By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD
“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat, or a prostitute.”
--- Rebecca West
“The more identities a man has, the more they express the person they conceal.”
--- John le Carré, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
An amusing anecdote can help preface this article. A Sudanese friend of mine whom I’ve mentioned before – El-Mubarak Saleh – had a disaster with his TV set so I felt prompted to get him a swathe of movies for his laptop. One of them, interestingly enough, was Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town (2017). It took him some time to get around to watching it but once he did he was positively captivated by the actress, Mackenzie Davis, playing the aforementioned heroine Izzy (short for Isobel).
This was no small feat on his part, being a wily oldtimer who grew up in the era of the golden oldies with starlets like Claudia Cardinale, Sophia Loren, Kim Novak, Marylyn Monroe and Gina Lollobrigida. He told me that the secret to Mackenzie Davis (MD) was her eyes. She spoke ‘through’ her eyes, not through the dialogue. And she could speak any story she liked through them, happy or sad. Me and my analytic frame of mind, it took so much longer to figure out the same thing, cross-referencing everything in my mind’s eye. From that point onwards I learned to have a profound respect for MD’s fans instead of just relying on my excessively rational way of critical thinking. Since then I’ve bumped into several on Facebook and Twitter and will quote them in this article in sections 2 and 3. As for my Sudanese friend he added that in the particular case of Izzy, Mackenzie Davis wasn’t just doing a part but in fact talking about herself, acting out things that had happened to her in her real life as opposed to what was just in the script. Well, wouldn’t you know it, while reading some interviews of MD I realised why I especially loved two scenes above all else in her movie Terminator: Dark Fate. The first is where she takes on the terminator in the Mexican factory, savagely smashing the thing’s head in with a sledgehammer, only for me to discover afterwards that she was thinking of anti-feminist Republican Brett Kavanaugh the whole time. (So that’s why it seemed so real!) The other scene was where Grace, augmented future fighter that she is, has a temper tantrum-panic attack in a pharmacy. It was very humorous and touching and thoroughly humanised the character, making her real and approachable.
Again, reading interviews you found that that was MD’s intention all along, but I also read that she’d been terribly stressed out while doing production work for Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town, which would imply again that she’s taking things from her life story so that she herself can better relate to the character she’s playing and help us relate to the character too. (That pharmacy scene actually reminded me of Lana Turner’s character in By Love Possessed and her husband talking afterwards about how he married her ‘for’ that, the passion and forthrightness and lack of composure as opposed to being the controlled, socially responsible type).
ART PATROL: El-Mubarak Saleh[left] and yours truly, with the detective style hat. Can’t think on an empty stomach!
It seems, then, that there are two kinds of actresses in the world. The first is the kind that empties herself out, pushing her own persona out of the way to help get into character, and the second species that does the exact opposite. The other variety utilises bits and pieces of her life, her childhood and instincts and trials and tribulations, to construct a character that is so real you feel like you’ve met her before and lament having not taken that first step in courting her. That’s precisely how I felt watching her play Yorkie in “San Junipero” and also, you’ll be surprised to know, the Goth girl in Freaks of Nature (2015). That character, Petra, is a teenage dream; the girl next door that ‘should’ have been the prom queen if only she’d had a little faith in herself and her looks. And if there were more boys next door with discerning taste in women.
It’s an imperfect world, what can I say. All the more reason to write an article not just about MD as an actress, her talent and characterisations, but to explore how us men see women in contrast to how women see women. Hence the fans I quote, who are mainly girls and just as devoted. But I’ll get my own points of view out of the way first!
Locked in the Male Crosshairs, from Gasps to Giggles
I’d love to talk more about the characters of Grace and Yorkie, and Anne from Always Shine and even Mariette from Blade Runner 2049, but I’ve dealt with them before. (I’d like to talk about Petra too to be honest, given that that was MD’s sexiest role to date). But best break new ground here and focus on two of MD’s most notable roles – as Izzy and also as Cameron Howe in the long-running TV series Halt and Catch Fire (2014-17). So, here goes nothing – in reverse order.
Feminist in the Electronic Mirror
Halt and Catch Fire is a term from computing and so not surprisingly the series was about the birth of the information age, beginning in 1983 when a young punk programmer by the name of Cameron Howe meets up with an offensive computer salesman, Joe MacMillan (the oversized Lee Pace). He heads off to Cardiff Electric, sick of IBM bureaucracy, and shakes things up and pulls Cameron into the company and his evil machinations.
