Often, when the general public envisions the term, "feminism," people conjure up ideas of bra burning and rejection of all traditionally "feminine" ideals and activities. It seems that some would view feminist theory as a tearing down of societal structures to the detriment of society. Yet this is not true. In actuality feminism includes a broad range of ideas, perspectives, and movements. For some time, both men and women have worked to demolish not families or homes but discrimination. This discrimination finds its way not only into generic language but also into gender driven labor divisions. That is to say, the traditional view of a man goes out of the house to work for the family, while the woman cooks and cleans. For centuries arguments in support of this were based on everything from religious interpretation to physiological differences.
Now, it has become apparent to many that this is not right. Many recognize that roles should not be rigidly defined along gender lines. Society has seen an increase of men staying home to be with the children while women have been included into all levels of the workforce. This is not to say that complete equality has been realized, but it acknowledges that many people, both men and women, have been working hard to remove inequality and have seen some results. Yet it seems that, on occasion at least, the pull has been to avoid "traditional" roles at all. This is not right, either.
If one refuses any traditional role simply on the basis of its being traditional, that person would be working against what feminism has striven to accomplish. In the introduction to her book, Thinking About Women: Sociological Perspectives on Sex and Gender, Margaret L. Andersen says that feminism gives equal weight to the interests of women and men, neither being inferior to the other. She says, "Although feminists do not believe that women should be like men, they do believe that women's experiences, concerns, and ideas are as valuable as those of men and should be treated with equal seriousness and respect." (Andersen, 7) This means that no matter the sphere in which a woman chooses to live and work, her desires and experiences should not be looked down upon by anyone. Her particular expertise should be celebrated, whatever field it should be in.
Which brings me to the film, Julie & Julia, directed by Nora Ephron. This film adapts two true stories of enterprising women and overlaps them in such a way as to highlight their similarities, despite their never having met and living in different times and places. The first woman, Julia Child, is someone with whom most Americans are familiar. She made her name as a cookbook author and as the host of her own television series. The second woman, Julie Powell, was probably unknown to many of us before the film came out. She was a woman struggling in a job she didn't like before she set a goal to cook through Julia Child's recipes in one year. Julie became famous by blogging about her experiences.
The film is strikingly feminist in nature. Some could say that it takes a step backwards, by placing both women in the kitchen. But that is not seeing the full message of the film. Yes, the women are both kitchen-bound, but it is by their own choice. The men in their lives support their endeavors and are willing to help in any way they can. By the fact that the two men, Paul Child and Eric Powell, are so desirous of aiding Julia and Julie in finding out what it is they truly want to do, they epitomize the underlying principles of the feminist movement. Julia and Julie's ideas are seen as equally viable as the men's. In fact, the men's jobs have very little to do with the film, as it focuses on highlighting the two women's journeys into self-realization.
Consider these examples. The Childs have been sent to Paris as part of Paul's government work. Julia feels somewhat lost and bored, with nothing to do. She does not want to do government work herself again, so she looks around for a hobby, an activity, something with which to occupy her time. She notices a flyer offering hat-making classes. She mentions her concerns to her husband, as well as the class, and her desire to find something to do. Paul does not pressure her into anything. He merely says, "You like hats." It is evident from his demeanor that he does not believe this is what she is looking for, but he gives her free rein to try her hand at hat-making, if that is what she wants to do. He respects her as a person capable of exploring the possibilities surrounding her and making a sound decision about her daily life. She tries hat-making, dislikes it, and moves on to bridge classes. Paul repeats his acknowledgement, and he doesn't degrade her when she finds that bridge is also not what she's looking for. At one point, he asks her what it is she really likes to do, and they share a laugh over her answer: she likes to eat.
Eventually Julia finds a cooking class, which is too basic for her. She fights to be included in an all-male professional chef course. At first she is seen as an outsider, but soon her hard work and competitive spirit win her the respect of her instructor as well as fellow classmates. Although the school's director continues to discriminate against her, Julia again fights for the right to take the exam and leaves the school with a diploma. She begins teaching at her own school, along with two friends. These three also work together on the cookbook that will eventually be Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
The cookbook, too, faces opposition and difficulties as it progresses. Paul and Julia are moved throughout Europe, making discussion between the three collaborators hard. The process of writing, testing, and translating becomes even longer than expected. Publishers balk at the size of the book when it is finished. Yet, Julia perseveres, and the cookbook finds its way into the hands of an enthusiastic editor and to a publisher who is willing to put money into the project.
