When I first saw the trailer for In A World I was in a crowded movie theater and I wasn’t super thrilled either with the Sexy Baby Voice joke at minute 2:08 or with the audience’s approving laughter in response.* So I wasn’t planning to make an effort to see it, but then a friend asked me to a cheap matinee showing and I couldn’t say no. I’m glad I saw it – there’s a lot to celebrate in it. It was written, produced and starred in by Lake Bell (who is a lady), and it directly addresses a sexist industry.
Fun fact: it has recently been released on DVD, and Disrupting Dinner Parties is giving away a free copy. You can participate in the giveaway by commenting in the comments section, commenting on the DDP facebook post of this article, or retweeting this article on twitter (@DisruptDinner) between now and Friday.
So, I’ma celebrate a few of the things it does right and point out a few areas for improvement. You should watch it too and let us know what you think!
So – spoiler alerts from here on out.
The film is explicitly about a woman breaking into a male-dominated field and several progressive happy things happen. First, the film has several fleshed out female characters! Bell’s character (Carol), her sister, and their Dad’s girlfriend are all real people; the movie passes the Bechdel test pretty early on. I really appreciated that the two sisters are unwaveringly loving and supportive of each other when they’re both going through some hard stuff – the screen can always use more healthy female relationships.
It is also great how the movie handles their Dad’s New, Young and Blonde Girlfriend. Rather than make her a flat foil character or a gold-digger, she turns out to be a real person. She invites the daughters over for dinner, has a past that she briefly talks about, demonstrates real attraction for Orotund Dad (rather than faking-it attraction), and demands that he grow up when he throws a temper tantrum. Yay for depictions of women as complex people with diverse experiences and desires!
(Also, they got Nick Offerman in this movie. ‘Nuff said.)
I have a few ideas for improvement. The mostly white, mostly straight, implicitly cis set of characters stood out as, well, just that. Hollywood we know needs to do better at having complex roles for people of color, queer people, trans* people, and this movie didn’t really make enough effort at that.
I also wasn’t super thrilled with the recording studio’s young secretary. She gets very drunk at a fancy party, and the guy she’s with takes her back to his place for the night to sober up. Her line the next morning is, hungover but eager: “Did I sleep with anyone last night?” Earlier she breaks some things by accident, and a male character advises another to “get that thing out of here.” Both of these lines – even the one she delivers herself – help to de-humanize drunk women. I know that our fictional worlds need to reflect reality in order to be believable, but I would have liked to have seen them unpack this character’s actions a little more.
There’s also food for thought in Carol’s Sister and Sister’s Hubby relationship troubles. Both were struggling with attraction to other people and frustration at each other. They both are “tempted” to “cheat” – she meets Irish Brogue at work and has an excuse to be alone with him, while he’s too happy to oblige Cute Lady Neighbor when she asks to borrow their shower and he’s home alone. While Sister follows through and hooks up with Irish Brogue, we don’t know if Hubby would have made an explicit pass with Cute Neighbor because they are interrupted. And yet when Hubby discovers that Sister hooked up and lied to cover it up, she spends screen time berating herself for her mistake while he never fesses up about his parallel temptation. While they eventually make up, I wanted to see their reunion re-done with at least a little honest unpacking of feelings on both sides, on outside attraction and unhappiness with the marriage. We only see kitchen-floor-makeup-sex, which can solve many things but can’t substitute for verbal communication.
The film’s conclusion threw me for a complete loop. Bell’s character Carol has gone up against the two voiceover heavyweights if her father and his protégée, and she gets the Amazon Games voiceover part. (It is, after all, a movie about female warriors.) But when Carol runs into Female Movie Executive in a bathroom, Female Executive tells her “We didn’t pick you because you were the best. We picked you because you were a woman.” Putting in that line says “The men were better but we needed a woman. When we need quality, we’ll look for a man; when we need a woman, we’ll look for a woman.”**
This twists the movie in an unusual and important way. We’re no longer watching “Sexist society and expectations hold women back, and if women believe in and stand up for themselves and have a supportive community, they can prove themselves and prevail.” We’ve all seen that David-and-Goliath movie many times. Instead, we’re now watching: “Capitalism is capricious and self-serving, and the underdog can periodically prevail if Capitalism is willing to allow it.”
I think it’s really valuable that the movie takes things up a level in this way. Even though individual victories do add up, systems of oppression persist. When the movie ends with Bell using her voice-coach skills to train other women to sound more impressive and professional, it shows that the victory won’t really be completely won in the one-off showdowns against privileged individuals. Other vital victories come in standing with and supporting other women who are also grappling with sexism in their own ways. The movie closes as Bell decides to use her voice coach talents to help highly educated women who talk in the Sexy Baby Voice and whose careers are suffering for it. This is a good activist lesson – use your gifts to hold others up – that bears repeating.
So that’s In A World! Hope you enjoy it!
*I originally saw the joke being that two women are unexpectedly talking in super high feminine voices, implying that things that are entirely feminine are inherently “less than.” However, it has since been pointed out to me that the “Sexy Baby Voice” they’re using comes from sexist forces requiring the infantilization of women. It still feels to me like a crack shot at the ladies.
**I may be paraphrasing here. I would also like to point that, in the Real World, of course they would have needed a woman to do the voice over: the movie is about Amazon lady warriors running around and yelling. Wouldn’t the fictitious film company stipulate as much when they put out the call for voice auditions? But then Carol wouldn’t be up against the Male Voiceover Top Dogs, and plot holes are not why I’m here.