Halfway through the new movie Long Shot, there’s a montage that — if this were a traditional rom-com — would include a makeover (hopefully, with shopping) or a goofy set of adventures (with close-ups on faces as each person realizes they’re falling in love). But this isn’t a traditional rom-com; this is a rom-com starring Charlize Theron and — more to the point — Seth Rogen. So our two protagonists, Charlotte (Theron) and Fred (Rogen) go to a club and get very high.
The scene is a turning point in the film, but not because Charlotte (who happens to be the secretary of state and running for president) learns she needs to cool girl out and enjoy life. Slumped in her seat, staring into space, dressed in a ratty Enimem shirt and a ball cap, shielded from public scrutiny and polling numbers, Charlotte gets to experience life not just as a “normal” person, but as a normal (white, cis, hetero) dude.
Drugs temporarily block Charlotte’s compunction, decades in the making, to perform perfect femininity at all times. Her clothes shield her from the male gaze; her Secret Service detail protects her from the threat, omnipresent for women in public spaces, of predatory men. The drugs also separate Charlotte from her to-do list, her never-ending schedule, her compulsive multitasking. It’s difficult to slip in a few tricep kickbacks, as she casually does at various points in the film, when you’re on molly.
Some people may look at the premise for Long Shot and immediately think of it as set in a straight-male fantasy world, where a hapless journalist who looks like Seth Rogen could end up with a high-powered woman politician who looks like Charlize Theron. But the actual pleasures of the film, at least for this woman, are far different. Long Shot doesn’t treat Charlotte’s compulsions as a problem for her — or for Fred — to fix. Instead, it positions them as the natural, albeit deeply fucked up, response to women’s experience of everyday life, where no amount of education and skill can surmount the fact that women are still evaluated by the world, first and foremost, by our perceived hotness and likability. In this way, Long Shot doesn’t just feel like a “gender-flipped” Pretty Woman, as some have termed it, but something else entirely.
When Pretty Woman premiered in 1990, it grossed $463 million worldwide ($889.5 million in 2018 dollars) and catapulted Julia Roberts to an A+ echelon of stardom she’s never truly left. Among feminists, that movie’s success was framed as a turning point: proof that “postfeminist” ideology — the idea that the goals of feminism had already been achieved, or that feminism had “gone too far” and evacuated any sense of fun from life — had become mainstream.
The “golden age of rom-coms” that followed in the ’90s and early aughts was filled with films that, with varying degrees of success, played on the central themes of Pretty Woman: Happiness comes with bourgeois respectability, heterosexual pairing, sex uniquely within the bounds of love, and the shedding of the hardened, aggressive, and/or powerful exterior to reveal the “authentic” lovable self within. The Wedding Planner chilled out; The Runaway Bride settled down; Melanie Smooter moved back to Sweet Home Alabama; 30-year-old Jenna Rink rediscovered her 13-year-old self; Laney Boggs ditched her glasses; Kat danced on a table.
But over the course of the 2000s, the rom-com entered a slow decline. Sex and the City complicated the genre in interesting and provocative ways, but the film adaptations flattened whatever nuance the HBO show had introduced. Across Hollywood, the midbudget movie was disappearing, while the “paranormal romance” (and Twilight in particular) pulled in the traditional “women’s” audience. The rom-coms that did emerge mostly felt derivative, like a bad photocopy of a photocopy of a rom-com; some, like the Anne Hathaway–versus–Kate Hudson catfight Bride Wars (2009), barely masked a deep hostility toward their protagonists in particular and women in general. I’d argue that it wasn’t until Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls debuted in 2012 — a show that most would never consider a rom-com — that the genre was truly revived.
Or maybe a better word is revised. When people talk about “revisionist” Westerns (Unforgiven, Deadwood, The Hateful Eight), they’re talking about narratives that topple the finely wrought myths that had previously sustained the genre: the pure, clarifying effect of the American frontier, of course, but also the valorized place of whiteness and masculinity within it. There are no heroes in a revisionist Western, and everyone — and everything — looks and feels like shit.
Which isn’t a bad way of describing Girls. When the show premiered, I called it a “postfeminist dystopia”: It’s set in the same rarified, privileged, and primarily white world of so many rom-coms, with the same tendencies toward self-objectification and self-devaluation in the name of a relationship. But everything in the series, from Hannah’s boyfriend’s apartment to her own attempts at making herself over, felt vaguely nauseating. Instead of normalizing the postfeminist world, as the rom-coms before had done so effectively, Girls saw it for what it was: deeply contradictory, exploitative, and misogynist.
