Shea: Amanda, three months ago, you and I had a nice, long conversation about romantic comedies, a movie genre for which we share a great affinity. And during that conversation, we settled on a number of things, including but not limited to: What is the best kind of montage in a rom-com? Who is the best rom-com star of the past 30 years? And what makes a movie a rom-com? But I come to you today with a different question, and I’m going to use a romantic comedy as an entry point, because do you know what Wednesday was?
Amanda: Was it Julia Roberts’s birthday?
Shea: No, Amanda. It was the 15th anniversary of Maid in Manhattan, a not-that-good romantic comedy starring Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes. In Maid, Lopez plays Marisa Ventura, a maid, and Ralph Fiennes plays Chris Marshall, a senatorial candidate on the campaign trail staying in the hotel where Marisa works. Through a string of events, he comes to believe that she’s a fellow guest at the hotel (rather than an employee there), and for the rest of the movie all of that string gets played out in predictable fashion. But that’s not what I want to talk about—or, I mean, we can talk about those things, sure, but what I really want to talk about is a different idea. A bigger idea. One that we can (eventually) stretch out to other things. And it can be summed up with one simple line: Could Maid in Manhattan Get Made Today?
Amanda: I’m intrigued by your plan! Go on.
Shea: What I mean is: The world is always changing, and lots of times it’s doing so in a way that is making it smarter and kinder and more sensitive. So the idea behind the Could __________ Get Made Today? column is to take movies from the past—and not just romantic comedies—that were OK to do back then and try to figure out if they could get made today. For example, 1986’s Soul Man is an easy way to get into the idea. In that movie, a rich white kid decides to paint his face black and pretend to be a black person to get a scholarship to a law school he wants to attend. It’s a total nightmare in all of the ways you’d expect (and also in several ways you don’t expect). So Soul Man is a movie that got made before, but absolutely could not get made today. Does that make sense?
Amanda: It does! And your suggestion to start by investigating a particular romantic comedy is a good one, because as you and I have discussed before, the genre can be insensitive and plain creepy (if you’re talking about While You Were Sleeping). A lot of the rom-coms that you and I love have premises that would send another person running in real life—and that’s just the beginning of those movies. The genre is too white; it perpetuates unhelpful gender stereotypes; and there’s the whole fairy-tale aspect to deal with. We have a lot to discuss.
Shea: Now, best I can tell, there are four main reasons a movie that was made in the past wouldn’t get made again today.
- It was way too offensive to a particular race or ethnicity. This would be that Soul Man example I mentioned earlier.
- It was way too insensitive to a group of people tied together by something other than race or ethnicity. In 2001’s Shallow Hal, Jack Black plays a guy who gets hypnotized into believing … wait for it … wait … waaaaaaaait … that fat people (and ugly people) are actually worthwhile humans, too.
- It was too sexist and/or generally reductive of women. In 2003’s How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Kate Hudson plays a magazine writer who tricks Matthew McConaughey into dumping her—to win a bet, it’s a long story—by doing an exaggerated version of all the stereotypically “wrong things” that women do in a relationship. That includes stuff like crying, and wanting to know his friends/family. Real horrifying behavior.
- It had a crime in it that everyone just sort of laughed off, but now when you watch it you go, “Wait a minute … did that person just commit [CRIME]?” The easiest example here would be 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds, in which the nerds commit several acts of sexual harassment and assault, including rape, if you can even believe that.
Here’s the thing, though: We can’t just be like, “Well, that movie was too racist, that’s why it couldn’t get made today” or whatever. That’s just not a satisfying way to handle things. My experience with conversations like these is that for them to be successful, you have to be as quantitatively specific as possible. You need parameters. Because if there are parameters, then can you measure things. And if you can measure things, then they feel official. You know what I’m saying?
Amanda: I do, and I agree. Based on my rewatch, it seems that Maid in Manhattan would most likely present some issues in the first category—“It was too offensive to a particular race or ethnicity”—because of how the movie portrays Marisa and her hotel coworkers. There’s also a small case to be made in the third category—“It was too reductive of women as a group of people”—because of how the movie ends up prioritizing the love interest over Marisa’s management track. But she does make management in the end credits, and also, it’s a rom-com, so they have to get together. Anyway, I think we should investigate Category 1 more thoroughly.
Shea: Exactly. So we need a scoring system, really. For all race-related movie issues, I propose the following:
- Did someone use Blackspeak/Brownspeak/Yellowspeak? If a movie satisfies this criterion, it receives 10 percentage points.
- Did someone wear Blackface/Brownface/Yellowface? If a movie satisfies this criterion, it receives 30 percentage points.
- Was someone asked to play a character of a different race? If a movie satisfies this criterion, it receives 10 percentage points.
- How many instances were there of a character (or characters) really leaning into a racist stereotype? Two instances equals 15 percentage points. Three to five instances equals 25 percentage points. And six or more instances equals 35 percentage points.
- Was there an instance where a person explains something about another person’s race to them, and if not about their race, then at least about their station in life? If a movie satisfies this criteria, it receives 15 percentage points.
