Meeting your heroines

In Others
October 7, 2009

Went to see Julie and Julia this evening, a movie which I rather expected to love since it combines two great passions of mine: writing and cooking (I really must write more about cooking here) and even Mark Lawson on Front Row had to admit that he’d loved it. Written by Nora Ephron, starring Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci, if it were an acerbic comedy about the breakup of a marriage it’d be an Oscar nomination certainty. As it’s only a movie about happiness and joy all I can say is: go and see it at once, and if you know me do not be surprised to receive a copy of the DVD as a gift sometime this year.

One wonderful thing about this movie is that is is about happy marriages. This is so rare a thing to see on TV or film that it seems almost shocking. Furthermore, they are marriages in which both husbands and wives get to have their own independent lives, pursuing their passions and joys, supporting one another…

It made me contemplate the way feminists seem to be described: man-hating, domineering, pursuing careers at the expense of the family (as if there were anything more expensive to a family than a frustrated, bored, depressed mother or wife). The thing is, feminism doesn’t mean that a woman wants to be better than their husband or partner. All we want is what’s portrayed in this movie: support, love, companionship and some hot lovin’ while we both pursue our dreams. Mutual support. Mutual companionship. Mutual hot lovin’. It’s not so unattainable, really. People are doing it all the time. As far as one can tell from Julia Child’s life story, they have been since the 1940s at least. Maybe even earlier than that! Of course the movie is a fantasy, but at least it’s a healthier fantasy than ‘some day my prince will come’. When I was working on the Golden Notebook Project last year I wrote that I wished there were more feminists writing about how to make happy, feminist heterosexual relationships: this is just such a work, and I loved it.

I was also fascinated by a thread running through the movie: the nature of heroes and heroines. The ‘Julie’ of the movie’s title is Julie Powell, an office worker, who spent a year cooking her way through the cookery book of TV chef Julia Child. Over the course of the year Child comes to represent something to Powell: a joyfulness, an exuberance, a dedication to life’s pleasures, a gutsy, earthy-yet-refined, bright-side-seeking way to live. Child becomes almost a god to her, in the sense of being a member of a pantheon, a spirit or idea to call on in times of need.

Trying not to spoil the movie too much… Powell has a brief contact with the real Child, then in her 90s which of course fails to live up to this idealisation. Well, how could anything live up to the idea she has of Child? There’s a lovely scene where Powell and her husband discuss this. It’s not the Julia in the world who’s important, he says to her, it’s the Julia in your head.

It’s true of course. Heroes can never live up to what we hope for them to be. They’re just people. I’ve met some of my writing heroes over the past few years and even though the experiences were often wonderful (especially meeting Neil Gaiman, he really is lovely) nothing short of a full telepathic mind-meld could have really expressed the passion of that relationship on my side. Not everyone has heroes – and I suppose I don’t really do hero-worship, I don’t think my heroes are perfect, I don’t want to be just like them or imagine that they could solve all my problems. But I do have people whose work I admire intensely, often because I think that maybe, if I worked very hard, I could get to be a bit like them one day. Heroes become part of us – they seem to meet us just where we are (because of course we have partly invented them) and walk beside us on the journey. They’re like a story we tell ourselves about who we are and who we might be. Meeting the real person is often just fine, but… the real person is often actually less important than the idea of them. What a beautiful, subtle, interesting message.

Meryl Streep and Nora Ephron should make a movie together every three years from now till they keel over. They’re both wonderful. And if I ever meet them, although I might try to tell them how much they mean to me, I can pretty much accept that they won’t understand.

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