Major rom-com movies from this time, like Bridesmaids (2011) and Trainwreck (2015), are slightly less bleak, and more comfortable with the traditional aspects of the genre. But much of their humor also derives from just how limited women’s choices actually are (in terms of body, sexual choices, ability to screw up or start a business or set her own terms) in a supposedly “liberated” society.
Between then and now, nothing has more effectively highlighted the gap between how Americans say we feel about women and how we actually treat them than the 2016 presidential election. The 2020 Democratic primary is showing signs of doing the same, as the “electability monster” and its inherent gender bias overshadows questions of actual policy position or skill or leadership.
Which is why a presidential election — ostensibly a preposterous narrative backdrop for any rom-com — is such a perfect one for a revisionist take on the genre. In Long Shot, Charlotte is framed as deeply competent — unlike the president under whom she serves (Bob Odenkirk), who the film suggests was elected because he played a president on television. The subtext, however, is that competence, mastery, and passion — all of the things that come together to make men into leaders — would never be enough to elevate her to that office. Charlotte’s real currency is her looks, but even that advantage only becomes valuable when coupled with “likability.”
Early in the film, a polling analysis breakdown puts that equation into stark terms, rating Charlotte’s “humor,” “likability,” and other characteristics on a 100-point scale. Charlotte notes that there are no polling numbers whatsoever on her actual policy positions, a point that’s taken as a punchline. No one cares about what she’d actually do as president. They care about whether they “like” her, based on a seemingly infinite number of factors: how she holds her elbow when she waves to a crowd, the “romance level” of a potential relationship, whether she smiles with or without teeth, whether she’s caught on camera eating chicken, un-daintily, off a skewer. (In one scene, Charlotte arrives at a reception starving, only to find all of the foods are on skewers; she’s only able to eat when she accidentally drops one on the floor and crouches behind her assistants to devour it.)
Part of the joke is that this sort of polling is, indeed, how campaigns — particularly for women — are forced to think. Part of the joke is that movie stars, like Theron, employ teams of people to manage these same factors. And part of the joke is that so many ordinary women simulate this kind of polling in their heads, consciously or unconsciously, every morning, every lunch break, every night as they fall asleep. Is this dress too tight? Are my heels too much? What do my sunspots betray about me as a person? How will my size be used to extrapolate my value within the workplace? How will my partner’s (or my kids’) appearance be used against me?
To try and successfully navigate American society as a woman — let alone a woman of color, or a queer or gender-nonconforming person — is to tirelessly poll the world around you and adjust yourself accordingly. Which is part of why Charlotte is so attracted to Fred, and why the supposed “hotness mismatch” falls away: He knew her, really knew her, as a teen, before her sense of self became so wholly dictated by how others felt about her.
The pleasure of “escapism” is the ability to ignore the reality of the world as we know it. But there’s a particular solace in being able to acknowledge the world, and its exacting toll, for what it is. Sometimes, the most feminist thing a man — or a movie — can do is stop pretending that everything is fine. And that’s what Long Shot does, over and over again. Instead of erasing, and thereby bolstering, the privilege afforded to white people and thin people and rich people and pretty people, the movie makes it visible. It makes it hilarious, and nonsensical, and infuriating. It acknowledges its own scenario — in which a woman can only wield power because she’s beautiful, and a schlubby dude in a windbreaker can navigate those same rarefied circles with ease — as ridiculous.
In 1990, writing in the New York Times, Daphne Merkin pinpointed the mass appeal of Pretty Woman: “It appears that in the post-modernity, post-feminist closing decade of the 20th century, we still need our myths, our amatory fictions; they help us endure.” In this particular moment, the “amatory” portion of the fiction is far, far less necessary to me than the larger, ideological one: that the American electorate could get over its internalized misogyny long enough to elect a woman, any woman, as president.
The “long shot” referenced in the movie’s title isn’t the relationship. It shouldn’t be, and honestly isn’t, especially remarkable that a smart, intellectually engaged woman would be attracted to a smart, intellectually engaged man. (See also: the recent discourse around Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s boyfriend, Riley Roberts.) And as for the argument that someone like Fred doesn’t “try” hard enough to be worthy of someone like Charlotte: Equity doesn’t mean men should have to suffer, self-regulate, and discipline their bodies in the way so many women do. It means dismantling patriarchal control so that no one has to.
To me, that’s the long shot. But maybe that’s the fantasy I need. ●