in a world where it’s literally survival of the fittest and most cunning, and the women seem to be as ruthless as they need to, that can all be set aside when your story needs a pointless, nonsensical climax. Note to all Hollywood filmmakers: if you stop building the climaxes of your films around women needing to be saved, we won’t fucking have this problem anymore.