The second half of our tale of two childhood staples is Desperately Seeking Susan. Madonna was a MASSIVE icon in the landscape of my childhood. Exasperated by how many times had watched Madonna: The Immaculate Collection: The Videos my mom special ordered me this movie for my eighth birthday. The top bar on the VHS was red, I don’t know why, but it was rad. Just like Madge.
Now, I understand that conversely, Annemarie did not grow up worshipping at the altar of Madonna, so this was her first real taste of the Material Girl in the 80s. I MUST know, what did you think? Did you know anything of this movie other than the rather large poster I have? Do you think I had reasons for picking it beyond my deep love for it?
A: Correct, I didn’t grow up loving or worshipping Madonna. I didn’t have a strong opinion on her, other than I thought it was pretty cool that she was a strong woman. But my mom honestly wasn’t a big fan, mostly because I think she didn’t get her, so I had no encouragement at home. Also I grew up without MTV. My parents got cable finally once my sister moved to college (on purpose perhaps). This all informs how I missed the pop culture milestones that every one of my peers seems to have had on a daily basis.
However, I did see Madonna shine in A League of Their Own and while that film doesn’t make my personal Top 25, it’s a flick I can enjoy on TV and not really get tired of. And I know that I probably found my way to a music video or two of hers. But that’s it. I didn’t know anything about Desperately Seeking Susan other than it had two female leads and Madonna was one. And while I’m not exactly a converted worshipper, I completely and totally understand the appeal and the allure of Madge, and this is exactly why Brooke loves this movie. She’s a tough woman with an outlandishly colorful sense of style, she gets what she wants and she makes boys do her bidding. What girl wouldn’t love her as a role model?
The whole film is so thoroughly and totally ’80s to the core, and I mean that mostly in a good way. I don’t have any scientific evidence, but I feel like the “amnesia comedy” was its own genre from 1982 to about 1993, so it’s not exactly new territory here. Even if the actual medical science isn’t necessarily behind head-bonk-induced forgetfulness, it’s a remarkably effective plot device. No wonder it’s so popular.
Madonna’s Susan is perfectly countered by Rosanna Arquette’s Roberta, who starts as a bored New Jersey housewife, full of pastel colors and perfectly curled hair, and goes on the caper of her life once she’s mistaken for Susan. I enjoyed Roberta and her adventures quite a bit, and I think she has quite the future as a magician’s assistant.
I do want to delve into the finer points of the film, but first, Brooke, am I right about why you love Susan/Madonna? In re-watching this movie as an adult, how angry do you get how the ladies and their concerns about sexual assault in an alley are dismissed by literally everyone? Which of Susan’s outfits is your favorite and of course, Dez or Jim?
Also, I’m promised oodles of trivia.
B: You are pretty much dead-on about why I love Susan and Madonna. Her style is something so deep in my own cultural consciousness that it might as well be in my DNA. And her attitude. It’s so punk rock. Sure, Susan is painted as a troublemaker, but she was doing Susan in a time when that was deemed unbecoming in a woman. And I have deep, deep respect for a rebel with a cause. As a kid, I didn’t recognize that, of course, I just loved that she was out there having fun on her own terms. We’ll have to get deeper into both characters a little later, but unsurprisingly, my feelings about Susan haven’t really transformed at all, it’s Roberta who’s changed as I’ve aged. But, we’ll get there.
It’s definitely true that I am now much more acutely aware and outraged by how dismissive the men are of so much happening to the women in this movie. Roberta being booked for being assaulted is outrageously frustrating, but I get the sense that director Susan Seidelman was absolutely making a comment though all of this, so I appreciate it. And that’s refreshing, because many movies in the ’80s have these upsetting moments and are utterly unaware of them. Watching now, I have no doubt that this is a feminist picture with a capital F. I suspect that many of my own sensibilities formed as I watched it time and again. I’m sure we have more unpacking to do here too.
But onwards! I think my favorite Susan outfit is the blingy boots with the jacket she swipes from Roberta and the crazy mishmash of lace and black and white bits she has going on in-between. But honestly, a close second would be the man’s shirt, dotted shorts paired with lingerie hodgepodge that passes for an outfit as she goes to place an ad in the personals. Talk about your powerclashing. And did I mention that I think the sort of hole-y fishnet top from the armpit-hand dryer scene is so buried in my psyche that it made me love one particular scene in what I call the “cocaine episode” of Girls even more than I already would have?
Dez or Jim? What a tough question. And kudos for not even listing that slime, Gary. I will say that I find Aiden Quinn very foxy in this movie, but Dez, he’s not the guy for me. I would be all about Jim. I love how devoted he is to Susan, even when she’s flitting all over the country. He knows she’ll come back in the end, and even though he’s not much of a hero, he’s not intimidated by the fact that his girl can save herself. I dig it. Who would you pick?
