Real Talk From Diablo Cody: “Why Not Write Bitches?”

Photo: Picture Perfect/REX USA.
“I’m just dealing with deeply ingrained misogyny every step of the way when I write, so why not write bitches?” Diablo Cody tells me in a phone call earlier this week. She's talking about the title character of the movie she wrote, Ricki And The Flash, which comes out Friday, and is directed by Jonathan Demme. Ricki Rendazzo, played by Meryl Streep, may not be a “bitch” exactly, but she’s another one of Cody’s deliciously complicated women who defy a simple description. Ricki — née Linda — left her children and husband to pursue rock star dreams, only to end working at a grocery store and playing in a bar band. She ventures home when her daughter (played by Streep’s own daughter Mamie Gummer) has a crisis of her own. An Oscar winner for writing Juno who also made her directorial debut with the 2013 release Paradise, Cody took cues for her Ricki screenplay from her rock ‘n roll mother-in-law and her own thoughts on motherhood. (She has two children, ages three and five, with her husband Dan Maurio, and a third child is on the way). Cody spoke with Refinery29 about the Streep-ness of it all, how “people hate women,” and writing a Barbie movie. You said the character of Ricki was inspired by your mother-in-law. When did you know that you wanted to write about her?
"I didn’t specifically want to … Can you hang on one second? [pause] I’m sorry, I’m kicking my husband out of the room. It feels really weird to be talking about his mother so much to journalists. The movie’s not about her. I went out to New Jersey, gosh, years ago to meet my husband’s family for the first time and nobody told me that his mom was the lead singer of this bar band. We went out to see her perform and I was just completely blown away. The last thing I expected from my future mother-in-law was for her to be literally standing on the bar, singing Pink Floyd in high heels. I thought, there’s something very cinematic and cool about this and this is a character I haven’t seen in the movies. It created a little spark of inspiration, and then I think it was a few years later that I started to think to myself, I want to do something with that character and I want to write about the choices women make as mothers and maybe the regrets they have as they grow older." What brought you to writing Ricki?
"Writing Ricki, specifically, I was thinking about my future and how my kids might perceive me as they get older. They’ve gotten to an age where they wonder why I have to write so much. It’s tough because I genuinely don’t feel that men have to apologize for providing for their kids. It’s just considered the default, whereas women actually feel like they’re making a selfish decision just by being productive. I’m wondering if when my kids are adults, are they going to say, 'We actually wish that you had dropped the career and just stayed home with us'? I am home with them a lot actually — luckily, this is a really flexible job — but sometimes that makes things even more complicated because they wonder, if you’re home and you’re sitting in your office, why can’t you play with us?" Like, “why are you by the computer?”
"They hate the computer. I can’t tell you how often my three-year-old walks over and just slams the laptop shut." Has that provoked a “save everything” response?
"Yes. It’s harrowing. " Ricki gives a big speech on stage about the double standards for men and women. The speech is complicated, though, because while she’s right to point out the hypocritical treatment, she’s also talking about big rock stars, when she herself is not a rock star.
"Ricki comparing herself to Mick Jagger is to me very amusing. She’s not Mick Jagger. She aspired to be a rock star but it never happened. That scene is simultaneously funny to me and truthful. She does raise some good points. If she were a guy, obviously she’d probably be punished for her absence, but not in the same way. She wouldn’t be viewed as this deviant, because the idea of a mom actually moving away from her children to pursue a dream is just so abhorrent to most people." Had you been wanting to write about this for a while, or did it come up through this character?
"It is something that I wanted to write about for a while, particularly after I directed. I saw how different my experience was than my male colleagues who had children. Often they would just fly to wherever location they were shooting the movie, and their wives would stay home with the kids and hold down the fort. I didn’t have a wife. I have a wonderful husband but he works, and that’s important to him, as it should be. So he stayed in Los Angeles and worked. I took the children with me, even though during that period of time, I arguably had a far more demanding job. I was working around the clock. The other women I know who write, direct, live this kind of caravan life that filmmakers lead, they do the same thing. They bring their children with them. I don’t see as many guys doing that." Why do you think that is? That notion that a woman has to be the mothering type?
"I think it’s completely driven by guilt. This idea, no, I can’t leave my children for two months to make a film, whereas I think a guy sees that as a completely logical thing to do. I tend to think that the guy might be right, but it doesn’t matter, because I will continue to take my children with me. It’s not super conducive to creating art to be sleep deprived and to have small kids that need you in your off hours. You can’t go out after wrap with your [director of photography] and talk about the shots you’re going to set up the next day. You have to go straight home and wipe asses. It’s really challenging, and the women who are pulling it off I have immense admiration for." How did all the stuff you were thinking about coalesce into Ricki?
"I would never make the decisions that Ricki made, and at the same time I do have sympathy for her. I think in many ways she saw Maureen, her kids’ stepmother [played by Audra McDonald] as a superior replacement, and thought, 'Oh my god, here’s a person who is nurturing, available, can make French toast, is literally a nurse.' She was able to fill all these roles that Ricki had failed at, being a kind of unconventional screwball mother. I think maybe she felt deep down she was making a selfless decision by exiting their lives. I don’t know. I have theories about it. It’s not something I would do, but I do have sympathy for her." Why did you hear Meryl's voice as perfect one?
"On a really basic level, I knew that Meryl had an amazing singing voice, and I also knew that she’d be willing to commit herself to learning guitar, which not a lot of actors can do, but she can do anything and sure enough she did. It’s just a difficult role because it’s hard to make a person like Ricki, who’s so raw and so self-centered in a lot of ways into a sympathetic character. It would have to be somebody who did have that warmth and who was just incredibly skilled in walking that line. I thought you'd need a Meryl Streep caliber actress to pull this one off basically."

