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Light Pollution

Lauren Jackson

A Star is Born [1]
Dir. Bradley Cooper, 2018






Lady Gaga has built a career on inaccessibility: bedazzled and bleached, wrapped in raw beef [2], and suspended from stadium-length cables [3], her identities are in constant contortion, a smoke and mirrors act displacing the demand for intimacy usually made on celebrities. Gaga is not a star “just like us”, and we don’t ask her to be. Yet in her latest metamorphosis into an actress in A Star is Born, Gaga has given the world an acutely relatable character—a woman named Ally who is subjected, constantly, to the banality of structural misogyny.

The world’s most prominent critics have raved about the movie’s recycled plotline, updated only slightly in its fourth iteration since 1937. Its Oscar candidacy is now considered a certainty [4], an externality of the breathless reviews which have used shallow frames of tragedy and addiction to explore the film’s layered plot and character development. This is, at the very least, lazy criticism, relying on readily available heuristics and reductive meta-narratives to both flatten and explain the substance of the film. More strikingly, however, these reviews reveal a troubling deafness to the current cultural moment, with most failing to even gesture towards the power imbalance between the film’s protagonists, the compromised nature of Ally’s consent, and the implication that love requires women to absolve men of abusive and destructive behavior.

The omissions are bewildering. While the New Yorker is basking in the notoriety of its Pulitzer-winning, movement-sparking Weinstein piece, it is also claiming [5], via film critic Anthony Lane, that “A Star Is Born is ‘very much a product of our times’”—without a single mention of the gender and sexual politics of the film. Lane, along with his colleague and longtime critic Richard Brody, center their commentary on the direction and performance of Bradley Cooper, playing a drunk and emotionally abusive rockstar named Jackson Maine. According to Brody’s headline, “The Real Subject of Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born Is the Star Power of Bradley Cooper”.

It is this centrality of male experience, evident in both the film’s direction and its reviews, which suffocates any exploration of female interiority in the film—omitting the analysis of power and consent the current moment demands. And yet, no critics, with the exception of Aja Romano [6] at Vox, seemed to notice the asphyxiation.

The majority of critics, flexing the contextual knowledge they are paid for, have focused their reviews on the movie’s relationship to its predecessors—as though slight modifications in a decades old plotline exonerate the film of its cultural positionality. As such, most have focused their gender analysis on the franchise’s evolving relationship to female ambition. Hadley Freeman wrote in the Guardian [7] of the movies’ ongoing commitment, since the original debuted in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March in title roles, to the idea that a woman’s success “emasculates” or even “feminizes” a man.

Each film—including the subsequent 1954 remake with Judy Garland and James Mason, the 1976 version with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, and Cooper’s most recent take—has followed a similar plot line. A woman is saved from obscurity by a famous man via a romantic relationship, she is then given the opportunity to share her hidden talent (either acting, in the earlier films, or singing in the latter two) with the world, and yet when her success suddenly eclipses her husband’s, he self-destructs in an addiction-riddled suicide. Cooper’s adaptation follows the previous prescription of destruction via addiction and, more notably, emasculation, affirming [8] Mill’s observation that “the generality of the male sex cannot yet tolerate the idea of living with an equal”.

Since the rise of feminist film studies in the 1970’s, early versions of A Star is Born have been used by  [9]multiple [10] scholars [11] as a case study of classically voyeuristic gender representation—in which women, according to Laura Mulvey [12], are “the images of meaning rather than the maker of meaning.” Film theory in the 1990’s followed Crenshaw’s pathbreaking work on intersectionality, moving beyond psychoanalysis to study movies as cultural products connected to a web of pop cultural mediums and genres, all creating social and political meaning.

Acknowledgement of this consensus within critical discourse, established nearly three decades previously, is absent in the reviews of A Star is Born. Critics like the New York Times’s Manohla Dargis and the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday [13] not only acknowledge the film’s reversion, but celebrate it, describing Cooper’s interpretation of the script, and the relationship between the leads, as both romantic and nostalgic. Dargis described the movie a “gorgeous heartbreak” that “thrills from a steadfast belief in old-fashioned, big-feeling cinema.” Hornaday calls it “lavishly delightful” and, tellingly, lauds Cooper for one of his “best performances to date”, admiring his directorial debut as one which managed to make “a classic narrative his own” [emphasis mine].

