The Room (Not the One with Brie Larson): A Feminist Analysis
The Room: widely held as the “Citizen Kane of bad movies”. A movie so horrendously off-putting that its garnered a status as a cult classic. Ostensibly a normal film about a vicious love triangle, the movie quickly devolves into a jumble of senseless dialogue and bad acting, written by someone who clearly had little understanding of how women behaved, let alone other humans. The director, main actor, and screenwriter, a man who goes by the alias Tommy Wiseau, is entirely enigmatic in his background and his interactions with others. The Room has generated an aura of mystery surrounding its nonsensical dialogue and direction that has led to multiple investigative documentaries, including the production of the novel and movie The Disaster Artist, featuring James Franco and Seth Rogen. Theatres continue to screen the movie across the world to enthusiastic followers. At the center of it all, as The Disaster Artist novelist Tom Bissell says, is its “shocking misogyny”.
I set out do a feminist analysis on the cult film The Room. Flaws in the portrayal of women in this movie are readily apparent: Lisa (Juliette Danielle) and her mother (Carolyn Minnott), the two female characters, never talk about anything but Lisa’s “perfect American” breadwinner fiancée Johnny (Tommy Wiseau). Lisa is manipulative, a cheater, and lies about Johnny hitting her in order to get out of their relationship and chase after Johnny’s best friend Mark. The idea was that I would first identify the harmful sexist stereotypes in the female lead of the heartless adulterer and lying abuse victim, going on to analyze how this archetype came to be, and how and why the idea of women lying about their abuse is so prolific.
Then I got ten minutes into watching the movie itself, and realized that Seth Rogen wasn’t kidding. Wiseau genuinely thought that he was making a heart-rending drama when producing The Room, but the end product was closer to a barely glorified porn film. The main actress, Juliette Danielle, has said that she felt “utterly humiliated” at the first screening; the sex scenes they shot went on much longer than she had been told or could be comfortable with.
Suddenly the basis for my argument was gone; clearly this wasn’t a good place to extrapolate hard truths about mainstream culture. The fact that the movie is admired by small sects of the population placed it in a counter-cultural “trash film” genre all of its own. And it is weird. So, so weird. The first scene of The Room begins with Johnny admiring Lisa in a new dress he has bought for her. They are soon interrupted by the college student Denny, who Johnny has taken under his wing. Upon entering the room, Denny loudly enthuses, “Wow, look at you!” and joins Johnny in staring at Lisa. Lisa’s role is clearly defined in this moment as little more than an object for the male characters to covet. As the movie continues, Lisa becomes colder and more distant towards Johnny, and wishes to abandon him for his friend Mark. She lies to her mother about Johnny having hit her the night before. Her mother chides Lisa, telling her not to abandon her “financial security”, and that she cannot afford to support herself. Johnny becomes entirely distraught as Lisa withdraws from him; “You are lying, I never hit you. You are tearing me apart, Lisa!”. Tellingly, though Mark is equally culpable for continuing his relationship with Lisa and straining his friendship with Johnny, his actions are never questioned. Upon hearing that he has been in a relationship with Johnny’s fiancee, their mutual friend Peter tells him, “Just find yourself another girl. Lisa’s a sociopath. She only cares about herself. She can’t love anyone.” This trend continues through the denouement, when Johnny commits suicide from despair. “This is all your fault,” Marc says to Lisa after they discover him, “You killed him. You’re the cause of all of this.” Similar to sirens of old, Lisa has drawn Mark and Johnny in with her wiles only to destroy them. This has many disturbing implications: that women’s reasoning for being unhappy in a relationship are baseless and even cruel; that a woman’s pleasure in a relationship is inherently depraved. That Lisa’s mother is correct when she later says, “Men and women use and abuse each other all the time, there’s nothing wrong with it. Marriage has nothing to do with love”; that men’s obsession with sexuality is part of their base nature, cannot be controlled, and therefore they cannot be held accountable for any sexual actions they may take. All of these implications are accepted within the framework of The Room. None of the characters have any motivation for what they are doing. Even the most basic interactions between them are bizarre. There is no subtlety in the execution of Danielle’s character. She is the heartless villainess, and Wiseau is the selfless hero, constantly beleaguered and betrayed by those he trusts. There is no rhyme nor reason to her accusations of Johnny’s abuse, only unwarranted malice. Soon, the twisted script and misplaced motivations of The Room begin to sound eerily familiar to me; they echo a twisted perception taking root in the world today.
It was at this point that I realized that The Room was, in all of its outrageousness, the perfect catalyst for a discussion of how men perceive women who accuse others of abuse. Why is it that this absurd narrative has come to be how many men perceive abuse situations in real life?
