Every once in a while, the editors at the Statesman ask me to review movies that have something to do with food — it’s been so long since anyone noticed the film studies minor on my resume to know that I am academically far more trained to be a movie critic than a food writer, but I digress — and this week, I had the pleasure of reviewing “Eat Pray Love,” the new Julia Roberts movie based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s (crazy bestselling) book of the same name.
In general, I liked the movie and enjoyed making the points that A) this movie represents a major shift in the way traditionally Christian America is now able to talk about spirituality and B) women on a true journey of self-discovery and self-empowerment should not expect Javier Bardem to be waiting in the castle on the other side of the moat.
It’s no surprise that I’m not the only one who found similarities between “Eat Pray Love” and “Sex and the City,” but it seems most feminist writers were dismayed by how both movies seem to say that in order to be a strong, happy woman you have to have money. Oh Hells Nah says it best, writing that they are both prime examples of pseudo-feminism, where “empowerment and self-actualization for women lies in wealth and material possessions.”
My Statesman colleague Joshunda Sanders, who writes the Of Sacred and Secular blog on faith, co-wrote a much-cited article for “Bitch” magazine earlier this year called “Eat, Pray, Spend: Priv-lit and the new, enlightened American dream” that called the book out on promoting the inherently antifeminist, billion-dollar self-help industry, which thrives on keeping women insecure enough to continue paying for ritzy retreats, self-help seminars and life coaches.
“The most problematic assumption, and the one that ties it most closely to current, mainstream forms of misogyny, is that women are inherently and deeply flawed, in need of consistent improvement throughout their lives,” Saunders and co-author Diana Barnes-Brown write.
The article is a fascinating read but one I don’t entirely identify with, mainly because I don’t spend a dime on my own quest for spiritual wellness. I stopped paying for yoga a long time ago and find the library and my Abraham Hicks-reading mom have plenty of books if I’m in need of inspiration. Yes, the ideas in Gilbert’s book are hard to take seriously when they are based on taking such a lavish yearlong trip, but at no point does she say or even imply that must pay to go to an ashram and visit a medicine man to learn these lessons.
But I’ll stop there. This post isn’t a response to the priv-lit argument or to criticism of Gilbert’s expensive trip. It’s about that pizza in Naples, that gelato Gilbert eats while sitting on a bench on the street, that plate of figs and prosciutto a woman sitting alone at an outdoor so lusciously devours.
This is where I found similarities between “Eat Pray Love” and “Sex and the City:”
Just as the ‘Sex and the City’ series and films gave us free-spirited female characters giving themselves permission to be as sexually assertive as men, Gilbert’s unabashed enjoyment of food encourages women to stop feeling guilty about eating.
For the first third of the movie, when Gilbert is in Italy, food replaces sex as her indulgence of choice:
As we watch her dust delicate shavings of Parmesan over a heaping plate of pasta, an operatic voice in the background crescendoes to hit the high notes at an orgasmic pace. You can almost hear the audience moaning along with the character on screen.
How we are supposed to eat and how we want to eat come head to head in a scene with Gilbert and her Swedish friend in a pizzeria in Naples, where her friend is hesitant to eat much of what is likely the best pizza that will ever sit on a plate in front of her for fear of gaining weight. Gilbert, using as superficial an argument as possible, tells her to stop worrying about it: “When was the last time when you were naked with a man that he made a comment about your weight? Never. He’s just happy to be with a naked woman.”
Both of them have to buy bigger pants by the end of their stay in Italy, and in the book, Gilbert says she gained something like 23 pounds during four months there. It’s not exactly the healthiest way to get your life back on track (“I’ve lost my appetite for food, I’ve lost my appetite for life,” she tells her friend back in New York when the stress of her divorce and her life have finally caused her to break down) and I do worry that neither the movie nor the book addressed the dangers of overeating when in a distressed emotional state, but I must admit that there’s something liberating in the way that she allows herself to fully enjoy Italy’s culinary delights.
UPDATE: After posting this on Saturday, I came across an identically titled article for the Vancouver Sun where Shelley Fralic makes the same argument:
Society too often defines us, as a gender, not by our smarts or our accomplishments, but by our measurements….We have been brainwashed, and shame on us for being willing participants, that in order to look good, to be good, to snag a man/job/respect/love we must live on 1,200 calories a day and worship the StairMaster.
In one of the most beautifully shot scenes of the movie, Gilbert prepares a simple meal for one from the freshest of ingredients that she sets out to eat for the sake of enjoying to eat all by herself. While no one eats every meal with this kind of consciousness, it’s nice to see such a big Hollywood star in such a blockbuster movie attempting to do so.
I had great hopes when I started reading the book that learning how to be alone in that big castle you find when you learn how to swim across the moat would be Gilbert’s lasting lesson to readers, but that damn sexy Bardem (cue tigress prowling noise) had to come along and spoil it all with a happily-ever-after ending that was just a little too picture perfect for my liking.
In my perfect world, Gilbert’s journey of learning how to fulfill, empower, enjoy and forgive herself would end in a scene based on one of my favorite poems:
How to Eat Alone by Daniel Halpern
While it’s still light out
set the table for one:
a red linen tablecloth,
one white plate, a bowl
for the salad
and the proper silverware.
Take out a three-pound leg of lamb,
rub it with salt, pepper and cumin,
then push in two cloves
of garlic splinters.
Place it in a 325-degree oven
and set the timer for an hour.
Put freshly cut vegetables
into a pot with some herbs
and the crudest olive oil
you can find.
Heat on a low flame.
Clean the salad.
Be sure the dressing is made
with fresh dill, mustard
and the juice of hard lemons.
Open a bottle of good late harvest zinfandel
and let it breathe on the table.
Pour yourself a glass
of cold California chardonnay
and go to your study and read.
As the story unfolds
you will smell the lamb
and the vegetables.
This is the best part of the evening:
the food cooking, the armchair,
the book and bright flavor
of the chilled wine.
When the timer goes off
toss the salad
and prepare the vegetables
and the lamb. Bring them out
to the table. Light the candles
and pour the red wine
into your glass.
Before you begin to eat,
raise your glass in honor
The company is the best you’ll ever have.