Desperately Seeking Susan: 4 STARS

*No hatred of Madonna will be tolerated here. I just want to make that very clear from the get go. There will be no comments of the ‘mutton dressed as lamb’, witches who steals babies, bland misogynistic denunciation of women as sexual beings variety. This is not a Channel 4 comedy panel show. Here Madonna is the butt of no man’s joke. Here she is Susan*

(SPOILERS. as ever. The plot is so crazy I probably won’t spoil it because I can never fully work out what happens but trust me the plot is not the point, the ladies are the point. TW because despite its brilliance the misogyny is rife. The ladies are fabulous but the gents are a disaster. So there are definite moments of danger and Roberta (played by the lovely, better-than-Russell-Crowe, Rosanna Arquette (see my last post for full details)) is attacked by a creepy guy several times, once in a dark alley where the threat of rape is pretty palpable. So, not a walk in the park. But glorious, in spite of the horror)

“Between you and me, how much do you really know about Roberta?” – Susan

This film doesn’t get a lot of stars because there’s a lot of misogyny in it. In my opinion the film is deeply critical of this misogyny, we are not looking at a Gone Girl scenario here. However, pointing out that Madonna is being objectified by an idiot doesn’t mean we are not also objectifying her. Playing the stalker/potential predator guy as a definite (and, as ever, conspicuously European) villain does not mean that we do not at least partially glamourise and trivialise violence against women. So this film is an interesting case because we do need films that tell it like it is and not ones that imply that the patriarchy is some kind of really horrible shared hallucination and the real world is full of peaches and cream. However these films will always have problems, will always be partially complicit in the system which they reject and yet ultimately remain within. Who’d have thought Desperately Seeking Susan would raise such interesting questions hey? More than just a Madonna soundtrack and some really great fucking clothes it seems. (Speaking of which somewhere there is a person who will have bought a homemade version of That Jacket from a charity shop in Cambridge/South London. My friend made that jacket after I recommended this film to her so I take credit for it. Wherever you are, fair stranger, enjoy it)

So Desperately Seeking Susan, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

STAR: The Bechdel Test

– STAR: Developed Female Relationships

(The premise of this film implies that is was sneakily going to make a film about women without having them talk to one another, as so many have done before. However the creators of Desperately Seeking Susan were not about to let the fact that our heroines only meet in the last scene stop them from creating female relationships. Firstly there is Roberta’s friend Leslie, who is her husband’s sister. Refreshingly Leslie is not painted as one of the Demon Women who are so often the chief representatives of the dreaded in-laws, rather she defends Roberta, berates her brother and in general seems like a good, if waspy, friend our heroine. Another refreshing change of pace is that Susan also has a friend, because just because you sleep with a lot of guys (and even that is conjecture, we only have 2 for sure) does not mean that you don’t like women and don’t value female companionship. Susan’s friend Crystal, like Leslie, is an excellent if minor character who quits her job as a magician’s assistant after being told she cannot wear her glasses on stage. And then she goes to the cinema with Susan. Like friends do. Roberta and Susan also have an important relationship, in that Roberta is, to all intents and purposes in love with Susan (as ever the prospect of a lesbian relationship is dangled before us with all that talk of Roberta being a lesbian prostitute, before being snatched away) But Roberta and Susan still help each other out, and their victorious picture in the paper really does encapsulate the spirit of this film)

STAR: Non-stereotyped Female Characters

– STAR: Developed, Prominent Female Characters

(I think these pretty much go without saying. Roberta and Susan both reveal that the Madonna/Whore (ha ha ha punny) categories are way too simplistic to properly represent any woman, even one as seemingly pigeon holed as Roberta. I also like how both of them remain pretty mysterious, how we don’t really know what’s going on with Susan and how no one, as Susan points out, really knows Roberta. So yes, wonderful women and their lovely friends)

