Ocean’s 8: Why having complicated women onscreen is a good thing

This morning I read a quote from Brie Larson, who was talking about reviews that panned A Wrinkle in Time:

There are a lot of reviews of Ocean’s 8 out there, and probably more than 80% of them are by men. I could let my own observations about the movie pass by, but the second I read Brie Larson’s quote about the disproportionate number of men who review movies, I realized that nowadays it’s a call to action. If you’re a woman and you like a movie, you should probably find time to write about why.

Reviews have been written about Ocean’s 8 and how director Gary Ross lacked the lightness of Steven Soderbergh’s touch, or the layer upon layer of seemingly incidental conversation that turns out to be central to each plot. But whatever, Ross (formerly of Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games, and Pleasantville) did a fine job crafting a heist movie with a powerful and overt message: that you don’t actually have to like the women on screen for them to be viable characters.

There are many reviews that miss this point, but I am not here to parrot those. I’m here to tell you that this movie offers a rich and complex portrayal of women that is found very, very rarely in your average blockbuster (we’re not talking about indie films), and watching it is a revelation. It also might explain why men who like a certain kind of narrative about women are going to be unsettled enough to give the movie a poor review.

I’m going to hop straight into spoilers to show you why.

In suburbia, there lives a woman named Tammy (played by Sarah Paulson, who enjoyed the part so much she wants a sequel). She has two kids, a boy and a girl, and spends the opening moments of the film juicing brown-colored vegetable matter while her son ignores her pleas to take his ball outside. In the middle of juicing and parenting Tammy gets a phone call. It’s from a woman she dreads hearing from, a woman from her past, Debbie Ocean (it’s nice to see Sandra Bullock lead a movie again) — but she takes the call anyway. Debbie is actually already in Tammy’s garage waiting for her, and you realize in the course of their conversation that the garage is actually a warehouse for stolen goods waiting to be fenced.

“How do you explain this to your husband?” Debbie asks.

“E-bay,” Tammy says, looking not at all sheepish. (Which actually makes me wonder how often E-bay is used for fencing stolen good…)

When Debbie asks her to join a new heist, Tammy rejects this first call to adventure like every good hero does. But then Debbie tells her the stakes of the heist, and Tammy can’t help herself. She leaves her kids and 100% offscreen husband behind, and heads off to the big city on an adventure.

I worried, after this scene, that a few things would happen. In the traditional narrative fed to us by movies forever, the only thing that would motivate a woman to leave her family to go and do bad things is the actual death of the family — the trailer for Peppermint that played before Ocean’s 8 was clear evidence of this.

OR if a woman leaves home in order to work, bad things happen to her children and family while she is absent, and she returns with the greatest remorse. But in this case, Tammy dives headfirst into action and is never actually punished for her deeds. Instead, Tammy is rewarded.

By the end of the movie, Tammy’s garage warehouse has become an actual warehouse. She’s wearing a hard hat and speaking to her son on the phone patiently about how it’s wrong to put gum in his sister’s hair. Her husband remains offscreen, but it’s clear that Tammy has it all: the successful fence, the kids that she still parents even while at work, and a nice tidy nest egg in her own bank account that she doesn’t really need to tell her husband about.

Tammy’s story arc subverts the usual one so nicely that I really didn’t need any other reason to love Ocean’s 8, but there are other reasons to love it, all equally affirming and powerful. Here is a movie FULL of women who are intentionally doing ambiguous things. They are complicated (Is Debbie bisexual for Cate Blanchett’s Lou? What’s going on here?), they make poor life decisions (look, stealing while out on parole is bad, okay), and they are not only unrepentant about all of these choices, they excelled at them.

A lot of people might clutch their pearls and ask, But What About the Children?

This is definitely acknowledged by the movie itself. In a pivotal scene, Debbie gives her crew a motivational speech before the heist. “You are not doing this for me,” she says while carefully putting on makeup for her role in the heist. “You are not doing this for you. Somewhere out there is an 8-year-old girl dreaming of becoming a criminal. Do this for her.”

Wait, you mean little girls could grow up to become a criminal, just like little boys?

I’ll point out that every single Ocean’s movie so far has also made criminals into heroes, it’s just that this time it stars women. And it’s NICE to see women who don’t have to be either tragic angels or redeemed devils take the screen.

If we want to talk about fairness and equality, watching women being complicated is a fine first step — it’s been happening in real life since time began, it’s nice to finally see women’s truth reflected on screen, and without being a jot preachy.

Here’s another tale from Ocean’s 8.

There’s an actress named Daphne Kluger (played to a comic perfection by Anne Hathaway). She’s famous, self-absorbed, and probably someone you’d hate in real life. She’s the mark, the person you’d steal a necklace from and not feel bad about. But she’s also not stupid, and while reveling in her fame and beauty and spoiledness, she reveals that she’s smart enough to have cottoned on to the plot, and intentionally played along the whole time.

Not only that, but Daphne has the only sex of the movie, crawling all over the evil but hot ex-boyfriend of Debbie Ocean, Claude Becker. Daphne makes sure she has evidence that will frame Claude to take the fall for their heist, and then she goes back and ruthlessly has sex with him anyway — and it’s pretty good, if the state of Claude the next day is any indication.

And Daphne never gets her moral comeuppance for having sex with a guy that she doesn’t much care about. In fact, she is also rewarded — by the end of the movie she’s got enough money that she can direct her own films, while yet maintaining her high-maintenance and unrepentantly diva-esque personality.

Why is it important to show a range of possibilities for women onscreen in big Hollywood movies? Imagine if men could only play aspirational figures. Imagine if men could only be sweet and tragic or bad boys who feel remorse by the movie’s end. Imagine only seeing media representation of men that exist in this tiny spectrum. Then imagine seeing, for the first time in a long time, men who could be different from that.

This is women playing characters that are complex and even unlikeable, and it’s GREAT.

3 thoughts on “Ocean’s 8: Why having complicated women onscreen is a good thing”

  1. And this, this right here, is why I want more reviews written by PoC and women!

    This is the reason I started my blog, and the reason I’ve been hollering for more diversity and representation in critical media. Increasingly, more and. Ore media is being created with women and PoC and lgbtq as the audience. Some media isn’t made to appeal to straight, white guys,and I’m getting quite a few of those white gays feel some type of way about it, even if they don’t admit it. They’ll show it by giving it a bad review.

    And while it’s more than possible that a movie might actually be bad, Im still giving these reviewers the side eye, especially if I know it’s a movie not aimed to appeal to them.

      1. Yeah. I want some reviewers to admit their bias before writing — “I am a white man and that is likely why I didn’t understand Girl’s Trip,” or whatever. Thank you for reading and also giving a very understanding response, I appreciate that!

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