I am an impossible person with which to watch movies. Unless I am totally blown away by a film, it is very difficult for me not to wind up critiquing it. When I see films with other people (particularly my partner), I try to keep my mouth shut as we leave the cinema because I want to let them enjoy the afterglow of the latest blockbuster, but in the end I always wind up saying, “yeah, but…”
That’s not to say that I don’t like watching films and relaxing with mindless pap from time to time —I’m only human— but it’s always a horrible feeling when you realise that you just can’t turn off your inclusive feminist filter. I’m not sure what’s worse; the general discomfort of watching a film that you know from the outset is going to treat women and non-white races as props and second-class citizens, or the stinging disappointment of having a film build up your hopes all the way through by hitting all the right marks only to dash them in the last few scenes.
When a film begins with the Women in refrigerators trope right off the bat, I’ve pretty much lost interest. This trope is named for a Green Lantern story where he comes home and finds his girlfriend murdered by villain Major Force and shoved into their fridge. Women in pop culture are killed, raped or otherwise disempowered in order to give the male protagonist a motive ALL. THE. TIME. A great many Bond girls have been sacrificed to this cause. It takes a little while, but the death of the wife and child in Mad Max is what causes the iconic Mel Gibson character to begin his revenge spree. Wolverine’s wife is murdered in X-Men Origins: Wolverine to motivate his actions through the rest of the film. Hell, even the first episode of Supernatural features two women who seem to exist solely to be killed off to motivate the men.
If a piece of pop culture gets past this first hurdle, there are still a number of other tired cliché stumbling blocks it needs to navigate to avoid disappointment. First we have the classic “Smurfette Phenomenon,” particularly common in media aimed at children. It refers to a cast predominantly made up of male characters with one token female and/or token minority character thrown in to make the show appear more inclusive than it really is. It should also be noted that by the end of the film these women usually wind up dating or married to a male character. Many remakes suffer from this, as they sacrifice inclusion for remaining faithful to the sexist source material. Uhura in the Star Trek reboot is one example (one woman on the bridge, winds up with Spok), as is Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy. Black Widow in the Avengers movies is another (I was particularly disappointed with the way her character was handled in Age of Ultron, actually, but that’s another blog post. She wound up with Hulk). Even Miss Piggy in The Muppets is a Smurfette, as she is the only female character with a regular speaking role.
The Hobbit is an interesting case, as Peter Jackson added the character of Tauriel simply so the film wouldn’t be such a damn sausage fest. This leads me neatly into my main disappointment with the final instalment of The Hobbit series. *SPOILERS AHEAD*
From a perspective of female representation it wasn’t going too badly. We had that wonderful scene with the women refusing to wait around while the village men fought and died, instead deciding to stand beside their men and fight for their homes (which happened often throughout history, even if we have a problem depicting it in Fantasy fiction). We had Tauriel kicking all kinds of orc butt. But at the end, when she is left to take on Bolg (son of the Orc Chief Azog), she has to be rescued TWICE! First by Kili, who steps in when Tauriel is injured and is in turn killed. Tauriel then, in her rage and grief, throws Bolg off the mountain and is dragged down with him. Does she plummet heroically to her death, taking the bad guy with her? No. They both survive, and Legolas swans in to stab Bolg in the head. Then Tauriel cries over the death of Kili who she sort of liked. Because we can’t have a token female without some kind of love story. Is it too much to ask that if you throw in a token lady sidekick she at least get to win a contest? No, she’s only allowed to win when she’s fighting another woman.
Next we get to the more complex conundrums of “strong female characters” in general. If your character is strong because she acts like a man, this is troublesome on a number of levels. Firstly, it says that to be considered strong you have to be able to do a ton of push-ups/fire a gun on target/kick harder and faster, wear boots and pants with no makeup, and that these are the only acceptable ways to prove how strong you are. Secondly, it reinforces the false notion that men have to be physically strong to be considered worth admiration. Strength and fortitude comes in a wide variety of guises. Intelligence. Humour. Empathy for others. The ability to know when to tough out a bad situation, and when to cut your losses and walk away. The will to support other people, be it financially, emotionally, or by using your smarts to get them out of a tough situation. It’s not just about being able to punch your way out of trouble.
