La La Land, Progressive or Passive?
A feminist analysis of the contemporary film ‘La La Land’ and it’s 190 wins and 224 nominations.
La La Land follows the relationship of two different artists, Sebastian, played by Ryan Gosling, and Mia, played by Emma Stone, who are both fully devoted to achieving their personal goals and aspirations. Sebastian is a jazz pianist who dreams of one day opening his own jazz club, but it limited to playing holiday music at restaurants. Mia is an aspiring actress who works at a coffee shop in Hollywood, mesmerized by being in close proximity to successful actresses who come in to order coffee from her.
While the movie itself isn’t very deep or working towards any big social recognition, it still received much praise and awards for its romantic and one-dimensional story line. La La Land exercises whimsical and mesmerizing songs, colors, scenery and cast to convey this attitude of a passionate and dreamy love story, which really turns into a love story about their careers. While it’s refreshing to watch a movie about people choosing their careers and goals over settling for a relationship that requires a complete compromise of their own goals is refreshing, the movie itself struggles to break these stereotypical gender roles applied to the lead characters.
First and foremost, both characters generally fit gendered stereotypes pretty well, except for minor accounts in Mia’s case. Mia and Sebastian perform their gender pretty in tune with this gender binary when it comes to the way they dress, carry themselves and speak. In most of the significant scenes, Mia and Sebastian are both done up in formal wear, Mia wearing makeup and heels and Sebastian in suits.
What’s refreshing about Mia’s character is that she isn’t afraid to make a fool of herself in front of Sebastian, like at the pool party scene while he’s performing. It’s also nice to see a film where the woman is the one pursuing the relationship rather than doing these institutionalized rituals we see women do in effort to be noticed and pursued by a man. In this sense, Mia breaks these gendered stereotypes where women are more passive and need to act dainty and modest in order to be seeked out by a man.
Sebastian’s character is very much framed in this gendered way, being super consumed with his own career goals and not really giving the same amount of effort in compromising his own desires to make the relationship work better. This is obvious when he misses her one woman show to work on things with the band, and the fact that he asks her to pick up her life to go on tour with him, setting aside her personal goals so she can be a sideshow in him accomplishing his. He is seen as just being a man who is very in love with his music and he’s praised for this devotion; however, if it were Mia who wasn’t compromising much for the relationship, she would be disliked far more than Sebastian.
While the movie didn’t go out of it’s way to portray the two leading roles in generally stereotypical and sexist ways, the story line doesn’t do much to avoid it. Expanding on their careers, Mia’s screen time is consumed by her dealing with their relationship and how to help Sebastian reach his full potential. In contrast to this, Sebastian’s screen time seems to be filled with his music and spends a minimal amount of time on what he thinks about his and Mia’s relationship.
This idea that women are more consumed in the relationship than the man reinforces this stereotype that it’s okay for a relationship to rely heavily on the efforts of the female and allow the man to focus more on his career than putting the same amount of effort into the relationship as the women. It’s not until near the end of the movie that Sebastian is the one trying to help and motivate Mia in her career goals, when he finds her to convince her to go to an audition after she says she’s given up on her dreams of becoming an actress.
Furthermore, the film itself is moderately disappointing in the fact that it has to potential to be a feminist film, but then we see this portrayal of Mia ‘having it all,’ wearing a fancy dress and having a husband and a child. While the film was based entirely on her trying to accomplish this goal of being an actress, we see none of her art in this idealistic lifestyle she has, instead we see this stereotypical idea that to be fulfilled, she can’t just rely on her reaching her personal goals with her art, she has to be a mother and a wife and be physically beautiful.
What’s equally as infuriating is the fact that Sebastian’s portrayal of ‘having it all’ is solely based on the fact that he reached his career goal and opened up a popular jazz club, giving no reference to the fact that he possibly has a family now. This ending mirrors what the entire movie seemed to stereotypically prioritize for each character as well, that Mia’s art is second to her relationships and that Sebastian’s career ended up to be just what he dreamed. If this ending wasn’t bothersome enough, the fact that Sebastian is to thank for Mia going and auditioning for the part that made her famous puts him in this heroic role, that she would’ve never reached her dreams without him.
All in all, while the film may have been produced in good efforts, it lacked this progressive component that would’ve been more appealing. It relied heavily on stereotypical characteristics as well as actions of the main characters which made the film far less likable. The story-line of the relationship follows the path of what one would consider a classic fairy tale, one where the woman waits for her knight in shining armor to come save her. If the film’s writers wants to say that they equally prioritized each character’s self-determination, then i’d ask where the screen-time to prove that assertion is.
While i’d like to walk away from this highly praised film saying I enjoyed it, I was left unsatisfied by it’s dated representation of Mia, as well as the fact that the signing and dancing routines felt like that of the quality of a high school theater production.