People can’t even accept a female character who has sunshine and rainbows coming out of her butt. People hate women. Period.

Photo: Picture Perfect/REX USA.

That double standard that Ricki talks about also applies to how people receive quote-unquote “unlikable” characters. It’s often harder for audiences to accept a woman that makes these choices. Was that something that you wanted to write to at all?

"People don’t even like likable, sympathetic female characters. The cast of the female Ghostbusters reboot visited a children’s hospital, and there are people all over the Internet accusing them of being publicity whores, whereas when Chris Pratt does that he’s a hero. It’s much worse than just people who can’t accept an unsympathetic female character. People can’t even accept a female character who has sunshine and rainbows coming out of her butt. People hate women. Period. I’m just dealing with deeply ingrained misogyny every step of the way when I write, so why not write bitches? I’m screwed either way as someone who’s writing exclusively female-driven projects. There’s always going to be that mist of hate surrounding everything that I do. I might as well do what I want." Ricki speaks in a feminist way in that speech. Do you think Ricki thinks of herself in relation to feminism at all?
"No, I think Ricki would probably say that she’s not a feminist. Ricki would probably say, I love men. The guys in my band are my favorite people in the world. She probably thinks that feminism means you dislike men, which is a pet peeve of mine." You have a cameo in the movie, when you're dancing to U2 in the bar. How did that come about?
"I dreaded that day. I became very close to our director and he asked me to do it. I can’t say no to him, I thought it was just going to be maybe a quick reaction shot. I came to set that day and he was like, oh no we’ve set up this whole thing and you’re going to dance. I just went oh God, please don’t do this to me, please don’t make me dance in front of Meryl for two hours, but it actually wound up really fun and I’m glad that I did it." You’re working on the Barbie movie. I think with The Lego Movie, our eyes are more open to the potential these films can contain.
"Yeah. I love The Lego Movie, that movie has been super inspiring to me in this process." Recently, a company like Goldieblox has taken aim at Barbie or Barbie-type dolls.
"Everybody loves to take aim at Barbie and people have been doing so for decades and I want to change that because I love Barbie. I engaged in a lot of creative play with Barbie as a kid, and I used Barbie to tell stories and go on adventures. I think a lot of the hate towards Barbie is a dismissal towards girl culture. I think it’s rooted in sexism actually. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with liking pink and wanting to play with dolls." How do you manifest that creativity in a screenplay?
"Obviously I can’t really talk about the script, but I want to show people that Barbie isn’t about a perfect doll in a box, Barbie is about wild costume changes and flights of fancy and going to the moon. I don’t think people realize how creative girls get with their barbies. That side of things, I think that’s the spirit of the movie right there."

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