Damsels in Distress is a light and confectionary film that wants to be loved more than it wants to be thought about. That’s a shame, because the sort of person who is committed to Whit Stillman as a director is usually the sort of person whose way of showing love for something is to overthink it. Expressing love in counterproductive ways is something I’m very good at, so I have thoroughly overthought Damsels in Distress and found what I think is an interesting answer to an obvious question about the film—Why women?
Stillman has written scripts with female characters before, but never one so dominated by them. Chloe Sevigny may have been the point-of-view character in Last Days of Disco , but when Stillman wrote the novelization, his narrator was Jimmy Steinway. Presumably Stillman opted for a lady-heavy cast in Damsels because femininity helps him tell the story he wants to tell. To the extent that this is a story about education, I think I know why.
If you can put out of your mind for a moment the idea that Whit Stillman is some kind of bard of the WASPs, you will see that he’s really more of a bard of anti-anti-heroes. A plain old anti-hero is only superficially unlikeable and compensates for that minor defect by being sexy, artistic, or clever, or at the very least an endearingly disadvantaged party in some kind of David-and-Goliath scenario. An anti-anti-hero, on the other hand, is someone the audience is genuinely inclined to dislike. Debutante-ball attendees, ugly Americans abroad, true believers in Dale Carnegie, disco fans—to speak up for any of these people in a social setting would be regarded as highly eccentric, yet these are the people Stillman chooses for his protagonists.*
In this case, the anti-anti-heroes are frat boys. These young men are goodhearted, dimwitted, and, unlike most Stillman swains, inarticulate. Their idea of flirting sounds like “Hey.” “Hey.” “Hey.” “He-e-ey.” (Actual dialogue from the film.) The movie’s defense of them is a little backhanded, though, since their most admirable quality seems to be their capacity for self-improvement—for becoming, one assumes, less fratty. When Thor, a frat boy who literally never learned his colors, sees a rainbow and starts reciting ROYGBIV, it’s the most triumphant scene in the film. With background music rising, Thor exclaims that education really is possible, and his girlfriend embraces him (incidentally vindicating the hey-hey- heeey school of courtship). Thor has been building to this moment from his very first scene, when he gets this long speech:
I don’t know about you but I don’t think anyone should feel embarrassed about not knowing stuff. What’s embarrassing is pretending to know what you don’t—or putting down other people just because you think they don’t know as much as you. I’m happy to admit I’m completely ignorant. That’s why I’m here and plan to really hit the books. The next time you see me, I’ll know more than I do now. I’ll be older, but also wiser—or at least know more stuff. For me, that’s education.
A lovely speech, even if it does somewhat undercut Violet’s monologue about whether it’s really such a bad thing to be dumb.
So this is a movie about, among other things, educating yourself. That makes sense: it’s a college film. It is therefore a little strange that none of the female characters has a breakthrough like Thor’s, or even engages in the same embarrassing and laborious process of admitting ignorance and then remedying it.
The damsels do undergo self-improvement, but their method is exactly the opposite: Rather than make their slow marches toward betterment in full public view, these women grow into themselves through a series of flying leaps, each time burying the person they were before and pretending nothing happened. Violet Wister was born Emily Tweeter but sometime before college adopted a new personality and a floral new name to go with it. Now, nobody at Seven Oaks knows about Emily Tweeter except Rose (whose fake British accent is an obvious case of a woman covering her educational tracks). Stillman’s women seem to think that self-improvement always requires a fresh start. Remember that even Lily, the normal one, is a transfer student.
It makes a certain kind of sense to divide the genders this way. Men are supposed to win women, and women are supposed to make themselves worth winning. The former involves a show of effort, the latter is supposed to look effortless.
This is quite a constraint to place on the damsels’ personal growth, but I think Stillman meant it to be inspiring. It may even be a species of self-transformation he knows firsthand. These remarks are from an interview Stillman gave years ago, right after Metropolitan came out:
It’s tiresome to be known as a boring old copywriter, but don’t worry all you need is one success, and then you’ll have a new identity.
For someone like Violet, “I’m a copywriter at McCann” wasn’t half as embarrassing as “I’m Emily Tweeter,” and the identity she wanted was as far from the one she had as moviemaking is from advertising, which makes a slow evolution like Thor’s too daunting. There are a lot of people like that. If you’re one of them, maybe Whit Stillman wants to tell you that it only takes a moment for your whole world to be transformed, so prepare for that moment and don’t despair in the meantime. That message is good for the soul, regardless of gender—possibly even better than tap dancing.
* Stillman’s skill in showing the sympathetic side of anti-anti-heroes is most evident in his apologia for Van, the European bouncer in Last Days of Disco . Van doesn’t get much of a backstory in the film and so comes across as nothing but a jerk, but in the novelization, the narrator gets a chance to explain how he came to realize that Van’s “not a bad guy at all”:
I had to acknowledge that, before, when I thought he was such a monster, I was mostly in the wrong. Sure, there were problems with how Van conducted himself at the door, but I couldn’t use that to let myself off the hook. My behavior had been cynical and narcissistic. When I was trying to get all those out-of-town clients into the Club “by any means necessary,” it was really all about “me,” “my needs,” “my clients,” “my job,” not the objective conditions Van faced.
Van said that because the publicity job initially done for the Club had been so fabulously effective, turning it into a phenomenon, all sorts of people wanted to come who ordinarily wouldn’t have, who weren’t really suited to it, and probably wouldn’t even enjoy it that much. He said that if he let in lots of people not cut out for the Club, they probably wouldn’t have a good time and would end up complaining, “Oh, the Club isn’t so good. I went there once and didn’t really like it; it’s nothing special.” That’s how places’ reputations were trashed.
This rang true. I had found that the clients who had been the hardest to get into the Club often became its toughest critics, sometimes scathingly negative, once we got inside. It could be a little exasperating, after the trouble of getting them in, to have them immediately start badmouthing everything, sometimes going on and on about some defect I frankly never noticed. I don’t know what they expected.