Posts Tagged ‘Film’

Warning: all the spoilers for The Great Wall.

When I first heard about The Great Wall, I rolled my eyes and dismissed it as yet another exploitative tale of Western exceptionalism where the white guy comes in, either insults or co-opts the local culture, saves the day and gets the girl, all while taking a role originally intended for or grossly better suited to a person of colour. It wasn’t until later that I learned the film was directed by Zhang Yimou, filmed on location in Qingdao, China,  and featuring a predominantly Chinese cast, with Matt Damon – emphasised in Western marketing to attract a Western audience – starring as one of several leads, in a role that was always intended for a Western actor. The film was released in China at the end of 2016 – and is, in fact, the most expensive film ever shot entirely in China – and was meant to be an international release, designed to appeal to both Chinese and Western audiences, from the outset.

Which left me feeling rather more curious and charitable than I had been; enough so that, today, I went out and saw it. Historically, I’m not an enormous fan of Matt Damon, who always strikes me as having two on-screen modes – All-American Hero and Not-Quite-Character Actor, the former being generally more plausible than the latter at the expense of being less interesting – but I’ve always enjoyed Zhang Yimou’s cinematography, especially his flair for colour and battle sequences. The fact that The Great Wall is ultimately an historical action fantasy film – a genre I am predisposed to love – is also a point in its favour; I’ve watched a great deal of Hollywood trash over the years in service to my SFFnal heart, and even with Damon’s involvement, The Great Wall already started out on better footing than most of it by virtue of Zhang’s involvement.

Even so, I was wary about the execution overall, and so went in expecting something along the lines of a more highly polished but still likely disjointed Chinese equivalent to the abysmal 47 Ronin, an American production that floundered thanks to a combination of studio meddling, language issues with the predominantly Japanese-speaking cast being instructed to deliver their lines in English, last-minute changes and a script that couldn’t decide who was writing it. But of course, 47 Ronin’s biggest offence – aside from constituting a criminal waste of Rinko Kikuchi’s talents – was doing what I initially, falsely assumed The Great Wall was doing: unnecessarily centering a white actor playing a non-white role in an Asian setting whose authenticity was systematically bastardised by the Western producers.

Instead, I found myself watching one of the most enjoyable SFF action films I’ve seen since Pacific Rim. (Which did not waste Rinko Kikuchi.)

The premise: William (Matt Damon) and his companion Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are part of a Western trade mission sent to China to find black powder – gunpowder – for their armies at home. While fleeing Kitan bandits in the mountains, they encounter an unknown monster and, in seeking its origins, are soon taken in by the Nameless Order, an army manning the Great Wall against an expected incursion of the monsters, called Taotie. In charge are General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) and his offsider, Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing), advised by Strategist Wang (Andy Lau). Every sixty years, the Taotie attack from a nearby mountain, and the next attack is just starting; as such, the Nameless Order and the Great Wall are all that stand between the hoards, controlled by a single Queen, and the nearby capital, Bianliang. While attempting to win Commander Lin’s trust, William makes two alliances: one with Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a Westerner who initially came to China in search of black powder twenty-five years ago; and another with Peng Yong (Lu Han), a young soldier whose life he saves. While Tovar and Ballard are eager to steal the black powder and leave, Commander Lin, General Shao and Strategist Wang are working to counter the evolving strategies of the Taotie: if the Wall is breeched and Bianliang falls, the Taotie will have enough sustenance to overrun the world, a fact which forces William to choose between loyalty to his friends and to a higher cause.

From the outset, I was impressed by the scriptwriting in The Great Wall, which manages the trick of being both deft and playful, fast-paced without any stilted infodumping or obvious plot-holes, aside from a very slight and seemingly genre-requisite degree of handwaving around what the Taotie do when they’re not attacking. The fact that at least half the film is subtitled was another pleasant surprise: of the Chinese characters, both Lin and Wang speak English – their fluency is explained by years of Ballard’s tutelage – and who act as translators for the rest; even so, they still get to deliver plenty of lines in Chinese, and there are numerous scenes where none of the Western characters are present. A clever use is also made of the difference between literal and thematic translations: while the audience sees the literal English translation of the Chinese dialogue in subtitles, there are multiple occasions when, in translating out loud for the benefit of the English-speaking characters, Lin and Wang make subtle adjustments, either politely smoothing over private jokes or tweaking their words for best effect.The scene where Commander Lin’s ability to speak English is revealed made me laugh out loud in a good way: I hadn’t expected the film to be funny, either, but it frequently is, thanks in no small part to the wonderful Pedro Pascal, who plays Tovar so beautifully that he has a tendency to steal every scene he’s in.

Tovar is dry, witty and pragmatic, given to some dark moments, but also loyal, while his establishment as a Spanish character adds another historical dimension to the setting. Aside from calling William amigo, he only gets one real instance of subtitled Spanish dialogue, but the context in which he does this – using it as a private language in Lin’s presence, once her ability to speak English is known – makes for a pleasing gracenote in their collective characterisation. The brief details we’re given of William’s mercenary history, fighting the Danes and Franks and Spaniards, are likewise compelling, a quick acknowledgement of the wider world’s events. It reminded me, in an odd but favourable way, of The 13th Warrior, a film which made the strange decision to cast Antonio Banderas as an Arab protagonist, but whose premise evoked a similar sense of historical intersections not often explored by the action genre.

I also appreciated Tian Jing’s subtle performance as Commander Lin, not only because her leadership of the all-female Crane Corps is objectively awesome – in the opening battle, the women stand on extended platforms beyond the Wall, bungee down on harnesses and spear monsters in the face – but because, refreshingly, not a single person in the film questions either the capabilities or the presence of the female warriors. When General Shao is mortally wounded in battle, it’s Lin he chooses to succeed him, a decision his male Commanders accept absolutely. While there’s a certain inevitable hetero tension between William and Lin, I was pleased beyond measure that this never devolves into forced romance or random kissing: by the film’s end, the Emperor has confirmed Lin as a General, William is on his way back to Europe, and while they’re both enriched by the trust they found in each other, William is not her saviour and Lin is always treated respectfully – both by William, and by the narrative itself.

(Also, The Great Wall passes the Bechdel test, because the female warriors of the Crane Corps talk to each other about something other than men, although they do still, somewhat delightfully, talk shit about William at one point. This is such a low bar to pass that it shouldn’t even merit a mention. And yet.)

Though the action slows a little at the midway point, it remains engaging throughout, while the overall film is structurally solid. As a genre, fantasy action films tend to be overly subject to fridge logic, but the plotting in The Great Wall is consistently… well, consistent. Even small details, like the role of the Kitan raiders, William’s magnet and the arc of Peng Yong’s involvement are consistently shown to be meaningful, lending the film a pleasing all-over symmetry. And visually, it’s spectacular: the Taotie are as convincing as they are terrifying (and boast a refreshingly original monster design), while the real Chinese landscapes are genuinely breathtaking. Zhang Yimou’s trademark use of colour is in full effect with the costuming and direction, lending a visual richness to a concept and setting which, in Western hands, would likely have been rendered in that same flat, drearily gritty sepia palette of greys, browns and blacks that we’ve all come to associate with White Dudes Expressing The Horror Of War, Occasionally Ft. Aliens. Instead of that, we have the Crane Corps resplendent in gorgeous blue lamellar armour, the footsoldiers in black and the archers in red, with other divisions in yellow and purple. Though the ultimate explanation for the Taotie is satisfyingly science fictional rather than magical – which, again, evokes a comparison to another historical SFF film I enjoyed, 2008’s flawed but underrated Outlander – the visual presentation remains wonderfully fantastical.

While I can understand the baseline reluctance of many viewers to engage with a film set in ancient China that nonetheless has Matt Damon as a protagonist – and while I won’t fault anyone who wants to avoid it on those grounds, or just because they dislike Damon himself – the fact that it’s a predominantly Chinese production, and that William’s character isn’t an instance of whitewashing, is very much worth highlighting. While William certainly plays a pivotal role in vanquishing the enemy, the final battle is a cooperative effort, one he achieves on absolute equal terms and through equal participation with Lin. Nor do I want to downplay the significance of Pascal’s Tovar, who represents a three-dimensional, non-stereotyped Latinx character at a point in time when that’s something we badly need more of. Indeed, given the enthusiastic response to Diego Luna’s portrayal of Cassian Andor in Rogue One, particularly the fact that he kept his accent, I feel a great disservice has been done by everyone who’s failed to mention Pascal’s front-and-centre involvement in the project.

