Stephanie Vandergosh and the Idea of Counter-Hegemonic Femininity

In Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow, we expect to believe that the female character acts as a commodity to the male characters, that the plot line is developed in reference to the male roles, and that hegemonic masculinity is the focus of the film. Due to this bias, the emotional power of the dominant female figure is easily overlooked. There exists no term that describes the opposite of the hegemonic female portrayed in this text, so this concept will be referred to as the “counter-hegemonic female.” When examining the role of the primary female character Stephanie Vandergosh, the idea of the “counter-hegemonic female” is exposed through the methods in which she emotionally controls the primary male character, Ben, and how she ultimately shapes the outcome of the film.

We are first introduced to Stephanie Vandergosh, an attractive cheerleader, through Ben Manibag’s narration, as he states that “it’s girls like her that make you realize that life’s not fair.” Ben’s emotions for Stephanie are what set the foundation for her character to demonstrate hegemony over him. The first interaction we see after Stephanie becomes Ben’s lab partner is the scene when Ben hands Stephanie the answers to the lab report and expects her to willingly take them. Much to his surprise, she refuses and essentially commands Ben to call her and meet to do the assignment. In this exchange of dialogue, Stephanie’s reaction to Ben demonstrates her domination over him already.

Ben: I have something for you.

Stephanie: What is this? This isn’t even due until  next week.

Ben: I had some free time so I thought that—

Stephanie: We’re lab partners. We’re supposed to do this together. Give me a call. We’ll meet to do the assignment. Let’s go.

 Stephanie immediately cutting Ben off demonstrates the beginning of her control over him, as he abides by her wishes and meets at her house to complete the assignment. In addition, when Ben begins to pack up his belongings to leave, telling Stephanie “it’s getting pretty late,” Stephanie responds saying “but we haven’t gone through meiosis yet.” Ben succumbs and decides to stay. Stephanie’s dominion over Ben in this instance is exemplified through her ability to communicate what she desires without having to vocally express it. She doesn’t persuade, entice, or beg Ben to stay; his decision relies solely on the emotional power she has over him.

Ben soon grows close to Stephanie and begins to undergo an evident transition from portraying the castrated Asian American male to the masculine and more macho man. We are thought to believe that this transition is due to Ben’s participation in the gang with Daric, Han, and Virgil and the activities they carry out, but in fact is a direct impact of Stephanie’s hegemonic, emotional control. His decisions are shaped by her as her approval is what he desires. This is clearly elaborated in the emotions that Ben feels for Stephanie after taking her to the winter formal. After sharing an intimate hug with Stephanie, Ben spots Steve standing by his car and prevents himself from continuing any intimacy. We are conditioned to believe, especially in this intensely patriarchal society, that Steve exerts his power over Stephanie for being her boyfriend but also because he is a male. In fact, Stephanie holds the power, as she understands Ben has feelings for her, and realizes the tension between Ben and Steve, which she uses to her advantage. She does not break up with Steve throughout the film, because if she had, Ben’s transition would not have been a primary factor contributing to the outcome of the story. Ben eliminates his competition (Steve) to, again, earn approval and more attention from Stephanie.

In the film’s final scene, Stephanie drives up beside Ben and tells him to get in the car. Through their dialogue, the entirety of Stephanie’s counter-hegemonic femininity is ironically disclosed.

Stephanie: You know how you make decisions that lead to other decisions?

 Ben: Yeah

Stephanie: Then you realize why you made those decisions in the first place.

Ben: Yeah

Stephanie: When I saw you on New Year’s Eve, I knew there was only one right thing to do.

Although we immediately assume that Stephanie is referring to the kiss on New Year’s Eve when she talks about “decisions,” her lines have a double meaning and are directly reflective of Ben’s trajectory throughout the movie as well. His decisions were a result of the emotional control Stephanie had over him, and now there is only one way for him to justify his actions: to stay with Stephanie. The film ends with Stephanie driving Ben into the sunset, a metaphor for how Stephanie’s counter-hegemonic femininity was the driver of Ben’s decisions throughout the movie and will most likely be the driver of his future.

Better Luck Tomorrow. Dir. Justin Lin. Prod. Justin Lin, Julie Asato, and Ernesto Foronda. By Justin Lin, Ernesto Foronda, and Fabian Marquez. Perf. Parry Shen, Sung Kang, Jason Tobin, Roger Fan, John Cho, and Karin Anna Cheung. Paramount Pictures, 2002. DVD.

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