In this paper I would like to discuss the role of gender in the reception of Tommy Wiseau’s film The Room. In particular I will analyse how four YouTube review channels react to how the female main character Lisa is treated by the film. The focus of my research will be the comic value these reviewers find in Lisa’s actions with the goal of revealing some of their sexist or misogynistic assumptions about gender by what they find humorous. In order to do this, firstly I will discuss and describe the main scenes I will look at more closely and explain why they seem problematic from a gender, humour and film studies perspective. The first scene this paper focuses on shows a conversation where Lisa tells her mother that Johnny hit her. In the second scene, a story of a woman that has been beaten is recounted and, finally, in the last scene Lisa is made responsible for Johnny’s death. Secondly, I will introduce my chosen YouTube channels: CinemaSins, Channel Awesome, I Hate Everything and FanboyFlicks and then observe how they perceive the chosen scenes and whether they ignore the scenes and Lisa’s treatment or not. Additionally, I will compare these channels by looking at how they view and describe Lisa in general. As a last step I demonstrate that some of the reviewers I chose ignore the scenes and Lisa’s treatment in general. Based on my discoveries, I assume to find sexist standards in the majority of the channels, especially when they ignore or find humour in scenes in which Lisa is mistreated.
THE PROBLEMATICS OF THE SCENES
This section will describe the scenes and put them in context with the theory of film in order to show how the film is inherently sexist. Summed up, it is about Johnny, a banker whose fiancée Lisa does not love him anymore and has an affair with his best friend Mark. After various subplots that are not actually explained, Mark and Johnny get into a fight at the latter’s birthday party and Johnny proves that Lisa is cheating on him. He then kills himself and the film ends. The three scenes I chose as a base for my research have one thing in common: they show the sexist standards of various protagonists, which can be seen in how they treat and talk about women. This disempowerment is common in films, as Laura Mulvey writes in her essay:
[w]oman, then, stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command, by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning. (Mulvey 484)
This means that the female figure should be silent and passive, she is “woman as spectacle” (Mulvey 488). With the example of pornographic movies, melodramas and horror movies, Williams described women in film as “embodiments of pleasure, fear, and pain” (Williams 210). Lisa is exactly that, the archetype of the bad female character; an archetype being a popular and often occurring trope (Eco 464). Together with that, woman in general “symbolizes the castration threat”, as Mulvey (483) states and the men have to fight against that. They do so by, for instance, saving or punishing her (Mulvey 489). Lisa is not exactly passive, she does seem to drive the story and, additionally, she embodies the bad. Therefore, she has to be punished by man, which can be seen in the following scenes:
The first scene shows Lisa talking to her mother Claudette, telling her that she does not love Johnny anymore and wants to leave him. Her mother, however, advises against that as she does not believe that Lisa can support herself. While this is already quite sexist, my focus lies on what happens next: Lisa reveals to her mother that Johnny has hit her while drunk, to which Claudette’s only answer is: “But Johnny doesn’t drink” (The Room 28:30-28:32). Despite the fact that the story is a lie, her mother’s basically nonexistent reaction is problematic. Claudette’s views are patriarchal, demonstrated by her advice that Lisa should not leave Johnny. The film, in the form of Lisa’s mother, implies that there is nothing wrong with Johnny hitting Lisa. Indeed, it can be seen as a punishment and, as Mulvey’s quote at the beginning of this section suggests, the woman, Lisa, should take what the men do to her silently. The second scene I chose is part of the socalled ‘rooftopscene’ in which Johnny and Mark have a deep conversation. This paper is going to focus on a story Mark tells Johnny about a girl he knew who was beaten up badly by one of her lovers. Johnny’s response to this story is laughter and the exclamation: “What a story, Mark!” (The Room 38:34-38:38), which also seems inappropriate. This reaction can be seen as sexist for another reason: as Martin writes, humorous attitudes towards certain behaviours like, in this case, a man beating up a woman, “can communicate implicit expectations and rules concerning the kinds of behavior that are considered acceptable” (Martin, The Psychology of Humor 119). As well as that, it can, again, be seen as a punishment for women being active and symbolising a threat in the eyes of men. The last scene is one of the final moments of the film, where Lisa and Mark are crying over Johnny’s corpse. In this scene Mark tells Lisa that she alone is responsible for Johnny’s death (The Room 1:34:33-1:34:57). Of course, this may be because he is griefstricken, but still, he blames their affair on her and it is not the first time for him to do so: In an earlier scene, he blames her for the sex they just had (The Room 19:26-19:24). In traditional films, as already mentioned, the female, in contrast to the male, part should not be active and thus only Lisa should be burdened with Johnny’s death because she steps out of her boundaries. One last time she signifies the ultimate bad and is, in this case, punished for seducing Mark and taking his power away.
