I saw Mr. and Mrs. Smith a while ago, and have been sort of ruminating on it since. First off, I think I should mention that I loathe Angelina Jolie, generally. She gives me the willies in real life interviews, and I have a really hard time watching her as an actress. That said, I thought she was pretty fantastic in this movie, and her character was pretty fantastic, too.
The film is not a thinking piece, but if you go into it looking for some fun with violence, I think you’ll be quite satisfied. As one-dimensional as it seems, though, I think there are a few interesting, subtle things going on with gender in Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
From here on out, there are quite a few spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film yet, and don’t want advance knowledge of the plot, bookmark this article and come back another time.
Still with me? Ok, here we go!
First off, let’s talk competence. Both the Mr. (played by Brad Pitt) and the Mrs. are assassins. They fight each other. They fight each other for a very”¦long”¦time. There’s a whole lotta stalemate goin’ on. Neither seems to be “better” or more capable than the other.
But when they’re not fighting each other, that’s not true. Discussing how many people they’ve killed, the following dialogue takes place:
John Smith: How many? Do you want me to go first? Okay, not that I keep count or anything… but somewhere around high 50s low 60s… not that it matters or anything.
Jane Smith: 312.
John Smith: 312?
Jane Smith: Some were two at a time.
Pretty clearly, Jane is more efficient than John, or else she has much greater opportunity. She seems to work for a slick, glossy, multi-employee assassin firm, whereas John pretty much just has his friend Eddie, who seems to be filling the Laughably Pathetic Sidekick slot for this film, so maybe her boss just connects her with more jobs. Hard to say.
So Jane seems to be pretty darn capable, or at the very least, extremely well-connected. Why is it that she can’t kill John, then? It’s because she gets all emotional and weepy and can’t bear to hurt the man she loves, right? “˜Cause that’s exactly the sort of thing a woman would do. I know this, because Western Culture has been telling me so for the last 22 years of my life.
But, weirdly, that’s not quite what happens. Jane does get a little emotional. There’s a very cleverly lit scene in a car where the viewers get treated to the classic single-tear-down-the-cheek motif, even. But John gets quite emotional, too. In fact, I think it’s quite arguable that John is portrayed as not only the more openly emotional of the pair (he expresses anger very visibly, where Jane is quite reserved), but also as the one more likely to allow emotion to sway his more intellectual decisions.
The first meeting of the two characters becomes an important scene in the film, which is revisited both visually and in subsequent dialogue exchanges. It is clear to the audience in the visual flashback showing the meeting that both Jane and John were using each other as cover (officials were searching for tourists traveling alone, and the two pretended to be traveling together). What is not clear, however, is what they were thinking, or how “real” their feelings for one another were.
When John brings that first meeting up during a conversation with Jane, later in the film, he tells her that he was sincere in his affections right from the start. He used Jane as cover, but he also felt a genuine attraction to her. Jane replies that for her it was all a sham, all along.
This is the scene in which the single-tear-action takes place, and so the viewer is left with the definite impression that Jane is lying. Probably, the viewer thinks, she really does love him, and is hiding it. But why would she do that? It seems that Jane is trying to control her own emotions, and even provoke John’s, with her seeming rejection, in order to get a tactical advantage. Can it be that Jane is the more analytical, less emotional Smith, despite being the one with ovaries?
Ultimately, John and Jane are forced to realize that they really do love each other (or, at the very least, that they can have incredibly good sex together). Neither is able to actually go through with the execution of the other (though I think it’s important to note that Jane thinks she has, for a little while, and seems regretful but not as emotionally torn-up as the average movie-goer might expect). The next step, naturally, is to take on the rest of the world in a beautifully absurd gun battle in a home improvement store (the thematic tie-in here should be obvious). Does John keep Jane safe, shielding her with his body while he does all the hard, bloody work?
Well, a little. But she returns the favor. The final gun battle is really a rather lovely piece of choreography, and shows both characters moving in fluid, dynamic partnership throughout. It seems that Jane and John are”¦ equals. Marriage a partnership? A woman and a man cooperating for the benefit of both, with neither in sole control? What a notion!
This viewer, at least, read Jane as a strong, intelligent, capable character who is easily the equal of her husband. She seems to be a rarity in film (especially in action films) – a woman who is in control of herself and her emotions, even when confronted with physical violence, but who is not portrayed as un-feminine. She wears heels and skirts throughout, after all, and nothing in the world could disguise the visual cues of femininity that Angelina Jolie presents to a viewer.