I went into The Great Wall expecting to be mildly entertained by an ambitious muddle, and came out feeling engaged, satisfied and happy. As a film, it’s infinitely better than the structural trainwreck that was the recent Assassin’s Creed adaptation, and not just because the latter stars Michael Fassbender, the world’s most smugly punchable man. The Great Wall is colourful, visually spectacular, well-scripted, neatly characterised, engagingly paced and consistently plotted, and while I might’ve wanted to see a little more of General Shao and his offsiders or learn more about the women of the Crane Corps, that wanting is a product of the success of what I did see: the chosen focus didn’t feel narrow by construction, but rather like a glimpse into a wider, more fully-fleshed setting that was carrying on in the background. For Western audiences, William and Tovar are the outsider characters who introduce us to the Chinese setting, but for Chinese audiences, I suspect, the balance of the film feels very different.

The Great Wall is the kind of production I want to see more of: ambitious, coherent, international and fantastical. If we have to sit through the inclusion of Matt Damon this one time to cement the viability of such collaborations, then so be it. With films like La La Land and Fantastic Beasts actively whitewashing their portrayals of America’s Jazz Age, those wanting to support historical diversity could do much worse than see something which represents a seemingly intelligent, respectful collaboration between Western and Chinese storytellers. Maybe the end result won’t be for everyone, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself – and really, what more can you ask?

With great respect to Joanna Russ

She wasn’t the lead

(but if it’s clear she was)

She was the lead, but she shouldn’t have been

(she was political, unsexualised, funny, feminist)

She was the lead, but look what she starred in

(a chick flick, a reboot, a spin-off, YA)

She was the lead, but the story didn’t rate a sequel

(“A female superhero couldn’t possibly carry a franchise…”)

She was the lead, but she isn’t a plausible character, and her story isn’t realistic

(She was exceptional, powerful, multifaceted, unromantic)

She was the lead, but the male characters were better

(“Men are just more interesting than women…”)

She was the lead, but her success was an anomaly

(“Katniss Everdeen was a one-off…”)

She was the lead, BUT…

*

Here’s the thing.

If you pan an unreleased film, or film you haven’t actually seen, solely because it has a female protagonist – or, god forbid, protagonists – you’re not being objective or rational. Might the film be genuinely bad? Yes. Of course. That’s always a possibility for any creative work. But will it be bad solely and exclusively because it stars a woman? No. Unless, of course, you’re willing to acknowledge that a film can likewise be solely and exclusively bad because it stars a man. I say this, not because I agree with that argument, but because it’s only logical: if knowing the hero’s gender ahead of time is enough to say a given film is an unequivocal trainwreck, then that can be true regardless of the gender in question.

If you disagree with this reasoning – if you wholeheartedly believe that women are irrevocably and fundamentally less interesting than men – then I’m not going to try and dissuade you: there’s no point wielding rationality against the stubbornly irrational, and I’ve got better things to do with my time. But if you feel that statement paints you into an unfair corner – if you don’t think women are always less interesting, just mostly so; if you’re open to the idea that they can make great characters, and you’re really only sick of seeing them shoehorned into stories where they don’t really fit – then I’d ask that you consider why that is.

Do you feel that many female characters are poorly written? That’s a reasonable complaint to have. But if that’s the issue, ask yourself – who’s responsible for these poorly written women? In 2014, 85% of films had no female directors, while 80% had no female writers, while in 2015, only 29% of TV writers were women. While it’s demonstrably true that many male writers can and do write excellent female characters, there are also many who pay little attention to women’s personalities and motives, being much more concerned with their looks, a phenomenon noted by Hollywood producer Ross Putnam, who now keeps a public record of all the sexist female descriptions he receives in scripts. Perhaps you might be more likely to enjoy a female character written – from experience, as it were – by a female writer, or shaped by a female director.

Do you feel that many female characters are poorly acted? Again, that’s an understandable complaint. But if that’s the issue, ask yourself – why aren’t more talented actresses being cast? Hollywood’s obsession with ranking (a very narrow concept of) beauty ahead of all other considerations means that many terrific actresses miss out on meaty roles, or on any roles at all. There is, for instance, a documented trend of male A-list stars playing leading roles well into their fifties and sixties, but only ever opposite women in their twenties and thirties. This means that, whereas male actors are allowed an extra twenty years in which to hone their craft through more and better roles, women are edged out just as they’re hitting their stride, with actresses often being hired for beauty ahead of talent. This emphasis on looks is also apparent in casting calls for female characters, which – as per the problem with sexist character descriptions noted above – are much more likely to describe the woman’s appearance than her personality or role.

Women of colour are also grossly underrepresented in leading roles, no matter their age or ability. In 2015, even though 22% of key roles in Hollywood films went to women – their largest share since 2002, when the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film began keeping track – only 27% of leading female characters were anything other than white, a number that dropped to 13% for female characters overall. All this being so, perhaps you might be more likely to enjoy  a film starring older women, women of colour, and women of any description whose narratives place a greater emphasis on personality than appearance.

Perhaps you feel that too many female protagonists are being unnecessarily forced into narratives these days; that they’re being given unfeminine roles, or parts which – in the case of a reboot – were originally male, and are therefore being misappropriated. Now, your feelings are your feelings, and I can respect that, but feeling something is not the same as knowing it to be objectively true. That being so, if you want to make this a rational, respectable argument, I’d invite you to first consider the following points:

  • How can a character’s gender be unnecessary or forced? All characters have a gender identity, female or male or otherwise. Gender, as a detail, isn’t extraneous – unless, of course, you’re arguing that maleness is a neutral narrative default with no impact on the story, whereas femaleness is a biased narrative alternative that implicitly changes the story. But why should that be so? There are as many women in the world as men, making female characters just as logical a narrative default as men. And as for women being a biased choice compared to male neutrality, this presupposes that gender never dictates how stories about men are told – that masculinity is never mentioned, or that male characters are never given narrative arcs that reaffirm or relate to their gender in any way. Which, if you think about it, is rather implausible, isn’t it? If that were so, we’d never see male heroes talking about what it means to be a man, or a real man, or a good man, or a bad man, or any sort of man at all (for instance). And, just as importantly, if it’s possible to write a story that isn’t about gender in any way, then how can casting a woman instead of a man materially change the subject matter? Either it was never a gender-neutral story in the first place, or else our ability to perceive it as such was dependent on the character being male, which is another way of saying the same thing, and also my point. Namely: that if you see gender – or rather, femaleness – as unnecessary, it’s not an objective flaw in the story, but a subjective opinion of the audience. Of course it’s a choice to cast a woman, just like it’s a choice to cast a man – but as a character has to be something, how can one choice be implicitly forced, and the other not, unless you’re measuring their appropriateness in terms of how well it conforms to a social default?
  • Arguing that a story isn’t “feminine enough” to warrant a female protagonist when you’re simultaneously concerned that women makes stories unnecessarily gendered is… kind of breathtakingly hypocritical, really. I mean: either having a female protagonist is what makes a story feminine, or else you’re acknowledging that stories can, in fact, star women without being wholly about womanhood – a thing you earlier claimed was impossible. What you really mean by this argument, I suspect, is that you’re accustomed to the idea that only certain types of story really merit female protagonists: that there are (domestic, romantic, intimate) stories about women and (political, adventurous, global) stories about men, and if women start starring in the latter kind, then men will start missing out on the type of roles to which they’re both better suited and more naturally entitled. This attitude ignores the idea that domestic, romantic, intimate stories can also be about men while acting as though this division of things is somehow writ in stone, instead of being a constructed form of sexism. I don’t have time to go into the long, complex erasure of women in history that sustains the idea of women being unsuited to particular tasks and stories, but trust me on this: it is bullshit, and always has been.
  •  I’m going to say this once, and clearly: rebooting an  old story with a new female cast is not misappropriation. You haven’t lost the original version, nor has it been somehow altered after the fact; instead, you’re being offered something new in addition, which you’re free to accept or ignore as the fancy takes you. You might be upset that things aren’t being done differently, but that’s not the same as knowing they’re being done badly. There is a world of difference between not wanting to watch the reboot of a beloved story out of loyalty to the original, and trying your hardest to ensure that the reboot fails simply because it’s not the thing you wanted. One is an adult decision; the other is not. It shouldn’t be too hard to tell which is which.

