Culture

What's Happening to Me? On Women and Web Searches in Movies

Just as we snicker at mentions of eight-track tapes in movies from the '70s and the cumbersome car-phones and cell phones of the '80s and '90s, someday our descendants will be giggling at the silly generation of film heroines who turned to search engines in their hour of greatest need.

I've been saving up examples of this phenomenon ever since Halle Berry typed the fateful words "cats. women" and "the cat in history" into her browser, desperate to find an explanation for her strange new superpowers and canned tuna addiction. (As is often the case in films, her version of the Internet doesn't look like anything most of us have encountered.)  I'm hard-pressed to come up with a reason why male characters are so rarely shown in this vulnerable position; the only example I can come up with on short notice is poor Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy's character in "Wanted") pathetically Googling himself and coming up with no results -- a moment that is supposed to underscore how unimportant he is, but that actually just destroys the film's technical credibility: Do they really expect us to believe that such a common first-plus-last-name combination yields zero results?

So apparently it's a female thing. When Lindsay Lohan's character in "I Know Who Killed Me" decided she'd had it up to here with her digits falling off inside her gloves, she typed "bleeding wounds unexplained" into Ask.com. When Bella Swan needed to get to the bottom of that pale hottie's personality quirks, she let Google do the heavy lifting (her Web interface doesn't look much different from Catwoman's). Frantic Googling plays a key role in the new Breaking Dawn adaptation as well, with both Edward and Bella rummaging the Web for information about human/vampire pregnancies. Hints about Leighton Meester's stalking tendencies in "The Roommate" are discovered via her roommate's snooping on the fictional social network Frienderz. And most recently, in Lars von Trier's art-house stunner "Melancholia," Charlotte Gainsbourg searches the terms "Melancholia, death" to see whether her fears about the titular planet crashing into the Earth are based in reality, resulting in the discovery of this handy diagram.

In each of these cases, I believe the filmmaker's intention is to paint their character as inquisitive and empowered, taking matters into her own hands with the limited tools at her disposal. Endowing leading ladies with an uncanny grasp of computer technology has become one of Hollywood's most tired ways of paying lip-service to gender equality, while still pandering to male-conceived stereotypes about how women behave. Sandra Bullock may be a no-nonsense programming whiz in "The Net," but she still succumbs to feminine longings, dejectedly ordering from Pizza.net while Annie Lennox wails "A Whiter Shade of Pale" in the background. Bridget Fonda spends a disproportionate amount of "Single White Female" trying to convince us that her character is equally gifted as a fashionista and a software pioneer. And remember the little girl in "Jurassic Park"?  Funny how her genius computer skills emerged at the eleventh hour, even though she'd done nothing for the previous two hours except scream and get sneezed on.

As well-meaning as this recurring search engine nonsense may be, in nearly all cases it's just supremely lazy writing -- a way of hurrying the plot along, conveniently revealing information without anyone having to earn it. And unlike our real life searches, the search results are always one hundred percent relevant and accurate (as someone who is prone to fits of hypochondria and late-night WebMD crawls, I know exactly how gross a misrepresentation this really is).

While one could claim that it's perfectly realistic to have characters use the Web as an oracle -- it is, after all, most people's first line of defense against life's problems, large and small -- I think that's a horrendous cop-out. We already accept that fictional characters won't necessarily make the same decisions that we would, and we're perfectly willing to suspend our disbelief and embrace the director's vision of the world, even if it doesn't reflect all of the hours of paperwork or Angry Birds-playing that we're used to in our own.

Here's a wild idea: Write a truly intelligent and resourceful female character, and trust us to find a way to relate to her. These days anyone's Aunt Doris can get results from Yahoo, but what are the odds that anyone would pay to watch a movie about it?

Like What You're Reading? Get the best of Signature, delivered to your inbox every week. Join the Signature newsletter