Image Credits: FilmRise/Netflix

Why Male Critics Hated White Girl

By Sandra Tzvetkova - March 8, 2017, 8:00 AM

White Girl is a movie brimming with drugs, sex, and a sweltering New York summer. Pay attention, however (and not even close attention, just enough to catch some obvious cues), and it becomes evident that there is more to the film than the red flags of flesh and addiction. Elizabeth Wood’s directorial debut is an efficient study of the hierarchies bounded by gender, race, and class, and how far different characters can maneuver within them. The camera follows Leah (Morgan Saylor) as she and her best friend Katie move into a working-class neighborhood in Queens for the summer before their second year of college. Leah has an unpaid internship at an edgy magazine, which is, in her order of summertime priorities, last to having a fun time with Katie. While the topic of gender and sexuality crops up almost immediately when Leah’s boss invites her to do a line of coke and then some in his office, race and class is introduced when her summertime fling of choice, a Puerto Rican guy named Blue who deals drugs on her corner, is thrown into the mix. No moment in the film is wasted, and just about every line of the screenplay (also written by Wood) reads like a loaded gun. In this way, without a single actual gun being fired, White Girl sketches a picture of violent power structures as seen in the scathing, yet permissively empathetic, observation of Leah’s decisions.

After seeing the movie, I found myself curious about the critical response, perhaps hoping to read some of my own thoughts summed up more neatly. What I found was not what I expected—it seemed to be the diametric opposite of what I expected. Written mostly by men, many of the reviews disparaged the film for failing to draw out meaningful social commentary—or romance—because it was too gratuitously sexual and vain. Like one of the female commenters, I wondered, “did we see the same movie?” I’m not sure how often film criticism itself deserves to be the subject of criticism, but in this case, the response aroused by White Girl presents such an interesting case study of implicit bias that I think it merits its own discussion.

“Had White Girl been directed by a man, it would probably be accused of misogyny.” - Stephen Holden, The New York Times

I start with this odd assertion, which rests on the incorrect assumption that women cannot be misogynistic. Undoubtedly, White Girl features a young girl who has a lot of sex, some consented to, some not, some toeing the line of being coercive, some not. And I assume—because he does not say—that this is what Holden perceives as misogynistic. But in my opinion, whether directed by man or woman, it is exactly these distinctions (I.E., which sex is consented to) that make the movie a sharp interrogation of—rather than example of—misogyny. Yet these distinctions, which are made so obvious they practically carry an announcement, seem to glide right over the heads of reviewers.

Let’s take the rape scene as an example. Holden observes that Leah “consults a sleazy, high-powered lawyer (Chris Noth), and in a state of semiconsciousness endures what appears to be a rape.” [Emphasis mine.] The movie anticipates that someone, somewhere might think that sex with a semiconscious person who is incapable of speaking can be consensual. For this reason, before the rape scene, it includes a large hint. After Leah divulges amid sobs that she can no longer pay his fee, the lawyer takes her out to a steak dinner. There, she nervously thanks him for taking the time to talk to her further about the case. He stares at her intently as wine or steak-blood drips down the side of his chin, and throatily gurgles, “My pleasure.” I don’t see how much more obvious of a hint we can be given that he is the predator in the scene that follows. Yet over at Variety, Peter Debruge sees things differently. He says, “Leah turns to a sleazy lawyer (Chris Noth) whose impossibly high prices she can’t possibly afford, transforming him into yet another sexual predator.” Between these two critics, Leah has only herself to blame for failing to realize the sleaziness of the lawyer, who, with her own ignorance, she transforms into a predator. Debruge tsk tsk’s Wood for making her lead female protagonist “so idiotic in her life decisions that the worst possible outcomes (arrest, rape, murder) start to feel predictable.”

These harsh moral judgments of Leah’s lifestyle—which double as criticism of the movie and director at large—abound, and they seem to arise from an annoyance with Leah’s doing whatever the hell she wants to, as well as a deep-set inability to see the point of the movie. Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers asks, “Is Wood trying to say something profound about a society that sees drugs and human flesh as saleable commodities?” NYT’s Holden posits that the movie’s central question is: “To what degree has hard partying with sex and drugs become entrenched as a hazardous rite of passage for bored millennials?” But even though the movie does ask many questions—Who is allowed to desire sex? What is privilege? Who gets justice?—few, if any of them, are gleaned by the above reviewers. Instead, they seem to see White Girl as a tangle of depravity scraping the barrel for meaning. And in some cases, something more disturbing arises. Echoing a scarier version of Holden’s earlier sentiments, Debruge claims: “Had [the movie] come from a man, Wood’s nightmarish vision would no doubt have played more like fantasy.” Unable to see any point to the movie (other than a woman being at its helm), Debruge unwittingly states what some parts of the movie show: one man’s fantasy can be a woman’s nightmare.

Love, to some romantic reviewers, is another thing that is lacking in Wood’s movie. In one scene, Leah has just visited Blue in jail, where, when he tells her that he “fuckin’ loves her” (with some correlation to her having gotten him a good lawyer), she goes silent, searching for an honest response. Rather than reciprocate the L-word, she produces a sly grin and tells him that she wants to fuck him. The next scene shows her straddling her boss instead. This, and the sloppy start between Leah and Blue, has the critics’ hearts dropping. “This ain’t the stuff of which love stories are made,” quips Debruge, and Holden states that one can’t be sure if the movie has a heart because “Leah entertains no expectations of a serious relationship with Blue.” Jesse Hassenger at The A.V. Club also complains that Wood doesn’t have time to “treat the romance between Leah and Blue with any more depth than the characters.” But the film makes it very obvious, at all points at which “love” is mentioned, that Leah’s position on it is ambiguous. If she deeply cares about Blue, and the unfair societal structures she’s increasingly aware of, it is evident not in her fidelity or romantic gestures, but in her foregoing the opportunity to escape the whole situation via the mobility afforded to her by class. When she tells her boss about her conundrum, confessing that the dangerous drug supplier knows where she lives, he answers, “So just move.” She could, but she doesn't. However, this is not the kind of story the critics seem to want. What is expected of Leah is good behavior and loving devotion.

It’s interesting to think about a version of White Girl as recommended by its mostly-male critics. The movie would have to trim away the drugs, the nudity, and the bad (and good) decisions made by Leah while nude and on drugs. It would tone down her sexual appetite, amp up the conventional romance, and edit out the sexual predation. What would we be left with? A movie that a female director is allowed to make? I, for one, am glad I got to see this version.

Sandra Tzvetkova is interested in many things, but high on her list are feminism, inequality under capitalism, and climate change. She likes to see films and literature probing these topics in exciting ways. She also likes to coedit Lemon Quarterly, a female-led magazine of reviews, essays, and fiction.