The Misogyny of ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’: On Superficial Social Commentary and Women as Fantasies Not People

Image by Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX © 2020

Image Description: Jessie Buckley as Lucy in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” with red hair, a red beret, red jacket, and yellow scarf stands at the edge of the street in the snow looking up at the sky with a puzzled expression. Opposite her are some shops and a car is parked behind her.

Warning: spoilers

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is a horror/thriller film written and directed by Charlie Kaufman that has joined the ranks of films by white men that are lauded by film Twitter. This film is narrated by Lucy, as the viewer hears her inner thoughts, and follows her and her boyfriend, Jake, while they visit his parents at their farm in the middle of nowhere during a snowstorm. The trip takes an eerie turn as we discover they aren’t who we think they are.

Some people have argued that the meaning behind this film is a cultural critique of the “manic pixie dream girl” trope in which women are presented as free-spirited characters who only show up to teach the male protagonist an important lesson about life. This is an inherently misogynistic trope because it shows women as only existing to help men in some way and men are seen as incapable of changing without the encouragement from women. While other folks claim that Kafuman attempts to show the horror of the trope as the viewer watches it play out, I argue that this interpretation of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” gives Kaufman too much credit as he actually feeds into the trope more than he critiques it. In actuality, the film and its characters are self-aware of the misogyny in the “manic pixie dream girl” trope due to the treatment of Lucy in this film, however, Kaufman fails to meaningfully challenge this trope and the misogyny behind it. 

The movie begins with Lucy and Jake—Lucy is a red-headed artist and Jake is a dull, quiet, mild-mannered “nice guy”—who are on their way to visit Jake’s parents. The whole ride over, she repeats “I’m thinking of ending things” in her head, implying that she’s thinking of breaking up with him. It feels like he can read her mind because he keeps asking what she’s thinking about.

The horror/thriller elements come into play with a series of bizarre changes to the characters. Throughout the movie, Lucy’s clothing changes despite all the events occurring on the same day, her voice changes, her name changes, and other aspects of her identity change. When they are in Jake’s childhood home, she finds a poem that she recited in the car in one of Jake’s books. What is strange about this is that the viewer was under the impression that it was her own work. Then, at another point she opens their washing machine and finds it full of janitor uniforms. 

The reason that there were so many incongruities throughout the film is because the relationship between Jake and Lucy is actually in the imagination of a janitor we see towards the beginning of the movie. He imagines himself as Jake in a relationship with the fantasy of Lucy.

As seen with the poem, Lucy is based on random things like the media he’s consumed. He molds Lucy into who he wants as he changes her voice, name, clothes. While all of these changes happen to Lucy and while she is in distress at different points in the film, the janitor does imagine himself as younger, but he does not change the different aspects of identity for Jake that he did for Lucy. This difference in attitudes that the janitor has towards Jake versus Lucy reflects his misogyny as he does not see women as people, but as beings that can be changed at will for his consumption. Additionally, the janitor sees himself as Jake — as the typical “nice guy” —  and feels insecure about himself which he projects onto the woman he fantasizes about. He is unwilling to imagine himself in a relationship with someone who actually wants to be with him.

The idea that men are incapable of change on their own shows up in the movie as, towards the end, the janitor strips naked and gets a speech from an imaginary pig that tells him he is who he is. As the janitor lets go of his fantasy, he does not show any personal growth. His creepy attitude towards women, which is seen with him molding an imaginary woman into his own fantasy where she feels trapped in a relationship with him, is not addressed. Instead, he just sheds the fantasy but still does not confront the issues he has because he isn’t expected to. As a man, he isn’t expected to reflect on his actions and behavior and change in any way. In fact, his imagination is how he affirms his behavior and tells himself that it’s okay for him to be himself throughout the course of the film.

You can’t just put art into the world with your own spin on misogyny and leave it as is. Self-awareness isn’t enough to count as a cultural critique. That’s what’s frustrating about this movie, just because he stops the fantasy doesn’t mean that this behavior towards women has. It’s irresponsible for Kaufman to move on from it and write the character to decide to cease the fantasy without changing anything that created this misogynistic fantasy in the first place.

It is especially irresponsible when similar things happen in real life. It is too often that men fantasize about women they barely know or form expectations about women and when they are rejected they lash out because men feel entitled to women.

This film is painfully self-aware on several levels. The characters are self-aware of their harmful behavior and the film is self-aware of the tropes it uses in its attempt to offer social commentary, however, nothing is done with this awareness. The characters and the film do not actively work against these harmful ideas and change the course of their actions and Kaufman does not change the course of the film. Therefore, I find it hard to believe that this film was more than a convoluted, clumsy and superficial social commentary.

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