Julie & Julia tells two stories in parallel: that of Julia Child, the American chef who popularised French cookery in the USA with her book Mastering the Art of French Cookery (1961) and her famously eccentric television performances; and Julie Powell, a young American woman living in contemporary New York who decided to write a blog about her attempt to cook all 524 recipes from Child’s huge book in 365 days – using only the tiny little kitchen in her tiny little apartment.
The film, based on Powell’s book which was based on her blog, repeatedly forces parallels between the two women’s stories, attempting to convince us that there are almost mystical connections between them, even though it is quite apparent from the beginning that we are being told two radically different stories and it’s the differences, rather than the similarities, that are really interesting.
I enjoyed the Julia Child part of the movie. Meryl Streep took a character who could easily have become a clown-like figure of fun and gave her immense dignity. The story of Julia Child is that of an upper-middle-class woman in the 1950s who set out of create a career for herself based on something that she felt truly passionate about: food. Julia Child loved food, eating, cooking and France, and (so the story goes) wanted to share those pleasures with everyone else. The representation of her relationship with her husband is refreshing in showing an older, unconventionally attractive woman as sexually active and desirable. Julia was 6.2 feet tall, had an unusual voice and eccentric self-presentation. The representation of female friendship in this part of the film is also refreshing: Julia’s female friends support her unconditionally because they believe in her and in what she’s doing. And it’s always good to see women unreservedly enjoying food. Julia’s privileged class status exposes her to things she loves, like France and food, but it doesn’t allow her to express herself; she’s supposed to play Bridge, not become a chef, and the fun in her story is in watching a woman who’s supposed to do nothing determinedly doing something, a woman who “ought” to be ashamed of her mannerisms and appearance refusing to be ashamed of those things.
Then we have the Julie Powell side of the story. No matter how loudly the film tries to force connections, Julie is not at all like Julia. Amy Adams just about managed to make Julie Powell bearable, but where Julia Child is represented as charismatic, resilient and genuine, Julie Powell comes off as whiney, narcissistic, self-centred, desperately approval-seeking and obsessed with status. It is implied that there are plenty of good reasons why Julie Powell is represented like this, but the movie doesn’t explore them in any depth – it would have been a far more interesting film if it had. For starters, Julie seems to have a conservative, toxic Southern mother in Texas who constantly calls her up to undermine and criticise her, which brings up all sort of regional issues in an East Coast post 9/11 movie in which Southern signifies ignorance, backwardness and Republicanism (and this movie is extremely anti-Republican). We can presume that some of Julie’s neuroses have to do with anxieities about her own regional/political background — despite her Southern background, she has no Southern accent so she must have got rid of it somewhere along the way.
At the beginning of the film, Julie has lunch with a group of repellent yuppie female friends who treat her like shit, but it is apparent that Julie wants to be like these people – ok, maybe she doesn’t want to be quite as vile as they are, but she cetainly wants their money and their status. She clearly feels like she’s failed because she doesn’t have these things. Whereas Julia Child has to fight to make herself a career in the 1950s, in the early part of the twenty-first century, Julie Powell is expected to invest all of her sense of self-worth in having certain kind of career – a career that carries a level of class status and financial clout. Whereas Julia Child is expected to be a decorative diplomat’s wife (a role for which she’s completely unsuited), Julie Powell is expected to make lots of money and have the right status job. To put the point another way, Julia Child wants more than she’s expected to have in the 1950s, while Julie Powell wants exactly what she’s expected to have in the 200os.
We’re supposed to believe that Julie Powell starts the cooking project to boost her “self-esteem” and that she just happens to have the idea of writing a blog about it (can you really just set up a blog on Salon.com anytime you want? I don’t think so). Read between the lines, and I suspect we really have the story of a woman in ruthless pursuit of the book deal (that will bring her the status of “writer” she so desires) undertaking the kind of “quirky” project readers of Salon.com are likely to respond to positively. I mean, she must have invested thousands of dollars in the ingredients and cooking equipment alone to undertake such a project, not to mention the investment in time and energy since a lot of these recipes take hours. No, I don’t believe for one minute that Julie Powell started her blog expecting to get nothing out of it at the end. I think it was an investment she hoped would pay off, and it did. This is not least because within the terms of her story, nothing is worth doing unless it pays off. For example, we’re told that Powell never finished her novel and that no one wanted to publish it. But maybe she never finished the novel because no one wanted to publish it. What’s the point of writing if it isn’t going to get you money, status and fame? Powell, it seems, wants the status of “writer” more than anything else and it doesn’t particularly matter what she writes, whether it be novel or cooking blog, it’s all just a means to an end.
The Powell narrative is unabashedly middle-class in its unquestioning promotion of the ruthless perusal of things to which you feel yourself entitled, no matter the consequences – it doesn’t matter if Powell’s marriage is damaged, or if she performs badly in her 9-5 job (which is actually an important job helping people make insurance claims after 9/11, despite the film’s attempt to make it seem silly in comparison to her freaking blog!). And not to worry if your husband starts complaining about the mad cooking project which is ruining both your lives, just bat your eyelashes and wobble your bottom lip at him and he’ll soon come running home, but whatever happens do not let anything stop your pursuit of “excellence”. In this part of the film, as female viewers, we’re supposed to identify with a 30 year-old women having tantrums on her kitchen floor because she dropped a chicken. Julie refers to these outbursts as “meltdowns”, but they bear an uncanny resemblance to behaviour I reguarly witness in my 2 year-old nephew. Julia Child would never throw a tantrum have a meltdown, she would scoop up the chicken, cry “No one can see you in the kitchen!” and carry on.
The idea that Powell deserves a book deal is never questioned in the movie because middle-class, white women who went Amherst and have “meltdowns” deserve book deals. That’s just how it is. We’re all supposed to cheer when she finally gets one. It becomes the middle-class cooking/blogging project equivalent of Rocky – they should have had ‘Eye of the Tiger’ playing when all the literary agents start calling her at the end of the movie and offer her hundreds of books deals. She deserves it, of course she does! But does she really? Maybe she does, I’m just asking. Disturbingly, at this point in the movie, Julie finally gets approval from her toxic mother because she’s finally lived up to expectations.
The representation of female friendship in this part of the movie is also markedly different to that in the Julia Child part of the film – whereas you feel that Julia’s friends had her back, Julie’s are, as she puts it, “bitches”. She refers to herself as a “bitch” as well. She doesn’t like her friends and they don’t like her and, according to this narrative, that’s just how it is with women. The best female friend seems to be there for commiseration and little else. You come away feeling that these women could really learn something from the women in the 1950s.
The film is worth seeing for the Julia Child story and Streep’s performance, but I felt there was a far more interesting film struggling to get out of the Julie Powell part, a film that looked in more depth at gender, food and culture in the United States, and a film that looked more honestly at the social/class structures that produce representations of women like Julie Powell (I make a distinction here between the representation in the movie and the real-life woman about whom I know next to nothing) – women who seem to feel they have little choice but to be “bitches” in order to get anywhere.
An entertaining film, but if you’re a female viewer, it’s definitely worth thinking about how it’s positioning you as a subject.