In 2018, a poll released by the Pew Research Center showed that 31% of Americans surveyed believed that women making false claims about being sexually harassed or assaulted is a major problem. 52% of Americans surveyed think that women not being believed is a minor problem, or not a problem at all. A 2018 National Community Attitudes Survey found that 42% of Australians surveyed believe that sexual assault accusations are a way of getting back at men. 43% of Australians surveyed think that women “make up” claims of abuse when going through child custody battles in court. In Wisconsin of 1997, a woman reported being raped at knifepoint; in 2004 in Pennsylvania, a 19-year-old reported being sexually assaulted at knife-point; in Washington, 2015, an 18-year-old reported being raped by a man who broke into her apartment. All three women were charged with lying by the police, who believed that their responses to the reported events did not fit with the image of the “‘perfect, innocent’ victim” they had in their minds. Each of the women’s reports were later proved true. The narrative that follows accusations of abuse is pervasive, dangerous, and obstructs the pursuit of justice. This can be seen very clearly in the atmosphere of speculation and malice surrounding the recent case of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett M. Kavanaugh, the latter, a court justice nominated by President Trump, being accused by the former of attempted sexual assault in the 1980’s. Because her accusation had serious political ramifications for the Supreme Court, Ford faced national attention and retaliation from every corner. Death threats being received by Ford prevent her and her family from returning home. “Victims may legitimately not remember certain details related to an attack. But the problem for Ford is not that she doesn’t remember everything. It is that everything she remembers changes at her convenience,” claims an article questioning her credibility. An FBI investigation into Dr. Ford’s allegations against the Supreme Court nominee was conducted later in the case, but as a former classmate of Kavanaugh relates, the inquiry was little more than a front for pursuing Kavanaugh’s nomination. Multiple classmates and a theologian who could corroborate the allegations were left out of the investigation entirely. Indeed, the FBI was actively limited in the investigation’s scope by the Trump administration. This fact is entirely in line with the President’s character, and his attitude towards Dr. Ford. At one of his political rallies, he mocked Dr. Ford’s testimony and said of those advocating her case, “They destroy people. They want to destroy people. These are really evil people.” It’s a line that could have been quoted verbatim from The Room.
“Everybody betrayed me. I am fed up with this world!” shouts Johnny, after his fight with Mark and Lisa. When they occur, false accusations can be devastating. If they come from those close to the accused, as in divorce proceedings, there can be an extra layer of betrayal along with feelings of deep frustration, stress, and pain. In the case of Drew Sterrett, a University of Michigan student who was accused of sexual assault, it can seriously disrupt one’s livelihood and relationships. The proceedings of the case against Sterrett was conducted without due process. Sterrett’s only interaction with campus administrators was a single Skype call over the summer, in which he was not informed of the reason for the call and, when he asked if he should consult a lawyer, he was informed that the investigation would continue without his input if he did. He was not able to call witnesses. Sterrett has filed a suit against the university, which states that the university has violated his 14th Amendment rights and the university’s own procedures for disciplinary hearings. At this point, Sterrett is unable to attend University of Michigan without serious limitations on his movement there, and is unable to transfer to another school.
False accusations are rare and have predictable patterns. They do not often get far in the judicial process, and it is far more uncommon than many believe that false rape allegations result in prison time. Adults who file false reports, unlike real rape victims, have some unifying traits in their profile. They usually fall under those who have a history of “bizarre fabrications or criminal fraud,” says Quartz writer Sandra Newman, “Indeed, they’re often criminals whose family and friends are also criminals; broken people trapped in chaotic lives.” In fact, false accusers have often been sexually abused as children. Teenaged false accusers, the most common demographic among them, often have their accusations made to avoid getting in trouble with their parents for missed curfew, unwanted pregnancy, or a combination. Most false accusations, 78%, involve aggravated assault involving a gun, knife, or injury, with no ambiguity where consent is concerned. Overall, only 2–10% of all reports are estimated to be false. Since 1989, only 52 men convicted of sexual assault were exonerated on the basis of a false accusation, as opposed to 790 exonerated cases for murder. Even with all this, many US police departments had multiple “corroboration requirements” — not needed for any other crime — for rape reports.
The idea that women lie is ingrained in our culture. Every archetype — from the femme fatale, to the Jezebel, to the gold-digger, to the cold-hearted adulteress, entails manipulation and lies. Specifically, manipulating men’s susceptibility to their youth and beauty. From music, to movies, to family structure, to religion, these stereotypes are furthered in the minds of society, and women are distrusted and silenced. Authorities, from the government, to the police, to presidents like Trump encourage this mentality. Even strange, niche films like The Room, which were destined to be seen by one hundred eyes at most, are mired in these perceptions that entrap us.
In the eyes of too many men, women who accuse men of abuse are cold, selfish, and unreasonable. Part of this could be because of ideas that women often accuse men of rape when they regret sex, that many women accuse public figures of sexual assault for money and attention, or that “domestic violence is a normal reaction to stress, and that sometimes a woman can make a man so angry he hits her without meaning to.” It is believed that women who come forward with abuse allegations are universally supported, and that men who are accused have their lives ruined by the accusations. This is not even true for those that have an offense on their record; especially not for those in the public eye. Reuben Foster, who was arrested on a domestic violence charge, is a linebacker for Washington in the NFL. Kavanaugh is still a Supreme Court justice. Trump, who has had 13 women come forward with allegations against him, is still president. Casey Affleck, who had two women sue him for sexual harassment, had another movie come out this past year.
The concept of women as little more than sex objects who will stab you in the back as soon as you have your face turned is disturbingly pervasive. The Room is understood by all who know it to be absurd and unintelligible; the best example of the worst a movie could be. It’s time that we extend that same judgement to the sexist principles it is founded upon. Like this disturbing and deficient movie, we must reject them in all their forms.