Theater Audiences, Misogyny, & That Time I Saw Phantom Thread

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A few nights before writing this, I listened to a Bill Simmons podcast where he interviews writer/comedian Jerrod Carmichael, and they bring up Phantom Thread, the most recent film from acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson. They praise it, and revel in “how good it is”. Some nights before this an old friend contacts me on Instagram and asks what I thought of Phantom Thread, and I said that liked it, but there was too muchunfettered misogyny in the film, but everything else was good. Before the Carmichael interview, I hear three other episodes of Simmons’ podcast where he praises the film, one being where he interviews Anderson.

In that episode from December 2017, a month before the film was released, they bring up the movie. None of the three, including Sean Finnesey, address the misogyny of the film. Since the release that December, near the same time as Anderson’s interview, articles had been written about this topic of toxic masculinity in the film, up until the spring of 2018. Simmons had interviewed Carmichael in April. Today in 2020 fans are still tweeting praises of the film, and people are still writing articles in favor of it, and defense of the relationship in Phantom Thread.

Phantom Thread centers around a famous costume designer, Reynolds, (Daniel Day-Lewis) in 1960’s England, who meets a young woman waitress, Alma, (Vicky Krieps), and invites her to his home to model for his new collection, and afterward begins an artist/muse-romantic relationship with her. She comes to keep him secure and keeps him on track while he works, but their relationship turns into a tumultuous bond during this time.

All of these moments make me think about my experience seeing the film, and how I was shocked at how the audience and women laughed at Reynold’s actions towards Alma, especially since these were women, and that the #MeToo and Women’s movements at that time, had huge support and were growing.
During the film, I sat in confusion and amazement as women laughed at the misogynistic, chauvinistic, actions, and mistreatment Reynolds exacts on Alama, and the men carried on as well.

I was thinking, “are y’all serious?” “The Women’s movement is going on out here and y’all are laughing?” Have we forgotten about the stories we have been hearing as of late from women? Have we forgotten what has been going on in our country? I watched Lewis as Reynolds and said to myself out loud a few times, as he would physically harm Alma for doing something wrong, talk to her in a detested tone because she disrupted his schedule, chasing him around for a time, attention, or assistance, when he plays mind games with her, when he needs her to take care of him, telling her he can’t live without her, that they are soul mates, and down talks her in front of models, assistants, and other women, that, this dude is foul…he is a scumbag. And about midway through the film, I continued to watch him in disapproval.

The behavior is played up to be comedic, and shows Reynolds’ imperfections– like when he instructs Alma how to model, stand, and walk, when he tells her, or often yells at her to tell her how his day must go because of his work, or because in the middle of being a cretin to her, trips and falls in a hallway or gives information confidently but the incorrect information. But what does it matter or do in the film when he has the power and runs things, and when he’s treating this woman like she is less than equal?

Anderson’s mission was to give an introspective look at an artist in the midst of creating work, but the film simply depicts this and excuses this guy’s behavior. It never goes deep into him or why he does what does, or who he is–it just shows him making dresses, running his business, and how he treats Alma. Reynolds’ actions are just some of the things we let “artists”, and men, get away with by laughing, and protecting them because they are so-called great– because they produce, because we most likely want to be at their level of greatness, because they create, because there is something that goes beyond fearing men, and goes into some need for something for ourselves from men. Alma counters Reynolds by arguing back, or by making fun of him in scenes where he says demonstrative things to her, insults her, or berates her because she messes up his flow.

Nothing happens. This act in the film, and from what I’ve seen personally, only creates a larger space for the behavior to exist. It creates space for it to exist under imaginary rules, a false sense of power, and ends up only reaffirming a sexist dynamic, and allows the man to still get what he wants. Nah–that’s not cool. It was disappointing to see this in the film.

The audience’s response to the characters was unbelievable. It was haunting. I was mostly lost. I felt confused, and ultimately out of place. It was a complete contrast of where I felt the country was at that moment. And it was scary. It also made me realize that there is something in this country that gets passed down to all of us– men, and women– that keeps us protecting men.

In thinking about the women in the audience, for me, the laughter told me, that there is something deeper to why some women protect these kinds of men, why certain women support a president like Donald Trump, that there are women, and men, who seem to need these men, depend on these men and come to support an artist type like Reynolds (or someone like Anderson or a Kanye West) and that if things will change, it will take an increased effort that must go beyond #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, to start to change how we think about powerful men and the men in our walking lives–whether in the classroom, or at work, or in our families, and the power, rich men and poor men, old men and young men can exhibit.

We need men and artists like Anderson to carefully consider the characters they’re writing. We need film fanatics, and fans, and tastemakers, similar to Simmons, Fennessey, and Carmichael to stop, look, and consider what is in a film, and not remain caught up in the movie’s techniques and feeling they get from it, and be critical of the film. Audiences must continue to think beyond the cultural ideas of “boys will be boys” and, “well, that’s just how relationships are” and, “that’s their business”. I hope in future films, in general, can get this kind of scrutiny, deeper engagement, and more critical response, than what I witnessed in the theatre.

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