Weird stuff enters the zeitgeist. The way a single year might feature two killer asteroid movies, or everyone becomes obsessed with furry owl poop that talks. You can’t predict it. Not too long ago, I got around to seeing Room, a movie I initially confused with one of my favorites. I loved it, and emerged (you don’t so much see Room as survive it) with a deep respect for Brie Larson and a strong desire to see her play Captain Marvel. I started that day feeling out-of-sorts, and that movie didn’t really help (although it is far more optimistic and life-affirming than its subject matter suggests). I wanted a pick-me-up. Partly as a joke and partly because it’s one of my favorite sitcoms, I decided to turn to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
You see what I did there, right? Two works, both exceedingly brilliant in their own rights, with the same premise. That premise, in case you’re unaware, is a creepy older white guy kidnapping women and keeping them imprisoned. These two properties couldn’t be farther apart either. Room is a spare yet lyrical look at the psychologies of a woman and child in an impossible situation, while Kimmy Schmidt is one of the funniest things to ever happen to television.
Both are the product of women. Room was written by Emma Donoghue, from her novel. I know nothing about Donoghue, and learning would violate the strict code we white men live by: never look at information before formulating an ironclad opinion. The point is, Donoghue is brilliant, so it’s safe to assume she’s a feminist. Kimmy Schmidt is the partial brainchild of Tina Fey. I’m a big fan of Fey’s and she is an outspoken feminist, who (though she takes some probably deserved guff for the lack of intersectionality in her feminism) is sincere, passionate, and eloquent in her beliefs. She’s also a fucking comic genius, which is more important when you’re making a sitcom. The point is that this scenario is percolating in the heads of extremely intelligent women, enough so that two wildly different takes can produce transcendent art.
Today’s Lifetime Theater is not transcendent, but it is the same premise. It’s interesting to watch a premise that created legitimate genius be Lifetime-ized. Spoiler right up front: this is one of the better Lifetime movies I’ve seen, too. Maybe some of the claim this premise has is that it’s essentially idiot-proof.
In some ways, I think this premise is so popular because it speaks in lurid ways about the conversations that are only just being had in the public sphere. We can thank social media for some of that, and though there’s a lot of negative to go with it (seriously, can we please stop harassing women for having opinions?), there’s at least some positive. This is the apotheosis of toxic male entitlement: deciding to keep a woman, or women, in a cage, like a parakeet you can have sex with. Kimmy Schmidt makes the link to white male privilege explicit in how the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (one of the best comedy names ever) is able to effortlessly gaslight an entire court of law, but this week’s movie, Kept Woman, goes full Lifetime on us.
Simon, the creep in question, is introduced wearing a plaid suit with a bowtie, Malcolm X glasses, and a fedora (because of course there’s a fedora). He speaks in stilted tones, using old-fashioned slang. He’s unfailingly polite and is never seen outside his home in less than one of his upholstered suits. He’s a professor at the local college, and he teaches Men’s Studies. Look, if you roll your eyes that hard, they’ll come right out of your skull. Believe me, I had the same reaction. This guy is the poster child for the Men’s Rights Movement. And no, we don’t need “Men’s Studies.” That’s just studies. Men have been considered a default (despite being less than half the population) for the entirety of recorded history. Incidentally, that’s what the word “history” means. His Story. Seriously.
Simon instantly creeps out Jess, who moved to the suburbs with her fiancee, irony of irony, to get away from the crime in the cities. She smells a rat, and she’s not wrong. Lifetime makes its female characters more perceptive than its guys. In some cases, it comes off as pandering, although it’s pandering I’ve defended. Here, it feels entirely realistic. Of course a man couldn’t sniff creep on an old-fashioned nerd, while a woman is ready to shank him at the first sign of trouble. Unfortunately, it’s not enough. Jess gets bushwhacked when Simon preys on her politeness and fear of being labeled hysterical. Yes, the Lifetime network made a subtle point about pervasive sexism in a lurid potboiler. Crazy, right?
So, after Simon makes Jess check to see if his hanky smells like chloroform (it does), she wakes up in an underground bunker that he has done up as a ‘50s kitsch house. There’s another woman down there as well, and she’s been totally brainwashed by her years of captivity. Simon has constructed a perfect jail. It’s entirely sound-proofed, it has two doors, both with digital combo locks and rotating combinations. He tells Jess she’s free to try to kill him. If she succeeds, she’ll starve to death in the bunker. If she fails, well, that’s even worse. Simon makes it abundantly clear that he’s a killer, and in the course of the eighty-odd minutes, will kill two people, cutting one up like a Thomas Harris character.
To throw Jess’s man off the scent, Simon fakes a break-up email to him. And the dunce totally buys it. The one guy who doesn’t, is Oscar, a friend of Jess’s. They have the same hobby: they’re in an online group who looks into missing persons cases in their free time. Sounds fake, but these groups are totally real, and they have done good work in the past. I love this partly because Oscar is obese and is consistently the most intelligent, sensitive, and useful man in the movie. He’s the one who figures out that Jess is gone (rather than just ran off) and who believes her hunch about Simon enough to research him and find some disturbing leads. In most fiction, a character being overweight is usually shorthand for them being dirty, lazy, gluttonous, and so on. It’s nice to see that trend being bucked, especially when the two handsome hardbody characters are the ones almost eager to take Simon’s word over Jess’s suspicions. The real irony is that Oscar is an actual nice guy, who does things for his friend without any expectation of reward, while Simon is the archetypical Nice Guy, who does things for his own ends.
Jess does eventually get out by using a daring plan involving a rhubarb pie. It’s even a Chekov’s Rhubarb Pie, which might be the first time that’s done. She escapes just in time to save her man and take Simon down. Go Jess.
So what did we learn? Always have a baked good that you and your significant other can identify with smell. Fuck politeness. If you think he’s a creep, he’s probably a creep. And maybe most importantly, there’s some frightening stuff going on in the creative minds of women, and maybe, just maybe, we should address the underlying causes of what’s scaring them.