For my first entry into the 2017 Reel Infatuation Blogathon, I picked Ally Sheedy’s Jennifer Mack from the 1983 thriller Wargames. I was sixteen in 1983, and, like Matthew Broderick’s Lightman, I thought she was perfect. So, I watched the movie again with pen and paper in hand, waiting for something to key on, and I wrote down . . . not a whole lot. Ally Sheedy was twenty when she played Jennifer, and was way over the legal limit for being gorgeous, but, to my dismay, looked at closely, there really wasn’t a whole lot going on with her character. At one point, early on, she seems poised to be the fim’s moral compass. However, this quickly fades, and so does she for that matter–she completely disappears for a substantial portion of the movie only to re-appear for the final act. So I sat down with my laptop, looked at my notes, and waited for inspiration to come. In my notes, I had written down “Manic pixie dream girl?” And this being the only train of thought, I jumped on.
For those unfamiliar with the term, Nathan Rabin coined it in his review of Elizabethtown, a 2005 film directed by Cameron Crowe in which he describes the film’s female lead as “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” This track seemed somewhat promising; however, I didn’t like it for two reasons:
First, although some really great characters exemplify the archetype (e.g., Holly Go Lightly, Susan Vance from Bringing Up Baby, Sam from Garden State), there’s a political reality at the bottom of it that makes the whole thing kind of a bummer. Portraying female characters solely in relation to their male protagonist love interests denies them individual identity and thereby devalues the role of women. Cultural hegemony. That kind of thing.
Second, Jennifer Mack doesn’t really fit the mold. She’s certainly bubbly enough. And as someone who’s still thinking about how she was going to be on TV next week after learning of imminent nuclear destruction, it’s not entirely unfair, I think, to accuse her of being shallow as well. Lightman, however, can hardly be described as “broodingly soulful,” and absent a male with eyes that need to be opened, the archetype falls apart.
So, the train stopped, but not before making a stop at a much older and, duh, more obviously applicable archetype–the girl next door. Hello? Could there be a more perfect example of the girl next door than Jennifer?! According to TV Tropes, “A ‘Girl Next Door’ is a character who . . . an ‘ordinary guy’ male protagonist might have known when growing up, and whom he might like without feeling intimidated. She may literally be from the same neighborhood as the hero.” David’s computer skills are not ordinary, but in all other respects, the shoe clearly fits.
So, my blogathon entry kinda went off the rails. Nevertheless, I did learn a couple things. Like, it’s a lot more fun being a sixteen year old sitting in the theater and watching a pretty girl than it is being a fifty year old man trying to fit her character into a mold so as to have something to say about her. Also, it made me think we need more movies about girls who like computers and who are really good at problem solving, staying one step ahead of the adults, and saving the world. (In a post Wonder Woman world, this is possible, right!?) And finally, I realized that Sheedy, especially given that she didn’t have a whole lot to work with, gave a heck of a performance, and that is at least part of what I was responding to. The success of the movie depends largely on the contrast between David and Jennifer as the sweet, innocent teenagers who inadvertently open Pandora’s box and all the cynical, angry, disconnected adults who surround them, and this image is built during the early part of the movie where Jennifer is prominent.
Anyway, when we do get that movie about the girl hacker who saves the world, I hope it has a boy next door in it that all the sixteen year old girls get as much fun out of as I got from watching Ally Sheedy as Jennifer. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, right? We just need someone to bring balance to the force. Oh wait . . .