Perhaps you feel that there are now too many female protagonists, period; that their sudden proliferation is a form of tokenism to which you object on moral grounds. Which, okay: how many women is too many? Because as per the statistics cited above, only 22% of key Hollywood roles went to women in 2015, which is a long way shy of half. Even if you think that a perfect 50/50 split is an unreasonable thing to aim for, that’s still not what’s happening here. There are more female roles at the moment, certainly, but more is not synonymous with many, and unless you genuinely think that a twenty percent share in representation is too much, then you’re going to have to acknowledge that your hackles are up, not because women are suddenly dominating the big screen, but because you don’t want to see us there in any number at all.

But either way, proliferation – by definition – is antithetical to tokenism. You cannot argue that an across the board increase in roles for women is a token move precisely because it’s across the board. It is likewise deeply hypocritical to claim that consciously increasing those roles is immoral, but that consciously suppressing them is not. The imbalance that currently exists is not a natural, neutral occurrence, but the result of decades of conscious policies and sexism both overt and ingrained; suggesting that it will go away on its own, without any active change, and that good stories will rise to the top regardless, is naive at best and callous at worst. In any field, in any context, “good” doesn’t happen because you sit back and hope really hard for the best outcome: it takes work and dedication, trial and error, sacrifice and adaptability – and, above all else, the ability to admit fault and change direction when a given thing ceases to work, or is proved to have never really worked at all.

She was the lead, but sexists wished she wasn’t, and were too scared of introspection – and too intellectually dishonest – to bother analysing their knee-jerk, often vitriolic reactions to female protagonists when it was easier to send rape and death threats to female celebrities, hack and share their nudes, and engage in racist, misogynistic abuse of women on the internet.

That’s how you suppress female characters. Or at least, that’s how you try. But no matter how much personal damage these bigots deal along the way, all they’re really proving is the terrified insincerity of their own arguments. Deep down, they know they’re losing – not because of any innate and deeply buried moral compass, but because the one cow they’ve all perpetually held as sacred is the inviolable truth of Profit. So long as nobody ever bothered to look for proof that stories about women – and people of colour, and the queer community, and everyone else long excluded from the Hollywood mainstream – could turn a buck, they could always blame the absence of such stories, not on their own ugly biases, but the flat fact of financial incentive. But now, the market has spoken, and the verdict is in: there’s money to be made in female protagonists – and damn, but the misogynists are bitter about it.

*

She was the lead

(but you wished she wasn’t)

She was the lead, and she deserved to be

(she was political, unsexualised, funny, feminist)

She was the lead, and look what she starred in

(everything. everything. everything.)

 

One of my biggest pet peeves in visual media is what I tend to think of as the Perfect Hair Problem. It happens when female characters in physically active professions end up consistently sporting long, perfectly coiffed locks that are never tied back and certainly never cut. Their hair is never messy, because it’s never allowed to be practical or, god forbid, ignored altogether. Whether they’re cops or mercenaries or superheroes, their unbound manes swish freely as they run into battle. Their hair is always a decorative thing, because the people making the show or the film in question are always conscious of the woman’s beauty: they know they’re telling a story, and so use that license to render her as prettily perfect in difficult situations as, realistically, such women would seldom be. We’re most of us suckers for beauty, after all, and in the end, we know it’s pretend – so what does it really matter?

But far from being innocuous, this small, visual detail is part of a larger problem, one that serves to steadily erase female characterisation on the screen. Though men on TV are similarly meant to be handsome and held to their own particular physical standards, the female equivalent is frequently narrower and more exacting, especially when it comes to age and bodytype, and because there’s a greater expectation that female bodies be showcased to their best advantage at all times, that in turn influences the costumes their characters are given – how put-together they’re meant to look at any given time, and in what way – to a much higher degree. Yes, there are certainly some individual outliers and exceptions, but as an aggregate phenomenon, women on the screen are meant to look immaculate, regardless of whether their characters would realistically do so, in ways that men are not.

And as such, this changes the nature of their characterisation at a fundamental level: it’s an absence of individuality, an absence of personal expression replaced, all too often, with similar permutations on a bland, fashionable sameness. How we dress and the importance we ascribe to various types of personal grooming and deportment says a lot about us as people, and even if only subconsciously, we viewers notice the absence of those quirks in ladies on the screen and react accordingly: we know something’s missing, even if we can’t quite pin it down. Consider the women you actually know; the ways they dress and look. My mother is 5’11 and grew up feeling self-conscious about her legs, and so seldom displays them, even in warm weather. Her hair is cut short for practical reasons; she’s equally likely to wear men’s shirts as women’s, prefers loose clothes to tight, wears very little makeup, and seldom bothers with high heels, because she doesn’t need to extra height and finds them uncomfortable anyway. My mother-in-law, by contrast, is about 5’1 and has always had a strong interest in fashion. Though short, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her wear heels: she prefers flats, especially ballet flats – shoes that are both pretty and comfortable. She takes great care with her earrings, glasses and bracelets: at any given time, they’ll all be colour-coded to match whatever outfit she’s wearing, which will invariably be something interesting, the pieces drawn from many different places but all complimenting each other. Because I know them both, I can see how their respective personalities and interests influence their clothes, but even if they were strangers to me, they’d still be visually distinct enough – even beyond the disparity in heights – to signal their different tastes.

Women on the screen, however, are not allowed such unique aesthetics. Their hair is long, because our cultural beauty standards privilege women with long hair, and invariably worn loose, kept in place with spray and sheer force of will; their clothes are expensive and form-fitting, because we’re meant to admire their aspirationally well-toned bodies, which we can’t do if they’re wearing loose things or layers; their shoes have high heels, because we consider that fashionable, even for women who spend all day on their feet; their makeup is immaculate, their nails are manicured, and to me, they look largely like alien creatures, because 90% of the time, there’s a disconnect between who their appearance says they are and what their character is meant to be. The Perfect Hair Problem fritzes with my ability to recognise these women as three-dimensional people the same way that driving into an area with bad reception makes the car radio go staticky and faint: in both instances, there’s an urge to slap the box and tell the responsible mechanism to cut it out, and if that fails, to switch channels – but as in the metaphoric backwoods, the signal is glitchy everywhere, and occasional service is better than nothing at all.

To be clear: I’m not saying I fail to connect with female characters just because they’re dressed and coiffed a certain way, or that every female character who fits that description is necessarily poorly written. I’m saying it bugs me that women on screen are seldom allowed to deviate from a set aesthetic, even if it suits their personalities: aren’t allowed to shave their heads or not shave their armpits or shove their hair up in an unkempt bun or wear long skirts with boots or t-shirts that aren’t nipped at the waist; aren’t allowed to be visually distinct in ways that go much beyond hair colour, or which forever render particular clothing choices off limits, just because we might think they’re less pretty like that. I’ve never seen a teen girl protagonist on TV who favours loose or baggy clothes who wasn’t a cartoon character; I’ve seldom seen black women characters with natural hair, which is an entire issue in its own right. Purely on the basis of their characterisation and personal priorities, your geeky-pretty Queen of Tech should not have an aesthetic that’s functionally identical to that of the partygirl teenage heiress, which in turn should be distinct from that of the hard-working lawyer, and no, it doesn’t count if you give the tomboy character a basic, sensible wardrobe, but then find endless narrative excuses to show her dressed up after hours or give her the She’s All That treatment, Arrow, I am looking squarely at your first season. Something I still love about The X Files is the fact that Scully spends basically nine years swathed in an enormous beige overcoat or the most ridiculous nineties jacket with her hair in a sensible bob, because that’s the kind of woman she is, and her wardrobe is allowed to reflect it.

