It’s Not True That ‘Lies’ Helps Women
I believe Douglas Eby is misguided in his contention that the character of Helen Tasker in the film “True Lies” contributes something “valid and valuable toward improving real-life attitudes about women” (“Curtis’ True Role in ‘Lies’: Empowerment,” Counterpunch, Calendar, Aug. 8). Make no mistake, I walked into the theater more prepared than perhaps I ought to have been to ignore the sexism that seems to be a preferred fuel for action-packed plots: I wanted to enjoy it. However, the sexism in this film was much too offensive to carry comfortably along for the ride.
Far from being what Eby calls “a woman making use of her anger to help transform herself and doing what she can to defend herself . . . rather than waiting for rescue,” the Jamie Lee Curtis character is a woman defined by what she can’t do to defend herself (anything), what she can’t figure out (anything) and who will figure it out for her (her husband). She is a desperate and ineffectual figure who behaves as if her blood-sugar level is dangerously low, causing her to meagerly perceive situations and to react to them with panic and/or collapse.
From the first, Helen Tasker is marked for humiliation. The infatuation that begins her transformation from mousy housewife to action-babe is itself based on her ignorant faith in a con artist (Bill Paxton). His impersonation of a spy is so obviously bogus to the audience and her husband that her gullible interest in him defines her as just one thing: stupid. There is no one, not the audience, not her husband, not her would-be lover who does not know better than she. She is isolated, suspended for ridicule, like an offender clamped in the stocks.
If she is the circus clown, it soon becomes clear who is the fearsome lion. We are offered a scene in which her husband (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his sidekick (Tom Arnold) interrogate her from behind a one-way mirror. She is forced into a position of complete helplessness and made to reveal not only the facts about her non-affair, but the emotions that led her to it. Even when she finally gets angry and pounds the mirror in frustration, the small damage she causes only proves her inability to cause real damage (i.e., have a meaningful impact); it amuses the men, rather than threatens them. It is a cowardly scene in which the two men use their power and resources to exploit her powerlessness, but they are never held accountable. Before the audience has time to call them cowards, they are off being heroes again.
Just as grating as these grossly sexist dynamics are the smaller insults peppered throughout the film. It is not a case of the bad guys and sleazeballs saying or doing a couple of wrong things and paying for it, but an overall tone, a complete filmic world in which the only “good” woman is a pointless woman. In a chilling moment, the Tom Arnold character, who is meant to be sympathetic, blithely tells his friend, “Women, can’t live with ‘em, can’t kill ‘em.” If this an example of healthy male bonding, the message from this world is clear to me: “KEEP OUT.”
Helen Tasker herself reacts to almost any plot twist by screaming loudly, a useless response that not only highlights her ineffectiveness, but often jeopardizes her husband’s important terrorist-stopping duty, making her worse than irrelevant: Now she’s a liability. Is it possible that Eby mistakes a “strong and credible portrayal” for a strong and credible character?
Even at the film’s climax, clever plot twists prevent her from becoming more than the weak, self-deprecating character the film clearly portrays.
In the entire movie, the only thing she does effectively is fend off the horny car salesman/spy, who tried to pounce on her in his trailer. This out-of-character boldness can only be explained by the plot’s desire that she retain her good-wife morality for her husband’s exploits.
Eby points out that the actress enjoyed her work, that she called this “the best role I’ve ever had.” But while dancing sexily with a bedpost may be fun as an activity, it is the specific placement of this dance within the movie’s context that renders it disturbing: We have a husband who needs to see his wife as a prostitute to rekindle his desire for her, a wife forced into obeying his scheme to get her there, who (like in the interrogation scene) is not aware of his presence, and who falls flat on her face just as she seems in danger of becoming a successful seductress. Indeed, each time it seems that the character might take on even one more dimension, this expectation is sealed off with a door as thick as a bank vault’s. Her one-dimensional position is below that of the terrorists, who are supposed to be the bad guys. At least we fear them; she’s just a joke.