Written by Rebecca McCallum
Boys will be boys: representations of gender
There has been a lot of conversation circulating for quite some time about The Girl on the Third Floor with critics deeming it: ‘a fantastic directorial debut’ that is: ‘fun and refreshing’. Much has been said of the artistry, special effects and gore that is present within the film and this is well deserved. However, this seems to have prevented a deeper scrutiny and in turn, an unwillingness to look beyond the visuals which reveal some unsettling messages about the pervasiveness of male power. The film’s central character Don (Phillip J Brooks) has been described as: ‘a likeable boob’, ‘a bit of a scumbag’ and ‘a fuddy, duddy Alpha male’. Whether read collectively or on an individual basis, these remarks all work to minimise what is at heart a portrayal of toxic masculinity and in doing so, they eschew more vital conversations that need to be had around the gender politics in the film.
By contrast, Sarah (Sarah Brooks), a woman with whom a married Don will have a one night stand and then quickly disregard, is described in more worrying terms with reviewers choosing to define the character only in terms of sexuality, she is reduced to: ‘a mysterious seductress’ or ‘an alluring neighbour’. Furthermore, it’s Sarah not Don who is appointed with blame as she is deemed: ‘only too eager to help him with his handiwork’. While perceptions of Don continue to find him: ‘endearing’ and simply: ‘a bad dude’ Sarah’s: ‘repeated visits’ are criticised as potentially being able to destroy: ‘his relationship with his wife’, it would seem that charges are levelled firmly in one direction only and that is in the direction of the female. What follows is an exploration of the representations of gender, female oppression and misogyny that exist within the film. The pervasiveness of male dominance is compounded through the choice to abandon an otherwise positive feminist conclusion. In doing so, this cancels out any notion of the film becoming a critique of the harmful attitude that: ‘boys will be boys’ and instead becomes a work that opposes the promotion of equality amongst the sexes and in turn, female empowerment.
Man about the house: new beginnings built upon shaky foundations
The film opens by explaining that Don and his pregnant wife Liz (Trieste Kelly Dunn) need to relocate in order for their relationship to continue; this decision demonstrates the necessity of making a fresh start and moving away from their past lives in order to make a success of their marriage. Not only do they need to move to a new house and build a home in a totally new area, but Don has left his job under dubious circumstances. Previously a lawyer with a sketchy work record, we learn that he was referred to as King Don, a title that is as unappealing as it is fitting for the egoism and self-centredness that his character embodies throughout the film. All in all, it seems that Don has had to shed his former skin entirely if he is to stand any chance of saving his marriage. There is then, an early hope that the commitment to these life changes could be the signifier of a man willing to learn from his past mistakes by making use of a rare opportunity to transform.
A few minutes alone with Don, however, is enough to assure us that he is preoccupied with fulfilling an idea of ‘manliness’. From the outset he demonstrates an ego-centric attitude, arriving with a tool- box before whipping out a beer, he looks at the décor and remarks: ‘who would paint a room pink?’ This self-serving outlook is reflected in his decision to spend time alone in the house, leaving ahead of Liz with only his dog Cooper for company who, gendered male and unable to question his owner’s behaviour, clearly acts as Don’s ideal kind of ‘buddy’. We are shown the manifestation of Don’s misogynistic views through his communications with Liz which are told through a series of video chats. When she gently questions if he needs any assistance with the renovations, he defensively asserts: ‘How could I sleep knowing some other jerk-wad built your castle?’ a statement that is questionable in that he seems to have overlooked the fact that he did not construct this house from its foundations. Even when one of the floors comes crashing in, (as he says so himself): ‘there is no structural damage’; his contribution is to the interior only and therefore entirely superficial.
As he sets to work on the house we soon find out that Don is not as ‘handy’ as he likes to think as he visits online tutorials for instruction and when covering up a hole in the wall and seeing that it doesn’t align, he deems it: ‘close enough’. This ties in with the notion of Don changing as a person, if he were to rebuild himself entirely then their marriage would be a loving and sincere space. However, he is only committed to appearing to have changed on the surface. Just like the house, he in essentials, remains completely unchanged throughout the course of the film. We are presented with some insight into the kind of man ‘King Don’ was during a porch front exchange with his Lawyer Manny Bharara (Anish Jethmalani) who, seeming familiar with his old ways asks: ‘how’s a guy like you planning to survive out here; no night life, no strippers to woo your clients with?’ We also learn that the: ‘Feds cut you one helluva sweetheart deal’ and that ‘good old Liz’ will be footing the bill for their new abode; in these early scenes then Don has it all to prove and everything to lose.
Away from home and (perhaps more importantly) out of view from Liz’s eyes, it’s easy to imagine that Don might not be as ready and willing to change as it first seemed. Indeed, it seems quite possible (especially on subsequent watches) for him to have engineered the plan to work on the house in solitude in order to have the freedom to behave how he pleases, unwatched. Through his video chats he can also assume total control, selecting what Liz sees and hears such as in their first chat when he pushes beer bottles out of sight, assuring her that everything is going smoothly. As his time at the house continues, he will edit his own narrative and provide Liz with updates on his ‘progress’ whilst in reality he is making little advancement. When, during another video chat late at night, Liz asks if he is sure about not needing extra assistance with the house he says: ‘if you want to help you can tilt your camera down to those beautiful boobs again’; the only ‘help’ then that she can provide in Don’s eyes is to gratify him sexually. The unequal nature of their relationship is supported further in the pet names they use which represent predator and prey with Don as the ‘tiger’ and Liz as a ‘bunny’.
