On its face, (500) Days of Summer seems somewhat revolutionary. It appears to feature characters that challenge gendered stereotypes, and in the opening sequence, claims to not be a love story. While it isn’t a love story, (500) Days doesn’t focus on much beyond the relationship of the main characters Tom and Summer, told strictly from Tom’s perspective. For those who haven’t seen the film, the basic premise is that Tom is a hopeless romantic who is searching for his soulmate, who he believes is Summer. When Summer begins working at the greeting card company that Tom works at, he quickly falls in love with her. The issue then lies in the fact that Summer doesn’t want to be anyone’s girlfriend, and enjoys being her own independent person, a fact that she tells Tom many times, beginning when they first meet. Her disbelief in love is something that Tom fights to change, and seems to truly believe that he can change. The film follows their tumultuous relationship over the course of 500 days. Of course (spoiler!) he is never able to get her to fall in love with him, which is where the “not a love story” aspect comes in. Unfortunately, with the story being told from Tom’s perspective, Summer is portrayed to the audience as the enemy, with Tom being the sympathetic victim. Even after attempting to switch the gendered stereotypes, this film still perpetuates the negative views typically projected on female characters.
The Dominant Reading
Summer is damaged; pessimistic; has a wall up; is a lesbian; hasn’t met the right man; is a man. These are just some of the many assertions that are made about her throughout the film. Very early on, she gains the stereotypical role of “not like other girls.” She isn’t looking for love, is fine with sex without love, she has a music taste that’s similar to Tom’s, but was pretty enough to get “18.4 doubletakes” on her commute to work. On the other hand we have Tom, who in the words of his sister, is a “pussy.” Their relationship slowly grows throughout the 500 days, but partway through, Summer begins acting strange. The entire time, they have been acting like a couple, and by not being with him, Summer is seen to have been leading him on. The moment when Tom believes that Summer has finally lets her walls down is she tells him about her dreams, something she’s never told anyone before. After this point in their relationship, Tom pushes more and more towards defining their relationship. Ultimately, Summer breaks up with Tom in a diner, but calls after him that he’s still her best friend.
Her callousness in this scene makes it easy for the audience to resent her and sympathize with Tom. This is a scene in which I see very clearly the film’s attempts at reversing gender roles, with Summer even considering herself Sid when she refers to their relationship as reminiscent of Sid and Nancy.
In this film, it is demonstrated that Summer should relinquish herself to Tom, since he has all of the qualities of what is typically considered a good-guy. Perhaps if she let her walls down and gave herself to a good-guy, she would be able to believe in love.
Flaws in Dominant Reading
The dominant reading makes it easy to hate Summer with no real reasoning. We see her pulling away only from Tom’s perspective, but as an audience, we don’t stop to wonder why she is so unhappy. Summer isn’t a bitch, as she is referred to several times in the film. Nor is she flawed or damaged like we are supposed to think due to her aversion to relationships. She gives an incredibly valid reason near the beginning, seen in the scene below, that she just wants to be her own person and live her life without being anybody’s anything, but that is quickly lost.
This viewpoint is incredibly damaging because it takes away Summer’s right to choose her own life, and instead berates her for not succumbing to whatever Tom wants her to be.
To enjoy this film without cringing at the traditional role that filmmakers put female characters into, one can impose the oppositional gaze. According to bell hooks, as explained further by Hollinger, this avenue of viewing only enhances the feminist critiques of the film. It is a way to deconstruct the negative images or portrayals on the screen, and view them in a way that empowers the viewer. More specifically, viewers are able to “become not just resisting spectators, but creators of alternate cinematic texts” (Hollinger p. 197). I utilized this point of view to pick apart the many issues that arise in the film. To begin with, (500) Days doesn’t truly break free from any gendered stereotypes, they just try to ironically apply them to the opposite sex. As explained before, Summer from the very beginning isn’t looking for a relationship. She follows the stereotypical male role in regards to casual sex. She initiates their first kiss, she repeatedly tells Tom she isn’t looking for anything serious, she is the sexually forward one, and when she breaks up with him she says that he’s still her best friend. Tom on the other hand, is the stereotypical female in this “love” story. He overanalyzes everything, struggles to get over Summer when she breaks up with him, isn’t able to have sex without love, and goes to his friends and sister to get advice on everything that Summer does. These characters aren’t breaking any barriers, they are still only playing stereotypical roles and they are still portrayed in ways that reflect their respective genders, regardless. By this, I mean that in many typical heterosexual romantic films, the person who is experiencing the unrequited love, usually the female, is portrayed as pathetic, and is pitied rather than sympathized with. In this case, though, Tom isn’t pathetic or pitied, he is the seen as the likeable victim. Summer repeatedly tells Tom directly that she doesn’t want a relationship. She gives him so many different chances to get out of the sexual, not romantic, relationship that they were having. At one point she even told him “I’m not really looking for anything serious, is that okay?” to which Tom replied, “Yeah.” I personally can’t think of a film in which a guy told a girl that he didn’t want a relationship and then he was viewed as the bad guy when he stuck with that viewpoint. This all comes to a breaking point when Tom tries to “defend Summer’s honor” when there is a guy hitting on her at the bar. Not only is he upset when she didn’t appreciate him punching a stranger, but when Summer again reiterates that she doesn’t want a relationship, he says, “You’re not the only one that gets a say in this. I do too. And I say we’re a couple, goddammit.” This is where I find his emotions taking precedence over hers to be most apparent. The dominant reading of this is romantic, because who wouldn’t want a guy as cute as Joseph Gordon-Levitt demanding an official relationship, right? But wait, since when is a relationship not consensual? And that isn’t the primary issue. The issue is that Summer is still supposed to look like a bitch when she doesn’t agree to do whatever he wants to do right then and there.
One last issue entirely is Tom’s reluctance to see Summer as anything more than an object that he is infatuated with. In a sense, it is a very scopophilic way to treat her. Scopophilia is defined as the love of looking, or deriving one’s pleasure from seeing. More specifically, according to Freud, it is associated “ with taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze” (Mulvey 8). From the very beginning, he admired Summer from afar, something that one of his friends even referred to as stalking in the next scene.
One scene in particular that demonstrates this is after Summer breaks up with Tom, and he is set up on a blind date. Besides being incredibly rude and dismissive to his date, towards the end when she finally walks out, Tom announces to the bar that she was a waste of time because she didn’t look anything like Summer anyways. This line is very hard to hear, but is so important in discovering how Tom truly viewed Summer. She was an object that he claimed at the very beginning of the film when he first viewed her, despite her many protests.
While I found this movie to be much more problematic than the first few times that I have watched it, I still enjoy it. I appreciate that Summer doesn’t succumb to what others want from her, finding her to be a much more admirable character through watching it with an oppositional gaze.