Kirsten Dunst’s latest role: Unlikely warrior in continuing gender debate

 


Kirsten Dunst and Garrett Hedlund at the gala presentation for the film “On the Road” at the 37th Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 6, 2012. (Mike Cassese/Reuters)

When a rain-soaked Kirsten Dunst kissed an upside-down superhero in 2002’s “Spider-Man,” fans cheered. The response to the actress and cover girl’s comments in the latest Harper’s Bazaar UK has been far more controversial.

On the subject of gender roles, Dunst, who has a new movie coming out and has been, as they say, “spotted” with actor Garrett Hedlund, told the magazine, “I feel like the feminine has been a little undervalued.” She said, “We all have to get our own jobs and make our own money, but staying at home, nurturing, being the mother, cooking – it’s a valuable thing my mum created. And sometimes, you need your knight in shining armour. I’m sorry. You need a man to be a man and a woman to be a woman. That’s why relationships work … ”

To be fair to Dunst, she probably didn’t suspect that an actress’s comments would spark so much contentious debate. But when you go beyond your personal romantic situation to opine on relationships in general, you do invite others to join in. And considering the current political, social and cultural arguments over the choices women make and decisions made for them that affect their lives, the skirmish is not surprising.

While I, shallow person that I can sometimes be, wanted to hear more about her upcoming co-star Viggo Mortensen, others came to attack and defend, viewing her words through a variety of prisms and coming to different conclusions about what she meant and whether the 31-year-old uttered sage advice or blasphemy.

Were her comments “a breath of fresh air in a culture that has brought us ‘war on women’ propaganda” from other actresses, as Cortney O’Brien at Townhall.com says? Is writer Stacey Ritzen fair when she concludes in her criticism, at Uproxx, “So, I guess my marriage is doomed to fail because I don’t have kids … and my husband is more of a cat person than a dog person”?

An actress’s comment is elevated in spite of or perhaps because we can’t escape issues of gender equality and work in the real world, where Democrats and Republicans disagree on whether a Paycheck Fairness Act that failed to pass in the Senate on Wednesday is needed to cut into the national gender wage gap or an unnecessary measure that would increase civil lawsuits. Both parties acknowledge there is a problem, but disagree on what to do about it.

A recent Pew Research Center study showed more mothers with children under 18 are staying at home, but more are saying that’s less a choice and more because they can’t find a job.

All women have the right to make a choice. Dunst’s choice is made much easier because she has been earning her own money, quite a bit of it, since childhood. She can fulfill both work and home roles – ones she demarcates a little too forcefully, and I say that as somebody who loves to cook. Plus, she can hire people to help when she runs out of time and energy, a luxury few can afford. That’s nothing to apologize for, but it also explains some of the pushback to Dunst’s relationship solutions – men being men and women being women, whatever that means. That advice may not fly when needs are more immediate and employment less glamorous when it exists.

When women’s pay issues are the subject of proposed legislation and women voters are being fought over, women’s roles are being discussed, once again. Will women and men ever be satisfied with the choices others make? Will the discussion become less fraught with meaning and controversy only when there is true equality?

In The Washington Post, Dana Milbank reported on a Heritage Foundation-sponsored meeting of women of the right that encouraged marriage as the preferred path to success, personal and otherwise. Katrina Trinko answered back in a Heritage blog that highlighted the financial advantage both halves of married couples experience and criticized his tone to boot.

As long as women are judged, expected to do more and are paid less, debates about women and work and choice will continue, usually without the voices of women working at low-paying jobs and raising or helping to raise families. Many of them probably wouldn’t mind if that knight or Spider-Man of Dunst’s dreams dropped in, as long as he doesn’t think helping out with the laundry or the dishes is woman’s work.

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.
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