Wednesday, May 18, 2016

'Advantageous' and the Price of Being a Professional Woman

What are you willing to sacrifice to make a better life for your children? That is the central question at the heart of Advantageous, an independent science fiction movie that came out last year (and was first runner up to win its category in the 2015 Undies). The movie takes place in a not particularly distant future where work is scarce, opportunity scarcer, and women are being slowly but surely pushed out of the workforce. Instead of getting a horrible dystopia, though, the world we see is just a slightly more advanced version of our own, and so the choices and problems we come to see in that world just look like advanced versions of the problems we already have. Which is neat.

In addition to being just a cool new sci-fi movie, however, Advantageous is also the rare science fiction feature to be written and directed by (and starring) Asian-American women. Directed by Jennifer Phang and written by Phang and the film's star, Jacqueline Kim, the movie situates itself squarely in telling the story of Asian-American femininity, even as it tells a very universal story.

So our heroine for this tale is Gwen Koh (Kim), the spokeswoman for a futuristic cosmetics company. As in, not cosmetics like makeup but cosmetics like non-invasive cosmetic surgery. Gwen is the face of their brand, and she's doing very well for herself when we meet her. She lives a happy, if small, existence with her beloved daughter Jules (Samantha Kim). Jules is just on the cusp of puberty, still a little girl dependent on her mother but on the verge of growing up, and you can tell that both Gwen and Jules are kind of treasuring this time.

But since this is a movie and not a Facebook slideshow, something has to go wrong. In this case, it's that Gwen loses her job. Or, more specifically, her contract is not renewed. While the Center doesn't say so explicitly, they want a younger spokesmodel when they roll out their newest procedure, a form of body-swapping that will let their customers slip into the ideal body of their choice. Gwen, an Asian woman in her forties, is too old and too "specific" for their needs. So she's let go and set adrift in this modern world, just as it seems like her only choice for Jules is to send her off to a prestigious and expensive private school.

Gwen tries to fall back on her support system, only to quickly realize that she has no support system. She's single - Jules' father isn't in the picture - and her parents are estranged owing largely to the whole thing where Jules' father isn't in the picture. Her one good friend is a scientist at the Center with whom she was having an affair, Fisher (James Urbaniak), and aside from that she just has Jules and the vague awareness of Jules' friends' parents. Oh, and also her cousin Lily (Jennifer Ikeda), but Gwen is very reluctant to reach out to Lily, for reasons that become clear later.

In other words, Gwen is stuck. She's out looking for a job in a terrible job market that already wants to push out women, let alone Asian women quickly reaching middle age. Everything she can find pays less than what she had, and she's wildly overqualified for all of it. Gwen wants to hold out for something better, something good, but she kind of can't. There are bills to pay, Jules needs to go to school if she wants an opportunity, and she's stuck.

So what's a woman trapped in a dystopian future to do?

Well, as you probably guessed just from the structure of the story (and this isn't a spoiler - it's in the trailer), Gwen decides to volunteer for the body-swapping procedure. That way she can keep her job, and get a raise, and the Center will get a spokeswoman with her experience plus a youthful face and body and a satisfied customer who can speak from experience. It's a win-win, right?

Obviously this is where most of the drama comes in. Yes, there's some drama with Lily and her husband Han (Ken Jeong), but for the most part the story is about Gwen coming to the decision to make this choice and how it impacts the rest of her life, particularly her relationship with Jules. I mean, well-adjusted kid or not, there's something inherently horrifying in imagining a child going from having a loving mother to living with a stranger who happens to have her mother's memories. It's weird for Jules, as well it would be.

It's hard to talk about that aspect of the story without spoiling it, though, so suffice it to say that it's amazing and you should totally watch the movie. Freya Adams is amazing as Gwen 2.0, Jennifer Ehle is chilling as the head of the Center, and the mothers of Jules' classmates are Brazil levels of horrifying and creepy. So you should totally watch it.

But the real thing I want to get at here is how deftly this movie creates a conversation about women in the workforce and how for some super messed up reason "beauty" and age and race are all mixed into the idea of what it means for a woman to be professional. It's a major point in The Beauty Myth and certainly bears remembering: women in the workforce are frequently judged just as much on our appearances as we are on our actual work histories. Seriously.