And now, the promised trivia. These facts enhance my enjoyment of the movie a great deal, if only because they blow my mind a little bit. Let me know how they hit you. Most of this I learned via Pop-Up Video, but some of it has trickled down to me from reading various articles and such over the years.
- When shooting began Madonna was still relatively unknown, a few heads turned, but mostly people thought she was Cyndi Lauper
- However, before shooting was over, “Like A Virgin” dropped and Madge’s explosive MTV Awards performance of the title track had made her an absolute superstar, so suddenly the production needed security — this fascinating oral history puts it extremely well “The film’s making coincided with the making of Madonna.”
- That development must have been very welcome to producers, but they were not always convinced that Madonna was right for the part — director Susan Seidelman knew her from the downtown scene and stumped for her, even shooting an audition reel
- Pop-Up Video lore has it that Madonna did an in-person audition and demanded cab fare from the producers, Susan would be proud
- Pop-Up Video and gossip also tell us that Rosanna Arquette, who was the lead after all, was none too pleased about Madonna’s meteoric rise — and that she would later describe their relationship as friendly, but then vocalize her wish that Madonna would use her star power for something greater and write songs that really mean something or speak to causes (All of that could be totally unfounded, but it’s fascinating to consider).
That oral history I mentioned above is arming me with even more facts! I’ll sprinkle them in later, because they’ll go well with our discussion of character.
A: Oral histories are the best. I love reminiscing and I’m always impressed by the detail people can conjure up 20 or 30 years after the fact. I read one on the Clueless Val party that’s worth diverting over to for a minute.
Ok, we’re back. I want to get Brooke’s detailed thoughts on Roberta, as I can see how a kid obsessed with Madonna would have been less than impressed with her. I found her pretty delightful, if a bit stalker-y to start. Who hasn’t admired someone like Roberta admires Susan? The clothes, the attitude, the men placing freaking want ads to find her? That’s all cool no matter who you are in real life — you don’t have to be a bored, disenfranchised housewife to Gary the Worst. Gary’s not only cheating on Roberta, he’s crass about it and insulting, so no, I would never include him in an options discussion for “who would you rather.” I have to go Dez on this one, like you said, Aiden Quinn is uncharacteristically foxy (if a bit Sid Vicious skinny). I don’t love that he hooks up with Roberta when he still thinks she’s Susan, but she did try to tell him! (Maybe she told him after? Brooke, you’ve seen this movie 1,000 times, so inform us, please.)
The assault charge for BEING ASSAULTED is one thing, but like I said, literally no one listens to Roberta, even Dez. I completely relate to this, and have worked with more than one man who repeated what I just said like it was his idea. It’s infuriating, and to see it captured on film perfectly encapsulates what it feels like to be completely ignored. Feminism was one of the first things I thought when I saw that it was a female director. That’s Madonna’s entire “thing” so I love that this film was able to capture that moment for her. I can see Rosanna getting a bit salty that her co-star was instantly the most famous female performer on the planet seemingly overnight, so I’ll buy that bit of trivia on face value.
What other moments of insult-to-the-female-race can we cover here from Susan? Nicole, choose and outfit and a man, please! And also, let’s get into Roberta and why 8-year-old Brooke wasn’t a fan.
N: I too was lured by Aiden Quinn’s unexpected foxiness. His big apartment located above the Chinese joint was an added bonus because Chinese food would be mere steps away. And the shot of him lying in the hammock with the cat spoke to my old cat lady heart. But like AM, I can’t get behind the fact that he flat out ignores Roberta when she tells him the truth. Jim was probably the most secure guy in the whole film, steadfast in his love for Susan, but not getting in her way, so he’s growing on me.
The fashion was so 80s it was awesome. I (and Brooke I believe) finally learned what a Peter Pan collar is courtesy of AM and poor Roberta’s stalker outfit choice. Susan definitely had the upper hand. My favorite was probably the black outfit she was wearing when she is arrested with the black lace cut-off shirt and black bra. It’s understated in comparison with the other ones, but I could see wearing it today. And can I say that she knew how to rock that hair cut? As a curly haired gal, I always have mad respect for someone who can rock a shorter curly-esque do. In fact, I’m still tempted to cut my hair after her.
I would like to say that I totally related to Roberta, the feeling of being stuck in a not-so-glamorous life, so I am curious to hear young Brooke’s analysis.
B: Before I answer AM’s queries I will first note that Roberta attempts to tell Dez after they’ve already done the wild thing, you know, cause snuggle time is the best for those really huge reveals.
And also, Nicole, 100% agreed on the hair. Would have it today if I could pull it off. Every time I attempt curls my cursed thick hair pulls them out. Sigh.