Let me say straight off that the series is incredible, from an artistic and dramatic stand point and helps fill in key gaps in our knowledge about the computer industry and how it’s changed all our lives. What I don’t like about it is the twisted sexual politics and, more importantly, how that interferes with the drama. The series, on the surface, is one of those legendary American productions about big business and tech start-ups and Wall Street, something the Yanks are admittedly the best at. It’s also a 1980s nostalgia piece celebrating how the world today resulted from forces unleashed on the world at the time, in computing and elsewhere – gender and sexuality, and the communications revolution that allows you to be whomever you want to be. (There’s too much gratuitous sex if you ask me, and its worse since Joe swings both ways while playing both sides down the middle, if you get what I mean). But, underneath all this, it’s really about feminism and the moral dilemmas and commercial temptations that face women on their career path. (Why else do you have a secretary named Debbie in a company headquartered in Dallas? Debbie Does Dallas is the classic working girls striking out for their own porn movie!) This is exemplified from the word go by the compare-and-contrast duo of Cameron and Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé), or as Donna herself puts it, you’re the genius and I’m the mamma. Cameron’s a girl living in a man’s world and doesn’t know if she wants to remain true to her feminine core – and that’s very feminine at that – or succumb to pressures and behave and dress like a man to get ahead in life. (She carries a penknife, after all). And half the time Donna’s husband Gordon (Scoot McNairy) is the mama at home, making a better breakfast for the kids than her. In sociology this confusion and strain over roles is referred to as role overload. (Joe likes to wash dishes a specific way and won’t let Cameron do otherwise, as in season 4, and she never gained cooking and housekeeping skills from her mom, a big problem in the US from what I’ve heard).
The truth however is that the genius is the ballsy babe that sticks up for people and refuses to renege on her vision. In the meantime the supposedly wholesome housewife type that Donna is leads her to become the overbearing mother superior type that keeps things from Cameron, when they become business partners, and even to screw Cameron out of her hard-won company. Note that Donna pretty much does the same thing to her poor, hapless husband Gordon, the most sympathetic character in the whole series; with the best performance too, with MD right behind him. Poor Gordon is the domesticated househusband stereotype and Donna eventually dumps him when she – by pure coincidence – comes to run her own company. (Shades of David Schwimmer from Friends).
Donna is into cheap thrills galore, liking Oreo biscuits, has the eager beaver quality to her and had rich parents who spoilt her; her financier partner Diane seduces her into supporting the IPO offer with her silk-lined townhouse. The politicised message here, which I don’t like one bit, is that nothing is permanent in life, family or business, and so it’s best to organise both in a ‘temporary’ fashion based on naked self-interest. Marriage is a ‘partnership’, after all. The gender angle in the series is also exemplified by the love-hate relationship between Cameron and Joe as their incredibly passionate relationship goes belly up because of his failure to commit and his own personality hang-ups, with his father committing his mom to the Looney bin for 1960s-style drug usage and things. (Cameron lost her extremely cool dad in Vietnam and had to put up with her mom’s boyfriends. She still insists on wearing his Saigon navy suit, a guy who is a fallen hero that is quietly forgotten afterwards by his own wife and her latest in a long line of husbands). This is a form of generational mirror-imagining, with women increasingly being forced to behave like men because they’re on their own in a man’s world and where those men are increasingly unmanly-unreliable. (Don’t take my word for it. Look at the way Faye Dunaway’s character is described in Network). This comes out in two key scenes. One in the first season where Joe comments on how Cameron comes and goes as she pleases at his place, in search of animal gratification, something that men do and he especially does. The other is a key scene from season 2, after Cameron splits up with her boyfriend, the really good kid Tom Rendon (Mark O’Brien), then tries to get back with Joe (who’s just got married and was actually becoming a good guy) saying, you’re Joe MacMillan, you can do anything. That’s what she wants, for herself. (He’s a guy who throws caution to the winds, hence the opening sequence with the poor armadillo crossing the road to ‘get to the other side’).
In season 4 you discover that her mother tried to force her to be a beauty queen, giving her even more reason to rebel and go on a manly character arch. Notice the gorgeous scene where Cameron is dancing, ballet-like and very gracefully, at Cardiff Electric at night time, with the light sculpting her shapely body and you can see just how feminine she both is and ‘wants’ to be. Cameron, in point of fact, is her father’s name. Donna moreover, when she first learns she’s a programmer, has doubts just because she’s a woman. But you were still heartbroken when she betrays Tom in season 3, at Comdex 1990. Both Tom and Gordon come in for serious punishment in the series, in line with the geeky white dude stereotype I’ve outlined before. (They have Tom leaving Cameron in season 4 to have kids, forgetting the option of adoption; the same going for Joe). Gordon is the butt of all the jokes – the jibe about extra small condoms (S02E05) – and Tom has to apologise for being jealous and protective of his wife to Joe in season 3, while his haircut is clearly not 1980s-90s but the boob husband hairstyle from the 1950s, or earlier. I mean, why else would they get the same actor for the retro horror flick Ready or Not (2019), cavorting with decadent aristocrats with their similarly outdated clothes and hairstyles? And he never seem to grow old or change his hairstyle from season 2 to season 4, the eternal pimply boy with dimples in his cheeks compared to the rude dude Joe. What a dad giveaway!
