Fame follows the lives of a dozen or so young performing artists at the New York Academy of Performing Arts over a period of four years. It’s been roundly panned by the critics, but from a feminist perspective, there was a lot I liked about it.

Obviously, this being an ensemble cast, it’s hard to define who the main character is and who is secondary, so for the sake of clarity, I’ve narrowed it down to four main female characters: Denise (pianist/singer), Jenny (singer/actress), Joy (actress) and Alice (dancer). Of those four, Denise is black and Joy is Filipina. That’s right, half the main female cast are WOC. There is another black character, Malik, and a Latino character, Victor. That’s four POC out of a cast of maybe a dozen. Not to mention all the actors of various races who features as extras, as well as an African-American principal. Major points for a decent cross-section of races there. And they don’t even make a point out of it. It’s like, duh, it’s New York, of course there’s people of all races here. Talent doesn’t come in a neatly wrapped Aryan package, y’know.

As well, of the four women, maybe one – Alice – might meet Hollywood’s impossible standards of beauty in women – tall, slim and blond. Incidentally, of all the characters, Alice is the one who gets the big career break – as a dancer in one of the best modern dance companies in the world, doing a 22-city world tour – but I don’t think The Powers That Be were making a point about the most packageable of the women getting the big break. Kherington Payne, the actress who plays Alice, is a phenomenal dancer. Denise is curvaceous or fat, depending on whose opinion you ask. She has a Jennifer Hudson figure and a voice to match. Joy is actually kinda cute, but not about to meet the impossible beauty standards of the tall, slim, white blond anytime soon. And I thought Jenny was on the pretty side of plain without makeup.

Jenny actually annoyed me. As a singer, she had quite a sweet voice, but nothing special. There’s no comparison to Denise. It made me wonder how much of it was intentional, that sometimes people get in who are merely passably talented and how much of it was sloppy casting. (Given that a lot of complaints about the show was that they watered down a lot of the edgier elements of the original, I’m inclined to go with the latter.)

As far as the Bechdel test goes – I’m inclined to give the movie a semi-pass. The four central female characters don’t interact with each other much – Alice and Jenny mainly interact with their boyfriends – although I’ll give them partial credit for the fact that those interactions are almost always performing arts related. (And I was pleasantly surprised that Alice was willing to leave Victor for the sake of her career without a second thought.) It would be a fail if it was constantly gooey proclamations of love, but it wasn’t, not even close. Denise mostly interacts with two male writer/producer friends who she’s making a record with, and, since it’s all shop talk, I’ll give them a partial credit. Joy has a few scenes with Jenny, all about performing arts, and she has a scene with one of her female teachers about her grades. Even though there aren’t a lot of scenes with women talking to each other about something other than men (and in all fairness, there aren’t a lot of scenes with men talking to each other, either; it’s primarily men and women talking about their performances and careers) I’m inclined to give the movie a bit of leeway because there’s maybe a minute spread out over the entire movie where women talk to anyone about their boyfriends/relationship problems.

Something tells me I would enjoy the original movie more, and maybe if I had seen it, I would be far more critical of the remake. But I really enjoyed this version of Fame and was pleasantly surprised to find that not all of the women were white, maybe one fit Hollywood’s narrow beauty standards, and none of them sat around all day moping about men. They had better things to do.


  1. Grace says

    Though the movie is rated PG,I brought my 8-year niece to see it. My niece would like to pursue career in performing arts and I think the messages this movie sends were so important on so many levels. I liked the presence of POC. I liked the fact that keeping up the grades was emphasized. I like the fact that performers were encouraged to “perform” and be challenged to explore other performance areas and “step out the box”. The movie realistically presents some of the downsides and distractions (scam artists, directors couch, and a decision to dropout out (or being asked to leave) when the balance between school and work commitments is overwhelming. In addition, the movie presents the reality of competition…to be your best and be able to accept that others may be better and goals may need to be modified. The movie shows the maturation of these students from audition for high school to graduation. They experience self-defining relationships as they improve their craft.