Anyhow, on to more things we can unpack about the female condition that we must discuss — let’s talk about a major reference I had never noticed before. Early in the movie we see Roberta sitting in her kitchen in the dark. She’s eating birthday cake after a party that found Gary stealing her thunder to make everyone watch a crappy commercial. Her eyes have the beginnings of tears forming and she’s watching an old movie on television. I found myself transfixed by it as there was suddenly recognition firing in my brain. And to my absolute delight Annemarie pinpointed it before I did. It was from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca — a sweeping period piece, based on the Daphne du Maurier novel of the same, that chronicles one woman’s fruitless efforts to live up to the memory of another. Talk about your killer allusions, you could have knocked me over with a feather as all of those pieces fell together in my head.
Desperately Seeking Susan is a fascinating movie because it exists almost without genre (less AM’s well-observed notion about amnesia pictures). And in this unwillingness to conform it’s able to turn that very female, feminist lens on everything it sees from the booked-for-being-assulted outrage to the way the different men in this movie perceive Susan, Roberta and Roberta-Susan to the acute fear of walking down a dark alley at night or being followed by a creep offering Sugar Babies. For all that, it is exceptional. And now on top of that we have this nod to Rebecca which suggests incredible self-awareness. Not only is this a movie about all of those things, it’s a comment on the impossible roles and standards to which women are expected to conform — naïve damsels like Roberta and mysterious, unattainable beauties like Susan all wrapped into one person. I mean, wow.
Now all of this brings me back around to why 8-year-old Brooke (and every Brooke until near present Brooke) was no fan of Roberta. I recognized that Roberta was Susan’s opposite in so many ways. Her life was dull and uninspiring and nothing about her relationship with her husband smacked of anything but duty. I couldn’t have vocalized it then, but Susan helped me put almost the right words to the phenomenon. When Susan reads Roberta’s diary she says, “It’s got to be a cover, nobody’s life could be this boring!” And that’s what Roberta was to me — boring.
Only later, with perspective, did I begin to see the shades of Roberta’s character and appreciate her growth. Yes, she’s a bit stalker-y, but she’s longing for escape. She doesn’t have the strength to change her own life until she masquerades in Susan’s shoes for a few days. The last time I watched this movie, I came around to Roberta as the tragic character. I saw her life and I felt trapped just considering it. I saw her desperation for something better. And I imagined the years she must have spent prior to all of these events. Those were the images that stuck with me. Watching this movie with Annemarie, I began to see Roberta’s life after the credits roll — and beyond just hooking up with Dez. I’m considering her happy ending for the first time, and it’s enhancing my fondness for the film even more. Roberta’s arc is extra satisfying because her transformation is earned, and in the end, she makes the hard choice, to leave the comfort and boredom of her Fort Lee life and do something exhilarating. I’m imagining Roberta and Dez going on a double date with Susan and Jim and feeling a bit exasperated and out of place at whatever their friends have gotten them into, but ultimately happy. But, just for the record, Susan is still my girl, her actions and choices resonate more clearly with me, and we share an affinity for cheesy poofs and clothes that probably shouldn’t be worn together. But, I’m considering my newfound, more complete understanding of Roberta as a sign of gradual maturity.
Is this making sense, or do you two think I’m crazy?
I just realized that I know what will render AM (at least, possibly Nicole) a full-fledged convert. Karina Longworth dedicated two episodes of You Must Remember This to Madonna, her film work, the impact Hollywood has had on her musical career and, of course, how her personal life overlapped with all of that. Desperately Seeking Susan only factors into episode one, but I’m calling the first official Required Viewing homework now, and it’s Required Listening. Dive in my friends, I’ll wait. Part one. Part two.
A: I love this analysis, and this is the crux of why I love this series we’ve put together so much. I’m not exactly patting ourselves on the back, but this is a great opportunity to dive into the culture (movies and film, and apparently now podcasts) that show us why we are the way we are. There are so many influences on us and things we forget impacted us as children that left a lasting impression on who we’ve become as mostly functioning adults. We saw it last time in vivid relief with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and now we’re seeing it again here. Our fears, our fashion influences, the way subtle family structures and women’s rights are baked into film, this is fascinating stuff, my friends.
N: Ok, I’m back from listening to You Must Remember This and more intrigued about Madonna than ever. She was the perfect choice for Susan. Brooke, to answer your question: yes, that does make sense. My favorite part of this week was seeing how the films were experienced as children versus as adults. Thank you for letting me sit in, ladies.
B: Clearly, there’s only one path left to us. Let’s take this Madonna aesthetic and energy and infuse it into our lives. The better to be a Susan in a world of Robertas. Now I’m going to look for an opportunity to purchase a sweet coffee table with snack compartments, some spangly boots or find a reason to declare, “Good going, Stranger.”
We’re moving from spectacular 80s fashion to the California girl style of Lauren Conrad as we move into Season 3 of The Hills, next time on Required Viewing!