For how strongly and readily our sexist culture insists that women love clothes and shoes and makeup and expressing themselves individually through fashion, TV shows and movies sure do hate to show them actually doing it unless their “individual” tastes just to happen to magically coincide with What Magazines Think Is Hot. But men are allowed to be as fashionable or unfashionable as they like – can be as messy or scruffy or long-haired or short-haired or daggy or geeky or well-groomed or quirky or casual as their characterisation demands – because their visual presentation is always meant to support their personality instead of emphasising their beauty first and their personhood second. It’s a default that Orphan Black is, of necessity, particularly adept at subverting: with Tatiana Maslany playing so many characters, there’s a clear need to establish clear visual identities for each of them. Cosima is not Helena is not Allison is not Sarah: Maslany nails their different vocal tics and physical mannerisms with a skill that’s almost eerie, but the performance is still aided by how clearly their individual looks relate to who they are.

And I for one would very much like to see more of it.

Jurassic World is a film that attempts to highlight the dangers of crassly commercialising dinosaurs by… well, crassly commercialising dinosaurs.

The irony of this was apparently lost on the writers.

Look: I get it. You wanted an excuse to make a dinosaur that was bigger than a t-rex, but you couldn’t be bothered looking up giganotosaurus or spinosaurus and anyway, that whole Meddling Mad Science angle is so appealing, why not go there instead? So you wrote an excuse for it into the script about how Kids These Days with their internets and their rap music are just so jaded that only bigger, better, newer dinosaurs can hold their attention, and then you spent the whole film explaining why building bigger, better, newer dinosaurs with Meddling Mad Science is, in fact, a terrible idea. But before all the carnage and death, when you were showing us the excited younger brother dragging his disaffected sibling through the park – and I’m sorry, but even with the 3D glasses on, it still looks like a plastic model in the panning shots – you made the mistake of assuming your actual audience is just as jaded as your fictional one. As such, you didn’t bother with a slow reveal, or a sense of wonder, or any sort of visual tease with the dinosaurs at all, which is more than a little disappointing for those of us who’ve been waiting for this film since 1997 (The Lost World was okay, but Jurassic Park III never happened, shhh). Everything was presented as ordinary, mundane, boring, right up until it all went to shit; and even then, your CGI indominus rex wasn’t a patch on Jurassic Park’s t-rex, not least because you couldn’t be bothered to keep the size and scale of it consistent, so that it gets noticeably bigger or smaller depending on the scene –

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about the sexism.

Let’s talk about Karen’s chirpy, passive-aggressive exchanges with her sons and husband. Let’s talk about how, when Zach’s girlfriend asks him to send her photos from his week away so she won’t forget what he looks like, then tells him she loves him, and Zach replies by basically shouting YEAH BYE and noping out to the car, she still stares adoringly after him, as though this is a thing an actual, emotionally invested girlfriend would do. Let’s talk about how Zach then spends the first half of the film staring creepily at every teenage girl he encounters. Let’s talk about Karen’s assumption that of course her single sister is going to want kids – not if she has them, but when – and the way she breaks down in guilt-inducing tears on the phone because Zach is just so mean to his little brother sometimes and why isn’t Claire there to make him play nice?  Let’s talk about Claire being criticised in the narrative for being trepidatious around a pair of kids she’s too busy to mind and hasn’t seen in seven years, as though she’s not doing her sister a bigass favour by taking them in the first place. Let’s talk about how Claire is apparently so clueless despite her high-powered job that not only can’t she remember how old her nephews are or how long it’s been since she’s seen them – as though this information never came up when the trip was organised – but when she’s out hunting them down, she unironically asks if Owen can track their scent, as though this is a skill that actual humans possess.

Let’s talk about how, after that one meeting with the executives we never see again, Claire is criticised by literally every man she encounters regardless of age and rank – Larry, her underling; Masrani, her boss; Zach and Gray, her nephews; Owen, her (ugh) love interest; Hoskins, the obligatory InGen douchebag who isn’t eaten by raptors anywhere near soon enough – and how not a single fucking person treats her as competent. Let’s talk about how the narrative never even tries to portray her as good at her job, given the whole ‘let’s send people into the indominus rex paddock before activating the tracking beacon that would’ve told me it was there the whole time’ fiasco that literally causes dozens of deaths and the ruin of the entire theme park. Let’s talk about how, when she finally does do something awesome by rescuing Owen from a pterodactyl, her nephews respond by asking who Owen is and, even though Claire just did something totally badass while Owen lay on the ground, he’s the one they want to stick with for protection. Let’s talk about how, when Claire has the similarly good idea of leading the t-rex out to fight the indominus, she somehow ends up lying behind it on the ground in an actual swimwear model pose, having spent the entire film steadily shedding clothing. Let’s talk about the needlessly protracted, gratuitous death of Zara. Let’s talk about Zach telling Gray not to cry about their parents getting divorced, even though he only found out about it himself that fucking second, because guys aren’t meant to do that, damn it! Let’s talk about how, in accordance with this dictum, the only other people who cry on screen are women.

Let’s talk about what the fuck the scriptwriters were even on when they wrote this mess, sweet Christ on a goddamn bicycle. Because even without all the shit mentioned above – and it is, as Dr Ian Malcolm so famously said, one big pile of shit – the script is more full of dropped threads than an amateur’s sewing basket.

One big pile of shit

The whole thing about Zach and Gray’s parents getting divorced? Never mentioned again. Zach’s girlfriend? Never mentioned again. The reason for Zach’s apparent lack of commitment to said girlfriend? Never even discussed. The opening gambit about Claire not wanting kids, which is – one charitably assumes – meant to evoke the same claim originally made by Dr Alan Grant in Jurassic Park? Irrelevant, given that, unlike Alan, Claire doesn’t then spend the whole film bonding with Zach and Gray; in fact, they barely communicate, and the boys end the film liking Owen more than her. (And don’t even get me started on the very salient contextual difference between one half of a lovingly married couple playfully bringing up the subject of kids with their male spouse, who eventually changes his mind, and a single professional woman being pressured to want children by a sibling who, to make the whole thing even more ironic, is going through a divorce.) The reason for Dr Wu’s apparent defection to InGen? Never explained. Owen’s status as a navy guy who somehow got tapped to work as a fucking dinosaur behaviouralist despite the fact that, as far as the script is concerned, he’s never even worked with animals before? Not explained. The thing where Gray is apparently smart enough to know everything there is to know about the park – and can apparently repair and jumpstart a decades-old Jeep he instantly identifies by make and model, Jesus Christ – but still somehow believes that his brother once killed a ghost to save him? I literally cannot even.

And okay, look. I get that a not inconsiderable portion of the internet has become rather swoony on the subject of Chris Pratt’s Captain Tight Pants transformation, but the scene where he’s introduced fixing a classic motorbike outside his charming bungalow while sipping Coke from a glass fucking bottle like he’s recreating Dylan O’Brien’s Teen Vogue photoshoot, and then proceeds to get all up in Claire’s business by making at least one horrible innuendo, mocking how terrible she was on their date and grinning because she’s a corporate suit who doesn’t understand the animals or like getting her hands dirty, while she stands there in what is effectively a jungle wearing a pristine white business suit? Yes, hello: nineteen eighty-four called, it wants its Romancing the Stone tropes back.

Comparison - jurassic stone

I mean, come ON.

 

Actually, scrap that: Romancing the Stone was a better film than Jurassic World, not least because it had a sense of its own ridiculousness, as well as – case in point – a scary gang boss who loved romance novels. And, you know, actual chemistry between the two lead characters, instead of the cardboard bickering that’s meant to pass for that between Pratt and Howard. Which, in fairness, is less their fault than it is a consequence of the utterly abysmal script, which riffs shamelessly on the original film with zero understanding of what made it work. (Hint: it wasn’t a Jimmy Fallon cameo.)

In Jurassic Park terms, then, here’s how bad the characterisation in Jurassic World is: Claire is a female version of Donald Gennaro, the bloodsucking lawyer famously eaten while taking a shit, who spends the whole film being alternately condescended to and hit on by a hybrid of Dr Ian Malcolm and Robert Muldoon, aka Owen. Their chemistry is dismal, their one kiss is worse, and both of them get less emotional development and catharsis than Blue the velociraptor, who’s probably just grateful – given that her siblings are called Charlie, Delta and Echo – that she wasn’t named Foxtrot.

