Is This a Men’s Club?: Women in PLANES, TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES
13 November 2011
From the opening shot, which is a low-Dutch angle on a skyscraper in New York City, it’s clear John Hughes’ Planes, Trains & Automobiles will be a twisted adventure. However, what becomes apparent shortly into the film is that it is not the wacky road trip Neal (Steve Martin) and Del (John Candy) share that is twisted; it is the film’s treatment of women. While slapstick, screwball comedy is not typically known for it well-developed characters, of any gender, is it disappointing that they film subscribes to such antiquated, one-dimensional representations of women.
Two days before Thanksgiving, Neal Page’s flight from New York City back home to his family in Chicago gets rerouted due to a snowstorm. Neal, a cynic, immediately becomes frustrated and anxious over the prospect of missing Thanksgiving with his wife and three small children. Yet, Del Griffith, another passenger from the rerouted flight, has a completely different outlook on the situation, and makes it his personal mission to help Neal get home for the holiday. In this screwball comedy, the duo, quite literally, try planes, trains, and automobiles, but meet with obstacles at every turn, including being robbed, having their car set on fire, and even impounded. By the end, Neal learns something about patience and understanding, Del learns to let down his guard, and the men share Thanksgiving dinner in Chicago, with Neal’s family, the feat they worked so hard to achieve.
However, on a serious note, there are minimal female roles in Planes, Trains & Automobiles, and the limited number of women who appear in the film are depicted stereotypically, namely Neal’s wife, Susan (Laila Robins). Susan is the female character with the most camera time in the film, which is, cumulatively, under five minutes of the hour and a half film. The character of Susan progresses the stereotype of woman as submissive, beautiful wife and mother. The only time the audience sees Susan she is waiting in the Page’s house—hair done, children washed, and house clean—for her husband to arrive home. Every time Neal calls with an update on his trip, which is sporadic and inconsistent, Susan is right there to answer the call and reassure her husband she is eager for him to return, except, of course, when she is taking her children to one of their activities. Susan never expresses frustration over her husband’s absence around the holiday; instead, Susan timidly worries for her husband, offering to “wait up” until he gets home.
Aside from her phone conversations with Neal, the only time the audience hears Susan say anything is at the dinner table with her children, right before Neal rings her for the first time. Susan is explaining to her children that it is okay for grandpa to give them “noogies” and “Indian-burns” because “that’s how he shows you that he loves you.” Actually, that is twisted, and it highlights Susan as submissive, teaching her children to allow this discomfort and pain from grandpa because he cannot express his emotions another way.
Moreover, toward the end, when Neal is on the ‘L’ (now back in Chicago) and daydreaming of Thanksgiving with his family, he imagines his wife’s hands baking the perfect pie for dessert and basting the turkey. Subtly, the film is prescribing the duties of a wife in this brief montage. Neal is not daydreaming about all the food; he is daydreaming about his wife preparing all the food.
As Neal finally arrives home on Thanksgiving afternoon, his children, parents, and in-laws greet him. After looking around the foyer, he finally sees his wife descending the stairs toward him. Cinematically, Susan must descend from the pedestal of perfection her husband and the film places her on to welcome him home after his tiresome, painstaking adventure. Moreover, before she embraces her husband, she must acknowledge his new “friend,” Del, who he brought home for the holiday celebration. In accordance with proper etiquette and manners, Susan greets Del by saying, “Hello, Mr. Griffith.” In response, Del utters, “Hello, Mrs. Page.” Calling Susan Mrs. Page identifies her as Neal’s wife, not an individual, which is the final touch on a heavily stereotyped version of woman in the film.
However, Susan is not the only woman in Planes, Trains & Automobiles, nor is the submissive wife and mother the only stereotype of woman touched upon. There is also the lustful, over sexualized young woman, shown on the bus Del and Neal travel on, affectionately credited as “Bus Loverette” (Karen Meisinger). A couple sits to Del and Neal’s left and distracts much of their attention; the woman is blonde, with skimpy, sheer clothes, and her boyfriend all over her. Significantly, the sexualized woman does not speak; her boyfriend speaks for her. Because Susan cannot serve as the sex symbol in the film, since she is a married woman with children, there, of course, has to be another woman, one who is oversexed and enjoying it, to attract necessary gazing.
Additionally, the stereotype that women are dumb and compulsive shoppers is in there as well. Midway through the film, in an effort to make money, Del begins to sell his shower curtain hooks to women as designer jewelry. Women practically throw money at Del under the misguided idea they are purchasing fine jewelry, expensive because they are “filled with helium, so they are very light.” It is difficult enough to have so few female roles in the film, but to drop any substance from the few depicted perpetuates the antiquated assumption that women are secondary. Unexcused for its comedic genre, the film does its part in supporting offensive stereotypical roles of women in society.
In fairness the two leading men, Neal and Del, do not have many nuances; Hughes’ slapstick comedy is entirely plot driven, and rarely pays attention to characterization. Yet, even though the men are not fully expanded characters, they do evolve and develop some nuances over the course of the film. In spite of the attention grabbing plot twists along the way, the men are dynamic characters. The minimal inclusion of women in their static, insulting roles is subtly oppressive and insulting to female viewers watching Planes, Trains & Automobiles.