Feminist or Not?: 'Friends With Benefits'

I went into Friends With Benefits with my paws up, ready to hate it (and also ready to very much enjoy the relief of the movie theater’s hyper-powered air conditioning).

I walked out wistful, hopeful, thoughtful, and desperate for the oppressive heat to counteract the ridiculously hyperactive air conditioning in the movie theater. Seriously, if the power grid fails, it will be because of multiplexes trying a little too hard to assuage their customers.

In any case, Friends With Benefits turned out to be the most gender-balanced romantic comedy I’ve seen in a long time — I might even compare it vaguely with When Harry Met Sally. Of course it’s more knowing, more meta, more technologically aware, and, especially, far more raunchy than that paragon of romantic comedies. But it combined the dude-ness of all those Judd Apatow movies — The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up – and the cool-chick sensibilities of a Bridesmaids (also Apatow’s production, incidentally), and emerged with fully formed male and female characters, all of them funny, none of them slighted. Glory be.

We all get the concept of the movie from the title, because that’s how we name movies these days. (One fully expects a film entitled Two People Who Meet and Fall in Love but Encounter Various Difficulties and Then Reconcile Photogenically to take the nation by storm at any moment.) But this movie goes beyond, just a little, just the right amount. Particularly when it comes to Mila Kunis’ driven, swearing, “emotionally damaged” New Yorker Jamie, female characters actually live here, and male characters don’t suck, either. It hardly matters that our darling Jamie happens to lust for the fairy-tale endings of romantic comedies; that is, in fact, the entire point. Even the copious use of flash-mobs made me uncomfortable in its of-the-moment-that’s-already-passed-ness until I realized that’s just what the movie is using them for: to be the ultimate symbol of cheese. This is a movie about how lame “chick flicks” have become, and about what damage they have wrought. And somehow Kunis makes of Jamie what so many female stars before her have failed to assemble from the parts of their romantic comedy heroines: a woman who seems like a living, breathing human being. One we’d actually like to hang out with. We love her even more for being both a fairy-tale-ending girl and one who can still enjoy sex, who doesn’t expect to wake up with prince charming just because she went to bed with him.

We still don’t buy that in the end the Justin Timberlakes of the world — those “friends with benefits” who can’t quite bring themselves to commit their souls to us worthy women — are about to turn into our prince charmings. But when it comes to women as cool as Jamie, we certainly want to deliver a swift kick in the head to any guy who doesn’t snap her up.

Feminist or not? More feminist than not. We wish we could get a movie about the ridiculousness of the happily-ever-after myth that resists the temptation to give it to us at the end, but this still comes close, and has a fun time doing it.

2 comments on this post.
  1. ethan:

    definitely feminist, which brought me to this review after seeing the movie. the entire movie was as smart as the trailer. some other reasons why it was feminist:

    -the dude struggles with issues around masculinity and sexuality (liking a finger in the bum, closing down emotionally).
    -it humanizes gay sexualities thanks to Woody Harrelson’s wonderful character and allows them to just coexist. a great introduction
    -family relationships: Jamie’s struggle with her mom, who in herself is an interesting, complex character with an interesting, complex backstory. Dylan’s struggle with his dad. Confronting the trauma and challenge of alzheimers in a sensitive and loving manner.
    -body issues: Both Timberlake and Kunis are incredibly good looking, photogenic people. Incredibly good-looking, photogenic people have body issues just like the rest of us, because society hammers that insecurity into all of us at a young age. Mila Kunis does have small breasts and large eyes. That is not pejorative. She simply has small breasts and large eyes. The movie celebrates this fact as an opportunity for empowerment rather than patronizing entrapment. Likewise, Justin Timberlake does have feminine facial features. The movie celebrates this as a human characteristic rather than tearing him down as “less a man.” The movie actively campaigns against the “no matter how you look, you will never look good enough” breed of self-hate that society imposes on us.
    -the dialogue is very smart, sensitive and funny. two very clever, high-drive people who find a best friend one-another.
    -confrontation of the masculine “female conquest” trope that supports sexual exploitation and eliminates opportunity for deep, meaningful relationships.
    -as you wrote, consciously confronting the damaging myth of finding a “prince charming” and “living happily ever after” (and what the hell does that mean, anyway?) of romantic comedies. i loved the cynical analysis of the sappy romantic comedy. a very self-aware film, and i feel that the self-awareness was put to good use in criticizing the expectations that romantic comedies typically reinforce. they bicker, argue and struggle as a couple for most of the movie (how honest and refreshing!). they are, underneath it all, best friends first and foremost. Dylan would rather have a platonic friend in her than lose her completely.

    that said, the movie did have a very classist slant. money simply never factored as an issue into the equation. beachfront LA home. NY penthouse. GQ.

  2. ethan:

    -oh, and of course the (porn-free!!) celebration of sex-positivity!!

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