Cooper is at the center of both the movie and its reviews; and yet, none have held him accountable for the ethics of reproduction—of choosing to reinscribe, with only slight modification, the gender politics of the previous three versions. Each passing iteration [7] of the film has corresponded with the first, second, third, and fourth waves of feminism, yet Cooper does not appear to have considered the implications of choosing to remake an archaic, unexamined plotline amidst both #MeToo and the contested “fourth wave”, which has focused so heavily on gender representation in film and digital spaces. While the movie has been updated with iPhones and Saturday Night Live, it still manages to reify the same archetypes presented in the previous films: Ally is an updated Pandora, both created by a man and made responsible for his suffering.

Perhaps, most appropriately for the current political moment, A Star is Born presents a filmic form of gaslighting: one in which critics have been manipulated, by early scenes of social divergence, to believe in the movie’s difference from its predecessors. In one early scene, the audience is given the chance to reconnect with Gaga as they know her—hyperbolic and costumed, performing a satirical femininity. Singing La Vie en Rose in a drag bar, Gaga the actress is a heuristic to Gaga the singer, making the scene feel implicitly boundary-pushing simply by brand association. The audience watches as Gaga shape-shifts into a character named Ally, wearing fake eyebrows and making roses appear from inside her silk shift. It is this scene which first introduces Ally to Bradley Cooper’s character Jackson (later known as Jack), who has just stumbled desperately through the doors of the first bar he could find, searching for alcohol, after finishing his own stadium show.

Surrounded by queens yelling “Yas!”, a facile read of the movie could miss how easily the scene blurs decades, framing Ally in a male gaze so obtuse it feels retro. At the anticipated moment of discovery—Ally’s propulsion from drag bar obscurity—the camera switches to present Ally as Jack sees her. Jack’s eyes voyeuristically bulge as she lays on the bar in front of him, the camera soft-focused on her singing haunting, throaty French. His response to her then frames the duration of their relationship: he is impressed by her voice and enamored by her presence, but the nuance of these feelings is flattened by his level of sobriety—reduced to a blunt longing that knows few boundaries.

He desires access to her, something he soon attains when he is taken back to her dressing room. There, she is surprised to see him, disconcerted by someone so famous sitting next to her vanity and asking her about her makeup. Her response is colored by a mix of masked excitement and a wary defensiveness. She asks him what he is doing there in the placating tones of a woman attempting to create distance. Drunkenly staring at her, he asks her what she really looks like. She laughs nervously, then awkwardly accommodates his request to pull the tape eyebrows off her face. Nothing about this interaction is clear and enthusiastic; it is instead filled with uncertain responses. Asked to get a drink for Jack, Ally says “uh, sure”. Their “romance” proceeds from this foundation, one consistently based more on cajolement than consent.

The next morning, having spent the night singing in a parking lot, Ally attempts to assert boundaries and demand respect when she gets out of Jack’s private car and tells him, definitively, that she will not go with him to his concert that day. Ally relies on externalized, situational excuses to mask her discomfort: I have to work, she says, when she really means that he is still drunk and she would like to leave, a sentiment stated explicitly to her father later.

From this point on, we get to know Ally as she exists relationally to men and to the public—as a daughter, girlfriend, wife, and pop-star. Unlike Jackson, who is given a fully developed interiority and history, we only get glimpses of Ally’s personal history—a character development so limited we don’t even know her last name. The New Yorker’s Brody notes this, but fails to recognize that Ally’s lack of a surname is a striking reflection of the limited personhood she is conferred within the film, from its earliest scenes. Instead, he parenthetically comments that “if she has a last name, it doesn’t register”.

It seems, pervasively, that Ally’s limited agency ‘doesn’t register’ with the exclusively male cast of leading characters that accompany her in the film: Jack, her father, Jack’s driver, her boss, her friends, and her eventual manager, who work to create a movie which so completely fails the Bechdel test that it almost appears intentional.

What we do know is that Ally lives in a world of acute male insistence, one in which her consent is compromised constantly, as noted by Romano [6]. After she says her first definitive “no” to Jack, we discover that her home lacks any sense of privacy. Walking through the door, her father redirects her from the stairs where she pleads for sleep, and instead tricks her into saying hello to his aging male coworkers, crowded in the kitchen. He parades her around with possessive nouns (“look at my daughter”, he says, “look at her!”); later, he discovers her evening with Jack and insists the budding romance is a strategic opportunity for career advancement. “He’s a drunk, Dad, you’d know all about that”, she says. While the audience never discovers what she means, it is clear that her relationship with Jack is predicated on a corrosion of meaningful consent.

