One would think that a film entitled Eat, Pray, Love would have me, a scholar of religion, running to the box office faster than Julia Roberts wolfs down a plate of pasta during the Italy section of the film. And while I did stay up until midnight to watch it when it premiered Friday, I walked into the theatre feeling that because of my research and my feminism the pop culture buzz around this made it required viewing.
I walked out of the theatre feeling that I had completed my assignment, yet not having experienced an inkling of the utter life transformation explored within the film. Julia Roberts herself had a much more enthusiastic response, as she is now a self-proclaimed Hindu as a result of her role.
Based on the best-selling 2006 memoir with the same title, Eat, Pray, Love documents a year of Elizabeth Gilbert’s travel and soul-searching. The end of her marriage and consequent rebound fling with an actor leave Gilbert feeling disconnected, anguished, and depressed. She decides to travel to Italy (eat), India (pray), and Bali (love), to explore the world, but more importantly, to explore her own inner-self.
I will confess that at first glance such a enterprise seems excessive and narcissistic. In the midst of today’s economic crisis, where individuals are struggling for employment and healthcare, Gilbert’s angst seems abstract and indulgent.
And yet … we watch films about men going to bachelor parties in Vegas, spending ridiculous amounts of money, and engaging in hedonistic debauchery and do not pause (yes, I mean The Hangover). Those critical of Gilbert’s quest appear to be falling into the stereotype that introspection and pleasure are frivolous acts — for women.
Gilbert has a spiritual awakening in India, having travelled to the ashram of her ex-boyfriend’s guru. Ultimately, Hinduism’s teaching of the sacred in all of us resonates deeply in her. And yet, I must admit, it is much easier to stomach this message when it is proclaimed by the poor masses of India versus from a white woman from the United States. In a similar vein, the depiction of Hinduism in the ashram seems very, to put it bluntly, unreligious.
Spiritual self-help via meditation and housework is the face of Hinduism in the film.
The film chronicles Gilbert’s quest for autonomy and independence as she comes to term with her desire to love and be loved — and it is bookended by men. We start with her unhappy divorce and consequent unsatisfactory fling; the film concludes with her riding off into the sunset with her Brazilian lover. Her happiness and unhappiness are defined by her relationships with men. But, there are countless films about men’s paths of decadence and depravity as they find their way to true happiness in monogamy.
While strippers, gambling, and whores are acceptable, culture-wide, food, meditation, and monogamy are deemed excessive vanity. I don’t know about you, but I will take the pasta.