Am I the only one disturbed by the women in Catch Me If You Can? All of them portrayed in the movie are devoid of depth, common sense, or both. And the worst part is that this pattern is subtle enough for you to not quite notice it, but still internalize it, like a subliminal message. I certainly didn’t catch it the first time around. But since I don’t declare a film good until I’ve watched it at least three times, I did pick up on the strange portrayal of women when I watched Steven Spielberg’s take on the life of con-man thief Frank William Abagnale Jr. the second time around.
Let’s start with Mrs. Paula Abagnale, Frank Jr’s mother. She was written as an unfaithful, flighty foreigner who abandoned a husband who doted on her and told everyone how special she was – though it appears he didn’t deem her quite special enough to tell her the truth about their financial situation – simply because he lost all the family’s money. Mr Abagnale’s assets are frozen by the IRS due to tax fraud investigations – I don’t like the IRS, or any other tax-collecting institution, but if they spend resources tracking and chasing you, it usually means you owe them A LOT of money – and they have to move to a smaller house. Paula starts having an affair with Frank Sr.’s best friend Jack Barnes, (who is quite wealthy and, as it happens, not under investigation for tax fraud) then divorces Frank Sr. so she can marry this best friend (what the hell kind of best friend is that?). I like how the movie downplays the fact that Mr. Abagnale’s dishonesty was what initially ignited the family’s troubles. But anyways, Frank Jr, who is sixteen can’t handle his parents’ divorce and runs off to begin a life of swindling and stealing. And it is during this time that we are met with airhead after airhead.
Perhaps, for the purposes of the movie, Hollywood decided to make everyone else stupid (except Detective Carl Hanratty would eventually catch him) so that Frank Jr would appear smart. Still, it may be that I am overly sensitive, but the women in the film were particularly dumb. First there was the store clerk who let Franks Sr. and Jr. into the store before it opened because they gave her a necklace (never mind that she was alone in the store and they could have been robbers or rapists). Then Frank Jr. tried the same necklace trick to get a bank agent to cash a cheque from a different bank (this wasn’t allowed) and I get the sense that the female bank agent was actually going to consider it until her (male) manager intervened. Then there was the cashier at the bank who was going to scrutinize Frank’s forged cheque, until he told her she had beautiful eyes, then she thought nah, he gives such great compliments, I’m just going to go ahead and cash the cheque. (She didn’t actually say this, but this is what happened). Next, there was Marcie the air hostess on the first plane that Frank Jr deadheaded using his assumed identity as a PanAm pilot. She saw that he had no idea where his jumpseat in the cockpit was docked, but for some reason she thought this perfectly normal and pulled the chair out for him. Now, to be fair, I don’t know if all first-time co-pilots don’t know where the fourth seat is in the cockpit. Still, part of me thinks the air hostess didn’t say anything because she found Frank attractive. Then there was the cashier at the Miami bank whom Frank promised to take out for dinner and so the stars in her eyes prevented her from seeing anything odd about taking a complete stranger behind the counter and showing him how cashing cheques worked.
There was one woman in the movie who didn’t quite fit the pattern of the gullible easily-flattered twat: Sheryl, the former model turned prostitute played by Jennifer Garner. She smelled money like a shark smells blood and convinced Frank to pay her a thousand dollars to sleep with her. At her request, he gave her one of his forged cheques, so it seems like he conned her despite himself, but the movie doesn’t follow up on that.
After the brief detour, the film goes right back to the airhead trope, and it seems they saved the dumbest for the last part of the film. Brenda Strong is a young nurse in the hospital where Frank is pretending to be a doctor, and she is immediately besotted with him. Now, to be fair, it seems that Brenda has had a rough time the last few years – at sixteen, she got pregnant out of wedlock and her very strict parents got her an abortion and effectively disowned her. It is possible that she latched onto the first person who showed an interest in her in what must have been a difficult psychological and emotional low in her life. Still, Frank told some pretty tall tales about himself that should have raised most eyebrows, particularly when he said he studied law before he studied medicine and was both a lawyer and a doctor. His future wife and mother-in-law swallowed this story hook, line and sinker, but Brenda’s father was less credulous. Granted, Frank spins some more lies later to cover his initial lies (he tells Mr. Strong that he lied because he’s in love with Brenda and wants to marry her), but the point is that it took the man in the story to suspect that something was amiss.
The last scenario that bothered me might not be strictly a gender issue. Frank needed to escape the US from Miami International Airport that was surrounded by law enforcement agents looking for him. His plan was to use his disguise as a PanAm pilot but for it to work he needed to surround himself with PanAm air hostesses. That morning, he calls a bunch of universities in the area to say that PanAm is organizing a Future Flyers Program that allows young women to fly as air hostesses. This is all well and good, but is all it takes one phone call from one supposed pilot? If PanAm was doing this sort of program, wouldn’t they send letters and fliers weeks in advance? Or was this how things worked in the 1960s? And would PanAm send only one employee? Anyways, it seems Frank picks a women’s college to carry out his scam (I’m guessing this from the fact that aside from one man standing at the back, there were only women in the auditorium. If it was a mixed university, there would be at least a few curious young men as well). If there wasn’t a steady pattern of superbly stupid women throughout the film, I wouldn’t be bothered by this. Whenever Frank’s scams involved men, his scams were more credible, if not elaborate, like when he claimed to have lost his PanAm pilot’s uniform at the hotel. But when his marks were women, all it took was a cute smile, and the promise of a necklace/dinner/hook-up and they went all a-jittery and their minds melted like jelly.
Before I finish, I need to establish that I am not trying to bash this film. It was entertaining, and as far as Hollywood films go, well written and well-acted. If I didn’t think it was good, I wouldn’t have finished it the first time, let alone watch it a second time. However, my gender-bullshit sensors are quite sensitive so I pick up on subtle and not-so-subtle signs that treat women as inferior whether in film, literature or real life. I don’t think that Steven Spielberg set out to belittle women in his film – I can bet that he didn’t even notice the trend. That is how unconscious bias works – it’s when you internalize a set of (stereotyped) ideas about a group of people to the point that you automatically depict or treat them a certain way based on those ideas. Everyone has unconscious biases, myself included. I think it is important to point them out because biases in the hands of the powerful can gather momentum and grow into social codes, and these social codes sometimes get crystallized into laws. For instance, if enough privileged people think that women are inherently stupid, then it is easy enough to justify paying them less than their male counterparts at work, or even denying them employment altogether. I am NOT saying that this film is the reason for gender inequality in the world. I AM saying that it is a tiny part of a myriad of ideas that re-inforce negative stereotypes. Which is unfortunate, because besides the missrepresentation, it was a good film.