Focusing on Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Tyffaine Akkouche explores the female roles present in Hollywood film culture and the way women are villainised, portrayed in a damaging way to society and the progress of feminism.
Female villains are either portrayed as two things: A man eater, or a man destroyer. More often than not, they fall into both categories. According to Hollywood writers, all girls ever think of is men, and for the she-villain in every film, these thoughts are only accompanied by cruel ploys to destroy these completely innocent, defenceless guys. Or in some cases, steal them away for their own vampiric, soul-sucking needs.
Now, it’s understandable that stock figures are created in film, but at what point do these two-dimensional characters start being damaging to the way we view women in real life? At what point does lack of originality start to create a monstrous female in which our judgement of her starts to bleed into our actual opinion of women?
I could write a book on every category of female villains portrayed in films, but one which I think really encapsulates the relationship is the 2008 romantic comedy ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’. It’s a film I grew up watching, never seeing the problematic aspects. I ‘aww’d’ when the main guy was dumped, booed when his ex showed up with a new guy in the Hawaii resort (where the majority of the film takes place), and hissed when it was revealed she was cheating on him. The main villain, Sarah Marshall (played by Kristen Bell), never seemed to have any redemptive traits in my view – she was the ultimate man destroyer, reducing Peter the Protagonist to uncontrollable meltdowns and driving him into the arms of woman after woman after… you guessed it – woman. Because, of course, it’s not his fault he has to sleep with as many women as possible. He has to find the mojo his ex stole from him, and he’s barely even enjoying it! Please, sense my eye roll here.
Portraying this guy as a senseless victim is just one of many mistakes this movie makes – but blaming his sluttiness on his ex is really just base-level pathetic. Break-ups can make you do crazy things, granted, but holding yourself accountable is an important strength that Peter the Protagonist simply does not have. Rather than giving their characters more complexity and maturity, they simply blame it on the women for the spiralling of a seemingly good man.
However, there is a particular speech in the latter part of the film which for a moment might redeem Sarah Marshall’s character; justifying her somewhat cruel behaviour. She holds off on any plausible explanation for the majority of the film, either blaming it on finding someone else or simply drifting apart from each other. This intensifies her villainous status as there lacks any emotional element to this character she simply goes around looking like a beach blonde goddess, her career thriving almost as much as her rigorous sex life. Even without her cheating on her ex, we already hate her just because we aren’t her.
But as she sits down with Peter, with a picturesque view of Hawaii in the background, the viewers get a glimpse into the turbulent relationship that appeared to be perfect only through Peter’s rose-coloured glasses. “Fine, cutting the bullshit. It got really hard to keep taking care of you when you stopped taking care of yourself,” she says. She goes on to talk about the ‘island’ he loved so much – the couch. How he wore sweatpants for a whole week, never leaving the house. It seemed like he had given up on himself and the relationship far before she did, he just didn’t realise it.
She was villainised for acting out, cheating and dumping him, but sometimes doing absolutely nothing for your relationship is just as wrong. Women are often deemed the bad guy when they leave first, but every action has a series of events behind it, and it is too damaging to put it down to dissatisfaction – which is a far more complicated emotion than Hollywood movies depict and holds a lot more reasoning behind that.
Peter the Protagonist goes on and dares to say: “I think if maybe you had tried harder”. This is a tragic attempt to divert blame and the viewer does understand how pathetic he is being and for a brief moment Sarah’s character is justified sometimes good people do bad things, and that’s okay. However, her moment of redemption is quickly eclipsed by the typical evil stock character possessing her once more. The viewer even enjoys seeing her downfall as she is dumped by the dashing and perfectly on-theme problematic new boyfriend played by Russel Brand. This justification scene was as useful as Hamlet’s countless suicide speeches – in the end it does not amount to anything.
Mila Kunis, who plays the angelic hotel receptionist, saving Peter from wallowing in his despair as she sweeps him away to hiking adventures and exciting bar brawls, is automatically liked by the viewer. She supports his dreams and hates his ex – she’s the perfect, more down-to-earth replacement. But we cannot let this competitive aspect carry on threading its way throughout every half-assed plot. Both women are brilliant without the requirement of pleasing a man in order to validate their worth, and creating this angel versus devil imagery suggests we need to fit within a certain mould in order to fulfil our purpose as women. Sarah Marshall is a strong, brave, resilient, and caring woman who made a mistake. However, the writers seemed to mark that down as unimportant as soon as she hurt their precious male lead. We are not the sum of our actions against or towards men, and Hollywood is telling us we are only as good as the way we make them feel. Sarah Marshall has a bad reputation, she’s selfish and self-absorbed.
Well, I urge you to please be a Sarah Marshall – get yourself out of that toxic, dead-end relationship. Work on yourself and focus on your career. I promise it won’t make you a villain.
You can read more of Tyffaine’s work at her Instagram: @tiff.akkouche
Images via Forgetting Sarah Marshall