Somehow, despite my love of all things food, I just got around to watching Julie and Julia. The movie, based on the books Julie and Julia by Julie Powell and My Life in France by Julia Child, juxtaposes the lives of a yet unknown culinary genius in the 1950s and her artistic shadow in the 2000s (I think you can figure out which one is which). While the movie itself is sweet but not great, the two main characters are worth noting, not only for their acting, but also for their portrayal of two very different kinds of women in two very different eras. It also shows just how much Meryl Streep rocks (as if we didn’t know).
Off the bat, Julie Powell, played by Amy Adams, is set up as the typical female victim. She moves to a new place she doesn’t like (ugh, Queens), has a ridiculously abusive job, and surrounds herself with selfish, mean friends. The audience feels badly for her, and we want to see her succeed because we think (or (we think because) she thinks) the world owes her one. Even though Julie’s “Generation Me” attitude (*whine* don’t I deserve success?) is irksome, it is uplifting to see her do one thing to pick herself up that you don’t see a lot of women doing in movies – getting creative. She doesn’t have a baby to fill her void or go shopping to fill her closets; she’s already married, so she’s not on the manhunt. Instead, she decides to cook her way through Julia Child’s famous cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
But she doesn’t stop there. No, she takes her butchering, boning and basting into the blogosphere, where she regales internet strangers with each day’s culinary journey. However, one major let-down is that even though cooking Julia Child’s recipes is quite a feat that anyone should be proud of, Julie doesn’t really start to feel good about herself until her blog starts getting hits. Instead of thinking of her cooking expedition as a creative triumph and personal success, Julie only gets validation from what she thinks others – her husband, the bloggers, Julia Child herself – think of her. Even when she has a good day in the kitchen, she is disappointed if no one comments on her blog. I mean, what’s the point of doing something cool for yourself unless everyone else knows about too, right? (I say this with irony as I am writing this blog purely to validate myself as a critical thinker and writer). It is at this point, though, that Julie becomes the symbol (and not necessarily a good one) of the modern woman.
Julie’s virtual success winds up setting up a conundrum that many modern women face: what is the line between being a successful, confident woman and being an annoying shrew? Julie’s not a strong character to begin with, and she actually gets less likable as she gets more successful, which is a common issue for female characters in pop culture (and for real life women as well). When Julie’s cockiness becomes too big to handle, her husband teaches her the ultimate lesson when he walks out on her. Be careful, ladies; your success may leave you husband-less.
Julia Child’s character, played by Meryl Streep, is a complete contrast to the whinny, attention-seeking Julie Powell. Child, like Powell, is also looking for some meaning in her life. While in living France with her diplomat husband, and after several attempts at other hobbies (could you imagine if she had stuck with hat making? Would we even have Food Network?), she begins taking cooking lessons at Cordon Bleu. Naturally, it takes Julia multiple failures and the scorn of her instructors before she graduates (what would be a good success story without failure and scorn?), but it’s her attitude during the whole process that’s inspiring. She’s tough without being nasty, demanding without being rude, and persistent without pestering. She achieves without alienating her husband or friends. But more importantly, she’s in it for herself, her own success, and her own validation. Her idea of filling a void is completing a task – with or without an audience.
After cooking school and teaching cooking classes, Julia decides she wants to write a book that makes French cooking accessible for Americans. She really thinks she can change the world with her work. Julia writes and cooks to give her life meaning, but she is not looking for the eyes of the world to be on her. She wants to be published because she thinks that her book has a place, some relevance in the world, not because she thinks that society owes her something.
The movie ends with a shot of Julia cooking on TV; the TV itself is an artifact in a museum exhibit of Julia’s TV kitchen, which suggests that she has made the big time (spoiler alert!). But, unlike the scenes with Julie Powell, we never actually see Julia’s public success in the movie, and this draws a very sharp contrast between the two women and their versions of success. Julie Powell might have met some short term success with her public display of existential angst, but she’ll never be an icon.
Overall, I think this movie would have been better if it had starred only Meryl Streep and had only been about Julia Child. Based on the acting alone, Meryl Streep just completely overshadowed Amy Adams, so we immediately write off her character as a weak imitation of the real deal. And even as a modern woman myself, constantly wired to my laptop and iPhone, it’s annoying to watch (and hear) Julie blog – kind of like listening to Sarah Jessica Parker’s voice-overs in Sex and the City. It’s this public display of the private that makes Julie seem so shallow and irritating. It’s hard to take her or her “journey” completely seriously. Julia’s character is just too rich, too earnest to split time with this petty blogerina.
To be fair (because I know Amy Adams is reading this right now, screaming “You’re not being fair!”), both women exude confidence and imagination throughout the film. They set their own goals and shape their own selves. Their successes are the results of their own ambitions, and neither one really succumbs to any proscribe notions of womanliness. Most importantly, they both show that whether it’s cooking, hat making, or blogging, there is no better way to find yourself than to CREATE.