Joy: Woman Power and Soap Operas

Picture this: actors not looking at each other, but delivering lines to one another; jarring dialogue; dramatic deliveries. This is the opening of Joy, and a recurring triad of features throughout the story. (And, warning: spoilers.) With a mother obsessed with soap operas, a grandmother away with the fairies, an ex-husband in the basement, two children upstairs, a father moving back in with her, and a half-sister with a bit of a lip, Joy’s life is not easy, nor normal. We are drawn into her life like one of the shows her mother watches, told the details of her life by her grandmother, and forced to get used to this weird set-up that could only exist on television.

Except this is a biopic of sorts. This is the story of a real woman, with a really messed up family life, a reasonable job that turns awful, and a lack of faith in herself. The woman we’re introduced to has been defeated by life, after a divorce between her parents, a divorce of her own, and the crumpling of her dreams. We’re guided through this life by the unreliable narrator that is her granny, a woman whose absence from most of the key scenes in the plot should be noted, if we’re to fully accept that the version of the story we’re told, the version full of drama and heavy dialogue and the most brilliant, and the nastiest, elements of each and every person shining through and just the right time.

Joy’s life is one under the dominance of the patriarchy: her father pays half her mortgage; her ex-husband still lives with her; men exert their power in the streets, at work, at the television studio; men are the best sellers; men cause a mess that women should clean up. Specifically, that Joy should clean up. She’s a strong character, but crushed under the weight of how much she wants to do to right by everyone, and how much she’s been told to listen to the men in her life.

joy poster
Poster for Joy

The opening of the film, right up until the first critical moment in her life – the one that might put her back on track – presents us with people fulfilling roles; accompanying the crazy family are the Rich Mistress, the Supportive Best Friend, and the Sleazy TV Sales Man. How they’re each introduced is integral to the storytelling mode of Joy. The mistress, Trudy, is introduced through a telephone call with Rudy in the middle of a discussion about business and finance – the relationship between Trudy and Rudy will always come in the middle of business, beginning as it means to go on. The best friend, Jackie, is introduced after a vivid soap opera dream that Joy has after passing out on her mother’s bed; Jackie’s knocking pulls Joy from the dream, a nightmare. She’ll continue to be the person to pull Joy out of trouble, whenever she’s able. Then we have Neil Walker, a man who’s introduced with his head off-screen; he could be almost any man in Joy’s life, making promises he doesn’t know he can keep, and supposing to know more about business than her on the basis of her gender.

Everyone plays a role.

While Joy mingles with the soap-operatic archetypes of her life, her struggles against the patriarchy (though she doesn’t call it as such) unfold. Her father accepts responsibility for the failure of her business – not because it was he and Trudy forcing her into a professional relationship with an unreliable lawyer, but because he let her get ideas of success and aspiration in her head. A man fails to sell her mop, or even understand its purpose. A man tries to steal her patent. A man steals her money.

Jennifer Lawrence in Joy
Jennifer Lawrence, as Joy, looking severely annoyed at the world in which she lives

It takes some time, but eventually Joy refuses to accept that all of the failure of men should affect her the way it does.

Throughout this whole adventure, from poor beginnings and a falling-apart house (as broken on the outside as the family is on the inside) to a small victory over the people who attempted to tear her down, she’s accompanied by only two supportive people: her ex-husband Tony, who’s a better friend than husband, and Jackie. Her family are all embittered people, jealous of her success and her ingenuity, and she abandons them more and more as her troubles mount. If nothing else, Joy teaches us that family is more about the people we choose to keep with us, and less about the people we’re surrounded by as a consequence of the circumstances of our birth.

While many people didn’t enjoy this movie, I was gripped the entire way through by the stylised soap opera feel, the exaggeration, the heavy dialogue and narrative techniques that guide us through the horror of the late 80s. Catch it in the cinema while you still can.