Now I want to turn my attention to villains. There aren’t too many female villains out there, especially in Spec Fic. But women can be bad. Women can be downright evil. It’s allowed (narratively speaking). Some of our best, most reviled baddies in literary and film history have been women. So why do we insist on being able to make excuses for them? I get that you may want to give your antagonist more complexity and layers other than “she’s just bad,” but why not give her a hobby? She’s evil, but she also enjoys bonsai or carving ducks out of driftwood. In the live-action 101 Dalmatians, Cruella DeVille wanted to kill the puppies because she was vain and sociopathic, but she also ran her own haute couture fashion house. If she gets a Maleficent style remake I might just lose my shit.
For what it’s worth, there were many aspects to Maleficent that I enjoyed, but did we really have to re-invent her back story to explain that, actually, she is kind of motherly and a big softy deep down? OZ The Great And Powerful also did something similar to the Witch of the West, as did Wicked (made up for in the novel, at least, by making Elphaba into a revolutionary).
If we have to explain why a female character is bad, try, “she’s bad because she’s greedy”, or “She’s bad because she’s selfish and is going after what she wants with no thought to the consequences for others”, and the most powerful of all, “she believes she’s actually doing the right thing.”
Finally, a trigger warning here because I want to discuss the biggest red flag of all. The biggest “nope, go back to the drawing board, get a new idea” lazy story-telling you can possibly employ – rape for the sake of rape. As discussed brilliantly in more detail by The Mary Sue, the historical eras you are basing your fantasy series on may be full of rape, but that is no reason to bring that particular element to the fore “just because.” In worlds with fairies, dragons and wise-cracking trolls we really aren’t looking for realism. The same goes for dystopian sci-fi, action, thrillers… any genre, really, where a woman (or man) might be put in danger. The problem is you have to be very, very careful about how you use this particular issue.
The worst example of rape as a device I can think of is in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. Humungus and his band of marauders capture, rape and kill a woman, tie her to the bonnet of their car and show the body off to her friends at the compound. It was completely unnecessary, in that we already knew that the Marauders were bad guys. The only thing it added was cheap shock value, which the film has coming out of its ears anyway.
Another example is The Crow. I know, I know, we all love The Crow, but consider this: It wasn’t enough that Eric’s fiancée was murdered, she had to be raped, too, because it’s the ultimate evil and we needed to prove that the bad guys were especially bad. We also see plenty of rape in the Song of Ice and Fire novels and Game of Thrones series, something covered enough already by the media. I’m sure you can think of plenty of other examples.
My point is that, much like the Women in Refrigerator’s trope, Rape is used way too often to show that the world is a dark place and that the bad guy is truly evil. There’s a common perception that rape makes something darker and edgier, when really it’s just unnecessary. I’m not saying that we should never use fiction to talk about sexual assault – we should. We should talk about how it affects the victim, how not all victims are the same. It should not be just flippantly used for shock value, or for the motivation of the Male hero. 1 in 5 women in Australia will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. Think of your audience. Do you really think they want their experiences to become fodder because you’re too lazy to come up with anything better?
I enjoy plenty of movies that are problematic. I watch them because so few of my beloved action and fantasy films don’t have problems. But unless you can show me
- a cast of more than two women who are more than just wives, mothers, or token tough/evil-chicks with anger issues because of some past trauma
- women not needing to be rescued by a dude
- no rape (or, if you must include it, a respectful exploration of its effects)
then I’m not going to be singing its praises.
I’ll probably elaborate more on this topic in future posts. Until then, I’ll write the sort of stories that I actually want to read.