[ NOTE: Image-heavy post, content warning for abusive behaviors ]
So, I was reading Samantha Fields’s blog (Defeating the Dragons) and she noted in passing she’d watched Fireproof, a movie made in 2008 starring Kirk Cameron. Now, being as it stars Kirk Cameron, right off the bat we know it is Christian-themed.
The movie is absolutely larded with Mom-and-Apple-Pie Gender Essentialist America in the Good Ol’ White Boy South, being set in Albany, Georgia.
It starts out with slow pans over what is obviously a little girl’s bedroom, replete with all the stock dialog that implicitly pays homage to the way some purity-culture fundamentalists adopt and twist the Oedipal and Electra complexes for their own ends:
Girl: Mommy, would you ask Daddy to come tuck me in?
Her Mom: No, he’s at work tonight at the fire station. But he’ll be home tomorrow night.
Girl: Mommy, l want to marry Daddy.
Her Mom: You do? Catherine, you can’t marry Daddy. He’s my husband.
Catherine: Well, when you’re done being married, can l have him?
Her Mom: We’ll never be done. You’ll have to marry somebody else.
Catherine: Can l wear a white dress and white gloves?
Her Mom: Sure, if you want to.
Catherine: Will we live happily after ever?
Her Mom: lf you marry somebody who really, really loves you.
Catherine: Like Daddy?
Her Mom: Yes, like Daddy.
I mean, just wow. Normally this would just be the cute dialog I’m sure parents have had with their kids the world over, and which is quickly forgotten as their child grows up and begins to socialize and develop a sense-of-self and so on and so forth.
But in purity-culture circles, this snippet above carries a much deeper meaning, since a girl’s father becomes, almost literally, a guardian of her “womanhood” until the day when he “gives” her to her husband, who then takes up the mantle of said guardianship. So along the way the father is the husband-substitute, which can be kinda squicky when you think about it.
Then scene cut and pan over the Georgia flag, being sure to get the “In God We Trust” and the Stars and Bars in there. I’m sure there was a specific reason for choosing a state that’s part of the former Confederacy and not a state somewhere else, but I can’t deduce exactly what cultural motifs are being touched on here in the intended audience, aside from the implicit assumption that white people and their problems are the focus of the story. That’s not unique to a film like this, though.
Kirk Cameron’s first introduction is him reaming out a subordinate for screwing up fighting a fire. Oddly, the person bringing the complaint is a black firefighter named Terrell, and it was 100% legit: his partner didn’t check in and rushed off to “play hero”. There’s also another black firefighter introduced later, a man named Michael.
Scene cut to a hospital. Now, one thing I noticed in particular when I was in the states is the sharp racial divide that still exists in a lot of places: the ‘professional people’ are generally white and the ‘help’ are generally black. See, for example, this introductory scene where we meet up with Tasha (black) and Catherine (white). It’s obvious that Catherine is some high up media muckity-muck and Tasha is the file-clerk/receptionist/help-type person.
We learn that Cat’s (uninsured) parents are dealing with her mother’s stroke, and that she’s going to visit with them. A doctor named Gavin (white, of course) almost crashes into her and Tasha plus another aide are all like “Uh-huh, guy’s gotta cruuuuush.”
Just for some added gender essentialism and chauvinism, the doctor mutters, “Sweet girl”, as she leaves. Sorry, Gavin-dude, did you just call a ~30 year old woman a “girl”? (-_-)
Cat goes and sees her mom and dad, and just to make sure we all know we’re in Georgia, she asks her dad for sweet tea with lemon in it. She then wishes she could hear her mom talk; apparently she lost her ability to speak due to the stroke.
Okay scene cut to a nice house in suburbia. Kirk rolls on in in his firefighter outfit and is all like “Where’s breakfast?” And then oh my God this dialog has to be read to be believed:
Caleb: You have breakfast already?
Caleb: What’d you eat?
Catherine: I had the last bagel and a yogurt.
Caleb: Are you planning on making a grocery trip soon?
Catherine: Caleb, you work 24 hours and then you’re off for 48. You’ve got more time to go than l do.
Caleb: l asked a simple question. You don’t need to get smart with me. You could at least save me some breakfast.
Catherine: I never know when you’re coming or going. You don’t tell me.
Caleb: Catherine, what is your problem? Did l offend you by walking in the door this morning?
Catherine: You can’t expect me to work every day and get the groceries while you look at trash on the lnternet dreaming about your boat.
