Much Ado About Slut Shaming

hero-leonato

Hero and her father Leonato having fun at a party, before he wishes her dead

I’m a nerd for both Shakespeare and Joss Whedon’s writing, so I’ve been super excited for Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, which opens this weekend in New York, LA, and San Francisco. I’m a big fan of the play, which is full of some of Shakespeare’s most hilarious banter. It’s also a fascinating play from a feminist perspective, because the story hinges on an act of slut shaming. Knowing Whedon’s interests, I expected this element of the story to be emphasized. I had the opportunity to see the movie about a month ago at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and I was not disappointed.

Much Ado is above all a blast, capturing the infectious joy that I find in a lot of Shakespeare’s work and that’s often missing from film adaptations. The movie revels in the play’s language, but in a way that’s focused on communicating story and intent clearly to the audience. It actually makes the plot easier to follow than adaptations that seem afraid of Shakespeare’s words. My only real criticism is that the film is way too white, like most things Whedon does (though it does actually make good use of the famously racist “Ethiope” line). Adapting Shakespeare is largely about choosing what elements of the script to emphasize, what story you want to tell with the material. And the story Whedon wants to tell is very much focused on gender roles, and specifically slut shaming. Contemporary takes on Much Ado tend to focus on the banter between Beatrice and Benedick (Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, much to the delight of this Angel fan) and treat the plot as something to rush through to get to their scenes. Whedon has chosen to highlight these often underplayed story elements, crafting a film that’s sharply focused on gender dynamics in a way that feels disturbingly contemporary.

Claudio (Fran Kranz) loves Hero (Jillian Morgese), daughter of Leonato (Clark Gregg – yes, Agent Coulson lives!), and they become engaged over the course of the play. Don John, the villain of the piece, tries to trick Claudio into thinking Hero has cheated on him in order to ruin the wedding. Sean Maher’s Don John is a transparent bad guy – he’s referred to as “The Bastard” by other characters, Whedon’s changed the traditional presentation of his henchmen characters to create an obvious evil trifecta (one of Whedon’s specialties), and in the film he’s accompanied by jazzy bad guy theme music that’s so on the nose it’s comical. The film emphasizes that by the time Don John pulls his trick he’s already proven himself to be an obvious, deliberate liar and asshole to Claudio. Claudio has no reason to believe this man ever, yet he instantly believes the lie, and rejects Hero at their wedding. In the play’s most disturbing moment, Leonato goes after his daughter with a slut shaming rant, even wishing her dead. Clark Gregg’s take on Leonato is smart and subtle and has stuck with me since seeing the movie. Leonato and Hero’s relationship is played sweet, loving, and close. When Leonato instantly turns on his daughter it’s devastating – and shocking, unless you’ve spent much time paying attention to slut shaming in our culture. Whedon highlights that this is absolutely about slut shaming – Claudio would actually be OK with marrying Hero if she wasn’t a virgin – it’s the idea of her sleeping with someone other than him that so instantly offends him, and that he’s so willing to believe.

This being Shakespeare, the conflict is resolved with a ridiculous plot involving more double crosses and a Friar recommending a faked death (seriously, why do Shakespeare’s Friars always think that’s a good idea?). Whedon certainly gives us the feeling of a happy ending. But there’s a knowingness that colors the conclusion of the movie, an understanding of expectations placed on women and the dangerous ignorance we can face from men. There’s a particular focus on the trust men often have between each other, their willingness to stand by and believe each other even when the other man’s a known liar. It’s a smart picture of a social situation that’s very real today. Talking about these issues using Shakespeare creates an opportunity for clarity – it seems easier to recognize how very wrong this dynamic is within a story that separates it somewhat from a real world context, where other issues can easily cloud our view of a situation. This leads to a film that is incredibly relevant in the face of some of the devastating instances of slut shaming that have been in the news lately.

Stories have the power to illuminate real world issues. Much Ado is first and foremost a giggly, sexy good time (I didn’t even mention Nathan Fillion’s underplayed Dogberry, which has me laughing just thinking about it). But it’s also perfectly set up to inspire conversations among viewers about the disturbing reality of slut shaming.

 

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3 Comments

  1. Posted June 5, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Much Ado has been my favorite Shakespeare since the summer I was ten, when I spent many an hour watching the Kenneth Branagh-directed adaptation and then acting it out with my Playmobil while humming the marvelous score to myself.

    About Don Jon being called The Bastard: that also goes back to slut-shaming (in a way). He was born out of wedlock, and while his father the king has acknowledged paternity, Don Jon has no claim to the throne, and resents the hell out of his legitimate half-brother Don Pedro for it. A lot of what he does is motivated by that jealousy– his brother Don Pedro treats Claudio as more of a brother than him, so he tries to sabotage Claudio to hurt his brother. Incidentally, the Kenneth Branagh-directed adaptation has Denzel Washington as the legitimate prince, Don Pedro, and Keanu Reeves as his illegitimate brother Don Jon, if you’re looking for more color-blind casting.

    But my absolute favorite aspect of the Kenneth Branagh-directed adaptation: Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh as Beatrice and Benedick. They were still married when they filmed it, and you can tell. The chemistry is electric, and they both spend significant portions of their scenes together undressing each other with their eyes. It is truly beautiful to watch.

  2. Posted June 6, 2013 at 2:56 am | Permalink

    I really don’t buy that Claudio’s belief in Don Jon is a sign of adherence to masculine trust. Earlier Claudio believes his liege lord is treating for Hero on his own account rather than his. That’s not masculine trust, it’s jealousy. And he doesn’t believe Hero is unfaithful until he sees proof of sorts.

    Nor does Claudio show himself willing to marry Hero if he had taken her virginity. Leonato suggests its his duty to to so if he was the one, and Claudio denies responsibility for the act. And if you were right about that aspect, it wouldn’t make it slut shaming it would make it rejection of someone for being unfaithful. And no ones feminist principles require you to forgive an unfaithful partner.

  3. Posted June 6, 2013 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    I think you’re spot on about all the things this play tells us about how women are used to bolster masculine identity. It’s not quite true, though, to say “Contemporary takes on Much Ado tend to focus on the banter between Beatrice and Benedick.” There have been numerous productions that dig very deep into the harm of the slut-shaming habit, including Declan Donellan’s, Marianne Elliot’s and Josie Rourke’s, going all the way back to Di Trevis in 1988, whose production was so edgy it ruined her career. You can read all about the gender dynamics at work on stage in this play in “Shakespeare and the Shrew” (full disclosure: My! Book!).

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