TJ Miller’s explanation of the “feminist agenda” in ‘The Emoji Movie’ proves the bar is too low


T.J. Miller is on the strangest press tour of the year. Not only is he promoting an odd product — The Emoji Movie, a bad Hollywood focus-group idea made sentient — he’s also expressive about anything and everything. In the wake of his departure from HBO’s geeks-and-greed comedy Silicon Valley, Miller has been brutally honest when discussing his feelings on the show and seems very ready to play the heel.

Speaking so freely, though, will almost inevitably lead to some hyperbole. That’s what happened when Miller talked to Variety about The Emoji Movie’s would-be “feminist agenda.”

“It’s got a feminist agenda, but not in a preachy way,” Miller said ahead of the film’s release on Friday. “Men should be expressive, women should be able to be feminine and girly while at the same time being assertive and strong protagonists.”

Perhaps The Emoji Movie will surprise us by making its female-presenting emoticons the secret heroes. (Shall we dare to dream that Gloria Steinem cameos as the Woman Detective emoji?) But the way Miller presents it indicates the bar for what’s feminist in film is absurdly low.

Presenting women (or, in this case, Unicode images that look female) as characters with as much depth as men is not feminist or revolutionary. It’s basic decency, certainly not worth as much as a pat on the back. The only reason it’s noteworthy at all is because Hollywood is, somehow, still so bad at it.

Miller’s comment is reminiscent of when Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising made hay out of its feminist story — which, in practice, was more about needing to be feminist than actually being feminist. Lots of writers and publications championed the film as feminist in both message and characterization, though detractors’ arguments that the story wasn’t actually that empowering were quite pointed. What really turned the tide against the movie, however, was the realization this would-be feminist film didn’t have even one female writer on its team of five. (Two associate producers reportedly helped with the writing of the female characters, but were not credited as writers.)

Like Neighbors 2 before it, The Emoji Movie is bereft of female writers. Even with the best of intentions, a movie written by three men is a hard sell as feminist. Women-inclusive, maybe — but that’s not the same as feminist.

None of this is meant to castigate Miller for an interview talking point; feminism is seen as a trend in culture at the moment, so it’s not surprising when stars are asked to emphasize their films’ women-friendly cred. But lowering the bar to allow more movies over it isn’t the answer. Feminism is more than passing the Bechdel test.

Instead, Hollywood should look to hire more female writers. Diversity’s root is on the page, not in front of the camera. Hiring women creators means more real, complex stories about women on screen. That’s a feminist agenda worth signing up for.

The Emoji Movie hits theaters Friday.

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