Here is a scene in Ted 2, the new sequel to Seth MacFarlane's talking-teddy-bear comedy: John (Mark Wahlberg) and Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) are at a law firm, hoping to secure a lawyer to represent Ted in his fight to be recognized as human. Tentatively, they walk into an office, and are shocked to see that their appointed counsel is Sam (Amanda Seyfried), a blonde 26-year-old who, at first, seems to epitomize every cliche about her hair color. There's no way this girl is gonna be our lawyer, you can practically hear the two of them think. Then, everything changes: Sam pulls out a bong from under her desk and begins to get high.
You don't mind, do you? She asks them, coughing as she smokes. Of course they don't; John and Ted are massive stoners, all too familiar with their lawyer's hobby. In fact, they're not bothered by it, they're thrilled — and totally enamored with Sam, who's changed from a silly kid to a likable, cool ally. A moment later, they're joining in on the activities and trading barbs with Sam, their previous hesitation about her skills as an attorney gone with the first sign of smoke.
It's a funny scene, clearly meant as an introduction to the trio's movie-long friendship. But it also acts as another signifier, one that the film likely didn't intend: that Seyfried's Sam is a "cool girl," one who's down with drugs, incredibly mellow, and simultaneously super-feminine and one of the guys.
Let me explain, if you're unfamiliar with the term's new-ish connotations. Back in the day, being a "cool girl" might have just meant having the nicest clothes and dating the hottest boys, but thanks in large part to a paragraph of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl , the term has come to mean a woman who is, but not limited to being: smart but not obnoxiously so, funny but not weird, low-key but not lazy, gorgeous but not unattainable, classy but not uptight. As described by Flynn, she "adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2." In short: she's the perfect girl, everything a guy could want.
Of course, the "cool girl" isn't real. No woman is truly all of those things, nor should she be; many essays and blogs have been dedicated to tearing apart Flynn's phenomenon and reassuring females it's okay not to take on a thousand impossible qualities at once. And in the last few years, Hollywood has gotten a lot better in showcasing women that don't fit the "cool girl" type but are realistically complex beings, instead: Broad City's Abbi and Ilana, Obvious Child's Donna, Amy Schumer in every form and role. Although she's far from obsolete, the woman described in Flynn's novel is losing her importance, with audiences and filmmakers alike realizing that she's not a realistic or healthy example of the world's real female population.
Yet, as said, she does still persist — just take Ted 2. Sam is everything a "cool girl" is supposed to be. As played by Seyfried, she's beautiful and thin, but as shown by her marijuana use, clearly no stranger to late-night eating. She's smart, a lawyer, but not too much so; a running joke in the film is that she attended what John and Ted consider a low-tier college. She's a mysterious mix of personality, oblivious to pop culture (references to Lord of the Rings and Samuel L. Jackson go right over her head) but full of surprising talents — in one scene, she takes out a guitar and starts singing (beautifully, of course). The look of awe on John's face as she serenades him tells the viewer: he's smitten.
And then, of course, there's the weed. Although Ted encourages John from the get-go to romance Sam, saying that he needed to get over his divorce, it's not until they discover the lawyer's penchant for marijuana that sparks really start to fly. Soon, the trio are smoking together constantly, and it's clear that John has fallen head over heels. In one scene (in which they're getting high), the topic of John's marriage is brought up, and he reveals that Lori (Mila Kunis) never agreed to smoke with him. Sam is aghast, and says that smoking together is a cornerstone of any good marriage; John agrees wholeheartedly, they bond over Lori's failure as a wife, and the two fall deeper in love.
But... why? Save for their shared love of weed, the two don't have much in common. John is a 40-something divorcee who seemingly spends more time downloading porn and watching SVU reruns than going to work; Sam is a 26-year-old right out of law school who doesn't know her Gollums from her Twiggys and regularly quotes Homer. Even putting their discomforting age difference aside, there's practically nothing bonding them together. According to MacFarlane, Sam being a "cool girl" is reason enough.
It's not surprising the filmmaker felt the need to have his lead female character fall into cliche. MacFarlane has a history of being less than ideal when it comes to representing women on-screen. There was his "We Saw Your Boobs" song at the Oscars, a tune in which he called out actresses who'd disrobed in movies that year; the many "jokes" at women's expenses thrown into an average episode of Family Guy; all the times in Ted and Ted 2 that female characters are called "whores" or "sluts" as supposedly endearing terms.
To his credit, the comedian has spoken out about allegations of sexism on many occasions, most recently in The New York Times, where he vented his frustration over being called a "misogynist" and explained why he doesn't believe he fits the term. Said MacFarlane:
"After I hosted the Oscars, I read a lot of angry articles calling me a misogynist. I thought, Do you even know what that means? That’s someone who hates or mistrusts women. And these are the women in my life: my manager, my accountant, the producer who runs all my animated shows, my architect. How can both these things be true? They can’t."
Yet in that article, as he's done before, MacFarlane missed the point; sexism isn't only about hating women or purposely treating them horribly. It can be more subtle than that: highlighting their sexualities rather than their talents, letting them fall into tired cliches, reducing them to their body parts or calling them names all for the sake of "humor." I do believe the director when he says he likes and respects women, but I also believe that he doesn't get that that's not enough. Just because movies like Ted 2 don't explicitly discriminate against women doesn't mean they don't flirt with sexism; there may be a woman in the lead role, but what's the point if she isn't given a personality besides being the material of a middle-aged man's dreams?
In terms of its sexism, Ted 2 could be worse. Plenty of other films and TV shows have done far more damage when it comes to the depiction of women, and in any event, the movie is more focused on Ted and John than its female characters. And it's clear that MacFarlane is aware of the criticism he's faced; he might truly believe that making Sam a central character, regardless of her personality, is helping women, not hurting them. Yet whatever his intentions are, the facts remain: Sam is a cliche. Calling women "whores" isn't funny. And misogyny can have many forms. It would behoove him to realize that. After all, when people refer to the current golden age of comedy, it's feminist shows like Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer that are garnering all the critical attention. We're ready for more.
Images: Universal Pictures (2); Giphy