Of all the SF comedy musicals that address gender performance, Earth Girls Are Easy is the other one.
Performative gender is a crucial aspect of cinema's visual language. This is easily translated into the evergreen getting-dressed montage; with every rejected outfit, the projected personality changes, and putting on the perfect fit will have the solemnity of papal robes. (This particular setup for performative gender presentation is so ingrained that it can even be used to establish gender norms from other eras; the opening credits of Dangerous Liaisons are both a visual metaphor for the construction and duplicity of its leads, and the establishment of the decorative masculinity of the eighteenth century.)
The fantastic can be a handy playground for mainstream gender constraints, especially on screen, when a little guyliner is enough to indicate the Other. (When you have vampiric strength and immortality, I guess you feel a little freer to experiment with makeup.) Often these fall into the routine of active, brave men and their sweethearts, the fairest of them all. Such gender constraints can occasionally be so unironically reinforced as to skirt camp, as with Schwarzenegger's impossibly glistening Conan, or a parade of 1960s space princesses who all seemed to have gotten a singular memo about sheer fabrics and bare torsos.
But the fantastic also provides a unique opportunity to subvert those same constraints. David Bowie as androgynous alien and Grace Jones as no-bullshit warrior; the parade of 1960s space aliens meant to be genderless; the dwarf women of Tolkien with their shining beards. The other speculative comedy musical that addresses gender performance put a sweet transvestite quite literally center stage; the self-awareness of The Rocky Horror Picture Show has become almost quaint in the years since, but Dr. Frank N. Furter's black corset, thigh-highs, pearls, and heels subverted the usual approach to putting a man in women's clothes (comedy), making the outfit instead both deliberately discomfiting and explicitly attractive, a gender performance both enticing and influential; by the end of the movie, everyone was wearing it.
Earth Girls Are Easy, in its pastel Eighties glory and whisper-thin plot, is an easy mark to miss in the wider cultural discussion. In case you've actually missed that mark, its bare bones are: aliens land in the backyard pool of Valley Girl Geena Davis, who's just broken up with her philandering doctor fiancé; cue the fish-out-of-water shenanigans as she tries to keep them out of trouble amid the California distractions. To no one's surprise, their misadventures lead to true love and a one-way departure. But amid its romantic subplots, musical numbers, Valley Girl satires, and screwball sensibilities is a story explicitly about gender performance, with a speculative spin that both highlights and undercuts the science fiction of being a girl.
The locus of the movie's feminine gender performance is its heroine Valerie, a quirky manicurist who spends the movie's first act making herself over in an attempt to win back her distant fiancé. The number "Brand New Girl," led by salon owner Candy, makes some pointed commentary about the mandate for gender performance in women ("The root of all your problems is that you don't look like me," she advises her more casually dressed friend, and then suggests several drastic changes to the reluctant Valerie if she has any chance of keeping him interested, with some meta cynicism: "Who's the one he can't resist? A brand new girl"). Transformed into a blonde bombshell in lacy lingerie, Valerie returns home to an unfaithful fiancé, and after kicking him out, laments their shared history: "The Ground You Walk On" is a torch song that belies its flashbacks to her absurd gender performance (including her cheerleading school days, running out in romantic, supportive slow-motion to congratulate him on the football field before the pass is completed, and ruining the game). This performative femininity sits awkwardly on her, and she decides to abandon it despite the implied romantic consequences.
Upon the arrival of aliens Zeebo, Wiploc, and Mac, she's returned to the look she favors, an Eighties imagining of California-practical in which she's visibly more comfortable and which is far less sexualized. Her romantic life actually improves after she abandons the gender performance, since she begins a relationship with Mac. But the omnipresence of feminine gender performance lingers thanks to Julie Brown, a co-writer and -producer, who imported her hit song "'Cause I'm a Blond" as an Eighties starlet born from Beach Blanket Bingo, underscoring the demands, and rewards, of playing the game.
But for all the satire on the constraints of performed femininity, and the story's careful endorsement of both lifestyles (Valerie finds happiness after leaving it behind, but Candy is equally happy while on the proverbial stage), the gender presentation of the movie's men is a marked contrast: it's presented as a foregone conclusion. Even coming from a different species, their immediate attraction to human women, as unfortunately "hairless" as they might appear for aliens that are head-to-toe Technicolor fur, actually drives them across space to visit Earth in the first place. And on arrival, they're both resolutely heterosexual and seemingly instantly fluent in the male-gaze cultural currency—after flipping channels for mere moments, they know immediately they're being flirted with in an ad, and ask Valerie where to find the "Finland babes." (Reminder: these are characters who briefly attempt to communicate with celery.)
And though they're from a different planet and their earthly sojourn is scant hours long, Wiploc and Zeebo immediately bring their study of modern male gender performance to their serial mishaps; Wiploc knows how to catch women's eyes at stop lights, and Zeebo understands the masculine necessity of a dance-off in the middle of a nightclub with the nuance of a local. Mac's gender performance (perhaps appropriately for a movie so screwball at heart) pulls more from the masculine ideal presented in the classic silver screen romances, and relies on cool understatement and the occasional piano-playing to win Valerie's heart, but the message is clear: no matter how science-fictional your premise may be, at the end of the day, gender performance by someone is necessary for a happy ending.
And there is one. For all the satire inherent in the musical numbers (and indeed, the musical approach to such subject matter at all), gender performance is a means to a narrative end, and even rejecting it is designed to position the characters within the narrative. This is a romantic narrative, a comedy meant to end happily for all who deserve to be happy; and so, despite having opted out of sexualized gender performance, Valerie is gifted with romantic happiness. (Whether that, too, is a role she'll find it tedious to perform is beyond the scope of the movie—or, really, most romantic comedies.)
But there's a final note here that deviates from the usual story: the film subverts the makeover trope usually deployed to make the woman more romantically acceptable, so it's not Valerie who's locked into her gender performance, but Mac who's locked into his. Maybe that brand new girl got the last laugh after all.
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