May I present to you another guest writer, the one and only Rachel Graf.
Tagline: It’s gonna be one hot summer.
Woman on Top is a movie I watched a lot and liked a lot when I was a teenager who still couldn’t drive and it was on the WE network. It appealed to my proto-feminist sensibilities and my growing obsession with cooking shows. I watched it enough times that I named my first car, a bright red manual transmission, Isabella.
The moral is, ladies you deserve equality, but if you aren’t getting it, you better hope you’re as hot as Penelope Cruz so your man will follow you around the world and promise to change, because talking about your feelings is out of the question.
The play by play, in which your (re-)viewer reflects on memories of a simpler time:
- It’s a Tuesday night, and I want to watch something girly and romantic. I made bread pudding for dessert so a movie involving food seems perfect.
- I wonder why when her parents discover Isabella cannot play with any of the kids her age, cooking is the only thing for her to do. I suppose we’re meant to attribute this sexism to backwards South American culture.
- The great love between Isabella and Toninho seems more like lust for both of them.
- Oh that’s right, Toninho is a douche who keeps his wife in the kitchen while he hams it up for his customers. But somehow, that’s kind of okay. What is not okay is infidelity. Call me crazy, but given the choice between a partner who slept with other people and one who kept me chained to the stove, I’d take the cheater. Once again, we’re still in Salvador, so maybe women just expect to be disenfranchised. Eye roll.
- Do we feel sympathy for Toninho who insists, “I need to be on top sometimes”? In other words, he needs to be the one fucking and not the one fucked (because screwing his wife economically doesn’t count)?
- Anyway, she leaves, nearly crashes a taxicab — because women are bad drivers — but makes it safely to Monica’s apartment in San Fran.
- She works some coffee magic and soon the whole block is filled with a visible aroma. It smells so good that people follow her down the street. First, has this movie turned into Simply Irresistible? Second, is this magical realism? Later, Cruz will shed a tear that makes a flower on her lapel bloom. There will be spells and angry gods too.
- She struggles to get a job as a chef, but who cares about a rejection montage? Teaching a culinary class she cuts herself while reminiscing/fantasizing about Toninho, because he was so damn hot…err she loves him so much.
- More interesting is Harold Perrineau’s entrance, first performing as a cis-man, then in flamboyant drag. I had forgotten about the jail scene. It’s wonderful that the film shows this transformation. And then breaks it down, by having Perrineau — Monica — in makeup, but no clothing. Throughout the film we see Monica in various states of undress, but it seems to me that once we’ve seen her full on, the marks of her trans performance don’t negate her feminine identity, she never looks as masculine as in the jail scene.
- She finally gets her big break with a cooking show. Yay, right? Too bad it’s obvious that the TV producer gives her the show, in large part because he thinks she’s so hot. Speaking of which, her dresses seem inappropriate for the Bay Area climate, but maybe there’s a heat wave.
- There’s some voodoo stuff so that Isabella can stop loving Toninho, and then some more when he curses the god of the sea and the fish disappear.
- This is only about halfway through, but things go down hill. Toninho follows Isabella and stalks his wife on air, which the producers encourage for the ratings. Isabella tries to sleep with Cliff, but he plays the good guy and tells her she’s still not over her man. Studio execs put her in a slightly more slutty Barbie dress, insist Monica leave the show, and turn up the lights. Isabella, hates the bright lights, and hates not being in control — yay she learned something — and quits. Cliff turns out to be a dick by not standing by Isabella, but hey, he wants to make money.
- Then, swiftly and unbelievably, Toninho wins Isabella back by promising to let her be on top, in bed and in the kitchen. She begs the sea goddess to give her back her love, and they move back home. In the final scene Cliff and Monica have become a couple — don’t know what to make of that.
On reviewing, both the food and the sex seem a lot less hot. The feminist current is defused by the camera’s obsession with Cruz’s body. On the plus side, I’m a lot more aware of the wonderful representation of transgender in Monica’s character. I think the fact that I didn’t pay much attention to Monica 10 years ago reflects how well the film portrays her. Or maybe, I was just young enough to think Benicio was more sexy than swarmy and got caught up in the love story.
I still like this movie. More precisely, I still like the beginning of this movie, the parts that promise female empowerment, queer acceptance, magic and tantalizing food. Even if only one of these comes close to being realized, I’d watch the whole thing again.