Sideways, white guy problems, and unlikable protagonists

A while ago I watched the movie Sideways as part of a get-together with members of my school’s literary magazine. Nobody else enjoyed it. One girl remarked that it was just “white guy problems.” A guy concurred with her, explaining that “Ever since I’ve been educated on gender issues it’s been harder to care about that sort of thing.” Which, okay. Yes. Other demographics deserve the spotlight more than white men. But I don’t think that means we can toss aside every movie about white guys as being about frivolous bullshit. I fear that train of thought will prevent people from actually gaining anything from these movies.

Let’s see what’s actually going on in Sideways:

Miles, a recently divorced man with clinical depression, is dealing with a life that didn’t turn out the way he’d hoped and that appears to be going nowhere. He is trying to get his novel published but has no confidence in his writing. He is often suicidal. Meanwhile, his best friend Jack is childishly pursuing sexual gratification as a sort of “last horrah” before he gets married. They go on a trip in the Santa Barbara wine country and drink to excess, on the surface as a celebration of Jack’s marriage but also as an underlying midlife crisis, a way to deal with the anxiety of their current positions in life.

So let’s list the issues: Depression, divorce, alcoholism, feeling worthless, feeling suicidal, fear of the future, and fear of commitment. I don’t think there’s anything inherently gendered in any of these. The problem lies more in the expression of these issues. What turns people off of a movie like this, I think, is that the characters are assholes. Both have cheated or are cheating on their significant others, both fit eye-roll-worthy masculine tropes (Miles the Bukowski-esque author, Jack the Barney Stinson-esque manchild playboy), and both see women as ideals to complete them. They also golf a lot. But the core issues can be faced by women as well, not exclusively white or male. What my friends were objecting to were the male ways in which these characters try to solve their problems. Which, while frustrating, isn’t what the movie is promoting and shouldn’t cloud your judgment of the problems themselves.

These characters aren’t supposed to be moral ideals, not supposed to be wholly sympathetic. I understand that it’s easy to dismiss a movie when you don’t like the characters. I still can’t make it all the way through Mike Leigh’s Naked. But a lack of sympathy for the main characters shouldn’t be how you base your judgment of the narrative as a whole.

Now what the movie is lacking is a companion piece: One told from the women’s perspective. Maya and Stephanie are incredibly interesting and dynamic characters, and a lot more likable than Miles and Jack to boot. If there were a movie following the women the way Sideways followed the men, I think we would have a fuller picture of the themes that the movie grapples with. We would see Maya dealing with her divorce, contemplating how to respond to Miles’ lying to her, and figuring out what she wants to do with her life once she gets her master’s degree. Likewise, we could see more of Stephanie being a single mother, her relationships with her mother and her daughter, and dealing with Jack turning out to be an incredible douchebag. And, like Sideways, we can see how their friendship evolves after sharing such a complicated experience.

The problem with Sideways isn’t about the frivolity of its central conflicts. It’s about only serving half the story.

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About Bryan Cebulski

Historian, critic, author. Undercover queer. Aspiring P&C adventure protagonist. Collects bad habits like Jessica Rabbit.
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One Response to Sideways, white guy problems, and unlikable protagonists

  1. Pingback: Growing up Lost in Translation | Bryan's Pop Culture Hour

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