There’s a moment in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Michael Showalter’s Oscar-friendly biopic of the oft-mocked televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker, wherein she refers to an unnamed woman as ‘that poor girl.’ It’s a scene that is intended to signal a major shift for Bakker, as she visits her now-ex-husband Jim Bakker in prison following his arrest for financial fraud. They come to peace with one another, and Jim seems regretful over the end of his marriage. The ‘poor girl’ in question is Jessica Hahn, the woman who accused him of drugging and raping her when she was 20. The movie doesn’t deal with this extremely important detail of Bakker’s life. Nor does it include how Tammy Faye, who is portrayed in the narrative as a wholeheartedly earnest woman without a corrupt bone in her body, described Hahn in her memoir as a ‘professional’ seductress who ‘knew what she was doing.’ In a film giddily dedicated to rewriting the sexist narrative that has surrounded Bakker for decades, including prickly realities like this seems out of the question.
There’s an earnest intention behind The Eyes of Tammy Faye, which is based on a 2000 documentary of the same name. Bakker was a long-time pop culture punching bag thanks to her heavy make-up, cheesy Christian music, and the eventual downfall of her and her husband’s televangelist empire. The documentary helped to soften her edges and make her a more welcoming figure in the public eye, especially to a queer fanbase who appreciated her knowing camp image and support of the LGBTQ+ community. The film adaptation builds upon those noble ideas, focusing on Bakker’s seeming genuine love for God, his followers, and those who the church rejected. She’s one of the good ones, the film tells us. Not like her husband or Jerry Falwell or the men of the faith who prized themselves over all others. As a result, the film essentially says that Bakker had nothing to do with her husband and business partner’s scams. She’s an innocent, almost infantile, victim of this whole mess. Even if you appreciate the narrative’s attempt to tackle the evident sexism that plagued Bakker for decades, it’s hard to swallow this very binary assertion of her deeds. In order to redeem Tammy Faye Bakker, she cannot be seen to be ‘bad’ in any way.
It’s not just Bakker either. Over the past few years, we’ve seen a fascinating, and long overdue, re-examination of ‘infamous’ women in the public eye who the media trashed and we wrote off as acceptable targets for our scorn. American Crime Story worked to reset the scales for Marcia Clark and Monica Lewinsky, respectively, with the former allowed to be shown as a living breathing human in the center of the century’s most obsessively viewed trial. In the newest season, Impeachment, Lewinsky is an executive producer, helping to craft the narrative to regain her dues. Both shows have remarkably effective moments, especially with the O.J. Simpson season, which dissected the traumatic cost of being wholly unprepared to deal with that level of scorn and attention.
It’s not hard to see what draws people to these stories. They’re awards bait for the actresses, refreshing cultural palate cleansers for the audiences, and a moment of justice for the women themselves. Given how prominent the most black and white understandings of women remain even in 2021, a touch of nuance is always appreciated. Consider the recent re-examination of Britney Spears, not only as a woman herself but as a cipher of sorts for decades of ideas about gender, sexuality, fame, commodification, and mental health. When we call for justice for Britney, it’s a cry for change for all of us. We spent far too long doing the worst for Spears, among others, so who can blame anyone for a quick cultural change of course?
Yet it’s in that rush to fix things that we see so many of these stories swing wildly into the opposite direction, facing many of the same problems they wanted to rectify. The oversimplified judgment of Bakker as a puppet-wielding joke in drag make-up turns into a blindingly glowing portrait of a woman with a conscience as clean as a whistle. In Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya, the disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding was shown to be a victim of abuse, classism, and industry-wide elitism. Not a bad angle to take, of course, but then it tries to cast serious ambiguity over Harding’s role in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan. Maybe she really didn’t know it was going to happen? Except she totally did. We know that. History knows that. She may continue to deny it, but the facts don’t. I, Tonya just ends up screwing over its own case with this cheap aversion of the truth. (All that, and it spends a bit too much time laughing at all the elements of Harding’s working-class upbringing that it condemns the audience for mocking. Pick a side, already.)
Viewing the events of the past through our current lens can provide clarity and some much-needed intersectional context, but it often leaves us blind to the contemporary complexities of these women. Bakker’s style and ideas may have been radical at their time, and remain so to this day, but the intrinsically contradictory nature of her work is left unexamined as a result. It can be true that Bakker was unfairly maligned and made crucial progressive decisions with supporting AIDS patients and that she helped to pave the way for the crushing take-over of the Republican Party by the televangelist right-wingers of TV and radio. It shouldn’t be hard to note that Tonya Harding dealt with a lot of crap and also did a horrific thing.
In an attempt to save these women from historical wrongs, we end up infantilizing them and stripping them of the difficult elements that make them human. Stripping Bakker, Harding, Clark, etc., of their agency doesn’t empower them or make them glowing feminist heroes. It just replaces an old problem with a new one. We go from being bitches and whores to poor little creatures who can’t make our own decisions. Context and perspective matter, but so does a clear-headed approach to the truth. Otherwise, women on and off-screen will simply remain incomplete to the rest of the world.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is playing in theaters as of Sept. 17, 2021.
Header Image Source: Searchlight Pictures