Through all of this, Paul is extremely supportive. He comforts her when she is discouraged. He encourages her to travel to meet with her friends, as well as publishers. But even in little ways he shows that he is listening to her and is sensitive to her needs and desires. For example, in one scene he brings home a beautiful mortar and pestle for her kitchen. Earlier in the film it had shown that a mortar and pestle would be necessary. Even when the couple is forced back to the United States, Paul lovingly packs up all of her kitchen accessories. He helps her to unpack, and traces her pots and pans on the wall. The film shows that it is his suggestion that she have a television show to demonstrate her expertise and teach others.
The relationship between Paul and Julia is a truly loving relationship, built not on traditional roles, but on mutual respect and obvious attraction. Yes, the two have established a family that follows somewhat traditional routes – Paul works while Julia cooks. But it is not that they feel pressed into a mold that they have chosen to do this. Rather, Paul's work becomes a means of supporting Julia's dreams. He values her as a person with unique desires and interests. He asks for her opinion, does not force his own upon her, and seeks to empower her to accomplish her goals.
On the other hand, the story of Julie Powell offers insight into a more modern family's dilemmas. Both Eric and Julie need to work, although they live in a not-so-great location above a pizzeria. As the film unfolds, the viewer learns that Julie started a novel which she did not complete because of discouragement after no publishers were interested in buying her work. She began a cubicle job answering calls post-September 11th. Her friends are all highly successful, and she feels out of place with them, especially after one publishes a not very flattering article about Julie. Like Julia, Julie feels the need to have something to do with her life and to accomplish a goal.
For Julie, she already knows that cooking is how she de-stresses after difficult days at work. Her husband loves the food that she makes. After a conversation on blogging, he encourages her to start her own blog. They discuss what it is she could write about, and they come up with the concept of her cooking her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year. This project, like Julia's, faces its own share of challenges. Julie's mother discourages her efforts, and the stress of a full-time job as well as intense cooking and writing, places a strain on her marriage. At one point, Eric leaves Julie and sleeps in his office. She finds herself crying on the kitchen floor more than once. This is an accurate portrait of many households' experiences. Andersen says, "The experience of dual-earner couples often puts strain on their relationship because of the adaptations they must make in household responsibilities and decision making." (Andersen, 156)
In spite of these strains, the film portrays a couple who is able to adapt. The two find that they can apologize and meet again on good terms. In terms of Julie's goal, Eric, like Paul Child, is willing to help out in whatever way possible. For example, in one scene Julie is making lobster thermidor. She finds it very difficult to put the lobsters into the pot. When she screams and runs away, he comes to her aid. Not as a knight in shining armor rescuing a damsel in distress, but as an equal whose strengths lie in different areas. The two recognize that, as unique individuals, their abilities differ. It only makes sense that if Julie is unable to overcome her fears that Eric should be able to step in and help. This is also shown in the scene where Julie is attempting to poach eggs. Neither she nor her friend are able to do it, but together with Eric, they manage to create a delicious meal.
Eric also shows his support by paying attention to his wife. At one point during the film, the two are watching an episode of Julia Child's cooking show. Julie points out that Julia is wearing pearls in the kitchen and sighs. Later on, Julie dresses up as Julia for her 30th birthday party. She puts together beads to make her own plastic necklace. For a present, Eric gives her a pearl, albeit fake pearl, necklace. Rather than being a representation of a traditional jewelry gift for the wife, the pearls are a symbol of his attention to Julie's interests. He supports her efforts to blog her way through Julia's cookbook and recognizes that she feels a kinship with a woman she has never met. The gift of pearls shows that he was paying attention in a tender moment to Julie's desires and respects them enough to try and fulfill them.
So although both Julia and Julie find their way into the kitchen to cook for their husbands, it is not a depiction of a backwards decline in the feminist movement for equality. This film is striking in its portrayal of two strong women, desperate for a way to add meaning to their lives with the means they had. They fight against discrimination, discouragement, and setbacks from friends, family, and acquaintances. They triumph in discovering who they are, not only as women, but as people with unique strengths and abilities who contribute so much to society. At the same time, they find support in their husbands. These men are not threatened by their wives' accomplishments or pursuits. Rather, the men work alongside them to develop in whatever sphere they want. In this case, the sphere is the kitchen.
Perhaps Ephron did not set out to encourage such straightforward feminism. But watching the film multiple times, I think it is its most enduring message. The women are valued and respected by those closest to them. They are shown to be capable of rising above menial tasks and discrimination to follow their goals and dreams. Yes, their dreams are centered in the traditional female location the kitchen, but it is not to degrade them as being only able to succeed there. Instead, the film shows that with their determination, the women could have succeeded at whatever they would have chosen. Their pursuits are shown to be worthwhile and yes, in the kitchen.
Andersen, Margaret L. Thinking About Women: Sociological Perspectives on Sex and Gender. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1993. Print.
Julie & Julia. Dir. Nora Ephron. Perf. Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci. Columbia Pictures, 2009. DVD.