Using that scale, there’s a max score of 100 Percent Offensive. Any movie that scores above 60 Percent Offensive is one that couldn’t get made today. (For example, Soul Man would score a perfect 100 Percent Offensive. It hits every mark.) Am I missing anything?
Amanda: This looks pretty comprehensive to me.
Amanda: The only other thing I would add is that, while you and I are not yet Hollywood executives, we are going to assume, for the purposes of “Could ______ Get Made Today?,” that our judgments speak for Hollywood. Today, we will decide what gets made.
Shea: Yes. Today and forever. So I guess now we just plug in Maid in Manhattan and see what it scores?
Amanda: Let’s do it.
Shea: OK, let me ask you a thing before we really get started, because I didn’t notice this until the rewatch, but do you remember the security guy who’s supposed to be watching the cameras all the time to catch any sort of badness going on in the hotel? The older black man.
Amanda: I do—he’s Marisa’s (and Ty’s) friend, and he keeps her double identity a secret for as long as he can, so she doesn’t lose her job.
Shea: Without looking, do you know what his name is?
Amanda: I don’t.
Shea: It’s Keef. His name is Keef Townsend. Is it possible to argue here that maaaaaaaaaybe that was someone playing a racist joke? Like, was his name originally supposed to be Keith Townsend, but then someone was like, “Wait. What if we change it to Keef since it’s a black guy?” Could that have happened? Or is it that right now I just have my Sensitivity Meter turned up way too high?
Amanda: One: Oof. Two: No, I don’t think you’re being too sensitive; I think you’ve tapped into one of the bigger problems here, which is that the racial issues in this movie are not as considered as we’d hope. It seems totally possible that someone was like “Keef, not Keith, sounds great” and then no one gave a second thought to it ever again, in any capacity, during the many months that it takes to make a movie.
Here is another example: I assume you remember the horrible white woman, Caroline Lane (Natasha Richardson), and her more horrible friend Rachel (Amy Sedaris). Marisa borrows Caroline’s Dolce & Gabbana coat, and eventually her name, and then all hell breaks loose when Caroline finds out. But before then, Caroline and Rachel are also serving the role of the “obviously bigoted” hotel guests in the movie: Caroline can’t remember Marisa’s real name, and Amy Sedaris makes some ignorant Spanish-language jokes. You’re supposed to (I hope) think they’re racist; in a way, they represent the movie’s attempt to acknowledge the attitudes its characters might face at work. But these two characters are also basically the only “comedy” in this whole romantic comedy, which means that if you came here to laugh, you’re being asked to laugh at … racist jokes. It’s not an ideal setup. I think it would also qualify as two characters perpetuating a racist stereotype, which is a slightly different wording but captures the spirit here.
Shea: This is very perceptive: “If you came here to laugh, you’re being asked to laugh at … racist jokes.” I’d not thought about it that way. I think you’re exactly right. So that means Maid in Manhattan is officially up to 15 points in our scoring system.
I’ve got another one for you: After Marisa gets busted for pretending to be someone she’s not, she gets fired from her job. As she’s leaving the hotel, Chris chases after her. He calls her name, she ignores him a few times, and then finally she starts talking to him. He asks her why she thought she had to lie to him. She says that it just happened by accident (he walked in on her trying on some clothes that a guest had asked her to return to the store), but that it didn’t matter anyway because she knows he wouldn’t have ever bothered to speak to her if he knew she was a maid. That’s when he says, “How would you know? You didn’t give me a chance. You stand on your soapbox judging everyone, so sure that they’re judging you.” I think that means we can assign the movie 15 points for satisfying the Was there an instance where a person of one race explains a thing to another person about their station in life? criteria. And if you feel like that’s a little tenuous, I’ll remind you that earlier in the movie, when Chris hasn’t yet found out that Marisa isn’t rich, he talks to her about what it’s like for people to grow up in dilapidated neighborhoods (he’s on his way to a speaking event in the Bronx).
Amanda: This is the right call—the “I’m giving a speech about housing projects later” scene is a particularly icky blend of mansplaining and privilegesplaining.
Shea: Bang. And now we’re up to 30 points for Maid in Manhattan, which, honestly, is already higher than I thought it was going to score when we started this.
Amanda: What’s your take on the Stanley Tucci character? He plays Jerry, the political adviser to Chris, which means that he’s mostly running around second-guessing Chris’s interest in Marisa (though he knows her as “Caroline”) and asking people to do background checks on her (again, as Caroline, but still). He doesn’t know much about her—which is the whole premise of the movie, more or less— and he’s focused on press exposure, as all political advisers are. But it’s pretty snakey, and he’s very clearly against Marisa as a romantic interest.
Shea: Yeah, but Chris already has a reputation in the media as a womanizer. Jerry’s just trying to do pre-damage control, is what it seemed to me. How do we feel about Marisa’s relationship with her mother? Is that OK? I mention it because there’s the part where, after Marisa gets fired, her mom pokes her in the eye by telling her that she didn’t deserve to be dating Chris anyway, and then she implies that all she’s ever going to be is a cleaning lady. That part’s fine, right?
Amanda: I thought it was a little tough on moms, who are just doing their best to protect you and sometimes struggle with the best way to do that. (Or to express it to their adult daughters.) But even that is based in reality, so I’m OK with it.