No Excessive Air of Misogyny

– No Rigid Adherence to Gender Norms

(Sadly the stars stop here. Roberta’s husband is cheating on her, neglects her, sends her on errands, doesn’t care when she is kidnapped and warns her not to eat all the cake. IE he is a misogynist. Roberta is persistently pursued by a man who attacks her in dark alleyways and when she is found by the police, having just been assaulted, she is arrested for being a prostitute, all because she is wearing a tutu. IE the world is misogynistic. I also do not care for Dez’s attitude to kissing crying women or blaming women for the attacks society makes on them. Just because you’re hot Dez doesn’t mean you can get away with that shit. In another world, with another star system, Desperately Seeking Susan would probably get the bonus star here and not the main one. Roberta basically comes of age in this story, runs away from home, has sex, gets a new job, defeats a villain with the help of her new pal the accidental jewel thief. That could be a man’s story, in that it is a proper actual story where the hero actually does something rather than has things done to her (although she does suffer from amnesia for a large part of the film, which does limit her agency somewhat). Regardless you can’t get points for subverting gender norms when all of the men in the film act like the standard dickhead representatives of patriarchal values that we know and love. The ladies can’t do it all on their own)

No Excessive Female Exposure or Sexualisation

No Objectification of the Female Body

(Much Madonna. Much Rosanna. Many prostitutes and scantily clad hostesses in sleazy bars)

No Gratuitous or Trivialising Scenes of Rape or Male Violence Against Women

– No Threat of Male Violence Against Women

(So there aren’t any rape scenes, or grievous injuries. So I was a bit on the fence about this one. But you can only have so many women hit over the head so hard they lose their memory before the violence against women becomes gratuitous. And the scary man with the very blonde hair, he puts a gun to Madonna’s head while she’s about to have sex. I mean I don’t think you can sexualise threats much more than that without using very non PG language. So no stars here)

4 Stars, and 6 bonus points. 2 should have been obvious. Of course the director and the writer were female. I mean I only learned that this second on IMDb but I am not surprised at. all. Then one for BME women because the woman also arrested for prostitution who asks Roberta ‘what do you do with the birds?’ (good question) is black. I am very forcibly reminded of the Sarah SIlverman line which goes something like, ‘What I learned from the show today was that old black women are wise and young black women are prostitutes’ but the points do not judge the calibre of the representation, they merely register that it happens. Another one for working class women, because Crystal has a job and money problems and Susan hasn’t got $60 to buy boots. 1 for disabled women because Crystal does declare herself to be legally blind (she may be exaggerating but there are different levels of blindness) and she does lose her job for this very reason, and 2 for explicit discussion of feminist issues. Specifically because Crystal says that she would have understood her employer’s complaint if she’d been wearing her glasses on her tits because that’s where everyone would be looking, but generally because a suburban housewife being smothered and finding value and wonder in the life of a wayward sexual adventuress like Susan is an important feminist tale. In conclusion I have never not danced after I watched this film, it rocks my world, I hope it will rock yours too

*A note on related films – Having discovered that this film has those holy grails of feminist film making, a female writer and a female director (Leora Barish and Susan Seidelman respectively) I fully intend to look into their other work. If you care to join me in this endeavour I think the most enticing titles are She-Devil and Venus Rising. I have seen neither. I hope to rectify that shortly. Oh, and to those who read my last post, I’ve now read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and, while I think it suffers from many of the problems of male American sci-fi of the 50s and 60s, it both presents a far more ambitiously alien world than Blade Runner and is, really and truly, about sheep. Not rape or being a lone ranger cowboy hitman hero. The real Decker’s main desire is to own a sheep. So essentially that would have been hilarious and wonderful and I do not believe Philip K DIck would have cared for the film one bit.*

SOME MADONNA FOR EVERYONE – try and ignore the initial coupling up sequence and focus on the song/the newspaper bit with all the glorious female victory


One thought on “Desperately Seeking Susan: 4 STARS

  1. Pingback: STAR LEAGUE | Feminist Film Stars

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