Don’s propensity to objectify women can also be seen whilst undertaking routine activities such as when he is out jogging and he passes a woman whose physique he turns back to examine without her noticing; he cannot refrain from the male gaze. Similarly, he cannot keep his concentration to the task in hand as he attempts to undertake the various repairs in order to fix up the house. The results are fairly unsuccessful and instead he opts to visit a local diner for food and drink. Here he meets, Geary (Marshall Bean) a straight talking long -time resident of the town who exposes further the outdated notions of maleness that Don holds when enquiring if he is gay, a question that evokes an offended outburst of: ‘excuse me!’ followed by a horrified scoff as he proclaims that he is a father to be. This innocent question gets under Don’s skin and in doing so exposes a deeply unpleasant hint of homophobia which is inextricably linked with his misguided ideas of what it means to ‘be a man’.
Sarah. Her name is Sarah.
It’s not long before Don’s solitude at the house is broken and he finds himself with company. A young blonde woman appears on his doorstep as he is (conveniently) wiping dirt from his face and naked torso following a pipe burst. We move quickly from a friendly porch-based conversation to a second visit where this time she is welcomed inside the house for beer and a guided tour, courtesy of its only resident. Through the shots which remain fixed closely on her body the camera begins to objectify the invited guest, its uncomfortable male-gaze view representing the wondering eyes of Don. Without pause or hesitation, Don has sex with her, despite disclosing that he is married and due to be a new parent; his behaviour is presented as wholly pleasure focused and devoid of any guilt. Not only does he display a complete lack of commitment to Liz and his marriage but his remark of: ‘don’t look at me like that, I earnt that’ to dog Cooper’s unapproving cries tell us that he views sex as nothing more than a commodity. The use of ‘I’ within this statement also signifies his unwavering sense of entitlement.
The following day, the woman makes another call to the house and is hopeful to rekindle their intimacy. This time, she is greeted with an entirely opposite response as Don treats her not with amorous affection but hostility and rejection; now that his carnal desires are satisfied, relations with the new woman in his life have been reduced to the same meaninglessness that exists within his marriage. When explaining to Sarah why they cannot spend time together, his reasons are not connected to a sense of monogamy and commitment to Liz but because he has to get the house in shape and: ‘there is a laundry list of things to do’.
The next morning Milo tells Don that his ‘assistant’ has arrived and he finds Sarah in the kitchen making coffee. Building on his previous reaction when he eschewed her advances (after having already slept with her), his unwelcoming attitude evolves into a threat: ‘this is my life’ he tells her abruptly: ‘and I’m not fucking around. I don’t want to see you in my house again’. He then proceeds to back her up against a wall and points at her aggressively with one hand, holding her in place with the other. What is striking about this interaction is the extent not only of Don’s refusal to acknowledge and accept any consequence for his actions and his violent behaviour but also that his speech is deeply entrenched in tones of narcissism with repeated use of: ‘I’ and ‘My’. What hits hardest of all in this scene however is realising that Don has not yet deemed it necessary to find out the woman’s name, evidence of his general attitude of disregard towards the opposite sex. ‘Sarah. My name is Sarah.’ She tells him, clearly offended at his persistent objectification of her. In choosing not to ask Sarah her name this sends a strong message that Don views himself as superior and, in this case, Sarah as nothing more than a worthless object to be toyed with.
Milo questions Don’s behaviour and chastises him for the verbal threats he has made towards Sarah. In response, Don offers a stream of excuses, indicating he is unwilling to assume any responsibility for the choices he makes: ‘I didn’t go looking for it, I didn’t ask for it, I didn’t even really want it! It just happened’ He attempts to trivialise the bad decisions he has made and is able to move forward with life as though nothing has happened: ‘I explained to her it was a mistake; it’s not going to be a problem. Now can we just go to the hardware store please?’ Rather than allow for his friend’s intervention to present him with the opportunity for pause and reflection, Don responds by devaluing Milo completely, declaring that: ‘It is what it is Milo, if you can’t handle it, then don’t be here when I come back’. It would seem then that if people do not act complicity and legitimise Don’s often immoral behaviour, he opts for the easiest resolution possible by simply pushing them out of his life. Later that day, in a video-chat with Liz in which he puts her down yet again, she declares that she can see someone else in the house. He minimises her comment, shrugging it off by declaring: ‘if someone else was in here Cooper would be going crazy’. By making this statement, however logical it might sound, Don is covertly undermining the thoughts and feeling of Liz, offering a small but significant insight into the gender imbalance that exists within their marriage.
Come back next week to read the second part of Rebecca’s in-depth look at The Girl On The Third Floor!