Jack’s driver soon arrives at the door to notify Ally, despite her protestations, that he will wait outside and follow her to work until she relents to the offer of a second date with Jack via his concert. Her willpower fading, she faces an ultimatum once she arrives at the restaurant she works at and hears the punitive commentary of her boss: she can either go to a concert with the driver who stalked her to work under Jack’s command, or continue to work under the discomfiting eye of brute male criticism evident early in the film. Finally, she decides to attend the concert and, once there, is pulled onto stage by Jack who says he will sing her song, without her consent, whether she joins him or not. This is the “romance” that launches her career.

What follows is an unstable, oscillating love story which raises the question: what power does Ally have in this relationship, and in her life?

An examination of Ally’s compromised consent early in the film illuminates just how fraught her agency remains within the evolution of their relationship and, later, their marriage. Before they first sleep together, Jack passes out drunk in the hotel room bed, unresponsive. Left uncertain about what to do, Ally eventually falls asleep next to him, only to be woken up in the early morning by a sobered-up Jack, finally ready, with immediacy, for sex. This interaction sits uncomfortably in the domain of inexplicit consent. It’s a messy and complicated thing to be bewildered by the fame, wealth, and access of a man offering social mobility from working class socioeconomic circumstances. Ally is not naïve in this regard: she knows what Jack offers and she knows what she stands to benefit. But the duration of the movie raises the troubling costs of this exchange: love with the requisite of sacrificial absolution, an internalization of instability in exchange for romance and a chance at success.

There follow scenes of infatuation, drugs, heavy drinking, fist-fights, and love in Arizona diners and deserts. It is evident for a brief and heady time that Ally does love Jack, and Jack, Ally. Yet Jack’s propensity for destruction results in pivotal scenes of abuse, scenes which recurrently end with Ally absolving him of his destructive behavior. This is seen in Ally’s first offer of independence—the moment she relays to Jack, drunk after a show, that a famous manager had approached her about pursuing her own career in music. In response, Jack smashes a cream cheese bagel in her face. (The New Yorker’s Brody seems to have missed this scene and its violence entirely, stating that if Ally ever had a conversation about the manager’s offer with Jack, it “isn’t seen”.)

Later, after Ally has finally attained commercial success, a threatened Jack corners her naked in a bathtub to abusively exploit her deepest insecurities for emotional control, calling her an ugly sellout. In all of these instances, Ally assumes the role of caretaker, managing their eventual emotional reconciliation. Yet the implicit assertion that she is expected to absolve him of his wrongdoing, rectifying the messes he makes, has gone unnoticed by critics. To the extent that it is noted in reviews, these moments are cited as evidence of an undying, resilient love, one which culminates in her eventual assumption of a surname: his. In her absolution of his destructive behavior, Ally’s identity is entirely subsumed in Jack’s.

Within the broader arc of modern film history, this film, and its representation of gender, consent, and power, are unremarkable: an affirmation of a world which revolves on the axis of men’s experiences (white men, it should be noted, whose illegal behavior is acquitted in a world free from any form of policing). Yet the hope of the fourth wave, whatever it turns out to be, and particularly of the #MeToo movement, is that the mundane will be rendered notable, that structural misogyny will systematically be examined in a seminal shift of critical engagement. And this begins, I believe, with reviewers who are tasked to set the tone for critical analysis in the world’s most prominent publications: people who are paid to consider works of art, and assess their import, within the broader cultural milieu.

The dissonance between the minimum demands of the #MeToo movement—that women’s voices be heard and respected and their experiences of abuse validated in the public domain—and the critical reception of A Star is Born reveal the vast gulf which still must be crossed in the realization of these goals. Metaphorically, these critics, and the elite publications which employ them, are mirrored in Jack’s insistence to Ally that she “has something to say”, and she better reach deep and say it. Like Cooper, the publications leading #MeToo coverage are offering their pages, and their platforms, to the voices of famous, wealthy, straight, white women who they believe have something to say about the current zeitgeist. Yet, as these reviews reveal, they are also simultaneously reinforcing structures of power which render people, from varying gender identities and socioeconomic strata, voiceless.


Lauren Jackson [14] is reading for a Masters in Public Policy at Magdalen College.