thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

The Care-taking Women of “50/50”

In Uncategorized on March 19, 2012 at 4:54 am

Sarah T.

All the characters in 50/50 are defined by their relationships with Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a  crinkly-eyed 27-year-old diagnosed with spinal cancer.  Adam’s mom Diane, his increasingly unreliable girlfriend Rachel, his therapist Katherine, and his best friend Kyle orbit him like concerned planets, only rarely coming into contact with each other or anyone else.

The care-taking methods of Diane, Rachel, Katherine, and Kyle are all intertwined with their gender roles: the mom, the bad girlfriend, the love interest-as-therapist, the best buddy. It’s no surprise that Kyle (Seth Rogen) emerges as Adam’s MVP. The women must contend with such a host of expectations about care-taking that they’re bound to pale by comparison.

As a failed caretaker and bad girlfriend, Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard) is easily the most reviled character in the film. First of all, she’s an abstract painter (we know how Hollywood feels about people who like abstract painting!), so she’s supposed to be pretentious and untalented. She won’t go down on Adam, which is a big strike against her. More seriously, she flakes out more and more after he gets sick, arriving an hour late to pick him up from chemo and refusing to accompany him inside the hospital. When Adam explains that she’s scared of hospitals, his fellow chemo patients reasonably point out that nobody actually wants to pad around among IV drips and paper-thin gowns–family and friends suck it up out of love. Finally, when Kyle catches Rachel cheating on Adam with another guy, the film lets loose its fury. Kyle calls her a whore, and later he and Adam destroy one of her paintings with much fire and brimstone.

The audience is supposed to find this revenge as cathartic as Adam and Kyle do — the shrew gets what she deserves! But perhaps thanks to Howard’s complex acting, I had some sympathy for Rachel. Yes, she was a bad care-taker and a sub-par girlfriend. Yet it’s possible to understand how she got so overwhelmed.

Before Adam gets his diagnosis, Rachel’s just excited that he’s clearing a drawer for her in his apartment. Immediately after, the intensity of their relationship escalates in proportion to the seriousness of his illness. She volunteers to be his primary caretaker, a role that’s out of balance with her real closeness to Adam — mostly, it seems, because she can’t imagine being the kind of person who’d bail. Given that backstory, it’s no surprise she fails at her responsibilities.

50/50 links Rachel’s failure as a reliable caretaker with her failure to be a faithful, sexually giving, down-to-earth girlfriend. Her late pick-ups and unfaithfulness prove that she’s fundamentally undependable; her sexual frigidity translates into a frigidity of the soul. The film shows her crying and begging for Adam’s forgiveness not once but twice, just so we can experience the vicarious satisfaction of turning her away.

By contrast, Diane (Anjelica Huston) is too much of a caretaker. She’s the ultimate mother, smothering and overwrought. The instant she learns Adam’s diagnosis, she wants to move in. But Adam — your typical 27-year-old guy — will hear none of it.

Of course, it’s completely normal and healthy for Adam to want to distance himself from his mother and maintain his independence. After all, she is the kind of mom who guilt-trips her son for not calling enough (perhaps because she has a tendency to answer the phone with “Oh God, what’s wrong?”). But Adam has little perspective on his mother’s experience. She’s already a caretaker for Adam’s father, who’s deep into Alzheimer’s. As Katherine points out, “She’s got a husband who can’t talk to her and a son who won’t.”

Diane isn’t a bad caretaker like Rachel, who fails to fulfill her responsibilities as a dutiful girlfriend. The film treats her with sympathy as well as gentle mocking, and Huston imbues her character with enormous reserves of love. Her good intentions are never in question. Rather, she’s a problematic caretaker because she fulfills her role as mother too well. Adam needs some room for air.

Into this mix comes Katherine, the therapist and love interest. She’s the best character in the movie, largely because she’s played by Anna Kendrick, who consistently walks away with whatever film she’s in (Camp, Twilight, Up in the Air). Katherine is determined to do right by Adam, her third-ever client. But she’s young and inexperienced, and she wants so badly to help that she adheres a little too closely to the psychology playbook. When she reaches out to pat Adam on the knee, the gesture is laughably stiff, as if she’s trying to mimic a diagram of comfort instead of following her instincts toward the real thing.  Visualization exercises and awkward pats aren’t really what Adam needs; he often leaves the office agitated, if somewhat charmed by her persistence. Still, if Katherine isn’t fulfilling her care-taking duties quite right, she’s certainly trying.

Katherine is everything Rachel isn’t: warm, compassionate, and an excellent listener (it’s her job, after all). And with her messy car and general air of amiable confusion, she’s as unpretentious as Rachel is capital-A Artsy. Dialogue between Adam and Katherine late in the film emphasizes the contrast between the two women:

Adam: “I wish you were my girlfriend.”

Katherine: “Girlfriends can be nice. You just had a bad one.”

Adam: “I bet you’d be a good one.”

Good girlfriends and bad girlfriends: in 50/50 the distinctions are black and white, and they’re all about how much women are willing to give. Katherine is good girlfriend material because as a therapist — and rightly so — she’s all about putting Adam’s needs first. “I don’t need you to take care of me,” she tells Adam when he apologizes for an outburst in his session. “I’m trying to take care of you.” But that kind of one-sided dynamic can’t, and shouldn’t, translate into romantic relationships, which is why I felt a little nervous when they finally get together at the film’s end. Not to mention the professional-ethics implications.

Adam absolutely deserves to have women, and men, in his life who help him through his illness. But Kyle, for all his kindness and unwavering support, ends up looking like the hero in part because he’s operating without the weight of cultural expectations.

Women are expected to be natural nurses, gentle and patient and calm. Rachel, Diane, and Katherine all struggle with their inability to properly channel Florence Nightingale. But Kyle succeeds where the others do not precisely because he’s not supposed to have perfected his bedside manner. He can be rowdy and belligerent, horrified by Adam’s gross scars even as he changes the bandages. He takes Adam to the bookstore to pick up stacks of paperbacks on living with cancer and surreptitiously reads them on his own, but he also uses his friend’s illness as a way to pick up women. The film treats this as a lovable quirk — just Kyle being Kyle, acting normal so that Adam doesn’t feel as if he’s being pitied or tip-toed around. But if any of the female characters tried to use Adam’s illness to their own advantage, even in a similarly harmless way, the film would undoubtably cast judgment.

I like a bromance from time to time; male friendship is a wonderful and many-layered thing. And 50/50 is a pretty good one, neither overly depressing nor sentimental. But the film’s close focus on Adam and Kyle means that the women seem likely to vanish entirely, ghost-like, as soon as they step out of the young men’s presence.

I wish the movie had shown Katherine pursuing an interest outside of Adam, even for a moment — taking a call from him at a softball game, say. Or that it had tried to consider Rachel from a more nuanced position, offering a shot of the Bad Girlfriend in a quiet moment, shoulders slumped. Caretakers have to have identities that stand apart from the person they’re looking after, in movies and in life. Otherwise, women — still largely responsible for providing help, comfort, and care to their loved ones — get the message that in order to be good at giving, they must give up themselves.

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  1. Kyle was ALSO trying to be a caregiver. At the dock Adam gets fed up with Kyle’s seemingly mooching off of him… but at the house Adam discovers that Kyle was reading that book about How to Help Someone with Cancer, which he had picked up from the bookstore – it turns out Kyle was deliberately trying to be a caregiver in his own way. The whole thing about picking up girls was part of that all along (although Kyle may have also been trying to benefit himself to a small degree)

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