Cool gyroscopes, though.

Warning: all the spoilers for Kingsman.

For a week or so now, I’ve been wanting to talk about Kingsman: The Secret Service, which I was finally able to watch, and which I genuinely loved. Not only is it an engaging, well-acted, well-scripted action movie that is funny, touching and littered with pop cultural hat-tips, but it manages the difficult trick of being both an homage to and a biting debunk of the James Bond franchise. Specifically: Kingsman takes all of Bond’s hallowed trappings – the spy gadgets, the sharp suits, the suave badassery – and explicitly removes both the misogyny and the classism that traditionally underpins them. Being a Kingsman, or gentleman spy, as explained by veteran Harry Hart to protégé  Eggsy Unwin, isn’t about having the right accent or upbringing, but “being comfortable in your own skin” – the exact opposite of Bond’s womanising, macho façade and aristocratic heritage.

In taking this stance, Kingsman also takes a stab at traditional, toxic notions of masculinity. Eggsy, we’re told, was once a skilled gymnast – possibly even Olympic-level material – but was forced to stop because of his violent, sexist stepfather’s ideas about gender roles. Eggsy is protective of his mother and younger half-sister, Daisy, and respectful of his colleague, Roxy, without ever being paternalistic or condescending, because Eggsy’s version of masculinity – the version encouraged by Harry Hart – is predicated on treating women as equals. Similarly, when confronted by the privileged, upper-class snobbishness of the other young white men in Kingsman training, it’s both striking and significant that the three outsiders – that is, lower-class Eggsy and the two female candidates – instantly bond together against them. This kind of intersectional solidarity across the boundaries of class, gender and, I would argue, sexuality (though we’ll come to that later) isn’t something you often see in action films; and nor is there a whisper of either competition or romance between Eggsy and Roxy. Instead, we’re given a situation where the two outsiders become, not lovers or rivals, but friends, their relationship one of mutual respect and support, and given how rarely that happens, I’m always going to appreciate it.

On the downside, it stands out that all the Kingsman candidates are still white; as does the fact that the villains, Valentine and Gazelle, are, respectively, a MOC who speaks with a lisp and a disabled WOC. Given the whiteness and overwhelming maleness of the Kingsmen, this isn’t a great state of affairs; but at the same time, both Valentine and Gazelle are spectacular, memorable characters. In defiance of stereotypical roles for black men, Valentine – played wonderfully by Samuel L. Jackson – is a software genius who gets sick at the sight of blood, while Gazelle, a double amputee, fights ruthlessly using her leg-blades. And while it doesn’t quite compensate for casting POC villains against an otherwise white cast, it’s nonetheless salient that the film expressly chooses to hang a very meta lampshade on the James Bond parallel in the following conversation between Harry Hart and Valentine:

Valentine: You like spy movies, Mr DeVere?

Harry: Nowdays, they’re all a little serious for my taste. But the old ones? Marvellous. Give me a far-fetched theatrical plot any day.

Valentine: The old Bond movies –  oh, man! Oh, when I was a kid, that was my dream job: gentleman spy.

Harry: I always felt the old Bond films were only as good as the villain. As a child, I rather fancied a future as a colourful megalomaniac.

Valentine: What a shame we both had to grow up.

This exchange is telling on several levels: not only does it expressly evoke the contrast with Bond while making a neat comparison between Harry and Valentine, but it makes a very literal statement about the reasons behind Valentine and Gazelle’s characterisation. When Harry says that modern spy films are ‘a little serious’, the camera pans to Gazelle’s bladed legs, which she’s artfully displaying for him: Kingsman is not a serious film, and in this moment, we’re meant to recognise its self-aware attempt to recapture the hijinks of classic Bond while simultaneously making something new. But by the same token, a not insignificant portion of Kingsman’s strength comes from its villains – from their originality, vibrancy and memorability. So while the decision to present the Kingsmen as an all-white institution battling two POC villains is still problematic, especially at the level of visual/thematic storytelling, it also gives us two extremely charismatic POC characters: Gazelle’s fight scenes are some of the most amazing I’ve seen in a long time, and given the extent to which this turned her disability into a strength, it’s significant that, when she is defeated, it’s not because this strength is somehow recast as a weakness. She is never rendered helpless, her weaponised disability is never turned into an Achilles heel, and villain or not, Gazelle is undeniably awesome.

By the same token, it’s also significant that the film’s ultimate concept of villainy isn’t personified by Valentine and Gazelle at all, but rather by men like Arthur and Kingsman dropout Charlie – that is to say, by rich, privileged, powerful white men who’ll happily crush others to ensure their own survival – and, at the other end of the scale, by agents of toxic masculinity like Eggsy’s stepfather, Dean, who routinely asserts his dominance through aggression and domestic violence. In fact, there’s a neat parallel between Eggsy and Roxy’s infiltration of the Kingsman system and Valentine and Gazelle’s calculated ascendency through the echelons of privilege: all four characters are agents of change against the entrenched systems of (straight, white, male) power. As such, it’s notable that the implants Valentine has his wealthy patrons wear to protect against his ultimate, population-thinning weapon also gives him control over them: Valentine exploits the self-serving nature of his clients’ survival instinct, but clearly has no intention of handing over the reins to the same class of people who, according to his philosophy, ruined the world in the first place.

If this was all there was to the substance of Kingsman, it would still be an excellent movie. But what I really want to dissect is the extent to which Kingsman can be read as a direct challenge to the idea of heteronormativity as a narrative default, and why this is so important.

In our culture, the unspoken rule – not just in storytelling, but in real life – is that everyone is assumed to be straight until proven otherwise. This is why, for queer people, coming out is never just a thing you do once: we have to do it over and over in endless new social contexts, because unless we expressly state our sexual orientation, most people – and especially straight people – will assume we’re heterosexual. There are many frustrating consequences to this, one of which is the struggle to see queer interpretations of narrative treated with the same subtextual validity as their straight counterparts. There are, for instance, plenty of tropes which, if enacted between a man and a woman, are invariably seen – and, indeed, treated as – inarguable preludes to romance: the classic establishment of a “will they, won’t they” UST dynamic, as per the lead pairings in shows like Bones, Castle and Fringe. Over and over again, we’re taught that such tropes are implicitly romantic; but when the same narrative devices are used to create charged encounters between two men or two women, these same implications are often fiercely resisted. Even in scenarios where a character’s sexuality has never been expressly stated – even if we’ve never seen that character involved in a canonical romantic relationship – they’re still assumed to be straight; and if they have had a relationship with someone of the opposite sex, then (the dominant logic says) they can’t possibly be bisexual or closeted or anything other than 100% hetero, because queerness, unlike straightness, can never be implicit or subtextual: it’s either overt, or it isn’t there at all.

As such, and because popular narratives are overwhelmingly more likely to canonise straight pairings than queer ones, the on-screen PDAs of confirmed heterosexual couples end up being used as yardsticks for the validation of queer relationships. That is: until or unless a proposed queer couple meets the minimum standard for PDAs as established by a straight couple in the same story, then none of their interactions can be deemed romantic, even if, prior to the straight relationship becoming canon, it was still assumed to be a valid romantic prospect due to the presence of the same romantically-charged tropes now deemed insufficient to legitimise the queer relationship. (Because heteronormative double standards, that’s why.)

But now, consider Kingsman: a film in which there isn’t a single straight kiss on screen. Though Eggsy’s mother is married to Dean, the relationship is an abusive one, and we never see any affection between them. Though we’re given snippets of physical contact between Valentine and Gazelle that hint at a romantic relationship, it’s never confirmed aloud. And though Eggsy, in another reference to classic Bond, supposedly ends the film by sleeping with a princess – and although we see her half-naked in bed, rolling over for him – we don’t actually see them do anything together. Which means that, somewhat unprecedentedly, there’s clear subtextual parity between straight and queer interpretations of Kingsman: the usual bar is set so low that, as nobody in the whole film either kisses anyone or overtly declares their sexual preferences, any move to interpret the characters as straight on the basis of tropes, word usage and behavioural cues alone grants equal validity to the thesis that they’re queer for the same reason.

