‘Mrs Right Guy’ is a blockbuster but its take on feminity sells women short

A party pooper is the last thing I want to be. Nobody likes a buzzkill, and I so badly want to jump on to the sexy, cosmopolitan bandwagon of enthusiasm for the success of home-grown romantic comedies at the box office in recent months. 

And in a number of meaningful ways, I am truly enthused. It’s difficult to be cynical about proof of the economic viability of local films that centralise black female audiences and protagonists, and that pioneer a positive filmic vocabulary of urban South African life.

Akin Omotoso challenged commercial cinemas to take the risk of stepping outside the margins of business algorithms that favour global whiteness over local blackness with the release of Tell Me Sweet Something last year.
In a public letter, he laid out his mandate.

“In the process of raising funds for this romantic comedy, we are constantly told there wasn’t an audience for black South African films. Our response was, we don’t think the right kind of films are being made for black audiences. Instead of the constant problematising of black lives, we wanted to give audiences a positive experience of a film about successful, handsome black people falling in love in Jo’burg, a Jo’burg reimagined as a city of love. In other words we set out to disprove this myth.”

And this racist myth has been thoroughly confounded by the victories of Sweet Something, Happiness Is a Four-letter Word and, most recently, Mrs Right Guy, which represent the first real wave of South African genre films that might finally dethrone Leon Schuster’s blackface blockbusters as the highest-earning films at the box office. This is certainly worthy of celebration.

But commercial filmmaking is fundamentally an exercise in myth-making, and it would be naive to say that these films do not have their own alternatively fantastical nature. The National Film and Video Foundation’s official press release for the latest of these, Mrs Right Guy, lauds it uncritically as an “escapist” film that “ticks all the boxes”, which is an accurate description, and the film was handsomely rewarded for these qualities with opening-weekend takings of more than R1-million.

The effect is a compound one. This is how you build an audience for a kind of film, or, in commercial terms, a market for a commodity, through consistent and repeated exposure. The world of the romantic comedy is aspirational and relatable, and the construction of this hypothetical reality is reconfirmed with each iteration of itself. 

A cookie-cutter form is emerging in which beautiful South African people bat their eyelids coyly at each other over champagne flutes against backdrops of expensive wallpaper, and audiences are happily handing over rands in exchange for these cookies. 

Although it is truly delightful to see black female agency and sexuality embraced onscreen, and to hear the box office ka-ching for South African film, juxtaposition with Beyonce’s spectacular, shackle-bursting Lemonade, for example, makes it difficult for the sceptic in me to avoid noting that the romcom fantasy is, comparatively, not an especially progressive one for women. 

The poster for the film, directed by Adze Ugah, raises the first red flags. Dineo Moeketsi stands between two gorgeous slabs of man meat — suave Thapelo Mokoena and guy-next-door Lehasa Moloi — with her dainty hands raised in a cutesy, indecisive shrug that is emblematic of the ditzy romcom heroine. It is not the image of a self-defining woman; it’s the image of a heteronormative fantasy in which she will finally end up by the side of the man who wins her, and will be defined — quite literally named — by the victorious “right guy”. 

Mokoetsi plays Gugu, the classical woman scorned, whose taste for men has been tempered by having been abandoned on her nuptial bed. Her intolerance for the men she encounters is fuelled by their observation of her undeniable beauty. Her career in advertising is her new priority, and she is charged and ready to shatter glass ceilings. At least, this is until she finds herself caught up in a romantic tug-of-war between her smooth-talking boss, Dumile, and the subject of her big “golden goose” pitch, chicken business owner Joe. (The writers get significant mileage out of poultry metaphors, in case you were wondering.) 

After some back-and-forth through a narrative that is lightly satirical, sometimes funny, and always a little self-conscious, Gugu makes some mistakes, but ultimately finds her right guy and the Shakespearean comic resolution is found.

The film is undoubtedly charming and well executed and is populated with an impeccably beautiful, if slightly stiff cast. Immaculate styling and cumulative TV fame add a lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous patina to its surface, and exemplifies a burgeoning star system that is certainly beneficial to the economic sustainability of the South African film industry.

(It’s worth noting that the star system’s roots lie in the highly conformist structures of studio-era Hollywood, and it was deeply implicated in the perpetuation of racist, sexist, individualist ideology of that time.)

But it is hard not to feel betrayed by a female character who begins her character arc feeling no shame in telling her street harassers to take a slow walk through fast traffic, but completes it by leaving a stream of desperate voicemails on a hot guy’s phone. 

In the fantastic parable of this love story, I wanted her to be Lilith, not Eve, and I was disappointed. It might be Gugu’s film defined by Gugu’s choices, but she is ultimately given only the options of choosing between two dominant archetypal discourses of masculinity. This is capped off by a crass, and somewhat telling, comparative penis joke in the film’s final moments.

Writing about Tyler Perry, a male American filmmaker working in the domain of the chick flick, film scholar Deborah Barker notes that Perry “offers black women a gift of images of themselves that are not confined to drug addicts, welfare queens and prostitutes. 

Yet, this gift of representation and recognition comes at a price, a price that black women strictly abide by the demands of a patriarchy that does not have their best interests in mind. [His] female characters are only allowed success and their very own ‘happily ever after’ if and when they submit to patriarchal family and social structures that position black men as the dominant force and prescribe black women a place of submission.” 

This seems to speak quite accurately to the fact of the independent and ambitious Gugu having to wait out the entirety of Mrs Right Guy’s duration to be awarded even a proper name.

Pumla Gqola, on her brilliant blog, laments the misappropriation of a line of June Jordan’s beautiful Poem for South African Women, which seems an important thought to keep in mind as we construct contemporary mythologies of femininity in South Africa. Commemorating “the 40 000 women and children who, on August  9 1956, presented themselves in bodily protest against the ‘dompas’ in the capital of apartheid”, Jordan reminds women that “we are the ones we have been waiting for”. 

If only Gugu could hear this through the shiny one-way mirror of the silver screen.

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