Hello, My Name is Doris, directed by Michael Showalter (who you might recognize from Wet Hot American Summer), is an indie comedy that stars Sally Field as a woman in her 60s who pursues a romantic relationship with a young co-worker. The film opens on the title character mourning the death of her mother, whom she lived with and cared for her whole life. Doris is presented as having a rather sad life—she has a hoarding problem, reads romance novels on the way to work, and seems destined to become a reclusive cat lady. However, Doris does have some of the quirky charm typical of indie rom-com heroines, pulling off fabulous outfits like these:
Doris has worked at the same clothing company for years—as a holdover from before the company re-branded, she doesn’t seem to have any friends among her young co-workers. That is, until John arrives. Doris immediately becomes infatuated with John, played by Max Greenfield. A young acquaintance helps her find his Facebook profile, and Doris begins to pursue a relationship with John when she feigns common interest in electronic music.
The two spend more time together, causing Doris to venture beyond her comfort zone by attending an EDM concert, staying out late at night and hanging out with millennials. John and Doris build a relationship, but it remains ambiguous whether it is a romantic relationship to John or just a friendship. Doris is devastated when John eventually rejects her romantic advances, but by the end of the film she has embarked on a new journey of self-discovery, cleaning out her hoarded possessions, quitting her job, and saying farewell to John.
I was primarily interested in seeing this film because it centers the experience of a woman in her 60s, which is a viewpoint that does not often get represented in mainstream cinema—especially in the form of a cheerful romantic comedy. Hello, My Name is Doris is a refreshing take on the experience of a woman in her 60s navigating desire and belonging in the world. By using the power of her gaze, Doris enacts her desires while simultaneously going on a journey of self-discovery influenced by post-feminist sensibilities.
The film portrays Doris as a woman with sexual agency, which is shown throughout the film by Doris’ use of the gaze. Laura Mulvey states that, “[Scopophilic pleasure] arises from pleasure in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight” (Mulvey, 836). Doris fixes her desiring gaze on John throughout the film, receiving pleasure from gazing at him from behind her office cubicle and through the window of his own office. Her gazing often leads to the playing out of fantasies in her head, distracting her from the current moment. Laura Mulvey describes the role of gazed-upon object, typically assumed by women in film, when she states, “The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation” (Mulvey, 837). Hello, My Name is Doris flips this so that the main male character is the object of erotic desire—Doris’ fantasies interrupt the interactions she has with him, causing Doris to momentarily become lost in her fantasy and halting the narrative taking place in reality. In this film, the character of John assumes the role of erotic object to be looked at, which allows Doris to be the central desiring subject—a refreshing change in an industry that does not often afford sexual agency to older women.
Alongside with the development of Doris’ relationship with John is her discovery of a life beyond the confines of her home. Doris’ journey is aligned with post-feminist sensibilities of individual self-improvement. As Rosalind Gill states, “Notions of choice, of ‘being oneself’ and ‘pleasing oneself’ are central to the postfeminist sensibility that suffuses contemporary Western media culture” (Gill, 153). The Doris of the later part of the film is not the reclusive, silently yearning Doris the audience sees at the beginning. This journey of self-improvement is set up early in the film when Doris converses with a self-help lecturer and becomes entranced by his words.
As Doris spends more time with John and his young friends, she has the fun that she missed while caring for her mother for years. The most heartbreaking moment of the film comes while Doris’ brother Todd is confronting her about throwing out the objects she and her mother have hoarded over the years. Todd claims that he couldn’t have helped with their mother more because he got married and started a business. In a moment of possible regret Doris says “I could have had those things too.”
By the end of the film, she has begun to seek such things: she is shown improving herself by getting rid of her hoarded possessions and she quits her job because she isn’t appreciated by her boss. Her relationship with John may be damaged, but Doris has a new lease on life. Throughout the film, Doris develops as an individual in conjunction with the development of herself as a desiring subject, exhibiting an adherence to post-feminist sensibilities of individuality and self-improvement.
As she embarks on these simultaneous journeys of romance and self-discovery the film shows Doris exploring the social arenas of 2016. Doris discovers the joys of Internet stalking, EDM, and hipster knitting circles—all unfamiliar to sequestered, mid-60s Doris. The way the film treated non-normative sexualities was uncomfortable—often “LGBT” was used as a buzzword to indicate the strangeness of the millennial world Doris begins to inhabit. She chats with a young woman at a party who teaches at an “LGBT pre-school” and a joins a new acquaintance, Brooklyn, at a meeting with a lesbian knitting circle. “I’m not a lesbian, but I just really feel like myself there, you know?” says Brooklyn. These lines are meant to incite laughter—as in the early cinematic tradition of queer characters being placed in only comical roles. As Benshoff and Griffin state, “When queer characters were depicted, they were usually relegated to minor parts and/or were the butt of jokes, by contrast reinforcing the central an socially appropriate nature of the heterosexual love story” (6). The inclusion of queer sexualities in normal, everyday life is presented as bizarre and otherworldly in the film. This is likely meant to emphasize the alienation of Doris from the modern millennial world she finds herself in, but the comical treatment of an inclusive world in the film has normativizing undertones that were probably unintentional, but are regressive nonetheless.
I saw the movie at the Grandview Theatre in St. Paul. The theater is located just down the road from Macalester College, on a street that has a lot of businesses that encourage strolling along the sidewalk. This gave it the feel of a friendly neighborhood cinema. The inside of the theater was rather shabby—in a way that my roommate (who I dragged along) said seemed a bit sketchy but I thought was charming. The ticket cost $8.50, which is fairly standard, possibly even inexpensive for a large city. The theater didn’t have any extreme advertising measures for food, but they didn’t need any—the smell of popcorn filled the lobby and was enough to convince me to buy popcorn! There are only two screens in the theater, and Hello, My Name is Doris was showing on the larger screen, in a long, cavernous theater. The impressive size of the theater undermined the collective movie-watching experience—there were only a few other people in the theater, and it was easy to forget that anyone else was there since everyone was quite separate. However, I did glance over at my roommate a few times to laugh with her. I did notice that a few of our fellow audience members were senior citizens, and I wondered if the focus on a character in her 60s was what convinced them to see the film, or whether it was just another movie to them. The lack of a collective experience wasn’t so noticeable at this film—it was a quieter, non-extravagant movie, and the setting felt appropriate.
I leave you with this music video:
Benshoff, Harry M, and Sean Griffin. “General Introduction.” Queer Cinema: The Film Reader. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Gill, Rosalind. “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 10.2 (2007): 147-66. SAGE Publications.
Hello, My Name is Doris. Dir. Michael Showalter. Perf. Sally Field, Max Greenfield, Tyne Daly. 2016.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44.