‘The Intern’ May Tick Boxes On The Feminist Film Checklist, But That Sure Doesn’t Make It A Feminist Film

Sure, she has a job. But she needs a man to handle it.

There’s a scene during  The Intern in which fashion company CEO Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway) is rugged up in a hotel bedroom with her assistant/Guy Friday of sorts, Ben Whitaker (Robert De Niro), D&M-ing and sharing expensive mini-bar snacks. She asks him whether she should hire a male CEO to help run her company, and he scoffs:  “I hate to be the feminist here, but…”

This moment, whereupon I groaned audibly (much to the chagrin of the two imperiously sighing men behind me), marks the peak of The Intern’s uncomfortably sexist mansplaining. Best to bury your heads in your hands now, folks.

The Intern, which is the fourth film written, directed and produced by Nancy Meyers (It’s Complicated, Something’s Gotta Give, The Holiday), is ultimately confused by its own feminist agenda, weighed down by the kind of ‘you go girl — but not too far’ post-feminism that dominated 1980s—1990s working girl romps — like Sarah Jessica Parker vehicle, I Don’t Know How She Does It. (If you don’t remember that film, you can take comfort in the fact that nobody else does either.)

And if you’re just as bored as I am by the concept of another film that delegitimises women’s place in the workforce, this one has the added bonus of questioning whether women should actually make any decisions without the instruction of their 70-year-old male inferior.

In truth, The Intern is not a bad film: it’s funny, impeccably well-designed (as all Nancy Meyers films are), and features a particularly knock-out performance from Anne Hathaway. But its tired premise feels rotten to the core.

Beyond Bechdel

On paper, The Intern looks great for women. The film was written, directed and co-produced by Meyers, one of few female creative juggernauts in Hollywood, who has famously declared, “My movies are not messed with by the studios”. It stars Anne Hathaway as the head of a thriving online shopping business, About The Fit, and her major storyline involves avoiding a scenario where a dudebro CEO (the type that calls ATF “a chick site”) will take over her business because she is a working mother.

And yet The Intern leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. In what Variety has sniped is a “behind at least one successful woman stands an older, wiser man” scenario, Robert De Niro plays Ben, a 70-year-old ‘senior intern’ gimmick-hired by Jules’s company, who steps in and instructs floundering Jules on how best to run her business and save her family life. For the most part, Jules’s story is told through his eyes.

So much of our contemporary analysis of what makes a film feminist comes down to ticking boxes, and The Intern ticks a big one: it passes the Bechdel Test. But while Alison Bechdel’s infamous guidelines have been an excellent tool for exposing Hollywood’s reticence when it comes to the representation of women on screen, a film featuring two female characters talking to each other about something that isn’t a man is not automatically a feminist film.

The weakness of the Bechdel Test as a stand-alone standard has been well-documented; it was especially exposed in Sweden in 2013 when movie theatres began giving an A-rating to films that passed it — but Gravity, an action movie in which the majority of screen time is devoted to one woman’s epic struggle to return to Earth, did not pass. Does that mean Gravity is unfeminist?

Of course, the real mark of a feminist film is not just who is on the screen and who put them there, but also what it all means. We need to look deeper to understand why those female characters are there, who they are meant to be representing, and what, overall, the film has to say about women and gender equality.

The Great Mansplainer

Ben is our protagonist, played with the lackadaisical shrug that characterises all of De Niro’s recent screen work. Ben and Jules pal around, they get in hijinks together, they share secrets.

But the conceit of the film, where two unlikely people (a young businesswoman and a retired old man) become pals, is also its downfall. In trying to tell a story about the contemporary working woman, Meyers’ fatal mistake was having a man at Jules’s shoulder, informing her every decision.

In an interview with the LA Times, Meyers said of Ben and Jules’s relationship: “It came from something that was missing in my life but I never thought of. When somebody’s in a stressful situation, wouldn’t it be nice to have someone with some wisdom to watch your back, remind you who you are and what you’re doing well?”

It’s a nice thought, and could have played out well without the paternalistic overtones in De Niro’s performance. But every beat where Ben advises Jules (and others) is pitched not just as older/younger, but also as male/female.

