Why is Eat, Pray, Love a Joke?

I had no desire to read Eat, Pray, Love when it was a book, and I have even less desire to see it now that it has been made into a film. I was content to argue that my lack of interest was because, for whatever reason, the film just didn’t appeal to me, but after hearing comedian Jim Norton’s sexist review of the movie, I’m beginning to worry that it has something to do with the stigma attached to “lady films.” Especially “lady films” in which the lady in question is trying to find herself – not just to get a man.

My favorite movie of all time is Stand By Me. And while I vehemently argue that it’s because the film so perfectly encapsulates that moment of childhood right before gender really started to matter, I also admit that I hate its explicitly female counterpart Now and Then with a passion. We already know that female comedians are absent from the big screen, but what about dramatic actresses? Is it that female protagonists are less interesting, or just that less interesting films are typically made about them? I know that this is hardly a groundbreaking argument, but Norton’s comments infuriated me, if for no other reason than because he seems to suggest that a woman’s spiritual journey of self-discovery is frivolous, irresponsible and – worst of all – boring.

First, there Norton’s completely unoriginal misogyny about the unimportance of a woman’s self-discovery:

“I was the first one to start clapping, because I didn’t know if she would overcome.  It was heartbreaking, these yoga scenes, and I’m sipping my chamomile tea and I’m lactating and I’m thinking about my vagina and motherhood… And then she finally realized what she was supposed to realize, and I don’t want to spoil it for everybody, but it was inspirational.”

Yawn. We get it — women’s films are boring and they’re all about emotions and junk. Where were the guns? Where were the nameless hot chicks?

One thing I found astounding about Norton’s review was the fact that the “leaky female body” trope hasn’t changed at all in hundreds of years. Women lactate and menstruate and emote and give birth, and their oozing bodies and minds are confounding and disgusting.  And then Norton recounts or imagines a couple of other “leaky body” moments:

“And there’s that wonderful scene where she vomits gelato and Jägermeister into a butter.”

“Through a series of wacky mishaps, Julia Roberts has to learn how to say ‘It’s an emergency, where’s the toilet,’ in 40 different languages.”

But perhaps most appalling of all is Norton’s assertion that Roberts’s character, based on the novel’s author, Elizabeth Gilbert, is just a bad, irresponsible person trying to escape from her failures as a woman:

“It’s important, Greg, because it says that no matter how bad of a wife you are, and no matter how horrible of an employee, or how bad you are with money, there’s always time for a vacation. …Just get up.  Go to Karachi.”

Now again — I haven’t seen or read Eat, Pray, Love and I’m probably still not going to (it’s rating somewhere in the mid-20s on RottenTomatoes right now). But Norton’s criticism seems to have almost nothing to do with the film itself. Instead, this seems like a platform for Norton to gripe about the dullness and unimportance of independent female protagonists.

It’s attitudes like these that keep more films with female leads from being made. This past week, the only top 10 box office film with a female protagonist is Salt, an action role that had originally been written for Tom Cruise. Straight women accompany their significant others to action movies, but I doubt that the same number of men will happily trout along to Eat, Pray, Love or Sex and the City 2.

But why? Why is there less crossover appeal? Why are female leads supposedly less interesting or more self-absorbed than male leads? Why are “chick films” necessarily less substantial than dramas helmed by men?

Is the Bechdel Test at work once again?



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30 thoughts on “Why is Eat, Pray, Love a Joke?

  1. Sorry, I detest inspirational movies. I don’t care what the gender of the protagonist is, it bores me shitless. Chick flicks tend to fall under the “so boring and cliched I could cry” category as well.

  2. As I’ve stated lots: film student, favorite works usually “male art”.
    Honestly, it is all about what is available. For such a long time the “deep thinkers” who happened to be females were relegated to choosing between personally associating themselves with male artists/male subjects or associating themselves with the stereotypical “deep feelers” of which there was a plethora of art directed toward women. Really, go back 70 years and try to find a well known existentialist woman artist in America.
    I will probably see Eat, Pray, Love. I spent a good amount of time in India working with women and children. Also, about two years ago I began doing kundalini yoga and it has been amazing.
    …and mmm I get to imagine the joy of eating carbs again.

  3. This has nothing to do with the sex of the author. It’s simply not interesting to watch someone ‘find himself’ or herself. I’m sure it’s spectacular from the inside, but I really don’t care.
    Give me a movie where people *do* things.

    In addition, from what I’ve heard, there’s still a huge undercurrent of men and relationships and finding true love in this, really degrading its ‘woman, alone, finding herself, for herself’ spin.

    • Exactly. It’s immeasurably boring to watch someone else find him or herself because it’s such a personal process. It doesn’t make sense for an outsider to be able to understand and enjoy it.

