In the months following the outing of Harvey Weinstein and the ensuing tidalwave of similarly and differently awful men outed in its wake, there has been a great deal of focus placed on what could have been done differently. Not by Weinstein, nor Kevin Spacey, or Louis C.K., or James Franco, Aziz Ansari, or Matt Lauer or Al Franken or any of the other members of the long list of famous men with predatory pasts. The focus rather, has been on the women. What they said, what they did, what they didn’t say or didn’t do, what they’d been wearing or drinking or any other specific criteria asked or demanded of victims to be considered worthy of sympathy.
At the heart of the whole matter has been this: there is a right way to be a woman. And whatever your way is, you’re probably doing it wrong.
It is thinking about this that made me want to revisit one of my favorite films, Ruby Sparks. At once long needed, timely and ahead of its time in 2012, it feels even more relevant today—and still, sadly, ahead of its time. Because too many people are still unable to grasp its meaning and message.
From the moment we first see the titular Ruby (Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the script) at the beginning of the film, she’s bathed in sun rays. She asks perfectly imperfect questions and makes perfectly imperfect judgments, things that make her creator, Calvin (Paul Dano) question himself, look inward, become better as a result of this imperfectly perfect woman. She asks if she can draw his dog; she tilts her head coquettishly while she bashfully asks why he’s looking at her. She is his ideal, but she is nothing more—she exists only as a beautiful vessel to fulfill Calvin’s needs, and nothing beyond that. As his brother Harry (Chris Messina) says, “You haven’t written a person. You’ve written a girl.”
And yet—or perhaps for that very reason—she is his dream woman.
He continues his work to further flesh her out to his ideal specifications. He creates vulnerabilities, like a penchant for older men—including the one who got her kicked out of school for sleeping with her—and people who insult her, setting Calvin up as her savior. She wears sheer red bras. She jumps in the pool with her clothes on. She says things like, “You’re so not my type” and “I’m such a mess.”
“She’s complicated,” Calvin says. “That’s what I like best about her.”When Ruby starts to become her own person—she wants to get a job, doesn’t feel like having sex, she starts spending nights at her apartment and making her own friends—Calvin starts to unravel. His creation, his possession, is acting outside of the limits he’s drawn for her. He defends this idea to his brother, saying, “I know Ruby. I wrote her.”
But he doesn’t know her anymore. She’s not merely what he wrote. She’s becoming a person.
Calvin does what he can to undo that, shaping her narrative for her. Making her miserable without him, rendering her childlike and unable to so much as move without him holding her hand, then undoing that when that’s not quite right and turning her into something else, something he still finds displeasing. In the end, Ruby is literally trapped by her maker to the point of collapse.
Upon its release, much was made of the film as some sort of well-produced clapback to the notion of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. But beyond that specific trope, admittedly prevalent especially at the time, it’s a film about relationships between men and women, the entitlement all too common even among the most seemingly “nice guys.”
Since time immemorial, women have been objects—things of beauty, things of derision and scorn, things of admiration, but always things. Every move and motivation is questioned, every choice subject to speculation even when stated clearly. Hence we see the ceaseless notions that “Women are complicated.” “Women don’t ever say what they’re really thinking.” “Women lie.”
And it is those exact notions that led us here today into the #MeToo era, where predators are excused or granted a massive slate of devil’s advocates who remind us that it all happened because women are complicated. Because women don’t ever say what they’re really thinking. Because women lie.
We need movies like Ruby Sparks right now more than ever—if not to remind men, then to remind us that we are not creations. We are not ideals. We are not things.
We’re people. And we’re our own authors.