Dir. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
By Callum Hughes
What makes a film feminist? If there’s one thing I’ve learned from writing this blog it’s that there’s no clear answer to that question. That might seem like an obvious thing to say but sexism is so ingrained in our society that as a white, middle class man I miss things that I know I should spot, that pass over me. So perhaps any readers of this blog could help me with a particular conundrum in the form of Ruby Sparks; a film that I adore, that I had pinned down as an interesting feminist work when I first saw it but that on subsequent viewings has left me less sure of my snap decision. Keep in mind this will contain spoilers so if you haven’t seen the film maybe go watch it first, it’s worth seeing.
I always saw it as a deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girl. The title character is played by Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the screenplay. That, in itself is an interesting and unusual feature, how many other romantic comedies are there written by the female lead? Paul Dano plays Calvin, a young and acclaimed writer who hasn’t written anything in years. It’s only when he starts coming up with Ruby, his new character that he really starts writing again, obsessing over her, apparently falling in love.
“Ruby can’t drive. She doesn’t own a computer. She hates her middle name, which is Tiffany. She always, always roots for the underdog. She’s complicated. That’s what I like…”
Calvin, of course is writing a romantic ideal, not a real person; she’s kooky, has alternative tastes but is ultimately just a pretty girl who’s into the same strange stuff that Calvin is into; it’s hard not to be reminded of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character falling for Zoey Deschanel’s character in 500 Days of Summer because she’s into the same ‘weird shit’ that he likes.
Then Ruby becomes real, exactly as Calvin described her. Calvin is initially blown away, doesn’t believe it, and then accepts it and starts enjoying his seemingly perfect relationship. In reality though Ruby is more complicated, she wants to live her own life, she and Calvin fight, she wants to spend time apart. Calvin though, need only change his description of Ruby and she’s obsessively clingy and unable to be apart from him.For me this is where the film goes from being a smart, very funny idea to something genuinely interesting. As Calvin starts attempting to control Ruby’s behaviour she becomes deeply depressed, dangerously happy and then manic depressive. The film takes a dark turn here, eventually ending up with Calvin proving he can control her by sitting at his typewriter making her dance and jump around.
It always struck me as a deeply intelligent and perceptive criticism of the manic pixie dream girl trope; showing just how unrealistic and sexist that depiction is. Even as an invented character Ruby is real, her problems aren’t the simple problems Calvin described when he first created her, instead she is a human being with human problems, the film goes to great and powerful lengths to show the difference.
So far so feminist as far as I can see but there’s problems with this film. To start the film would fail the bechdel test, something I admit to my shame I only noticed upon my recent viewing. Apart from Ruby the only speaking characters are Calvin’s mother, his brother’s wife and his ex-girlfriend. Yes, the film has a small cast but the fact that these are the only female characters and they only really talk about Calvin seems a little troubling.
The second problem is that Calvin is potentially just a misogynist character, yet he is the focus of the plot. As three dimensional as Ruby may be she is still just a ploy to help him learn more about himself and his perception of women. A good lesson learned maybe, but should we really care about or relate to this character when he occasionally treats Ruby in such a bad way?
From this point of view the ending is particularly troubling. Ruby now exists as an individual; she has no memory of being created by Calvin and has a separate life away from him. Yet the film ends with the two of them meeting again and potentially starting another romantic affair. Apart from fulfilling the got-the-girl trope of romantic comedies that this film seemed to be satirising, is there not also something a bit iffy about this guy starting a relationship with a girl he’s already been with, and which she has no memory of?
Maybe these problems I’m seeing aren’t so bad; at the same time maybe what I’m seeing as clever, perceptive ideas are flawed too. Feminism is important to me, but ultimately I’m still an outsider looking in. I love Ruby Sparks but is that because it fills the traits that so many films aimed at white middle class men like me fulfils? I have to keep on and keep trying to gain a better understanding of the world outside my place of privilege. Whether Ruby Sparks has helped I’m still not sure.
Callum is a screenwriter and essayist who studied film at the University of East Anglia. He is the editor of the Feminist Film Blog.