So with that in mind, this movie is an incisive examination of this trend. As women are more and more enabled to work outside the home, there is a greater and greater pushback against them, culminating in movements that force women to wear expensive and uncomfortable clothing, spend money on makeup and cosmetic surgery, and judge ourselves based on a "professional appearance" rather than a level of corporate competence. It's a pushback, and Advantageous does a great job at reminding us just how insidious these forces really are.

I mean, take Gwen. She's well-educated, very good at her job, and has performed for years at a high level with no problems. But she's for some reason still a contract worker whose contract can be voided out because she looks too old. Even though Gwen is the kind of professional woman whose work and career are on a level most of us can never aspire to reach, she's still subject to small and petty grievances that push her down.

And when she is unemployed, Gwen is told she's fighting against a job market that just plain doesn't want to hire women. She's middle aged, which means that she doesn't have "much productive time left", and she's not white, which somehow seems to mean that she's not "universal" enough for her job as a spokesperson. Gwen's story might take place in a futuristic dystopia of limited opportunity and fragile economy, but it's alarmingly similar to the world we live in now. Her world is emblematic of the fears a lot of feminists have, as expressed in a lot of feminist fiction like The Handmaid's Tale and Bitch Planet. That in pushing for a more equal world, women leave ourselves open to a push back that will shove us into a systematic oppression much greater than any we've faced before.

The story of Advantageous is frankly much more about mothers and daughters than it is about the workforce, more about the lengths we will go for the people we love and the incredible pressure that parents can put on themselves to make the world a better place for their children, but this sideline of the physical discrimination that women face in the workforce is an important underlying structure of the story. It is, sadly, taken as a given. We're not even told much to explain this discrimination, we're just supposed to accept it. And we do, because it's so similar to what we face in our world today.

Today Hollywood has decided that despite people of Asian descent being the largest "racial" subset on the planet and despite China being one of the biggest audiences for American media, it makes "more sense" to cast a white woman as the lead in Ghost in the Shell than an Asian woman. Why? Because "Asian is not universal" we're implicitly told, while white apparently is. 

Gwen's difficulty finding work as a spokesperson doesn't strike us as strange at all because we almost expect it. She's an Asian-American woman - we almost assume that these are the difficulties she must face because these are the difficulties that Asian-American women face in the workplace today.

It's tragic when we feel Gwen cave and allow them to change her. It hurts to see her transform into Gwen 2.0, the younger and whiter version. It hurts because we're watching Gwen very literally give up the thing that makes her who she is, her person, in order to conform to an ideal of beauty that isn't just damaging, it's deadly.

It's important to talk about this issue all of the time, but it's especially important to shine a light on it now, in Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and also when issues of whitewashing are finally coming out in the media. Yes, white women suffer from ageism and sexist "looks" discrimination too, but to a far lesser extent than women of color. And Asian-American women in particular are often silenced in a very noticeable way, whether it's by erasing them from the narrative or by pushing them out once they reach a certain age and level of fame. For every Lucy Liu out there, there are a hundred women just as talented who were never able to break through. 

If I'm going to link Advantageous to any one real world situation, though, I'd actually link it to the news story from a few years ago about Lindsay Price, an Asian-American actress, getting cosmetic surgery to change the shape of her eyes. Now, I don't know Price and I certainly don't have a direct feed into her thoughts and feelings on the matter, but it seems relevant, doesn't it? This talented woman who saw that the only way for her to succeed in her chosen profession was to change her physical appearance, to alter her body. 

Advantageous is about mothers and daughters, but it's also in no small part about how the way we as women live impacts our daughters. In one heartbreaking scene, Gwen asks Jules if she thinks she's pretty. Jules replies, "Sometimes." Gwen's face falls, aware that this is only going to get harder for her daughter from here on out. It will only become more difficult as time goes on to look in a mirror and like herself, especially once she goes out into a world where her viability as an employee is based in no small part on her physical appearance. 

And Gwen has to face the fact that the choices she makes, though made in large part to help her daughter succeed, have also sent a very dangerous message: that being who you are isn't enough and changing yourself is sometimes the best path. It's the kind of message that no one wants to tell young girls but we know they'll find out anyway.

Also it's just a very visually beautiful movie. So, you know, watch it.