Makes you wonder what is it that women really want in life, stability or excitement? Or is it control? When Gordon does betray his wife at one point, at a moment of weakness after discovering he has brain damage, he never defends himself by ‘reminding’ Donna of how she’d betrayed him first – seduced by money and charm, and with a blond guy with a stable career climbing the corporate ladder. (At least he did it with a single mother-working class woman; Donna has flirting in her cultural DNA, such as the scene when Joe is at their house and Gordon’s stuck in the middle of a rainstorm). Seems the scriptwriters forgot that inconvenient fact, so it’s this ‘convenience’ that makes the narrative forced in part and ruins the sense of sincerity that allows you to love the series. With Tom it’s particularly devastating because he’s a mirror image of Cameron in his own way, a brilliant programmer who is more interested in quality than money and someone raised by a single working mom. Whenever Tom kisses Cameron you beam with selfless pride. You’d think I’d be jealous as a fan, but you love Cameron so much you want her to be happy and identify with him as a cool dude who deserves that himself. (Don’t you just hate humility?!)
Still, that’s not what this article is about, my chauvinistic preferences notwithstanding. Its’ about Mackenzie Davis as an actress and a person, and she really outdoes herself here. You can hear it in her voice. When you see her in the first couple of episodes, with her boyish haircut and attire, she has her trademark husky voice. (And men love that by the way and she’s more feminine looking with short hair). Once she gets ahead at Cardiff Electric she mellows out both in terms of her (huggable) clothes and her (even more huggable) voice. Once she feels pretty, she ‘sounds’ pretty; she’s so great before and after getting the job you honestly can’t tell which version of Cameron you like more. You loved how sexually assertive and technically radical she was in season 1. (MD also kept her Canadian accent well hidden here; it’s very evident however in Freaks of Nature). Later in a flashback sequence in season 2 you have Cameron playing a computer game early in the morning and she invites Joe to play with her and she’s quite literally a giggly little girl bundled up into a ball, as if her father is hugging and tickling her. It’s was shocking and ‘hypnotic’. Cameron is a woman that gets prettier not by season from year to year, but almost from hour to hour, and is in full feminine bloom by the finale of season 4, despite the farm girl-worker’s overalls she’s wearing in the end. What is more, you could tell that the cameraman was in love with her throughout; bringing out the delicate greens of her eyes and her softness in the way she rests her cheek on her hand and the brown freckles on her back and body and her gorgeous toothy grin. (She looks exceptionally nice in red and I’d wager has a preference for warm clothes, even in the sunlight of California and Texas). Her anxieties also come out with the tension in her neck, brought out in season 3 episode 5, when she goes home but can’t confront her mom.
MD really makes the character her own, exploring all the different dimensions of Cameron, from her youth to her class background to her personal anxieties. Gordon and Donna at one point describe her as white trash (I think she’s from Austin originally) and you can see how much she enjoys the high life, enjoying her paycheck and room service to the fullest. There’s the punk rocker kids she hangs out with in season 1, the shoplifting scene from the men’s department (after finding that female clothes look bad on her) and the clothes she wears that are full of holes that she keeps with because they’re comfortable and are of sentimental value, again very much like a guy. MD also did a great job making the character authentic to the era; same goes for Scoot McNairy and his tragicomic character Gordon. There’s even a scene in season 3 where you swear you’re watching Miami Vice, given Cameron’s unkempt frilly hairstyle and her taste in loud colours, coupled with the greys that were so popular in the 80s. (I would know, I grew up back then myself). That era was also the era of junk food, hence the endless sugary snacks she eats in the first three seasons, and I think are also meant to exemplify her perpetual evolution, never fully becoming a woman. (Check out Lolita’s taste for sweets and greasy foods in the original, more wholesome James Mason movie, not the yucky remake with Jeremy Irons. Halt and Catch Fire normalises-humanises female maturation, thankfully). And that’s Cameron not Mackenzie Davis, who doesn’t have so much as a pimple – like she subsists on a cabbage farm for life support. The way she hides things about the character is brilliant too, such as Cameron’s vulnerabilities. There’s a heart wrenching scene in season 2 where her upstart company Mutiny is almost destroyed by a virus and she hyperventilates – Tom, poor sap that he is, helps her breathe and laugh and rescues her. (Not that he gets any thanks for it in the end; half the time he’s treated like a cabana boy or tipped like a waiter; rebel programmer Ryan leaves Mutiny for much the same reasons in season 3). In another scene she sleeps in the bed of a little girl, feeling as vulnerable as a child. When her mom decides to sell off her father’s things, she can’t confront her and the new step father and instead runs to Tom to regain that sense of security she lost when her father died. (Poor sergeant Tom!)