When Jules buys Ben and some young colleagues several rounds of tequila shots, Ben badgers her: “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” He doesn’t ask his other colleagues (all of whom are male) if they have. And of course, Jules gets instantly smashed and throws up in a dumpster while Ben holds her hair back. Lesson learned, ladies!

There’s also a running joke involving Ben’s tendency to carry a handkerchief — which is useful because the women at About The Fit are always crying. This appears to be something Meyers is conflicted about; even as Jules’ overworked assistant sobs into Ben’s handkerchief, she moans, “I hate girls who cry at work”. When a young male colleague (Adam Devine) asks Ben why he carries a handkerchief, Ben explains, simply: “Women cry”.

And then there’s the moment when Ben sits with a pair of sniping stay-at-home mums, and shames them for being anti-feminist towards Jules. When they call her “tough” he replies, sarcastically, that he’d assumed they would be happy to see “one of your own shattering glass ceilings”. These women are carbon copies of the blithe, bitchy ‘Momsters’ in I Don’t Know How She Does It: the bitter, unsupportive women who are apparently letting down feminism. And in this case, they need a man to point it out.

In the LA Times interview, Hathaway said, “One of the things I think is so cool about this relationship is that Ben’s not trying to change Jules. He’s not trying to fix her.”

He may not be trying to change Jules exactly, but he sure mansplains things at her. He tells Jules, an actual adult, when she has had enough alcohol; he tells her that handkerchiefs are for pesky crying women (he also happens to be very wrong about that); he explains to her, and to other women, why they are bad feminists; and, crucially, his vote is the deciding factor in her decision about hiring a male CEO.

Ben is a small-time expert on absolutely everything, purely by virtue of being an old man. It’s great to see a working woman get it on screen; I just wish her strings weren’t being pulled by some bloke.

The Old Guard And The New Feminism

Films about women working are still uncommon. Women work in films, of course, but often their job is just another flourish – like a haircut, or a propensity to party – that’s meant to indicate what type of woman they are. They are a woman in a woman’s job – publishing, teaching, running a bakery – or they are a woman in a man’s job – lawyer, doctor, politician. It’s shorthand characterisation: sweet and nurturing, or ball-busting and uptight. So there is something refreshing about watching a film like The Intern, in which a woman’s day-to-day working life takes up a large portion of screen time.

And big boss Jules is in many ways an inherently exciting — if depressingly novel — character. It’s a character to which Hathaway pitches the perfect whorl of spirit, smarts and heart. (The film also makes the case for the world’s extreme overindulgence of the ‘Anne Hathaway is an asshole’ narrative. Hathaway is a fine actor – shrewd, affecting and undeniably watchable – and here’s to the Hathaissance.)

But her working woman is constantly undercut by the churlish, unspoken question: ‘Can women have it all?’

You can thank the 1980s for that irksome phrase, part of the backlash against second-wave feminism aimed to scare women away from their own achievement with the myth that they could have a job or a family – never both. This backlash worked in two ways: to scare those women who wanted both (delusional), and to shame those who didn’t (bad feminists).

Of course the backlash is still real in many ways, but the question itself feels pretty dated. There are certainly more interesting and inclusive feminist topics to be discussing. But then inclusivity has never really been Nancy Meyers’ bag; as with many of her films, this one’s focus is on one particular type of woman, and one particular type of world: rich, hetero, cis and white.

In this narrow, exclusionary world, women are their own worst enemies. They tear each other down, they cry at work and cause a fuss, they disappoint themselves when they make the wrong choices. And the sour cherry on top is De Niro’s Ben — the Jiminy Cricket on Jules’s shoulder — telling her how to be better.

The Bechdel Test isn’t an instant pass, and a Strong Female Character does not a feminist film make. We need to keep digging, interrogating issues of women’s representation in film, and making space for a more diverse group of women to have their voices and their stories heard.

The Intern is released nationally on Thursday October 1.

Matilda Dixon-Smith is a freelance writer, editor and theatre-maker. She has been published in Kill Your Darlings, Overland, Going Down Swinging and the Herald Sun, and tweets from @mdixonsmith