“Subversion on a Massive Level”Gender as Constructed Spectacle

When I rented Sleep With Me, I was expecting a silly angst-ridden Gen-X romantic comedy. I’d read the back of the box, so I knew that Joe and Sarah were married but that Frank, Joe’s best friend, was in love with her. Instead of an entertaining but benign and forgettable 90 minutes, I got a playful, subversive discourse on gender as a constructed spectacle.

First of all, the movie begs for a theoretical critique, both implicitly and explicitly. In numerous places, dialogue and/or circumstance serve to engage issues of textual analysis. The use of a video camera at parties creates a movie-within-the-movie and thus causes the viewer to ponder the nature of film as spectacle created for an audience. Lines explaining the success of a character’s first screenplay mocks film as an industry: “I knew it was just a matter of time before Hollywood realized that adolescent wish-fulfillment was the way to go,” quips the budding screenwriter’s wife; “What makes the script so good is that it’s a woman’s movie but it’s still manly,” comments a random partygoer.Note that these statements also point specifically to issues of gender as locations for critique. Quentin Tarantino, in what is probably the funniest cameo ever filmed, plays another random partygoer who convincingly dissects the homoerotic subtext of Top Gun, both suggesting and demonstrating that a critique of seemingly superficial popular culture can be rewarding.

Not only does the film invite analysis, it specifically addresses gender as an overdetermined concept. Some characters are locked into behaviors circumscribed by gender (Dwayne and Nigel are the most obvious examples); others destabilize it by slipping in and out of over-the-top caricatures of both femininity and masculinity. Athena and Lauren are like a pair of Shakespearean clowns—they play dumb and then reveal with a few remarks that they’re more perceptive and clearheaded that the more “serious” characters. They gleefully mock typical gendered qualities with their performances.

The clearest instance of this is poker night—an ongoing event within the context of the story, as well as a stereotypically masculine activity. There are women at poker night for the first time ever, and their self-conscious, overdone femininity is disruptive as hell. Lauren breathily sings country songs; Athena interrupts the game to ask questions like, “What’s a bluff?” They make girly-girl gestures and coo to a man who has expressed an emotion, “Ooh, you’re so sensitive. Come sit between us.” Athena provokes the guys by telling Lauren, “Hold onto that ace,” and when she’s told that she can’t bluff someone else’s hand, she immediately drops her playful, feminized lightness and asks, “Why not? Does it confuse you?… Why are you so angry?” The shift in tone is clear; she’s not talking poker anymore. She’s asking if he’s confused and threatened by her exposition of gender. “Ok, big cock,” she says as she slides a few chips into the pot, “here’s my bet.”

The clowning reaches a high point as Athena says, “You should do that guy Frank, Lauren,” and Lauren replies, “Oh, I don’t know, I checked him out and he looked kinda small. I need a big stiff one and I don’t mean a cocktail.” She swigs her beer and squares her shoulders in a parody of masculinity and the two women trade patter like, “It’s raining sperm in here,” and “Oh, I think I just grew a penis.” Since they have now thoroughly revealed themselves to be as different from their original airheaded personas as possible, all of the exaggerated femininity enacted earlier in the scene must be reinterpreted as the joke that it was. Athena and Lauren have been in control the whole time, talking rings around confused men in a mocking choreography of subversion.

Athena and Lauren aren’t the only ones who resist gender conventions. While Sarah’s behavior is stylistically opposite to theirs, it serves a similar purpose. She also challenges a deep-rooted role by simply asserting her agency at each and every turn. What might have been—in terms of plot—a boring and overdone conclusion (she and Joe stay together in the end), becomes a statement about women’s power to make their own choices. During one fight, she responds to Joe by simply saying, “Fuck you. You don’t tell me what to do.” The final scene is even more explicit:

Sarah: Gimme the keys.
Joe: What?
Sarah: It’s my car. Gimme the keys.
Joe: Are we starting the distribution of property now?
Sarah: Give me the fucking keys. (She grabs them out of his hand.)
Joe: Honey, where are you going?
Sarah: Wherever the fuck I want. (She runs off and gets in the car.)

The expected response to his question is, “Away from you,” or something along those lines. But instead, the emphasis is on what she wants, not on her reactions to him. She’s in control; she’s making the decisions.

Perhaps more important than their content, however, is the public nature of several pivotal scenes. The concept of spectacle is highlighted mainly through the staging of central confrontations in front of an audience.The fact that parts of the group’s social events are seen through a videocamera’s viewfinder also serves to emphasize spectacle. Frank first admits his feelings for Sarah at a dinner party, in front of his own date, Joe, and a few of their friends. Sarah and Joe have a fight in the kitchen at another party while Athena watches and guests in the living room overhear their raised voices.Furthermore, the fight is actually about being observed— “Yes, I do think you’re enjoying this. You’re the center of attention, everyone’s looking at you, everyone’s talking about you,” Joe rages. The afore-mentioned final fight between Sarah and Joe is on the lawn with party guests massed on the porch to watch. Her final speech is directed not only at him but also at their audience. “In case anybody didn’t get that,” she says very loudly toward the porch, “my husband over here wants to know why I fucked Frank over here. He seems to think that if he humiliates me and makes a big scene, it’ll put me back in my fucking little place.” Ever-present viewers reference us as movie-watchers, but they also point out that an audience is crucial for any kind of widespread perception. By self-consciously engaging issues of audience, spectacle, and male and female behavior, the film exposes the constructed nature of gendered behavior. It acknowledges the role that movies can play in this construction, and suggests ways in which they can also play with it. As Quentin Tarantino’s cultural-critic character says about the ideal screenplay, “You want subversion on a massive level.” —lj.

This article was published in Premiere Issue #1 | Winter 1996
by Lisa Jervis
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