Kudos also for how Mackenzie Davis is so in control of her body language. You can see her neck and chest turning a distinct shade of pink as she begins to get angry, fearing how Donna is going to steal Mutiny from her. One small proviso here however. I think MD’s own maternal instincts got the better of her in the series. Cameron supposedly doesn’t want to have kids but when you see her taking care of Gordon and Donna’s adorable girls in season 1 she makes it look like motherhood is second nature to her – you can hear it in her voice and see it in her body language. The way she smiles and kisses is also ‘very’ maternal, such as the scene where Joe confesses to how he got his scarres, thanks to his mother’s drug habit, accidentally dropping him off a building while stargazing. One of MD’s most beautiful screenshots by far, in any series or movie she’s done, is when Cameron is at her first Comdex event in season 1 and she’s talking to a fellow dreamer telling her about California and all the incredible R&D stuff they’re doing and how she should be part of it.
REBEL OFFSCREEN: Mackenzie Davis proving that you can be a feminist and cute at the same time.
Again there is this maternal, caring look in her eyes and it’s positively captivating. Cameron (or is that Mackenzie Davis?) wants to hug a man and be his shelter. Fine by me as far as Cameron is concerned. I just wish she had better taste in men!
To be continued. In the meantime, here are the NOTES:
 This is like Aristotle on friendship, that it can only exist between equals and ‘men’, and I don’t buy the reconciliation that happens between Cameron and Donna at the end of season 4, after the men are conveniently pushed out of the way. Once again, watch How to Make an American Quilt to check on Aristotle and how jealousies mess up female friendships.
 Check out the many Oreo biscuit references and scenes in the movie Barbarians at the Gate (1993), a leftover of the 1980s.
 Women just don’t respect men who ‘trust’ them to be by themselves. Check out Anaïs Nin’s A Spy in the House of Love (1954). And I thought jealousy was some sort of infantile instinct women didn’t respect in men in a world replete with love triangles and sexual communes!
 Adultery is common parlance in American and even British cinema, with the boob husband or fiancé or boyfriend willing cooperating in the end, supposedly for the sake of the ‘happiness’ of his gal and after slipping on a conveniently placed banana peel. (Whatever happened to ‘dignity’ and your personal happiness?) To discern the convenient logic behind this winner-takes-all mentality please watch When Worlds Collide (1951) and Master of the World (1961). The only exception to this seems to be in wartime when it’s not cool to betray your brave boys on the frontline, boobs or otherwise. Please watch Casablanca (1942), The Cockleshell Heroes (1955) and even Sharpe’s Rifles (1993) with Sean Bean. Honour is a warrior concept after all and only seems to impose itself in the West during such extreme situations. To us Easterners, war or no war it’s the very stuff of life!
 I get the feeling Ryan Ray (Manish Dayal), an Indian-American coder who eventually commits suicide, is a stand in for Aaron Swartz, that poor coder kid who committed suicide in real life after hacking JSTOR. (NB: Ryan is driven away from Mutiny because Cameron’s ego won’t let her apologise to him and admit he was right. She’s so headstrong she insists on doing all her coding herself and specifically the portion of the code she wrote by herself in the larger code with Tom, and almost drives herself to ruin).
 Notice that in season 2 Joe marries a woman who is a stargazer herself, Sara Wheeler (Aleksa Palladino) who works at SETI, somebody who is physically very small, and has warm maternal almost Mediterranean features. (Her father is as tall as a house, like Joe, leaving her as an apparently passive observer caught between a rock and a hard place, contrasted to the very tall, platinum blonde Cameron). As for Joe, he was denied his mother at an early age by his larger than life father Joe MacMillan Sr. (season 4). It seems then that he’s searching for her in other men, noticeably smaller effeminate types, to pursue an independently non-attached masculinist lifestyle, fearing he’d lose it all like he did when his mother was taken away from him. That’s also why he keeps driving Cameron away. (This is no psychological genius on my part. I read half of this in a book on evolutionary theory!)