  4. I think it has more to do with the culture of gender. “Humans” can also just be “man.” The whole woman-is-some-guy’s-rib christian thing. In writing, “he” is supposed to be gender neutral. Women are raised to identify with and understand “maleness”, and boys are gay if they even pay attention to their mother’s and sisters’ motivations, or feelings.
    I will see Eat Pray Love to see exactly what the creators allow her to discover about herself. For some photoshoped, soft focused, size-8-is-letting-yourself-go reason I doubt we’re going to discover any substance. Probably something about don’t be shallow, but always have an big stupid smile on your face and be charming charming charming!

  5. Sarah, LIGHTEN UP!

    Don’t you think that women are more than whimpy whispy, chai tea- drinking sappy over emotional twits? I think all women are multi faceted.
    I wouldn’t want to see a movie of a man on his journey of self discovery, as well as a women doing it. Women getting together, getting drunk, dancing in their living room to a old song is not going to help them work out their problems with their lives, husbands, boyfriends, so why protray it in every chick flick? .
    I rather see the long kiss goodnight or kill bill than sex & the city and over emotional tripe like this.
    Women talk about empowerment, yet the first thing they do is look at this bucket of horse crap?
    So, before you ask each other over daquiris, ” which SITC character are you” again, THINK!

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  7. This piece doesn’t seem to me to be about feminism or a particular film. It’s about the value society puts on women’s journeys of self-discovery. Art (whether in poetry, literature, film, music) is heavy with depictions of male journeys of self-discovery. When women embark on such a journey she’s seen as irresponsible. After all, her real role is to take care of others, isn’t it? Read the quote, “…tt says that no matter how bad of a wife you are, and no matter how horrible of an employee…” in other words, your role vis-a-vis others. Who gives a damn how bad a husband or employee any guy is when he flips off “The Man”, dumps his wife/gf/significant other, and jumps on his bike for The Road? (Read Kerouac or Motorcycle Diaries) He’s a hero, not a a frivolous woman. Easy Rider — iconic. Office Space, cult classic. Imagine a woman in those roles and she’s not heroic. She’d be seen as a slut or at the mercy of raging hormones…

    • Office Space could easily have included similarly frustrated female characters. The fun was in the relation to the jobs of a lot of people.

      I found On the Road to be terribly boring, and worse, since I couldn’t stand the style of writing in addition to the lack of substance.

  8. Jim Norton is a comedian – he says funny stuff to audiences who mostly appreciate him and enjoy his humor. For you to have taken his review seriously without knowing anything about the context makes many of us think you’re without a functioning intellect – or at the very least, without any semblence of a sense of humor. Not everything needs to fit into your mold of what is right and appropriate. You might think Roseanne Barr is funny, whereas others do not. But I sure know when she’s spoofing something. Lighten up. This is a ridiculous fantasy movie. Some will enjoy it, others will enjoy making fun of it. God bless America and Jimmy Norton and O&A!

    • “This is a ridiculous fantasy movie.”
      Now who doesn’t know what they’re talking about? This movie is based on a book. The book is a woman’s memoirs of a certain time in her life.
      Is it unrealistic for most people to be paid travel the world and “find themselves?” Yes, definitely. “Ridiculous fantasy” as in,. something that couldn’t happen? Nope.

  9. Casual Observer – I think you missed something here. The Jim Norton comments were clearly just a launching point for a commentary on an issue, not a commentary on Norton himself. Did you hear Jim interview Sarah today? Clearly, he thinks she has a sense of humor. To quote “Talker Patti” — lighten up.

  10. I thought Sarah was going to get beaten up really bad by the Opie and Anthony show today. It went quite well. The boys and ‘lil Jimmy had a great interview with Sarah. And Sarah I may add… Did wonderfully.

    Good on both parties.

    • Thanks! I was kind of surprised, having seen the show, that it didn’t turn a little more heated, but it wound up being (for me, at least) a good exchange and the hosts and the producers were great.
      DeBois is spot on with what I was at least trying to say in this article. I very much regret making it sound as if I was beating up on Norton in particular. It was meant, more than anything, as a way of discussing certain attitudes toward women’s films that I think keep more of them from being made. Namely, that they’re silly. And unfortunately, a lot of them are. But so are action films — and yet, because there’s no stigma about a woman going to see an action film the way there is for a man to go see the “Eat the Divine Secrets of the Praying Traveling Pants Under the Loving Tuscan Sun Diary,” you get much bigger box office draws for bad male films than female ones, and Hollywood being a business is going to make 10 more Rockies before it’ll make another Kill Bill.

      And perhaps this is the part where I’m stretching, but I think that the more female protagonists you get out there in general, the more chance you have of a genuinely good female-driven movie being made because people will get used to the idea that women can be as interesting or compelling or kick as much ass as men.

      I never want to go see a movie just because it stars a woman, but I’d like to be able to have a better selection of films starring women.

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