For instance: as part of their Kingsman training, Eggsy, Charlie and Roxy are all asked “to win over… in the Biblical sense” a chosen target – the same target, in fact, for each of them: a pretty young woman. All three trainees are subsequently seen attempting to do just this, and while none of them succeeds, the fact that Roxy is asked to seduce a woman alongside Charlie and Eggsy – coupled with the fact that she appears just as enthusiastic about it as they do – is arguably suggestive of her queerness. Even if a viewer set on a heteronormative interpretation wants to insist that Roxy is only ‘playing gay’ for the sake of the mission, on the basis of the evidence, it’s just as likely that Eggsy and Charlie are both queer men engaged in ‘playing straight’. By which I mean: if it’s possible that one of the trio is willing to seduce the target despite their own sexual preferences, then it’s just as likely that this person is Eggsy or Charlie as it is Roxy, not only because each of them is equally willing to attempt an explicitly sexual conquest, but because we have no canonical reason to think any of them are straight. By the same token, if Eggsy and Charlie’s enthusiasm is proof enough to deem them sexually attracted to women even without any followthrough, then the same must logically be true of Roxy. As such, the only way to insist that there are no queer characters in Kingsman is to purposefully enact a heteronormative double standard that goes above and beyond the usual yardstick set by straight PDAs: to insist that subtext is enough to prove straightness, but insufficient to prove queerness, even under identical conditions.

Canonically, therefore, there is at least one queer character in Kingsman – but, just as canonically, it’s the viewer’s prerogative to decide who they are. The only other narratives I’ve ever known to pull this trick successfully are Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword, where the use of ‘she’ as a default pronoun by the inhuman narrator means that determining individual gender – and, in the case of characters stated to be in relationships, sexual orientation – is entirely up to the reader.

As such, building a case to support the queerness of particular Kingsman characters is more than just an academic exercise: it’s a necessary means of engaging the canon through subtext. And thus, consider Eggsy Unwin. When Eggsy and Harry’s conversation in the pub is interrupted by Dean’s cronies, Harry goes to leave – until, that is, one of the men calls out: “if you’re looking for another rent boy, they’re on the corner of Smith Street”. Now, given that Eggsy is, in canon, perfectly willing to engage in criminal activities to financially support his family – and given that the speaker knows this – his word choice becomes significant. He doesn’t tell Harry to find a rent boy, but another rent boy, thereby implying that Eggsy is one himself. Ordinarily, if such a line were delivered in a film whose straight yardstick demanded a higher burden of proof for queerness than subtext alone, the heteronormative assumption would be that this is only an insult, meant to demean Eggsy by implying both that he has sex for money, and that he does so with men, thereby besmirching not only his straightness, but Harry’s. But even if we agree that, yes, the statement is undoubtedly meant to be insulting, the phrasing suggests the possibility that it’s also true – that Eggsy either is or was a rent boy, and is therefore potentially* queer.

If we choose to interpret this line as proof of Eggsy’s queerness, then, a subsequent conversation with Harry would seem to endorse it further. When Harry tries to explain to Eggsy what their relationship as Kingsmen will be, this exchange takes place:

Harry: Did you see the film Trading Places?

Eggsy: No.

Harry: How about Nikita?

Eggsy: [shakes his head]

Harry: Pretty Woman?

Eggsy: [scrunched face of near recognition, as though he’s heard of it, but not seen it]

Harry: All right. My point is, the lack of a silver spoon has set you on a certain path, but you needn’t stay on it. If you’re prepared to adapt and learn, you can transform.

Eggsy: Oh, like in My Fair Lady!

Harry: Well, you’re full of surprises. Yes, like My Fair Lady. Only in this case, I’m offering you the opportunity to become a Kingsman.

What’s interesting about these cinematic comparisons is that each film suggests a different set of implications for Eggsy and Harry’s relationship, though all are predicated on a poor or disenfranchised person (Eggsy) being given a second chance by someone more powerful (Harry). Trading Places is about a male hustler given an opportunity to succeed by a powerful man, albeit in a cynical context; Nikita is about a female criminal trained as an assassin by a powerful man; Pretty Woman is about a female prostitute and a rich man falling in love; and My Fair Lady – which, crucially, is the one, they both agree on – is likewise about a poor woman being trained into aristocratic manners by a educated man, with the two eventually falling in love. Of these four comparisons, only one references a relationship between two straight men (though interestingly, in Trading Places, the Harry character still befriends a female prostitute); the other three all compare Eggsy to a female character whose primary relationship is with a man, once platonically (Nikita) and twice romantically (Pretty Woman and My Fair Lady). In a film that’s already had one character refer to Eggsy as a rent boy, the comparison with Julia Roberts’s character arguably takes on double significance, and when you couple this with the fact that both Harry and Eggsy choose cinematic examples that suggest the potential for a romantic relationship between them, there’s a compelling case to be made that this is, in fact, exactly what’s happening. (The fact that, in a later scene in the same location, Harry makes a joke about Eggsy losing his suit-wearing virginity – “one does not pop one’s cherry in fitting room two” – is also suggestive of sexual/romantic banter between the two.)

There is, in other words, a very good reason for the vast quantity of Hartwin slash that began appearing on my tumblr dashboard long before I ever saw the film: canonically, we have as many reasons to think that Eggsy is a bisexual action hero as he is a straight one, and if we could be forgiven for seeing a romantic subtext to Harry’s Pretty Woman/My Fair Lady/cherry-popping comments were Eggsy’s character female, then it’s only reasonable to suggest that same subtext applies between two men. Personally, I like to think that Charlie, Roxy, Eggsy and Harry are all queer – and the best part is, you can’t tell me otherwise.

Kingsman, then, while flawed in some respects, is nonethless a thoroughly fun – and, I would argue, surprisingly subversive – film. Certainly, it’s one of the more enjoyable action flicks I’ve seen in a long time, and when the promised sequel arrives, I’ll definitely be in line to see it.

 

*In the context of sex work for financial necessity, of course, there’s no default assumption that a person’s choice of client reflects their preferences otherwise. Nonetheless, when it comes to subtextual interpretations of narrative, we can argue that, in this case, it does, provided we stop short of assuming it always must.

(Correction, 11.06.15 – In the original version of this post, I mistakenly listed Charlie’s character as Rufus. This has now been fixed.)

Recently, I tried to watch the new Netflix series, Marco Polo, and made it through three whole episodes before ragequitting in a fit of disgust. It wasn’t the lacklustre pacing and derivative scripting that got to me, though they certainly didn’t help: it was the Orientalism and rampant misogyny that saw every female character – all of them women of colour – either viscerally sexualised or defined solely by their relationships with men. That the show took the character of Khutulun, a Mongol warrior who famously vowed never to marry unless her husband could best her at wrestling, and turned her into a smirking seductress in a leather skirt was bad enough; but having her father state that Khutulun’s ‘virginity’ was ‘promised’ to a warrior who could defeat her – reframing an arguably feminist decision as a sexist mandate and thereby stripping her of its agency – had me spitting fire. The first episode alone introduced not one, but two separate female characters by showing them in the throes of sex, their laboured panting audible even before the camera cut to their nudity; other women were shown in the periphery of shots designed to give prominence to men, off to the side even when the ostensible purpose of the scene was to introduce the ladies.

But amidst all the dehumanising nakedness and concubine orgies, what really struck me was a comparatively small detail: the positioning of the camera in the few scenes showing the Princess Kokachin interacting with her young daughter. Even in moments where the two women were ostensibly its sole focus, the camera was still painting them with an outsider’s perspective – we saw them from a distance, like strangers observing a ritual, rather than intimately, from their own eyes. When men interrupted these scenes – which, inevitably, they did – the framing felt like a pre-emptive extension of their gaze, slewing back to confirm that yes, we were viewing the women at a remove, rather than tightening to suggest, as the narrative context otherwise did, that this was a male intrusion into a private, female space. Though not as overtly gratuitous as the surfeit of naked ladies, the direction in these moments felt equally dehumanising for its failure to recognise that women can have a gaze of their own; can be the active participants within a narrative, rather than merely passive subjects.