  2. scarlett says

    Grace, I did like all those elements of the movie. I liked how Fran (the vocal teacher) turned out to be a failed broadway star – I liked how for all a person’s talent, there will always be prettier, more talented people out there in an industry that often forgoes substance for style. I liked that they showed that, for all your dreams, sometimes you just aren’t good enough to do it professionally. And yeah – was it Victor? – getting scammed was such a good bit to add in, as well as Jenny ‘maybe if I just flirt with him a bit it might get be a role’ – loved the blatant honesty about, duh, of course there’s a bloody casting couch.

    I’m REALLY keen to see the original now (though for what I’ve heard of it, it’s not something your neice should see).

  3. Mel says

    And I was pleasantly surprised that Alice was willing to leave Victor for the sake of her career without a second thought.

    While I appreciate the rare occurrence of a female character choosing career over boyfriend, I don’t think that viewing personal relationships as disposable (“without a second thought”) and always low-priority is or should be a feminist ideal. Had she been older and in a deeper relationship, I’d much rather have seen her struggle and arrive at either a compromise or a sacrifice of some kind than drop the boyfriend without a second thought. Dumping Victor didn’t even appear to be a tiny sacrifice for her, which made me wonder why she was dating him in the first place.

    About the only thing I liked about Fame was the cast–the whole thing felt very shallow and lacking in focus, direction, or plot–so I’m going to have to agree with the critics despite the quasi-Bechdel past and the multiethnic cast.

  4. says

    I remember seeing the original several times in the theater (reluctantly by the third time-not my idea of a good time) and yes, the original has some very gritty moments. In the original there’s a segment of one of the girls going to what she thinks is a super-duper photo shoot for a job, and it turns out the guy’s a perv who tells her to take her shirt off. The film camera shows her crying as she realizes what’s going on, and I hated it. Really really hated it. I couldn’t believe my grandmother made me go see it for the final time I went to see it.

    Even as a young teen seeing the original, I couldn’t believe that any of those actors were actually in high school. They wouldn’t have passed for high school, and the fact they were so good at their performances, even the early audition ones…bleh. Yes, I was a picky teen.

    It doesn’t sound like the remake is any better.

  5. scarlett says

    Sorry – haven’t been able to get online for over a day. I have a feeling Jen fixed up the link and then I undid her good work but the link is meant to go to
    It was in regards to come confusion over the actress’s ethnicity – Asian appearance, Spanish/Latina name.

    In regards to Alice – one of the issues I had with the movie was that the relationships felt very superficial and fragmenented so even Alice and Victor would have been together 2-3 years by my reckoning, it only FELT like a casual relationship so choosing a career over a casual boyfriend made sense to me.

    Gategrrl, I agree with you about their talent being completely unrealistic for their ages, but I long since suspended disbelief when it came to stuff like that, especially teenage performing artists. Me, not so picky :p

  6. Scarlett says

    Actually, the friend I saw it with said something similar, that they had to create a dingier school ‘cos it would have looked stupid to have a brand-new-looking school in the remake.

  7. Matt says

    I’d been expecting an awesome film from the trailer (especially with that cool ‘Black and Gold’ dance scene, but the running time of the film left little room for character development. Just one example, like another poster mentioned, Alice and Viktor would have been going out for a few years in the film, yet she dumps him within a 2 minute conversation and walks off without batting an eyelid. Fair enough that she had a fantastic opportunity, but she came off as cold-hearted, although maybe that was the film’s intention.

  8. Scarlett says

    Hehe, in Australia Black & Gold is actually a no-frills brand so I can’t hear that song without thinking of cheap margerine :p But yeah, on reflection, that was something that annoyed me. I LIKED that Alice wasn’t about to jeapordise such an awesome oppurtunity for a high-school relationship, but it came across as very cold that she dumped someone she’d been in a relationship for several years as if it had only been a matter of a few dates. I’m inclined to believe TPTB’s intention was to make it clear she’d be daft to give up such an oppurtunity, but they could have shown her being a LITTLE sad over it.

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