'Fort Tilden' Makes Its Female Leads Unlikable & It's The Boldest Decision The Movie Could've Made
These days, it's fairly commonplace to see a movie or TV show featuring a protagonist who's hard to like. Take Breaking Bad's Walter White, or Mad Men's Don Draper, or Bill Murray's Vincent in last fall's St. Vincent — characters who may not be monsters, but are, to say the least, difficult men. Yet that's the thing — they're all men. Male anti-heroes have become the norm in recent pop culture, but their female counterparts, for the most part, simply don't exist. Yet this summer, something's changed: not one, but several new movies have featured female leads who are seriously, often-painfully flawed, from Ricki and the Flash to Diary of a Teenage Girl to, most notably, this month's Fort Tilden . In the indie dramedy, out Aug. 14, the two main, female characters are selfish, crude, and naive — practically unheard of in Hollywood productions. But the craziest part about it? Fort Tilden doesn't make its characters "change" or "learn" — it simply lets them be the unlikable they are.
This might seem like nothing extraordinary; after all, Mad Men didn't end with Don Draper suddenly realizing that he'd been a terrible husband and father and rushing to change his ways. But Fort Tilden is not Mad Men, or any other male-driven piece of entertainment — it's a movie about women, and typically, movies about women don't let them be terrible people. If a female lead has real flaws, she's "fixed," taught how to be a better person (usually by a man) or forced to undergo the realization that she's been in the wrong. On the rare occasion that doesn't happen, she is, at the very least, condemned for her actions by her peers, and made to feel guilty or humiliated — think "the other woman," or "the bitchy boss." In movies, to be female and unlikable — more importantly, to stay unlikable — just don't go hand-in-hand.
A few movies, though, have gone against the norm. 2011's brilliant Young Adult is a prime example; it features a protagonist who is a genuinely horrible human being, and while it offers some explanations for her behavior, it never excuses it by having Mavis be taught lessons or "get better." She stays a difficult person through the movie's end, and while viewers gain pity for her, thanks to the depth of Diablo Cody's script and Charlize Theron's performance, they never grow to actually like her. Then there's this summer's Ricki and the Flash , another Cody-penned film (see a trend here?) with a female lead who messed up in some unforgivable ways. The film is a bit more cliche than Young Adult — Ricki does learn from her past mistakes, and tries to redeem herself — but even so, it doesn't force its heroine to change or "improve." Ricki grows substantially in many ways throughout the film, but at the end, she's still much of the same sharp-tongued, judgmental, selfish woman she was when the movie began.
Fort Tilden, though, takes it even further; unlike Ricki or Young Adult, it doesn't provide much explanation for its characters' unlikable nature. Sure, it throws in a few lines about Harper's lonely childhood and Allie's commitment issues, but by and large, audiences are provided no real reason — aka no excuse — for the duo's behavior. They are just, simply, not great people, which is perfectly okay. Because, in reality, all people — and certainly privileged women in their 20s — are flawed, often deeply so. Like Harper and Allie, real women, like men, can be rude and selfish and ignorant, and while hopefully, these qualities don't overshadow their good traits, sometimes, they do. Some people are simply difficult to be around, a fact that Fort Tilden acknowledges and supports.
Fort Tilden is not a perfect movie — it meanders too much and surprises too little. But by not having its characters grow in any substantial way, or even have them be provided with a "lesson" on how to be better people, the film is doing something remarkable. It's saying, loudly and boldly, that women can be difficult, just like men, without turning into cliches or improving themselves thanks to a well-timed speech. Fort Tilden acts as a much-needed reminder that as long as the drama surrounding them is interesting and their lives are worth watching, a movie or TV show can succeed without having a lovable character in its lead. This was proven true for men long ago — I doubt there's one critic who bemoaned The Sopranos for making Tony too "mean" — but for women, there's still a substantial amount of pushback whenever a female protagonist is realistically flawed. The world, it seems, just doesn't like seeing women as horrible people —but thankfully, movies like Fort Tilden are fighting back, and in doing so, ensuring the fair, realistic, and compelling portrayal of women in film.
Image: Orion Pictures; TriStar Pictures