Charlie Kaufman Has No Idea How to Write Women as People
In the filmmaker’s new movie, ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things,’ he’s still using women as props for neurotic men
For the past 20 years, Charlie Kaufman has been making movies about the same guy. If you’ve seen a Kaufman movie, you know him: white, approaching middle age, with shabby clothes and hair that looks like he insulted his barber’s mother. He doesn’t smile easily, or shave often, or look like he sleeps too well; he’s got an intellectual profession (playwright, experimental puppet artist, screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman) so you can tell the weariness and lack of good cheer are probably meant to convey how hard it is to be an intellectual. Reviewers will use the word “neurotic” to describe this man. A lot.
This man, the archetypal Charlie Kaufman Protagonist, is unhappy about a lot of things. He’s unhappy about death, and society, and the unknowable nature of the self. He’s unhappy with the unreliability of memory, or the instability of the self, or the incapacity of art to convey truth. Mostly, though, he is unhappy about his girlfriend.
Kaufman is a capital-G Great Writer, one of the greatest we have working for the screen. No one else could write so many classic movies about the same guy. Yet there is a coldness to his work, and particularly to the way he writes women — who are often literally fantasies, or memories, or projections, or symptoms of a man’s discontent, and rarely full, human protagonists in their own right. The way these women so often turn out to be inexplicable or imaginary might be a dazzling reflection of the postmodern condition, but it might also be a reflection of a culture in which women are rarely accorded full humanity at all.
In a Charlie Kaufman movie, the universe may be cruel and indifferent, but it usually sends women to do its dirty work.
Kaufman’s latest, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, is a breakup movie (all Charlie Kaufman movies are breakup movies) based on a novel by Iain Reid. I will spoil nothing, except that it’s a story in which a woman is unknowable, perhaps even to herself; where the shifts and fluctuations in her character stand in for the bewildering way our minds play tricks on us, where a woman is less a person than she is a puzzle box.
Then again, she always is. In a Charlie Kaufman movie, the universe may be cruel and indifferent, but it usually sends women to do its dirty work. Those women are sometimes angelic and sad and unattainable, like the sweet, doomed Samantha Morton in Synecdoche, New York. Many times, they are capricious, cruel, abandoning, and belittling, like Catherine Keener in Being John Malkovich, or Catherine Keener in Synecdoche, New York, or (in a rare, non-Keener performance) Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine. In pretty much every case, they are part of a three-way love triangle with a man at the center — if there’s a Charlie Kaufman protagonist who doesn’t long to cheat on his wife, it’s only because he’s not married — and they trigger overwhelming feelings of impotence and incompetence for the man in question. His failure to make them love him, or to understand what they want, stands in for his inability to master or understand the world.
As great as Kaufman is, the idea of women as unknowable, capricious aliens is not new, or unique to him. Kaufman can write tremendous roles for an actress when he so chooses — consider Keener’s scalpel gaze and mean, sexy smile as she rasps her way through his dialogue, or how much fun Meryl Streep has shedding her regal poise as a deeply stoned Susan Orlean — but his work also hearkens back to a very old model, in which the Great Artist was always a straight white man, describing his own feelings and calling them “the human condition,” and women were simply the dazzling, frustrating, puzzling external forces who sparked his emotional responses.
One hesitates to lay responsibility for all misogyny at Kaufman’s feet. (For one thing, if his movies are any indication, he’d be really, really bummed about it.) But when we cast men as the default human beings and women as merely the psychological weather affecting some man’s life, we perpetuate certain assumptions about whose feelings matter more. It’s not that Kaufman is unique, or uniquely sinful, in centering characters who share his identity and/or worldview. Most artists tell stories to explain the way they see the world, and that includes putting people like themselves on the page or the screen; if Kaufman were just one guy working in a wildly diverse industry, we’d be having a different conversation. But in Hollywood, where directors are still overwhelmingly white and male, having perhaps the greatest writer of the times concentrate obsessively on nerdy white guys also sends a certain message about who great art is made for and who has the capacity to be an artist.
The high-concept inexplicability of Kaufman’s female characters emerges from the same culture as the hundreds of sexist jokes about how women are literally mysterious beyond men’s capacity to understand them, about how their indirect communication or emotional thinking or mood swings render their actions literally nonsensical. It emerges from the idea that women are the ultimate Other, alien territory for men to encounter and explore. Over time, the assumption that women are beyond understanding becomes an excuse for men not to listen to women — to ignore their emotions because they’re irrational, to disbelieve their pain because women always overreact, to cast women as inauthentic or suspect or malevolent because women lie and conceal their motivations as a matter of course. Discussing the “women as mystery” trope for Vice, Victoria Turk notes “a dead giveaway that this particular statement is sexist: You rarely hear it with the sexes reversed. The sentiment that ‘men are such a ‘mystery’ to women’ just isn’t a trope in the same way.”
Or, put another way: Women’s continued safety and good fortune depend on understanding what the men around them are thinking. Even if a man seems mysterious, the people around him tend to put in the work necessary to figure him out. Just think of all the people working overtime to figure out what the fuck is going on in Charlie Kaufman movies.
Again: This isn’t a takedown. I care about this because I genuinely like and respect Kaufman’s work, and it’s saddening to come to a great man’s work, full of admiration, and conclude he could only ever see you as a quirky mistress or an emasculating shrew. I think Kaufman even knows what is wrong with this picture: In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, quirky girlfriend Clementine reminds her man that she’s “just a fucked-up girl looking for my own peace of mind,” and in Being John Malkovich, the philandering hero is forced to watch his wife and mistress fall in love with each other and leave him in the dust. Yet as Kaufman’s movies have grown colder, and darker, and withdrawn further into the male protagonists’ alienation, that spark of egalitarianism has threatened to flicker out.
A young woman “goes to poetry or to fiction looking for her way of being in the world,” the poet Adrienne Rich once wrote, and “she finds something that negates everything she is about: She meets the image of Woman in books written by men. She finds a terror and a dream… but precisely what she does not find is that absorbed, drudging, puzzled, sometimes inspired creature, herself, who sits at a desk trying to put words together.” When art focuses entirely on men’s ideas about women, women can get the impression that great art is not for them — and we lose brilliant female writers, who talk themselves out of their best work.
Which is a shame, because it’s precisely in recent work by women that we can see Kaufman’s legacy flowering. “Abby,” the antiheroine of Abby McEnany’s Showtime series Work in Progress, is just as schlubby and anxious and terrible at romance as “Charlie Kaufman” in Adaptation, but she’s also a butch, queer woman in her 40s, a character we haven’t seen over and over (or much at all) in mainstream entertainment. In Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, Brett Gelman plays a classic Charlie Kaufman dude, right down to the infidelity and the world-class embarrassment of his haircut — but that character is seen in a much crueler, truer light by being presented to us from the perspective of the young woman he’s trying to sleep with.
Kaufman’s women are often dreams and sometimes terrors, but one thing they can never be is Charlie Kaufman. The human condition belongs to men in these movies because it belongs to Kaufman alone. Maybe we can’t ask for more, but if there’s one thing we can gain from his movies, it’s the terror of being shut up in your own mind, with only your own fantasies to keep you company. It’s only when we throw the doors open, and allow everyone to speak, that great art can really have its day.