Have You Met A Human Woman

In the field of developmental psychology, there’s a concept called object permanence: our awareness of the fact that things continue to exist even when we can’t see them. The fact that babies lack an understanding of object permanence is why they can be entertained by games like peek-a-boo or grow distressed when a parent or cherished object is out of sight: in their perception, whatever they can’t see has ceased to exist. Adults, of course, are meant to know better, but when it comes to the portrayal of women in film especially, I often wonder if certain creators lack object permanence about their female characters: if they only exist in sight of men, and otherwise fade away.

It’s not just a question of our telling stories that are primarily about men as a cultural default, though this fact is often used, somewhat paradoxically, to excuse the very problem it represents. If the protagonist is male, the logic goes, then it only makes sense that we’d see any female characters purely through his eyes – an argument that conveniently ignores the many narratives with male heroes that still make time to fully develop and humanise their secondary male characters. Ladies in these stories are treated as accessories, not participants: their individuality is less important than their adornment of someone else’s triumph, and as such, what they do on their own time doesn’t matter.

When discussing the presence of women in narrative, we often use the Bechdel Test as a basic means of gauging whether or not female characters both exist in plurality and engage with one another. As yardsticks go, it’s something of a blunt instrument, in that it pays no attention to the type of character or representation on offer, retaining its usefulness only because the achingly low bar it represents too often goes unjumped. More recently, as a means of compensating for these limitations, the Mako Mori Test was coined to take account of the actual roles of women in narrative – a test of context rather than dialogue, and another important axis of representation. When it comes to the presence and characterisation of women in cinematic narratives, however, I’d like to suggest a third such tool: the Solo Test, which a film will pass if it:

a) shows a female character alone;

b) in a scene that neither begins with a man leaving nor ends with a man arriving;

c) that doesn’t focus primarily or exclusively on her physical attractiveness.

Though the Solo Test could quite easily be applied to other types of narrative, it is, I feel, of greatest relevance to film: a medium whose time constraints often necessitate smaller core casts than can be managed in serial narratives and whose culture is powerfully male-dominated, both in terms of creation and focus. The test is meant as a measurement of gaze and visual imperative, because, to put it bluntly, I’m sick of watching films that will happily take the time to show us how male characters behave while alone or in private, but whose female characters only show up when the men do – women who are never viewed alone, in their own right, unless they’re getting out of bed (naked) or into the shower (naked) or otherwise caught in the act of cleansing or dressing themselves. It’s astonishing how many films still treat female solitude with a sneaking-into-the-girl’s-locker-room-mentality, as though the primary value in a woman alone is necessarily voyeuristic, her feelings relevant only inasmuch as they decode the mystique of her secret reactions to men.

There are, of course, contextual limitations to the usefulness of such a test – as, indeed, is the case with the Bechdel and Mako Mori. An equally useful variant of the Solo Test, for instance – and one that provides a helpful counterpoint when assessing the treatment of male vs female secondary characters – let’s call it the Sidekick Test – might focus on the depth of characterisation afforded to any non-protagonist by asking similar questions, such as:

a) Are they shown in isolation?

b) Do they have conversations and/or demonstrable interests that don’t involve the protagonist?

c) Are they defined by more than their sexuality?

Whether used separately or in combination, these tests can hopefully provide an interesting analysis of gaze, and especially cinematic gaze, as a means of assessing whose individuality and personhood is considered narratively relevant to a given story, or suite of stories, and whose is considered optional. Nor is the applicability of such questions restricted wholly to issues of gender; applying them on the basis of race – or along multiple such intersections, as per comparing portrayals of white women with portrayals of women of colour – can provide an equally relevant (and revealing) analysis. Though the language of camera angles and comic book panels is crucial to the establishment of a visual gaze, the idea of a narrative gaze – those facts of characterisation that creators deem relevant vs their expression within the story – is similarly important, and goes a long way towards describing the role and focus of non-protagonist characters.

While the bulk of characterisation comes through engagement and interaction, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of silence and solitude: the way a person behaves when the metaphorical cameras are off, when they exist for nobody but themselves. It’s in these moments that we see characters at their least guarded, their most honest, and if this space and privacy is routinely denied to women – if we see them only ever as others do, at a public remove, or else as voyeurs intent on their bodies – then we deny them personhood and object permanence both: we force them to exist as performers alone, and never for themselves.

more of this, please

Warning: total spoilers.

There’s a lot I want to say about Brave – plot, execution, structure, controversy, characterisation – but before I start all that, there’s something else to be dealt with first: the fact that, with literally one exception, no Disney princess has actual female friends. Instead, they have animals or talking objects, all of whom are either male or androgynous. Snow White and Aurora have forest creatures; Cinderella has singing mice; Ariel has Flounder and Sebastian; Belle has Chip, Lumiere and Cogsworth; Jasmine has Rajah; Pocahontas has Flit and Meeko; Mulan has Khan, Mushu and a cricket; Rapunzel has a chameleon; and now Merida has Angus, her horse. The exception is Tiana, who has a devoted female friend, Charlotte: however, there are still two animal sidekicks (Ray and Louis – again, both male), Tiana herself spends most of the film as a frog, and given the risk Disney perceived themselves to be taking when it came to the inclusion of their first black princess, my inner cynic cannot help but wonder if the reason for Charlotte’s prominent inclusion had less to do with promoting sisterhood than a ploy, however subconscious, to offset possible negative reaction’ to Tiana’s race by putting her alongside a traditionally likeable, non-threatening, blonde girl, who – thanks to the titular frog transformation – actually gets more human, princessy screentime than Tiana does herself.  Even so, the two girls have a loving, important friendship; the only other princess who gets anything even close to that is Pocahontas, who’s shown to be best friends with a girl called Nakoma; but her animals still play a much bigger role in the movie, and after Nakoma effectively betrays Pocahontas – thus fulfilling her narrative purpose – we never see them reconcile, presumably because the relationship isn’t deemed important enough to bother. Even if you stretch really far into the Disney archive and rummage around for other prominent female characters who aren’t official princesses – Megara, Kida, Thumbelina, Eilonwy – the same pattern still holds: all of them have leading men, but even in the absence of animals or other such companions, none has female friends.

Why am I bringing this up now? Because until today – until I saw Brave – I’d never even noticed; but part of the reason I did notice is because, unlike every other Disney princess and Pixar film, Brave is actually meant to be about female relationships: specifically, the mother-daughter bond. And in that context, I suddenly found myself wondering – where are Merida’s friends and playmates? Where are Elinor’s peers? Merida is the first princess without a romantic storyline, and even with all the focus on her relationship with her mother, it still felt telling that both characters existed in a seemingly lady-free vacuum. By contrast, every male character had visible friendships with other men: Fergus with the clan leaders and the clan leaders with each other. It wouldn’t have been hard to have the clan leaders bring their wives, thus enabling Elinor to have a scene among equals and actually act like a person; and by the same token, Merida could quite easily have had a female friend among the servants. At just 100 minutes, Brave is a short film which, unlike Pixar’s other offerings, manages to feel short, in the sense of having skimped on the characterisation. And to me, that missing ten to twenty minutes – the longer Pixar films tend to come in at somewhere between 110-120 – was all the more noticeable for being exactly the length of time you’d need to give either woman some friends and have them talk without competing.

Which isn’t to say I hated Brave: the animation was breathtakingly beautiful, the pacing worked, the comedy had me laughing at all the right junctures, and as far as positive rolemodels go, Merida is lightyears ahead of every other Disney princess simply by virtue of being the first teenager not to end up married or in an official relationship*. It was a good, even solid movie. But here’s the thing: Pixar isn’t known for doing good and solid. They do breathtaking, original, moving, powerful, classic, brilliant, delightful stuff. The only blemish on their otherwise stellar record, Cars 2, can be directly attributed to the meddling, marketeering hand of Disney, to whom they now owe their allegiance and, presumably, their souls. But when it comes to original stories, Pixar is – was – unparalleled. And it angers me that Brave is the film to further break that pattern: not just because it should’ve been so much better, but because the mid-production firing of Brenda Chapman, the original writer/director, will forever leave open the question of whether the problems in Brave were there from the beginning; or whether the decision to give what should’ve been Pixar’s first female-scripted, female-directed, female-inspired movie over to a man who, apart from anything else, had never previously directed a full-length feature, caused the film to reach somewhat less than its full potential; or whether it was a mix of both, and if so, to what extent.