Shea: Agreed. She just wanted her to have a job as soon as possible. OK, how about this: I’m going to step outside of the race angle and present a new thing. In Soul Man, there’s a part where the main guy (his name is Mark Watson) sleeps with a white woman who has a fetish for non-white men. Does that constitute a crime of any kind? Everything about Black Mark is basically the same as White Mark—he doesn’t present himself as a different person, only a different race. So is that a crime? It feels like yes to me. What about you? I ask because if so, then I think you could maybe make that same accusation of Marisa in Maid in Manhattan. Chris sleeps with her under the impression that she is rich and not a maid. And she gets him to think that by using a series of deceptions, including adopting someone else’s general identity. So is she guilty of a crime? And if yes, then how many points are we giving the movie for it? It has to be at least 15, I’d think. Or is it a situation where it’s like, yeah, what she did was wrong, but nobody would ever look at it and decide to not have that scene in the movie like they would with the oral sex scene in Revenge of the Nerds?
Amanda: Well first, you were not kidding about Soul Man. But to your larger question, I’m gonna go ahead and side with Marisa on this one. There’s a scene after the walk in the park, when Marisa is walking home with Ty, and she’s talking about how she shouldn’t have misled Chris. Ty, who likes Chris a lot because they’re both politics nerds, and also because he’s a kid, points out that Marisa didn’t actually lie; she just didn’t correct him. Marisa responds, “Now you’re starting to sound like Richard Nixon. Letting someone believe something is true when it’s not is just as much a lie as a lie is.”
Marisa is right, which means that she knows she’s wrong. I give her credit for that! If she weren’t conflicted about her position, it would be creepy; since she’s aware of the problem, and eventually apologizes for it, I’m giving her a pass. Relationships are hard.
Shea: A fair ruling.
Amanda: But while we’re on the subject of Chris and Marisa’s courtship, can I ask whether you noticed all the one-off, slightly horny lines they gave Chris? A stray comment about Marisa’s butt, and then a comment about “fantastic assets” when he’s talking to Tucci.
They’re all PG, I suppose, and I would guess that some of my discomfort comes from Ralph Fiennes’s inability to deliver them in a natural way, but … they were a little strange. Is this my Sensitivity and/or Prudish Meter going too far?
Shea: Ha. First, yes, I did notice them, because they fell out of his mouth like anvils out of an airplane. Second, I think Ralph Fiennes is just way too eerie or eldritch to be convincing as a love interest in a romantic comedy. After seeing him in Red Dragon (where he plays a serial killer who falls so deeply in love that he eats a painting), I’ve only ever been able to picture him as that exact character. So when he’s trying to flirt with Lopez in Maid, it feels a lot like actually what he’s doing is trying his very best not to club her over the head and then drag her back to his torture chamber.
So right now we’re still stuck at 30 points, meaning Maid in Manhattan is 30 Percent Offensive. Is that it? I think that’s it. There aren’t any instances of Blackspeak/Brownspeak/Yellowspeak, nor are there any instances of Blackface/Brownface/Yellowface, so those categories are clear. And there wasn’t anyone in there who was asked to play a different race, so that category is clear, too. Are we missing anything?
Amanda: When I was doing basic internet research for this piece, I came across a quote from Jessica Alba in 2007: "Jennifer Lopez is a huge star, but in Hollywood they still always want her to play the maid.” It’s obviously a reference to this movie, but it’s also a reference to all the movies that don’t get made, or the actresses who aren’t cast in a certain role because Hollywood still has huge problems when it comes to pushing past stereotypes and promoting women of color. I don’t think we really have a scoring system to address that for this movie, but I thought that you and I should at least talk about it.
Shea: Alba is for sure correct. And we’re slowly starting to see the movie world pay closer attention to those sorts of things, but we’re still a long, long, long way off from when an announcement about a woman of color having been cast as the lead in a movie won’t be followed by a headline like “[NAME] Is the First Latina to … ” or whatever. And lest you think this is a problem we’re already past, I’ll point to the TV show Devious Maids, which was about a group of maids who joined together to solve the murder of one of their friends (who was also a maid). It was the first time an English-speaking show on network American television had an all-Latina starring cast (they all played maids). AND IT CAME OUT IN 2013.
And, if we circle back to the point of this article, I think that would be the main argument for why Maid in Manhattan couldn’t get made today: I just don’t know if you could get away with making a movie about a maid and cast a Latina in that role without getting dumped on by anyone and everyone. HOWEVER, that being said, we established earlier that in order for us to decide that a movie could not be remade today, it was going to have to score at least a 60/100 on our scoring system. Maid in Manhattan barely got to halfway there, and that was with us being really strict about the scoring. Which means …
Amanda: Maid in Manhattan could still be made today. Which is, if I can speak for you, the answer we both expected, and one that seems in line with the scoring we just outlined. But I think the larger point is that Maid in Manhattan is not the movie we’d want to make today, because we can imagine 20 other, better, yet-to-be-made movies to take its spot.
Shea: That sounds right. It could get made today. But that doesn’t mean it should get made today.