But how much of this is intentional? Were the makers of this film setting out deliberately to give us a real person who happens to be a woman, instead of a collection of stereotypes, at long last?
Arguing intent is always a slippery slope. So much so that I’m going to take the coward’s way out, and refuse to do it, in fact. I will argue, however, that the filmmakers were aware of the gender issues they were handling, whether or not their presentation of those issues was entirely deliberate.
One proof of this is the character of Eddie (extremely well-played by Vince Vaughn). Eddie is pretty clearly portrayed as the Laughably Pathetic Sidekick, as I mentioned above. The markers for this role are that he lives with his mother (despite being well into adulthood), that he seems to be baselessly paranoid, and that all of his lines are clearly designed to get the audience to laugh. We’re not meant to take Eddie seriously.
It’s interesting, therefore, that in addition to his other personality quirks, Eddie is quite clearly portrayed as a misogynist. He delivers some pretty seriously classy lines, such as “I live with my mom because I choose to. She’s the only woman I’ve ever trusted”, and, when John tells him about Jane’s attempts on his life, “[t]hey all try to kill you. Slowly, painfully, cripplingly”.
We know that we’re not supposed to take Eddie seriously. The guy is a joke, in every sense of the phrase. Can it be that the filmmakers intend that the audience view misogyny as laughably foolish? It seems quite obvious that they are aware of the issue they raise, at least, and quite likely that they are painting a deliberate picture with the characterization of Eddie.
A few throw-away lines of dialogue from Jane seem to reflect a further awareness of the gender issues being raised by the film. John insults her at one point with a non-gender-specific phrase – “chicken shit!” – to which she responds with the heavily loaded insult of “pussy!”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (and not surprising anyone here, I’m sure) a “pussy” is, among other things, “a finicky, old-maidish, or effeminate boy or man”, or “[t]he female pudendum. Hence, sexual intercourse; women considered sexually”.
Jane is using, therefore, an insult rich in gendered meanings. Is she telling John that he’s less of a man than she is? That he’s more of a woman? Or is she just delivering the first insult that comes to mind, unthinkingly?
Whatever the character’s motivations, it seems highly unlikely to me that any line in a script which purportedly went through “over 50 drafts” (according to the Internet Movie Database) could be so loaded with gendered considerations accidentally. Not in a film so obviously preoccupied with gender, anyway.
Later, when Jane and John have reconciled and are preparing to face every other assassin in the world (seemingly), Jane demands the larger of two guns, saying “why do I get the girly gun?”. This line is pretty clearly played for laughs. It’s funny, see, “˜cause she’s a girl, but she doesn’t want the girly gun. Honestly, who can blame her? I never want the girly anything, myself. It’s almost always of inferior make. Or pink.
But again, the line raises more than a laugh. How serious is Jane being, here? How serious are the filmmakers? Is Jane being de-feminized? Or is she asserting a new kind of femininity? And what is John doing when he swaps guns with her? Is he being a generous man, who can afford to let the girly one have the tactical advantage? Or is he just acknowledging that Jane’s a better shot? Maybe he’s just sick of bickering.
There’s plenty more to examine in this film, in terms of gender relations. To reel off a few things, quickly – what does it mean that John insults Jane’s cooking? What does it mean that Jane admits she can’t cook at all? How about all the switching around regarding who drives and who shoots in the minivan? And what’s with Jane and the high-heeled sex-kitten get-ups? Why does she have to dress as a dominatrix on the job (not always, thank God), while John gets to wear his street clothes?
For a simple action flick, Mr. and Mrs. Smith sure does inspire some thinking. After all the speculation, though, it’s still unclear what exactly the film is trying to say (or even what it actually does say) about women, men, and gender roles and relations. Even in her heels, though, Jane comes off as a much more interesting, well-rounded female character than many dramatic roles I can think of. Maybe she’s not the answer I’d like her to be, but the filmmakers seem to have been aware of the question, at least.
Until there are a plethora of inspiring, dynamic female characters for me to choose from in film (and I’m not going to be holding my breath), I’ll take what I can get. Jane Smith is about as good as they come, when it comes to women in film. So I’ll take her over the romantic heroine or the innocent princess any day.
Who would want the girly character, after all?