So here’s the plot in brief: Princess Merida, a headstrong young lassie and peerless archer, chafes under the expectations of her mother, Queen Elinor. When Elinor announces the time has come for Merida’s betrothal, her daughter reacts with disbelief and anger, despite the fact that, as a princess, she would presumably have known this was on the cards. However, on learning that her suitors, the eldest sons of the three clan leaders,  must compete for her in a contest of her choosing – a contest whose wording specifies the entrants must be the firstborn child of a clan, not the firstborn son – Merida chooses archery and, in open defiance of Elinor, enters and wins the right to her own hand. An argument ensues; Merida slashes a tapestry of her family, literally cutting her mother out of the picture; Elinor retaliates by throwing Merida’s bow on the fire; and Merida flees into the night, leaving Elinor to pull the (still intact) bow from the flames and clap her hands to her mouth. Lead through the forest by magic will’o the wisps, Merida stumbles on a witch’s cottage and ends up with a magic cake, the purpose of which, rather nebulously, is to ‘change her fate’ if she feeds it to her mother. What actually happens, once she returns to the castle, is that Elinor turns into a bear. Mayhem ensues as Merida first sneaks Elinor out of the castle, then goes in search of a cure, eventually finding out that unless she can ‘mend the bond torn by pride’ before the second sunrise, the spell’s effects will be permanent. Interpreting this to mean that the slashed tapestry needs to be stitched up, Merida and Elinor the Bear reenter the castle, only to find themselves stymied by the presence of the clansmen. Merida distracts them with an apology and, following Elinor’s pantomimed instructions, a solution that the old tradition of forced marriage be abandoned. This is greeted well; the men head to the cellars; and both Elinor and Merida get back to the tapestry. But, of course, things go wrong again: Elinor is spotted, a bearhunt ensues, and Merida is locked up. From here, you can probably guess the ending: Merida escapes, stitches up the tapestry and, after a climactic fight scene, manages to place the tapestry around Elinor’s shoulders before the sun comes up – but in the end, it’s not the stitches that break the curse, but Merida’s apology for her behaviour. Cue the human restoration of a less strict, more sympathetic Elinor, and that’s a wrap.

Well, almost: those who’ve actually seen the film will notice I’ve left out any reference to the monster bear, Mordu, whose origins and defeat ostensibly serve as a combination of backstory, motive and framing device. You’ll also notice, however, that the above synopsis makes sense without it – which is actually part of the problem with Brave, albeit a comparatively minor one: that it actually has two separate plots, which, while technically interrelated – Mordu turns out to be an ancient prince transformed by the same spell Merida uses on her mother – are nonetheless so distinct both thematically and in terms of execution that it’s possible to describe the film entirely through reference to one without mentioning the other. It’s slipshod scripting, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call the Mordu plot tacked on, it’s also extremely predictable, devoid of all Pixar’s usual unexpected yet sweetly cathartic gracenotes. There’s nothing at the end you couldn’t have picked at the beginning, and if you haven’t guessed the Big Reveal by about the halfway mark, either you’re not really paying attention or you’re probably not old enough to see the film unaccompanied. Again, this isn’t a cardinal sin – it’s just way below Pixar’s usual standard of excellence.

Part of the problem is their use of a traditional three-act structure, something their films have otherwise either actively subverted or avoided altogether – it’s an old-school Disney structure, in fact, and one that’s much less endearing than it is clunky when deployed sans the usual bridging musical numbers. Which isn’t  to say that Brave suffered on that count, but rather to point out that, as it’s the only non-musical Disney princess film, it’s conceivable that the imposition of a narrative structure that’s more usually fitted to Disney musicals – and I am going to say imposition, because I honestly can’t think of any other reason why Pixar would choose Brave, a film that already represented a departure from their norm, as the vehicle for a structure they’d previously eschewed, except that someone from Disney put their foot down – undermined a premise, to judge by what happened to Brenda Chapman, in which the studio already had less faith than usual.

More egregious in terms of error, however, is the fact that the main event – Elinor being turned into a bear – effectively hinges on an idiot plot. When Merida meets the witch, not only does she fail to explain the specific manner in which she wants her mother ‘changed’, she doesn’t stop to ask what the spell she’s been given will actually do. For a heroine who’s otherwise painted as intelligent, clever and resourceful, this is really a facepalm moment, and a massive oversight in terms of characterisation. It would be one thing if the witch were actively deceitful, lying either out of either malice or mischief; but instead, and seemingly for no better reason than to shoehorn in a few extra gags, she’s simply doddery, betraying zero awareness of the notion that her customers might not want to turn into bears. Never mind that her workshop is full of bear-themed carvings, which would seem to be something of a giveaway: it literally makes no sense that Merida would simply accept the magic cake on trust, without any attempt to properly uncover what its effects will be. The fact that, having established what the magic cake does, she not only leaves it in the kitchen but encourages her baby brothers to go inside and eat whatever they want only compounds the idiocy, cementing the fact that, in this instance at least, the desired plot outcome – more bears! – apparently trumped the need for consistent characterisation.

Which brings me to my single biggest problem with Brave: Elinor herself. Both early on and in flashbacks, we see her playing with the infant Merida – a loving, creative, supportive, attentive parent. Yet when we meet her during Merida’s adolescence, she presents as strict, staid, traditional; even nagging. We’re never given any insight into why she’s changed, nor given the impression that her stern facade is a mask she wears for Merida’s benefit. Like the bear spell, it’s seemingly more a function of necessity than of characterisation: Elinor needs to be antagonistic to Merida, and therefore she is, no matter how much dissonance that creates between her past and present selves. Crucially, we’re never encouraged to sympathise with Elinor in this state, and it’s noteworthy that even Merida, when thinking of Elinor’s good points, returns to memories of childhood rather than anything more recent. There are, however, plenty of gags at Elinor’s expense once she’s in her bear-form, and while I’ll admit to laughing at some of these, the bulk didn’t sit easily with me, particularly as so many seemed to be based on the absurdity of Elinor’s attempts to retain her human – but specifically dainty and feminine – mannerisms, despite Merida urging her to be more bear-like. In that context, it felt significant that Elinor’s real transformation – her sympathy for Merida – only happened once she started behaving like an animal and, as a consequence, having fun. Literally, that’s the comparison: the posh queen learns to empathise with her tomboy daughter, not by seeing things through her eyes, but by learning to disregard her own femininity in favour of behaving like a beast.

And that grated on me, not just because I resent the implication, however unintentional, that tomboyishness in girls can be reasonably compared to animalism, but because it made the reparation of Elinor and Merida’s relationship wholly one-sided. Elinor learns to respect Merida for who she is, but we never see the opposite happen: no sooner does Merida try and accept the betrothal than Elinor concedes her point and prompts her to speak against it, and while that’s certainly the right decision, we don’t see Merida adopting any of her mother’s positive beliefs and behaviours, either. The closing scenes are all of Elinor doing Merida-stuff – riding, adventuring, wearing her hair loose – but not of Merida studying to be more like Elinor, and the implication becomes, not just that femininity is inferior, but that Elinor was wholly in the wrong to begin with: the bear spell is Merida’s fault, yes, albeit by accident, but  everything up to that point is essentially put on Elinor. And for a film that’s meant to be about the mother-daughter bond, it bugged me that the ultimate conclusion was that feminine mothers ought to be more like their tomboyish daughters, with the latter being preferable to the former. Similarly, the fact that Elinor’s transformation from antagonist to ally happens at a point when she can’t talk means that we never hear her side of things, or understand what’s prompted her change of heart as she sees it: Merida gets to give a speech about everything she’s done wrong and how she’s misunderstood her mother (despite the general feeling that she’s been in the right all along), but we never hear Elinor give the rejoinder, either to make her own apology or to explain her new beliefs.

Brave, then, is not an aptly-named film in any sense of the word. The theme isn’t bravery – either martial or emotional – but empathy and love. Merida is definitely a compelling heroine, and as I’ve said, I enjoyed the film; but despite the animation, it’s ultimately more Disney than Pixar, with all the pitfalls that assessment entails.

 

*Technically, this is also true of Pocahontas and Mulan; however, both of them get properly paired up in sequel movies.