I realized that I didn’t touch on a few ideas that I felt were essential to this cinematic monolith of girl power. First, economics. Susan (Madonna) doesn’t worry about money. She simply steals for a living. There are no moral qualms. What’s everyone’s is Susan’s because somehow she’s entitled. Now, that doesn’t mean she’s always a thief. She did trade her lovely jacket for some sequined boots, although I have a hard time believing that she wouldn’t have stolen them if that jacket had not served so well as a narrative device for mistaken identity. And, while Susan doesn’t have a job, she doesn’t seem to need one. She can manipulate at such a high level that she continually uses everyone to survive. It’s a skill anyone living in New York City needs to master.
Roberta (Rosanna Arquette) on the other hand, manages to find a job as Susan. Although it is as a magician’s assistant that only pays $20 a night (how could anyone live on that in NYC even in the mid 1980s?), she is gainfully employed, which says more are her character and personal responsibility than Susan’s. The only thing that truly bothers me about this film is that while it is telling young girls and women to follow their dreams, it sure doesn’t show them how on earth they’re going to exist in tough economic times. I know at the end of the film, they receive a reward for the stolen earrings, but really! How long can that reward money last? Especially if Susan has no income and Roberta’s still making $20 a night.
This also brings me to the second point I wanted to make, the idea of the ‘couple’ in a comedy. The most important ‘couple’ in the film is Susan and Roberta. The title itself, “Desperately Seeking Susan” is not really about Susan’s boyfriend seeking her, it is about Roberta seeking Susan. Roberta seeks the “mystery of Susan” and can only begin to satisfy her life when she becomes the other, in this case, Susan. As Susan, she becomes a whole of herself. As Roberta, she is only a housewife, which from the beginning of the film, we learn that she feels she is lacking a purpose in her existence. Roberta as Susan starts to take chances, gets a job, lives in the city and rejects convention. The only problem is that Roberta doesn’t quite have Susan’s natural gustiness…something that becomes quite apparent as she is chased and attacked. And, it is, after all, Susan who hits the bad guy and saves the day. Susan, however, lacks Roberta’s ‘polish’ and strangely, allows a friendship with Roberta that she doesn’t have with anyone else. Susan uses people, she doesn’t actually like them. This newer, softer Susan at the end of the film, is the result, it seems, of her new-found partnership/friendship with Susan.
The last shot of the film show that the true couple of the film is Susan and Roberta. It is this friendship and coupling that allows them to become a power couple. They are the complimentary halves to each other. As part of the heterosexual couple, each woman is not ‘special’, yet as part of their ‘dynamic’ friendship, they brought down a murderer and a thief (it takes one, or half the couple, in this case, to know one?). They share the reward and become heroines.
If these women become heroines by the end of the film, and we are discussing women, after all, I pose the question, what sort of character is Susan throughout the film? And what about Roberta? If this were a drama, Susan would unequivocally be a femme fatale, and Roberta might be characterized as a reluctant femme fatale; however, this film is marketed as a comedy about mistaken identity. So the question is posed: is Susan a femme fatale? And, can a femme fatale function in a ‘comedy’? I thought about this as I sipped a lovely glass of Grgich Hills Zinfandel and ate some Roquefort cheese on imported crackers. I came to a resounding: I’m not sure! Femmes fatales don’t really go with the comedic genre. I might need the entire bottle of wine while I contemplate the answer.