The Timeless Sexism in The Age of Adaline
There are several successful working pieces to The Age of Adaline: a strong lead performance by Blake Lively, a whimsical vision of the joys of immortality, and an at least a nod to the complexities of love.
However there is a singular problem that stands out above all the other many issues of a film that feels rushed and made by committee, a bulky, awkward piece of storytelling that doesn’t know what it wants to be.
It’s the ever so casual, prevalent sexism masquerading as courtship, stalking masking as wooing, and the denial of a woman’s agency. It’s an unsettling, all-too-familiar component of such cinematic romances, where no matter the wills and wishes of the woman, the persistence of man will prevail. It’s made all the more offensive in this case too by first establishing a strong, independent lead woman only to later make her succumb to the wills of man, as if to say you’ve enjoyed your freedom Adaline, but now you have to get in line.
In case you missed it opening weekend, let’s go over the actions of the dashing Ellis (Michiel Huisman) and see if on paper they seem more unsettling than they are interpreted on screen.
-Ellis and Adaline make eyes at a party, and he follows her to the elevator to get a chance to talk to her before she leaves. Now that’s totally fair, sweet even, and he can express his feelings. He waits with her for a cab, and maybe even that he puts his hand on it as it pulls away is okay. She does jokingly wonder if he is waiting so he can hear her address. In the end, she accepts his flattery warmly, but isn’t interested in more.
-So then he finds out where she works. Not only does she surprise her at the library, but proceeds to blackmail her: if she doesn’t go out on a date with him, his charitable endeavor won’t donate some windfall of books (it’s sort of business that brings him there, but barely). So we’ve two red flags: visiting her work (moderately questionable at best) and blackmailing her into a date (highly offensive).
-She relents, and they go on a date. They have a lovely time, but of course he pulls the blackmail card again, forcing a date if she laughs at his cheesy joke. She does. Next time its dinner and they spend the night together.
-Ellis proceeds to doggedly call her shortly thereafter the date, leaving voice mail after voice mail – another red flag. He doesn’t stop though, and then figures out where she lives and lurks outside. After Adaline’s dog suddenly dies, she rushes out in tears, only to be confronted by the man who has quickly become uncomfortably attached. She’s upset by her loss and annoyed at him, despite the fact that he is carrying flowers. Somewhere in this interaction she is supposed to be the villain and him the victim.
-For reasons utterly unknown, she is soon given advice to not only apologize to Ellis, but to more or less beg him to give her another shot. Somewhere along the line, Adaline, who has been in her late 20s for some 80 years, who has become the savviest, most clever, most independent woman there is; who has certainly been asked out before and learned the whims and wishes of man, has decided she is in the wrong here.
Rather, the writers decided she is in the wrong. It’s such a character shift it’s disgusting. The Adaline established early in the film wouldn’t do this, and it’s offensive that she is made to. Apparently she owes Ellis something; apparently she can’t express her feelings honestly, when in fact the opposite is true. She is not the property of Ellis after sleeping together, she does not owe him an immediate response, and there is no reason to believe that following her around and forcing dates makes Ellis charming and not possessive.
Adaline is suddenly stripped of her own decision-making ability and is forced to become the antagonist. She is built up to be so independent, so smart, and so successful. She has gone a lifetime without being attached to one man, and even if she chooses to share her secret and her life with someone, why must we first make her submissive? Why must she be in the wrong while a man, one who is only not labeled a stalker because he is rich and handsome, is somehow the sympathetic one?
Viewers accept this and filmmakers craft these stories, and that there is why it’s so disturbing. As an aside though, that this needs to be done is ridiculous because the courtship in fact is secondary, maybe even tertiary to the whole of the film. Its main purpose is to set up the strange love triangle in the second half.
At the screening I attended, in which a Q&A ensued with Huisman, one woman in the audience described Ellis as ‘tolerant’ and lauded his patience for dealing with Adaline. It won’t be just one woman that takes the side of Ellis; and in her defense, most films take this side too as we always see this imbalance and the same, predictable, unrealistic outcome. There will be others too, and it’s a problem.
This is no some passing indie film; this is a major studio production, with a massive promotional tour behind it, and a film that is meant to feature a strong lead woman navigating the wonders and trials of being immortal. Ellis and Adaline could have fallen in love a different way, a healthier, more sensible, and less offensive and outrageously grotesque way.
Adaline deserves better, and so does the audience.