The Unavoidable Politics of ‘No Strings Atttached’

In the past decade or so, there’s been a drastic shift in the tone of comedy. Comedy exists in so many incarnations, but we’ve definitely seen an increase in the realm of the politically incorrect. Shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Family Guy have taught us to leave propriety at the door and bask in all their irreverence. But part of what makes it acceptable is the show’s intention and our expectations. For instance, I don’t know anybody who thinks they’re getting into a wholesome family show when they start an episode called “The Gang Finds a Dumpster Baby.” The show itself conditions our expectations.

What happens when we have no conditioning? Or furthermore, what happens when we don’t know whether the offensive material in question is intentional or not? That’s the question at the heart of No Strings Attached. For those of you who have the pleasure of not knowing about this movie, lemme get you all caught up to speed. The film follows Adam (Ashton Kutcher) and Emma (Natalie Portman) as they try to keep their relationship strictly physical. Insanity, right? But here’s the real kicker, Emma is the one who wants to limit it to casual sex! Insanity, right? Well, keep up because it gets even crazier. In typical romantic comedy fashion (or maybe it’s just plain male), Adam wants Emma to be in it for the long haul. Don’t bother asking if it’s because he loves her or because he wants what he can’t have because even after watching the damn movie, I still couldn’t tell you.

The thing that’s most disappointing about No Strings Attached is the character of Emma. I mean, here we could have this badass chick who owns her sexuality and embraces it and makes no apologies for simply enjoying sex. After all, guys do it enough. As a guy myself, I’ll admit to it, we definitely do. But something about Emma gets lost in translation. personally, I think to better understand this character, it’s important to look at some of the supporting cast.

Adam’s got his friends, Eli (who constantly re-affirms his heterosexuality after telling everyone he’s got two gay dads) and Wallace (pretty much your average token black guy who serves no real purpose). On Emma’s side, she’s got Shira (a deadpanning Indian chick), Patrice (a cute blond with no discernible bad character traits except for a knack for picking the wrong guys) and Guy (the effeminate gay dude who, seriously, makes us all look bad). What exactly about this wreaks of progressive? Emma had a shot at owning her femininity and using it to get what she wants, but with the motley crew that surrounds both of our leads, it seems that she’s doomed to a life of the conventional romance.

There’s such a palpable fear of the other in No Strings Attached that can’t really be explained. It’s as if someone tapped into the brain (or libido) of a privileged heterosexual white male and decided to splash it across the screen. You may think I’m exaggerating but in the scene where Adam watches as two hot lesbians make out right in front of him, it became pretty clear that this sort of story was coming from a very limited perspective. At the heart of No Strings Attached is the continuing heteronormatization of the romantic comedy genre. Sure, when the genre was mainly geared towards women there were still plenty of problems with representations of women, but with this shift to a male-oriented type of movie, women are already losing what little depth they’re afforded in these movies and we’re seeing any sense of “other” as merely something to make audiences laugh. With It’s Always Sunny, the offensive is laughable, never the other. With no real effort or any sincerity, No Strings Attached manages to marginalize almost anyone outside of the white, heterosexual male perspective. Good work, Ivan Reitman!

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