Kathryn Hahn's 'Mrs. Fletcher' explores female sexuality with the same endearing awkwardness as her character in 'I Love Dick'

Kathryn Hahn's 'Mrs. Fletcher' explores female sexuality with the same endearing awkwardness as her character in 'I Love Dick'

It is a fine line as an actress when you delve into cringe territory, especially when it comes to female sexuality. How do you curate the awkwardness in a way that is endearing rather than off-putting? How do you cut through the objectifying sleaze factor that seems to follow an actress brave enough to portray female desire and need with honesty and vulnerability? Since the male gaze is unconsciously coded into tropes around female sexuality, to portray female desire (and yes, the female gaze) free of those assumptions, and still not seem 'offensive', is a rare feat.  

It is a balancing act that Kathryn Hahn seems to have perfected, using humor as a weapon, while exploring potentially divisive takes on 'what women want'. From the 2017 'I Love Dick' to the upcoming 'Mrs. Fletcher', Hahn has managed to bring to the screen revelatory portrayals of middle-aged women trying to find sexual agency and voice and living through the consequences of doing so.

Middle-aged women and sex is not something that is automatically equated because they are 'past their prime' and no longer viewed as sexually attractive. The exception to that rule is the predatory 'Mrs. Robinson' cougar, an archetype that has spawned the term 'MILF'.

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In 'I Love Dick' and 'Mrs. Fletcher', Hahn ravages these stereotypes and goes beyond them. Her character in 'I Love Dick' is Chris, a woman in her late 30s, who is an unsuccessful artist, married (and dependent) on a much older husband who is an established academic. Since he is more of a father figure than a lover, Chris is shown to be somewhat bored with the relationship. Her passion and vitality are channeled into her art instead. But when her 'big break' as an artist evaporates, it is a trigger. The frustration and rage she feels about her unsuccessful career mixes with dissatisfaction with her love life. It is an explosive combination that finds its outlet in the aloof 'cowboy' artist Dick (Kevin Bacon).

Dick represents the desirable male figure in his (middle-aged) sexual prime, naturally exhibiting qualities that society celebrates. There is a bit of subtext (through other female voices who also "love Dick") that the success of his sparse, sculptural art is in part dependent on how the male perspectives in art are seen as 'serious' and worth celebrating while women's artistic visions are dismissed.

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When Chris develops a crush on him, you don't quite know if she has a crush on Dick or what he represents within a male-dominated society. Hahn perfectly portrays the complexity of Chris' mindset who seeks Dick's approval, both as an artist and a woman. As a stand-in for society as a whole, Dick's acknowledgment would mean she is not a failure, that she isn't invisible and that she is 'desirable'.

Hahn has perfected the awkward, endearing mannerisms that serve to humanize her characters because you wince on her behalf rather than laugh at her as she woos Dick, openly signaling her obvious crush. Her attentions go largely unacknowledged or are deliberately ignored when they become intrusive. In the universe of Dick, she does not exist. It is a reference to how middle-aged women are disregarded after they have crossed their sexual prime.

Hahn then launches into a furious portrayal of thwarted female ambition and desire, pouring her frustration of being rejected repeatedly by society for who she is. It is a delicate tightrope walk. In the hands of a lesser actress, the character of Chris could have become offensive. She would have been one more neurotic and screechy female, best ignored and forgotten. But Hahn's performance mixes vulnerability and open-faced earnestness to blunt her outre actions. The result is that you can't take your eyes off Chris as she charts a difficult and painful journey of becoming a woman and artist who will be heard, despite all odds. 

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In 'Mrs. Fletcher', she takes on the other stereotype -- of the predatory cougar as she surfs MILF porn. As her character Eve, she subverts expectations because she is nothing at all like the self-assured Mrs. Robinson, confident of her sexuality and her skill in manipulating a younger man into her bed. Instead, Eve is a WASP, always living within restricted parameters and not very comfortable with any sort of carnality or eroticism. But as the empty nest syndrome drives her into the permissive embrace of the Internet and she dives into MILF porn, she tentatively starts exploring her sexuality, finally asking herself what she finds desirable. 

As she finally starts exploring possibilities, first in her mind and then through her body, she comes across as clueless rather than predatory. Hahn's performance mixes embarrassment with resolve as Eve tries to own her sexuality and her identity as a woman, outside comfortable but restrictive labels she has been saddled with all her life. With so few on-screen depictions of female sexuality that go beyond cliches, it is a joy to see Hahn pick roles that tell it like it is.

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 Kathryn Hahns Mrs. Fletcher I Love Dick explore female sexuality