A few months ago, when it was time for Christ and Pop Culture writers to lay claim to summer movies, I said something along the lines of, “I should probably see Eat Pray Love, but I already know I’ll despise it and have to write a scathing review.” Having now seen the movie, such a scathing review would be easy to write—and there are already plenty of them out there. Yet, even though I found very little to applaud in the movie, I want to try to understand why Eat Pray Love holds such appeal. It’s far too easy to dismiss it as emotional porn; moreover, many of the diatribes against Eat Pray Love and against woman-authored memoirs in general often seem to indulge in more than a hint of misogyny. I’m no fan—in less charitable moments, I’ve referred to Eat Pray Love as “Divorce, Neocolonialism, Spiritual Tourism”—but merely retreating into scorn for its fans doesn’t help me to love my neighbor.
What simultaneously disturbs and intrigues me about Eat Pray Love is how often I see people citing it as inspiration for some life-changing decision—from director Ryan Murphy’s claim that the book gave three of his friends the “courage” to leave their marriages to star Julia Roberts’s conversion to Hinduism while filming the movie. Of course, from a Christian perspective, these particular major life changes probably aren’t for the better. Still, when a book or a movie exercises such apparent cultural power, I want to know why. Writing off the movie as a “chick flick” won’t help anyone discover what deep needs—yes, particularly in women of a certain age—Elizabeth Gilbert’s life story seems to be addressing.
That’s one reason I went to see Eat Pray Love in the theater (though, believe me, I would rather have gone to Scott Pilgrim vs. The World). If you’ve never been to a movie largely attended by middle-aged women, you may not be familiar with the collective “mmm”s that signal appreciation for particular moments in a film, usually a line that seems particularly true or emotionally resonant. These verbal clues helped me pin down the particular appeal in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to do just watching the movie at home by my clueless self.
The aspect that most mystifies me about Eat Pray Love is why “Liz” (Elizabeth Gilbert’s character) so precipitously decides she wants a divorce. This isn’t even a mid-life crisis: Liz is in her early thirties. Her husband doesn’t seem bad at all—a bit flaky, with horrible taste in music, but these adjectives could equally well be applied to Liz, in my opinion. Yet, when he tells her he doesn’t want to tag along on her work-sponsored trip to Aruba (an honest expression of his preferences), she responds, “I don’t want to be married anymore.” Ooookay. That early moment in the film made it very difficult for me to feel any sympathy for Liz, though the movie clearly expects us to. It doesn’t get any better as she throws herself into a rebound relationship with a young actor/hippie (James Franco), while her husband is still hoping and believing that they can work things out. Yet, when Liz’s lawyer calls her to tell her that the husband has finally agreed to a divorce, the affirming murmur of the theater audience said, “Yes!”
To be fair, the reasons for Liz’s desire for a divorce may be better explained in the book—and if they aren’t, there could be a good motivation for that, too, since Elizabeth Gilbert’s husband is a real person, still out there living in the world. I wish I could have tracked down those “Yes!” voices in the theater and found out why they were so relieved. Was it because they had also gone through painful divorces and were seeing their own stories, their own relief, reflected in Liz’s life? Was it simply because the movie could now progress to more exotic locales?
Speaking of travel, that to me seems a far less incomprehensible aspect of the movie’s appeal. But what particularly struck me is how safe and structured Liz’s travels are. She determines beforehand (and, in real life, she secured a substantial book project advance) that she will visit Italy to eat, India to pray (via yoga and devotion to a guru), and Indonesia (specifically, Bali) to find balance between the pleasure and asceticism represented by the two previous locations. She already knows what she’s going to get out of each destination before she even arrives (“surprises,” such as her love affair with a Brazilian divorcé in Bali, are integrated seamlessly into her predetermined framework). Never mind that all these aspects of life could be appreciated equally well in New York.
The “friends” she encounters in each place are mirror images of the relationships she has back home, except that they don’t demand long-term commitment. There’s much talk of Liz learning to “love the whole world,” which mainly seems to mean thinking happy thoughts towards a young Indian woman forced into an arranged marriage and raising some money for a Balinese healer to buy her own home. These two incidents are supposed to indicate Liz’s spiritual progress to us—for which progress she can be rewarded with a hot Brazilian—in reality, they indicate how the movie mistakes warm, fuzzy feelings for love.
I suspect that the predetermined nature of Liz’s quest may be part of its appeal. Liz suffers from anxiety (in an early scene, a friend asks, “Do you need a Xanax?”, to which Liz immediately replies, “Always”—cue uproarious laughter from the theater audience), and the structure of her journey keeps it within safe, low-anxiety-inducing bounds. When Liz claims to want freedom from her old life, what she really wants is freedom from herself and her own mind. In this, Liz strikes me as representative of the contemporary epidemic of anxiety among American women, an epidemic for which the church has produced little response beyond “Be like Mary, not Martha” (a piece of advice to which a fair response is, “If I could, don’t you think I would have by now?”).
Yoga, for Liz and for many, is a socially acceptable form of escape from the tyranny of the anxious mind: in a lot of practitioners, it seems to produce a physiological calming response. Now, whole articles have been written on the topic of whether Christianity and some forms of yoga practice are compatible (some, I would argue, are not), but I do believe that the church needs to pay more attention to the desperate need for bodily practices as a part of spiritual experience. Calvin College philosopher James K.A. Smith is one of the most compelling voices articulating this need, finding examples of whole-body worship in both “low church” and “high church” settings. Even in anti-intellectual Christian circles, there’s a tendency for faith to become a purely cerebral matter (and I’m including emotions as part of that cerebral tendency—there’s certainly a lot of emotion in the church these days, but that offers little hope for those who feel the need to escape from their own overpowering emotions).
I have my doubts that the spiritual traditions Liz pursues in Eat Pray Love can offer any lasting freedom from herself—especially since the key spiritual revelation of the film is that “God is within you, as you” (why anyone would find that comforting is beyond me). However, Liz’s spiritual seeking does point out the ways in which church has failed anxiety-ridden people by talking at them rather than offering them spiritual disciplines that allow God to transform the whole person, body and soul. Yes, Eat Pray Love seems to wallow in self-indulgent pity—underneath it all, though, is a desire for something to redeem the self from itself.