A Thinly Veiled Story of A Damsel in Distress

Francesca Salisbury is surprised and frustrated to find To the Bone filled with unhelpful gender stereotypes

source: flickr

CN: Eating disorders

Starring Lily Collins, To The Bone is hard-hitting story of a 20-year-old girl’s struggle with anorexia. From an unconventional family and having received treatment for years, protagonist Ellen is persuaded by her desperate step-mother to enter a group recovery home, under the guidance of the supposedly ‘revolutionary’ Dr Beckham. Thrown together with a group of girls (and one boy named Luke) each of whom suffer from an eating disorder, Ellen is forced to confront her issue head-on.

Despite being based on the director Marti Noxon’s own experiences, To The Bone has come under fire for ‘glamorising’ anorexia, supposedly portraying the illness as desirable. However, after watching frankly harrowing scenes, episodes from Dr Beckham examining the yellow bruises on Ellen’s spine as a result of frantic calorie-burning sit-ups to a fellow in-patient’s tragic and purging-induced miscarriage, I can say that anorexia is portrayed as far from glamorous.

Instead, what left me outraged was this: Ellen’s journey to recovery is catalysed by two key figures, and both are men. Although Ellen doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with Dr Beckham, his advice (which boils down to “Life’s not perfect, get over it”) eventually gets through to her. An affable character, his role is essentially paternal, perhaps replacing Ellen’s notably absent father. While female doctors are the ones who actually cook for the inpatients and monitor their health on a daily basis, Dr Beckham only appears at random intervals to impart supposedly ‘gritty’, ‘real-life’ advice, yet is presented as a miracle-working saviour.

The second male character that catalyses Ellen’s journey is Luke, fellow anorexic inpatient who lives just down the hall. With his British wit and eccentricity, Luke acts as the stereotypical Indie film hero. Quirky in appearance and character, his cheerful spirit and humour quickly charm the more serious, broody-yet-beautiful Ellen in a cliché, The Fault in Our Stars-esque manner. Despite the five other girls surrounding Ellen, it is Luke who takes her out for a meal, it is Luke who manages to get her to eat a chocolate bar, and it is Luke who appears to her in a dream and tells her that “Your courage was a small coal that you kept swallowing”. Ultimately, it is Luke (or at least a vision of Luke) that persuades Ellen to give recovery another chance when she was at the point of accepting death.

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When I was explaining why this bothered me to a friend, she said, “Well, I think you’re coming at it from a very feminist perspective.” Yes, I am coming from a feminist perspective. Because in today’s social and political climate, where patriarchy is so entrenched and accepted in everyday life, we need to tackle it head on. I am surprised and disappointed that a film involving so many powerful women essentially followed a clichéd, outdated and frankly sexist storyline of a knight in shining armour rescuing his damsel in distress. I am not denying the importance and necessity of highlighting eating disorders as a problem, and in fact I applaud the film for doing so, but to embed within such a sensitive topic yet another boy-transforms-girl’s-life plot is irresponsible and saddening.

To The Bone is amazing in some respects: it is beautifully directed and produced, and it highlights some genuinely harrowing issues that need to be brought to more urgent attention and enter the public’s consciousness more fully. So while the film takes great leaps forward in creating a dialogue around eating disorders and particularly anorexia, it unfortunately feels like a step backwards when it comes to dismantling gender stereotypes and patriarchal narratives. For once, could the damsel save herself from distress?