Man, if I had to check off all the ways this dialog snippet implicitly buys into the dutiful-wife-is-being-insufficiently-deferential paradigm I’d get Bingo. I mean, here’s Caleb (o hai, Biblical name!) being all I’m-the-husband-I-tell-you-what-to-do, and then for bonus points blaming her by trying to make out like she’s being unreasonably “offended” for wanting him to get in his truck and go do his own damn shopping.
And then on top of that, Caleb goes on to pontificate that she chose to take her current job, to which she retorts they need the money because he’s off stashing away cash ($24,000 already!) for the damn boat instead of using the money to fix things in the house. Then he patronizingly lectures her that those house things are “preferences, not needs”. Dude, Caleb, SERIOUSLY???
Man, what a marriage. If I were the lawyer for either of them, I’d say, “You guys need a no-contest divorce, stat. Divvy up assets, sign the agreement, and we’ll get it in front of a judge and call it a day. $200, done.”
Scene cut. Caleb is now working out at a gym, and while I’m no expert, I would venture to say he’s got terrible technique, because he’s letting the weights slam down and bounce on the ones underneath every time he lets them down.
Finally he quits with the weights and talks to the dude on the bench press, Michael: “How is it that l get respect everywhere l go except in my own house?”
Gosh, Caleb, I wonder. Maybe it could be you’re lecturing your wife like she’s a kid, and blatantly saddling her with tasks you should be taking up in your copious boat-surfing free fucking time.
Segue into standard “your marriage isn’t broken, you just have to make it work” dialog along with more gender-essentialist chauvinalia: “Your wife should respect you, but a woman’s like a rose. Treat her right and she’ll bloom.”
Since when are women delicate flowe–oh, never mind, I just realized the filmmakers and scriptwriters and producers and actors are all pretending it’s still 1958, only it’s a 1958 that exists in their minds only and is an idealization of what actually happened back then, which was that men could cheat and get away with it more often than not, even if their wives found out and sued for a divorce.
Oh christ, Caleb comes home and it’s more of the SSDD. He comes home, there’s no pizza left because Catherine ate it (it’s a pretty large pizza box, so I’m going to assume it’s leftovers). She reasonably explains that (a) she thought he was going to eat out with Michael, and (b) if he’d called her ahead of time, she could’ve left some of it.
But noooo, he has to berate her over it: “Why do you have to make everything so difficult?” he yells after he patronizingly lectures that “two people in this house need to eat”. I’m just rolling my eyes at this crap, but I can see why ex-fundamentalist women in particular could be triggered watching this. The culture implicitly assumes that women can never do anything right on their own accord unless it’s at the direction of a man, and so the man is fully justified in ignoring his own faults and blaming everything on “his” woman.
I mean, at this point it’s no mystery why Caleb’s behavior could be termed “abusive”.
And it degenerates into an argument where Caleb insists he’s doing all the heavy lifting paying the mortgage and the car loans, but he ignores that he’s socking away a third of his post-tax paycheck on the boat, so when Catherine retorts that she’s covering all the other household bills on her salary, he turns it around on her and tells her she agreed to it in the first place, and then finishes it off with the ‘I provide you this good life’ line: “Do you not like this house? Do you not like your car?”
Ah, but Catherine still has some reserve! She points out she’s doing all the clothes washing and food marketing, and she’s helping her parents every weekend. That is legit a lot of pressure, and any reasonable person would shut up at this point and apologize.
But nooooooooo. Caleb has to bat that off and come back out on top. RAWR I AM A FIREMAN AND I AM UNDER SO MUCH PRESSURE WHEN I FIGHT FIRES! AND RUSH TO CAR WRECKS!
Okay, he has kind of a point, but what Catherine’s not happy about is what he’s doing or not doing around the house. Which is an ongoing thing and not discrete, sharply defined events like house fires and so on, which are often attended to in a ~few hour time span, not days and weeks.
And this is where it finally blows up. Caleb blows his stack, goes to full-on yelling and backs Catherine up against the wall. (O_O) And then he goes on to blame her for “nagging” him and being “ungrateful and selfish”.
Yeah no mystery why this is triggering. All that “Give me respect and look at me” stuff? Classic abuser dominance. But Catherine still says she wants out! So Caleb gets one last shot in and yells more. Just to make sure she knows he can make her cry. And since a movie like this can’t exactly show a man hitting a woman, we see him go out into the yard and throw the garbage can around. In real life? It’s probably even odds he’d have hit her before storming out.
HA HAAAAAAAAAA OH MAN THIS IS WONDERFUL. The old guy’s just staring like ‘What the fuck is wrong with you?’
“Mr. Rudolph.” (beat) “Caleb.” (INTENSE STARE, walks off slowly)
Good! At least the show does not present what Caleb has done as normal or acceptable, but it is still bothersome that it uncritically accepts the basic premise that in such arguments the woman is assumed to be at fault.
Scene cut. and we’re at the fire station. The noob who got his buddy in trouble is busy looking for a “hose stretcher”, which doesn’t exist. Meanwhile, Michael and his wife are busy chatting about their intended date night, and when the chat ends you can see he’s all but just about smacking her ass in that kind of playful-jock way as she walks out.
Meanwhile, Catherine’s chatting with her co-workers from the hospital.
“A real man’s gotta be a hero to his wife before anybody, or he ain’t a real man.”
Even within the cultural confines of the film, this is decidedly a step up from the “a man can be a douchebag to you all he likes because you’re his” mentality. Catherine insists that she’s not the one with a problem, he is – and the others encourage her in this. *thumbs up*
Oh, nice cinematography.
Tasha (to Catherine): That’s right, girl. Stand your ground. Make him respect you. lf there’s one thing a man understands–
[ Scene cut ]
Caleb (to Michael): –it’s respect. That’s the issue. That’s the reason our marriage is failing.
Even though the contexts are totally different between the two dialog snippets, that’s a beautiful blending of scenes from a purely cinema-critiquing point of view. And then it keeps going! It beautifully cuts back and forth across dialog, showing Catherine voicing her problems and how Caleb doesn’t seem to grasp why the marriage is failing.
Caleb: l don’t know what to think. l don’t understand her. She’s emotional about everything. She’s easily offended and way too sensitive.
Scene cut. Some teenage boys, wanting to impress a couple of girls, get into a race. This will not be good.
Meanwhile, Caleb’s on the phone with his dad, admitting the marriage is likely over. Dad wants to visit, so Caleb arranges to meet later on. And then at that moment, fire alarm! It’s the teenagers who were racing; they got into a bad accident and Caleb’s fire station is closest, so off they go!
Pretty bad accident! And one of the cars is stuck on the tracks, which adds to the danger because the trains need to be stopped, and they have very long stopping distances. For all Caleb’s faults at home, he’s definitely a competent and assured fireman on the job. He makes sure the teenage girl, who’s injured and bleeding, stays calm and makes sure she and her friend are safely extracted from the vehicle.
OH SHIT TRAIN COMING. Just for lulz, a guy in a suit bellows, “Hey! There’s a train!”
No fucking shit, sherlock. The firefighters already know this, that’s why they’re trying to get the car off the friggin’ tracks!
Anyway WHEW they manage to move the car, but Michael has a helluva close call. He prays! “Thank you, God.”
And then out of nowhere, back at the station, after hearing Michael speak in generalities about where he’s going if he died, Terrell beings up the “heaven and hell” talk with Caleb, who of course is like, “Pshaw, no. But I know one of you is right and one of you is wrong.”
Scene cut. Caleb’s pouring his heart out to his parents: “l could have saved the lives of two people at work and if l’m not here helping wash the dishes, l’m a horrible husband.”
DUDE DOES NOT GET IT. What you do at work is awesome, great – but what you do at home, that’s what’s gonna matter in your marriage! Being a hero elsewhere does not obviate the fact that even heroes still need to pitch in and help their life-partners when asked, if it’s not unreasonable. And being asked to help with the dishes is not an unreasonable request; it certainly beats mooning over that fucking boat that’s supposed to be the be-all-and-end-all of Caleb’s existence.
Caleb’s mom makes some valid points about Catherine’s own workload, hospital-wise and parents-wise, and he whines she’s “taking [Catherine's] side.” Dude, grow up. Seriously. A boot up the ass is what you need, buddy.
And then Caleb and his dad kinda shuffle his mom off to the side so he can get validation from the old man. Only his Dad decides to drop in the Deus Ex Machina, literally:
Caleb: Why didn’t you split up?
Caleb’s Dad: The Lord did a work in us. ln both of us.
Oh, well, how bloody-all convenient. Can’t communicate to your partner? Can’t see their side of things? That’s okay, God will just roll on in and fix you both to be harmonious forever!
I can’t decide whether to laugh or groan at the sheer absurdity of encouraging laziness in relationship building, figuring God will always leap in to save your bacon instead of doing the hard work oneself.
At this point, however, I can pretty much guarantee that how this movie’s gonna go is Caleb will pray to God, God will magically ~fix his wife~, and he can go right on coasting through life being waited on hand and foot by his hot wife Catherine while he dreams about his fucking boat.
I’ll check back in when I’m done with this movie because the blow-by-blow at this point isn’t even that fun anymore, unlike with the “Moment After” series which is so hokily low-budget with bad acting it’s actually sporkably funny.