Post- Magazine

a parody of patriarchy [A&C]

the lesbian supremacy of Drive-Away Dolls

My friend and I were, of course, both delighted to see Pedro Pascal's face grace the screen when we settled in our seats to watch Ethan Coen’s recent film Drive-Away Dolls. We subsequently experienced the same reaction as we watched his character get brutally, almost cartoonishly, killed off in a matter of seconds: Is that it?

The film swiftly pivots to an unflinchingly graphic lesbian sex scene, introducing us to Jamie (Margaret Qualley), one of the film’s central characters. The transition is certainly abrupt for shock value—but besides this, it is a bold declaration that this isn't your typical male-centered narrative that has long been worn out. Following an oblivious male coworker’s flirtations with an apparently lesbian Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), a transition into a lesbian bar scene, and a bitter breakup between Jamie and Sukie (Beanie Feldstein), audiences understand very quickly that this is not a movie in which someone like Pedro Pascal takes the lead. Instead, it is a movie about women, about lesbians, about queerness. A story that is told from the margins but not overly concerned with dwelling on its marginalization. Here, lesbians reign supreme: They embark on a road trip to the deep South, discover an important political secret, and outsmart the bad guys.

If you come to Drive-Away Dolls expecting more of the zaniness and absurdity you normally get from either one of the Coen brothers, then great: You’ll get it. But for me, if there’s any movie with a female-centered narrative, my ears are perked up and listening. Considering the recent range of ventures in female-centered movie-making—such as Birds of Prey, Barbie, Lady Bird, Madame Web—and the fact that this is a male-directed movie, I’m interested in exactly how this movie will be perceived. Especially given the differences in popularity these movies have seen—from Madame Web’s utter failure to Barbie’s immense commercial success—I’m keen to find out what sort of future this is going to spell out for women in movies in general. And while I do not think Drive-Away Dolls accomplishes becoming, or even strives at all to be, the ultimate queer feminist manifesto for 2024, I discovered many delightful aspects while watching.

In this film’s universe, the “scary men” and other authoritative figures are rendered impotent by their bumbling foolishness. In typical Coen fashion, this sets off a series of ridiculously unfortunate events that make for quite a few good laughs. One particular scene stands out: Goons Arliss (Joey Slotnick) and Flint (C.J. Wilson) break into Sukie’s home, hoping to interrogate her about Jamie’s whereabouts. However, Sukie is no mere victim to Flint’s boneheaded aggression. She herself is a cop and easily overpowers him, and—much to Flint’s chagrin—willingly offers up the information about Jamie when asked by Arliss; none of the macho interrogation stuff was even needed in the first place. And then there’s the conversation with the women's soccer team, in which Arliss, a self-proclaimed smooth-talker, is convinced he has them all charmed and wrapped around his finger until it turns out they’ve sent him on a wild goose chase. The movie revels in its parody of the patriarchy, painting both politicians and crooks alike as inept buffoons, stumbling through a world they believe they have control over.


At the same time, there are a few weak plot points that might seem to whittle down the film’s logistical plausibility. Why the mix-up with the rented car, an error seemingly so easy to avoid? Why leave the briefcase in the trunk at all if it was so important? I would argue that these questions can be chalked up to the foolish decision-making of the men, further cementing the film’s parodic tendencies in regard to male-centric narratives that often take themselves too seriously. For instance, the mysterious briefcase invokes memories of Pulp Fiction, and the severed head in the box is reminiscent of the film Se7en—but what we find inside doesn’t remain a mystery for long. It’s something way more far-fetched and ridiculous than what we could have possibly imagined: a collection of dildos molded from politicians’ penises. While this certainly heightens our sense of the movie as a parody, it also feels surprisingly resonant with today’s world. Despite being set in 1999, it serves as pointed commentary on the sheer farce of contemporary politics, in which our politicians are increasingly absurd and embarrassing.

The film’s irony and boldly feminist sentiments come to a head when Marian and Jamie exchange the dildos (and Pedro Pascal’s head) for a million dollars from the conservative Senator Channel (Matt Damon), whose own penis mold Marian and Jamie had quite some fun with. In this scene, the senator laments—in typical mansplaining fashion—their perverse use of the dildos, proclaiming how wrong it is to commodify his body in such a way. Because yes, clearly women know absolutely nothing about sexualization and objectification. Clearly they are completely unfamiliar with the experience of being reduced to their body parts for the pleasure of others without consent.

This particular point in the film recalls a shocking and hilarious image from earlier: a dildo mounted onto Sukie’s wall, once a gift from Jamie, that Sukie wants her to take back. This visual commands the audience’s attention not just because of its utter unseriousness, but because it is a refreshing change to see the male appendage disembodied and flaunted like a trophy, purposefully designed for the amusement and enjoyment of the female characters—a subversion of the male gaze, so to speak. And so I suppose this begs the question as to whether this movie—or any female-centered movie, really—is able to construct at least a semblance of what we might call the female gaze.

Much like Pedro Pascal, Matt Damon was a name I was rooting for when I first saw the movie’s cast list. But, defying my expectations, Damon’s antagonist role as Senator Channel is somewhat of a mockery. He blunders and is shot by Sukie, then duly blasted in the media, his career presumably over. Meanwhile, the main female characters come out on top by the end.

I believe the film might signify the imagined end of the patriarchal order, paving the way for us to envision this wacky, road-trip crime caper as a queer feminist paradise in which seemingly average lesbians triumph. This notion is underscored by the image of Pascal’s severed head lolling around—another disembodied appendage of the male body—symbolically looming over the film as a reminder of its subversive overthrow of male power.

In the film’s closing, the title Drive-Away Dolls is actually revealed to be Drive-Away Dykes, boldly flashing on the screen as if the film is finally “coming out” to us viewers. And in seeing this, I can’t help but reflect on the future of cinema. Will we see more female and queer leads who challenge the status quo in the coming future? Can we come closer to establishing a “female gaze” in cinema, even from within the confines of patriarchy?

Well, I certainly hope so. It’s about time.

For now, you can catch me visiting the movies next month to watch the upcoming Love Lies Bleeding, another lesbian-centered film, waiting to see what this one has in store.

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