REACTIONS OF THE REVIEWERS
In this part this paper focuses on how four different YouTube channels perceive these scenes, and, by putting them in contrast with humour and gender theory, how their reactions show inherent sexist values. In order to this I chose CinemaSins, Channel Awesome, I Hate Everything, henceforth IHE, and FanboyFlicks. This is because these are a few of the biggest channels that focus on reviewing films. Of course these are only some of many reviews on The Room and because of that, this paper does not claim to have all the information needed for a general conclusion. Because they identify the film as so bad that it is actually funny, we may conclude that what they leave out of their criticism is just amusing, or at least that there is nothing wrong with a scene. In order to explain and identify the reasons for what the channels find humorous or leave out, their reactions should be put in contrast with humour theory. There are three main theories of humour that exist. Firstly, the superiority theory, in which humour is claimed to be “an attentive demolition of a person or something connected with a person”, as Morreall paraphrases from Roger Scruton (Morreall ch. 2, par. 1). This theory explains most of the negative or nonexistent responses and it is relevant to all scenes and their reactions, as demonstrated below. Secondly, the relief theory, to which Freud writes according to Morreall: ”In telling or listening to a joke that puts down an individual or group we dislike, similarly, we let out the hostility we usually repress” (Morreall ch. 3, par. 13). It could explain both positive and negative reactions to the third scene and is thus not very important for this paper. The incongruity Theory, finally, describes that we laugh when we encounter something we do not see coming, something unexpected (Morreall ch. 4, par. 1). For this paper, however, it is not very significant.
The first scene gets very different reviews already. CinemaSins, for example, does not actually include Claudette’s reaction to Lisa’s revelation, they just criticise the fact that the story is untrue (CinemaSins 1:46-1:51). Neither does IHE mention anything more than Lisa’s lie (IHE 7:25-7:27). However, criticism comes from FanboyFlicks, who names it “terrible advice” (FanboyFlicks 3:38-3:39) and, even more so, from Channel Awesome, who exclaims: ”She just admitted that he hits her and the mother’s like ‘Johnny doesn’t drink’. I know he hits you like a football player’s wife but he doesn’t drink” (Channel Awesome 11:43-11:53). For CinemaSins and IHE the relief theory cannot be justified because we do not see them laughing. Neither does the incongruity theory make sense because then they would have put the scene in, as they would admit that there is something wrong with it. The superiority theory can be used to explain why two channels did not put the scene in, which is in accordance to the punishment Lisa should receive, as discussed in the section before. Channel Awesome also has a strong reaction towards the second scene, where, upon Johnny’s laugh, he says: ”that’s not funny you sick fuck” (Channel Awesome 15:01-15:05). In contrast to the last scene, IHE is questioning Johnny’s laugh (IHE 9:13-9:16) and criticism also comes from FanboyFlicks (FanboyFlicks 17:15-17:25). This means, three of four channels do find something wrong with the story while CinemaSins does not mention it at all. For the latter, the superiority theory would make sense and be in line with the already mentioned punishment of women. Interestingly, CinemaSins do, however, criticise Mark’s claim that everything is Lisa’s fault by stating that he forgets that they had an affair with each other (CinemaSins 7:18-7:20). Here, the superiority theory would be an explanation as Mark’s reaction is not unexpected. Additionally, the relief theory would make sense because of negative feelings towards Mark, which are implied by CinemaSins. None of the other channels actually review this scene which could be explained by the superiority theory. This is in accordance with the points made before on this scene, namely that women are punished in film for being active and embodiments of negative feelings. Additionally, the relief theory might also be true because some channels do not have a high opinion of Lisa.
To put these findings in a wider context, it is important to discuss how Lisa is perceived in general, too, in order to increase the knowledge of the reviewer’s values with the help of humour and gender studies. Lisa is viewed quite differently by the channels: both CinemaSins and FanboyFlicks try to be neutral, even though the latter is very criticising about the characters altogether: they mention the bad treatment Johnny receives by all of them and that none of them are very likeable. Channel Awesome seems to have a more positive view towards Lisa while IHE hates her character very much. Although they do say that Mark cannot take himself out of their relationship (IHE 5:29-5:33), they take a very strong negative stance against Lisa. However, they criticise the treatment towards the female protagonists, exemplified when they talk about a conversation between Lisa and Claudette: