Posts Tagged ‘Hollywood’

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 Рtheir largest share since 2002, when the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film began keeping track Рonly 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.)

 

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 Рor along multiple such intersections, as per comparing portrayals of white women with portrayals of women of colour Рcan 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 Рthose facts of characterisation that creators deem relevant vs their expression within the story Рis 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

Trigger warning: some mention of rape

TMI warning: masturbatory themes

In Craig Thompson’s graphic novel Habibi (which is problematic to say the least), there’s a scene where Zam, a preadolescent boy, watches with horror as his female caregiver and sole companion, Dodola, is raped. As Zam and Dodola live alone in the desert – and as, through a strange twist of circumstances, Dodola is less than ten years Zam’s senior – his sexual awakening has thus far consisted of a burgeoning, awkward attraction to Dodola, who is quite literally the only woman he knows. But after he witnesses her rape, he starts to loathe his own sexuality. Because that single, awful, abusive image is Zam’s sole frame of reference for adult sex, it’s what he pictures whenever he tries to imagine himself with Dodola; instinctively, he recoils from it, but without any knowledge of what consensual sex might look like, he draws the conclusion that male desire – his desire – is inherently evil, not only because that’s his sole experience of it, but because that image has invaded his fantasies, turning them into something repugnant. He doesn’t know how to be aroused without linking that arousal to something vile, with the result that he ultimately comes to despise his own sexual identity.

This is both a fictitious and decidedly extreme example of negative sexual reinforcement, but one which nonetheless makes me think about a vastly different, non-fictional account of sexual awakening: that of writer Caitlin Moran in her hilarious, feminist biography, How To Be a Woman. To quote:

Coupled with the pan-sexual, freak-show silliness of Eurotrash – Lolo Ferrari, the woman with the biggest breasts in the world, bouncing on a trampoline; drag queens with dildos and butt plugs; gimps in harnesses; hoovering bored Dutch housewives’ flats – this is the sum total of all the sex I see until I’m 18. Perhaps ten minutes in total – a series of arty, freaky, sometimes brutal vignettes, which I lash together, and use as the basis for my sexual imagination.

Thinking back, my own initial exposure to sex scenes came from a similarly weird melange of sources. Like most Australian teenagers of my generation, I’d memorised the page-number for the bit in John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When The War Began¬†where Ellie and Lee had sex, while my copy of Nicholas Evans’s The Horse Whisperer¬†ended up with several similarly well-thumbed sections. Combined with a 1972 edition of¬†The Joy of Sex I discovered lurking in a forgotten corner of my parents’ bookshelves and the bit in Money Train where Jennifer Lopez sleeps with Wesley Snipes, this constituted the sex-positive end of my masturbatory spectrum. Somewhere in the middle was a volume of archaic erotic bookplates (shut up) that was similarly liberated from obscurity, the sex scenes from Shakespeare in Love and the sometimes-positive-but-usually-problematic-and-occasionally-outright-rapey sex in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books and Sara Douglass’s Axis and Wayfarer Redemption¬†trilogies. At the far end were the disturbing and numerous glimpses of aggressive sexuality, coercion and rape that constituted the bread and butter of my favourite crime shows, plus the¬†aforementioned¬†rape scenes from writers like Douglass and, much later, Terry Goodkind.

In other words, it was a mess, and one which left me with a mental sexual landscape dominated by male ¬†aggression. It took me years to to understand that the dissonance between my private sexual fantasies and what I actually like in real life was, in large part, attributable to the fact that the overwhelming majority of sex scenes I’d encountered in my formative tweens and early teens explicitly situated male dominance as sexy, or at least as the default form of sexual instigation: I hadn’t realised I could fantasise without it. This bugs me less now that I’m an adult and can, up to a point, sort through it all rationally, but as Moran goes on to say in How To Be a Woman, most teenagers now don’t have to rely on strange, half-glimpsed sex scenes in adult books and TV shows: instead, they can just look up porn on the internet – and that’s a bit worrying, because as weird as all those pre-internet sex sources were, at least they involved some mystery and variety, to say nothing of everyday bodies, whereas the online porn industry is rife with institutionalised misogyny, fake boobs, vaginoplasty, airbrushing and contextless, unemotional grunting scripted solely for the male gaze. ¬†And that’s bad for everyone: boys because they assume that’s what girls both want and should look like as a default, and girls because they’re taught to try and emulate sex-scripts and bodies that are anything but natural. (That’s for hetero boys and girls, of course; I can’t speak to the experience of LGBTQ teens browsing porn online, but by and large, and particularly given the wealth of lesbian porn that is in fact produced for straight men, I’m going to assume it’s not much better.)

And nor, by and large, are TV and movies. The fact that there’s more visible sex and nudity in a single episode of just about anything produced by HBO (Deadwood, A Game of Thrones, True Blood) than I managed to glimpse in my whole adolescence cannot help but bring this comic to mind; but more importantly, the current abundance of televised sex is not the same as an abundance of sex-positivity. Almost exclusively white women being grabbed forcefully, raped and abused, or else being coyly and passively coaxed into sex by active hetero menfolk? That, we have aplenty. Women initiating sex, lesbian sex that isn’t written with heterosexual¬†voyeurs in mind, actual gay sex, loving LGBTQ encounters, men being passive in sex, sexiness being tied to something other than male dominance, and interracial or non-white couples having sex? That, we have not so much of, and in some cases none at all. Cinema is infinitely worse than TV in this respect, because television, for all its faults, is much less bounded by that peculiarly hypersexualised-yet-1950’s sense of ¬†what sex sells, or ought to, that so toxically pervades Hollywood. But even so, it’s far from the full and well-rounded spectrum of tastes it ought to be.

Which leaves books: both adult works that teenagers find themselves reading and, more specifically, YA novels. And even though this is a post about the importance of sex-positive sex scenes for people of all orientations and genders, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that literary sex scenes are particularly important for girls, not only because of the staggering number of teenage ladies looking to YA for romance and sexiness in the post-Twilight period, but because when it comes to the representations of sex in other media – porn, TV and movies, to say nothing of magazine ads and sex advice columns – girls are almost universally the ones being grabbed and raped, the ones depicted as passive sex-objects, posed like dolls or lusted after as unattainable conquests. As things stand right now, YA novels are pretty much the only place a teenage old girl can go to find the image of someone like her receiving cunnilingus from a caring, considerate lover, and when you look at it that way, the power of sex scenes in YA novels should instantly become apparent. In a sexual climate where women’s wants and needs are so often painted as secondary to male desire, and where male dominance, instigation and aggression are seen as sexual defaults, any medium where girls can lash together their sexual landscapes from scenes of female desire, mutual respect and non-aggression is made fundamentally radical.

Not, of course, that this always happens: while Twilight, for all its many troubling failures, at least produced a heroine with sexual agency, one who knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to ask for it, some other prominent novels haven’t managed even that much. Others, though, have, and that’s the point – that sex in YA novels can and does do what sex in other media doesn’t, namely: focus on female pleasure, needs and desires. Which is, I suspect, why the merest prospect of it freaks so many people out: because if there’s one set of bodies that puritanical conservatism has always yearned to shame, contain and control, it’s young female bodies. It’s not even a question of how graphic (or not) the sex/sexiness might be, though as with all matters of personal taste, YMMV – it’s a question of who the audience is. And absolutely every time I’ve seen journalists, concerned parents or censorship groups get up in arms about ‘inappropriate’ sexual content in YA novels, it hasn’t seemed irrelevant that the books in question have overwhelmingly been aimed at teenage girls. (Not that gender is ever mentioned as justification for the complaint – heaven forbid!)

And maybe it’s just a consequence of the fact that YA is a genre currently dominated by women writers, women who perhaps grew up with few or no books to read whose heroes were in fact heroines like them – a problem they likely also encountered in TV and movies – and who subsequently have set out to rectify the disparity; and maybe it’s because society carries a tacit but biased expectation that teenage boys are inevitably going to buy magazines like Zoo and FHM¬†and look at boobies on the internet, and are in any case less interested in romance than they are in pure, abstract sex, with the result that there’s less of a perceived market for sexy books for boys, and hence fewer books of that type and minimal objections to the ones that do exist. Or maybe there’s as many sexy books for boys as for girls, and it’s just that people are more freaked out by the latter than the former, perhaps because the raging, overtly romantic teen-girl fandoms outstrip in their sudden visibility the quieter teen-boy fandoms, because caring about stories and fictional couples and queuing for hours to see your favourite literary idols are all acceptable things for girls to do, but which for exactly that reason boys are likely to be stigmatised for doing, even though that sort of sexist double standard is, well, a sexist double standard. But the point, the point, is that whenever I hear someone talking about how it’s wrong to have sex and sexiness in YA novels, what I actually hear is this:

I’m terrified that the first fictional sex a teenage girl encounters might leave her feeling good about herself. I’m terrified that fictional sex might actually make teenage girls think sex can be fun and good, that reading about girls who say no and boys who listen when they say it might give them the confidence to say no, too – or worse still, to realise that boys who don’t listen to ‘no’ aren’t worth it. I’m terrified that YA novels might teach teenage girls the distinction between assault and consensual sex, and give them the courage to speak out about the former while actively seeking the latter. I’m terrified that teenage girls might think seriously about the circumstances under which they might say yes to sex; that they might think about contraception before they need it, and touch themselves in bed at night while fantasising about generous, interesting, beautiful lovers who treat them with consideration and respect. I’m terrified of a generation of teenage girls who aren’t shy or squeamish about asking for cunnilingus when they want it, or about loving more than one person at once, and who don’t feel shame about their arousal. I’m terrified that teenage girls might take control of their sexuality and, in so doing, take that control of them and their bodies away from me.

Which is also why I get so angry whenever I come across negative sexuality in YA novels: books where the brooding hero treats the heroine badly, ignores her when she says no, abuses her trust and feelings and slams her bodily against walls, and where she’s made to feel uncomfortable about and disquieted by her feelings, because not only do such romances fail at sex-positivity, but if that’s your bag, then every other form of pop culture is ready and willing to oblige you.

Sex/y scenes in YA matter because YA novels aren’t contraband. It’s not like sneaking a glance at the late night movie, then frantically switching channels when your parents inevitably walk in during the naked bits, or covertly trying to hide a Mills and Boon under your bed, or having to clear your browser history and check that the door’s locked if you want to look at porn or read slashfic on the internet. You can read YA novels openly – on the bus, at school, at home – and never have to worry that someone’s going to find your behaviour suspicious. Sex/y scenes in YA matter because, by the very nature of belonging to a permitted form of media, they help to disassociate sex from surreptitious secrecy: they make it something open rather than furtive, something that rightfully belongs to you, the reader, because the book was meant for you to read and remember. It doesn’t matter if the scene is detailed or not, if it’s only fiery kisses or much, much more: the point is that you’re allowed to have it, allowed to enjoy it, and that perhaps for the first time in your life, you’re viewing something arousing that doesn’t make you out to be a sex object in heels, but an active, interesting heroine who also happens to have a love life.

To quote one of my favourite ever YA novels, Laini Taylor’s utterly brilliant Daughter of Smoke and Bone:

‘I don’t know many rules to live by,’ he’d said. ‘But here’s one. It’s simple. Don’t put anything unnecessary into yourself. No poisons or chemicals, no fumes or smoke or alcohol, no sharp objects, no inessential needles–drug or tattoo–and… no inessential penises either.’

‘Inessential penises?’ Karou had repeated, delighted with the phrase in spite of her grief. ‘Is there any such thing as an essential one?’

‘When an essential one comes along, you’ll know,’ he’d replied.

No wonder the conservatives are terrified.

Warning: spoilers.

Together with my husband and mother, I went to see Michel Hazanavicius’s¬†The Artist on Thursday night. Our session was completely packed out: there was no allocated seating, so half the audience had to rearrange themselves when it became apparent that every space was needed. Though this is nothing new – our local cinema is both tiny and anachronistic – it felt strangely appropriate on this occasion; as though the venue, like the film, were deliberately harking back to the earlier days of moviemaking.

Thanks to my father’s influence, I grew up watching black and white films. Most were talkies, but he showed me some silents, too, with the result that I grew up knowing all about the transition from silence to sound; how lots of old artists had lost their jobs when the change came through. Above and beyond any historical sense of nostalgia, then, The Artist was also personally nostalgic: a return to the type of film I watched in childhood, regardless of the generational difference.

From a cinematic point of view, The Artist is utterly brilliant. Having opened with scenes from protagonist George Valentin’s latest film, the camera pulls back to show us the screen on which it plays and the duplicate audience sitting beneath, so that we – the real cinema-goers – could almost be watching ourselves. ¬†It’s a gorgeous trick of perspective, and one that Hazanavicius employs several times throughout the film. The camerawork is eloquent, purposefully making up for the lack of spoken dialogue. The rare intrusion of sound is used to tremendous effect, a commentary both on Valentin’s neurosis and the significance of the talkies themselves. The music, too, is wonderful: an emotive tribute to the wordless storytelling of silent cinema, and a beautiful score in its own right. Jean Dujardin as George Valentin is perfect, the visual personification of old Hollywood’s leading men, while Berenice Bejo as Peppy Miller is exactly the right mix of vivacious and coy – a real Judy Garland girl.

As a homage to silent cinema, then, The Artist is a rousing success. Undeniably, it succeeds as a form of visual nostalgia, tipping the hat to movies past while simultaneously acknowledging the importance and inevitability of change – which is exactly what it set out to do.

However.

As well as copying the visual and musical styles of silent cinema, Hazanavicius has also employed their narrative stylings, leading to the construction of a story which is both deeply cliche and boringly simplistic. From the outset, it’s obvious that the fortunes of Valentin, the beloved and happy-go-lucky son of silent cinema, must fall as the talkies rise; obvious that Peppy Miller, the bright young thing with the suggestive name, must ascend in his place; obvious that the two will fall for one another; obvious that Valentin, abandoned by his wife, will fall into ruin; obvious that Peppy will save him.

And this is where I started to get cross, because narratively, The Artist is nothing more than a bland, archetypal tale of white male hubris where old-school sexism is played for modern laughs. Valentin is cheerful and friendly, but rude and dismissive of his female co-star, giving his dog more credit than her and then, after seeing her sound test for the talkies, laughing in front of the investors. When photographed with Peppy, he condescendingly waves away his wife’s jealousy, sending his driver off to buy her jewels in appeasement for the tiff and then later dismissing her unhappiness in the marriage because he’s too busy wallowing. Only Valentin’s pride keeps him out of the talkies: offered the chance to participate, he turns it down, then later acts surprised when this results in his dismissal. Once apart from the studio, he turns passive and nostalgic, pawning his possessions instead of looking for work, and sinking into despair. At the height of his sadness, he sets fire to his old movies and nearly dies; but when Peppy not only rescues him but gives him a second chance, he still runs away and toys with committing suicide before she can convince him that he’s worth saving.

The only twist we get – and it’s not much of one, given his name – is that, when we finally hear Valentin speak, he has a French accent, which is meant to explain why he’s been so adamantly convinced that he can’t succeed in talkies. Admittedly, this is a reasonable barrier for the time, but given that Peppy finds a way around it in about three seconds flat – dancing – it doesn’t quite justify the fact that he’s spent four years moping about a problem that only existed because he was too proud to change with the times. Remove the novelty of silence, then, and The Artist becomes a cliched tale of artistic self-indulgence: the struggle of a successful man who mistreats the women in his life to overcome the consequences of stubborn pride and be redeemed by the undeserved care of a prettier, younger woman. With a funny dog added for laughs.

And that’s a problem, because this is not a nostalgic theme, or something we should feel nostalgic about. Stories of white male hubris with bonus! comedic sexism are pretty much what’s always been wrong with Hollywood, then and now, and while I can feel nostalgic for the visual conventions of an earlier age, I don’t want them tied to the type of cliched storytelling that routinely makes me shout at the internet. I don’t care that sexism was rife in the period: that’s not an excuse to duplicate it for laughs. Ditto with racism, because really: there was no excuse for the inclusion of jungle-dwelling, spear-waving tribesmen in a Valentin film except that someone, somewhere thought it was more funny than inappropriate, and, yeah, no.

Overall, then, The Artist is a disappointment. The success of shows like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire¬†and Deadwood¬†has proven that indulging in the visual aesthetic of a previous era doesn’t have to mean capitulating uncritically to its morals or sense of self-perception, and yet, despite being given an opportunity to both display and critique ¬†our nostalgia, Hazanavicius has instead opted to affirm it on all fronts. I can get behind the visuals, and as a piece of cinema history, The Artist is worth seeing – but as yet another example of Hollywood’s collective narrative hubris, it isn’t.

Recently, several writers I respect have been blogging about¬†backstory, exposition and simplicity. The first of those posts, by Patrick O’Duffy, got me thinking about what backstory really means. Heading into a novel, it’s quite usual for me to have dedicated reams of wordage to figuring out who my characters are, what they’re like, what major events (if any) have defined them, how they relate to everyone else in the story, and where they might end up. Depending on the narrative, anything from all to none of this information might prove to be plot-critical; even so, there’s a decent chance that a reasonable portion of it will get used. Once upon a time, I’d have been happy calling that backstory, but having read O’Duffy’s piece, the term no longer feels applicable. Or, more accurately, it doesn’t seem to apply in quite the same way. As a word, backstory¬†is suggestive of information that has already been¬†superseded¬†by the coming narrative – ¬†the sort of character-blurb you might write into an obliging box on a D&D character sheet in the sure and certain knowledge that anything you say, no matter how personally relevant, will have no bearing whatsoever on the coming adventure. At least, that’s my memory of high school level RPGing, anyway; whatever personality I gave my character would be as¬†detached¬†from the main narrative as if I’d bothered to try and impose a fictitious history on my avatar in¬†Neverwinter Nights. In such gaming scenarios, the importance of backstory is reduced to a fairly binary set of good/evil questions designed to shape your personal morality, such as: will my character kick this puppy? Should I steal the gold from the old lady, or give her more to buy medicine? Will I help the druids defend the trees, or shall I fight their preachy asses? (Note: I am probably the only person in the entire world who helps the druids at that point. Some NPCs just ask to be eaten by bears.)

But writing a novel, it seems to me, is a markedly different endeavour. If the story is¬†analogous¬†to the gaming campaign, then the characters – and their histories – have ceased to be detached from the main quest arc: there are no more NPCs, because every character is a potential party member. RPG campaigns constrain the narrative in that certain characters exist only to help the protagonists forward. The helpful tavern wench cannot suddenly join the quest, no matter how resourceful, brave and clever her backstory might prove her to be. But then, why would you give an NPC backstory beyond what’s necessary to explain the aid they give the protagonist? The answer highlights a significant, crucial difference between pantsers and plotters, viz: for pantsers, the wench can always join the party. Backstory grows organically, so that any random secondary character might suddenly leap into the limelight and refuse to leave without being granted six soliloquies and a curtain call. For plotters, however, such things are fixed from the outset: the relevant leads have already been chosen, and the wench is not among them. Which might go a long way towards explaining why some plotter-writers are leery of backstory – any details they include must, of necessity, be plot-relevant; and if it’s plot-relevant, then it’s not backstory, which instead becomes a label for all the information that had no place in the main narrative. In this context, therefore, suggesting that writers should keep backstory out of their writing doesn’t mean their characters shouldn’t have history; only that said history should be¬†relevant.

But for some of us, to paraphrase Faith from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there is no such animal as irrelevant history. Pantser or plotter, if you’re in it for the characters, then the nitty-gritty of their lives – past or present, regardless of the degree of plot-importance – will always be meaningful.¬†Which is where we come to Chuck Wendig’s post on exposition, because this is not, contrary to how it might appear, an excuse to dump any old crap about the protagonist into the story and call it plot-critical. Exposition is a question of structure, not content: if you’re going to flesh out your characters, then it shouldn’t be at the expense of readability. Relevant to the plot and relevant to the character aren’t mutually exclusive conditionals – in fact, they ought to overlap. But if we were to render the story as a Venn diagram, it shouldn’t be mandatory for the two circles to appear as one: there’s plenty of room for play. As Aliette de Bodard’s piece on simplicity points out, economical stories aren’t necessarily better than expansive ones; in fact, there’s a lot to be said for sprawl.

A slight aside, at this point: the other day, I was mulling over the sameness of mainstream Hollywood films. Specifically: why is the stereotypical Five Man Band¬†so ubiquitous, and why do so many movies keep failing the Bechdel Test? Trying to tease out the cause of the problem – using, as my case study, the appalling Captain America – it suddenly struck me that backstory might be the missing element, with narrative oversimplification a major contributing factor. Consider the following premise: that Hollywood films will usually focus on the exploits of a single protagonist, with any secondary characters set to orbit the lead like satellites. Because of the time constraints inherent to cinema as a medium, this creates a strong impetus to make every interaction count, and if the story is meant to focus on the protagonist, then the natural default, script-wise, is to ensure that the vast majority of conversations are held either with or about the lead. If, as is so often the case, the protagonist is male, this sets the film up for near-guaranteed failure of the Bechdel test, for the simple reason that the secondary characters – regardless of gender – aren’t allowed to have superfluous conversations. This also means that the secondary characters don’t matter in and of themselves. It’s the difference between writing about a hero and his gang, and writing an ensemble cast: the two stories might have the same number of characters in identical roles, but the distinction is one of emphasis. A Five Man Band is there to support a single leader, whose personal struggles dominate the narrative – but in an ensemble, everyone matters equally.

Hollywood is not good at ensembles.

This is particularly evident when existing stories are adapted to the big screen. It’s generally assumed that any adaptation must, of necessity, pare back the secondary character development in order to allow a sharper focus on the Main Plot. Though done in the name of time-sensitivity, what this actually means is that, far too often, all the nuance which attracted people to the story in the first place – the worldbuilding, the detail and the cast as a whole – gets butchered in translation. Audiences react badly to such treatment because they can see what’s missing: there are holes where better characterisation (among other things) should be. But here’s the kicker – this is just as true of original feature films. All scripts go through multiple drafts, and if you assume that relevant information isn’t being lost in those cuts, I’d invite you to think again. Right now, the Hollywood default is to pick a protagonist, deny them backstory, throw them into an adventure with a bunch of NPC Pokemon sans the evolutionary moonstone, and hope that events are strong enough to carry them forwards. This is what happens when we demand utility from every conversation while simultaneously acting under time constraints and ¬†focusing exclusively on immediate, rather than past, events; and it is not my favourite thing.

Which is why, to return to the earlier point, worldbuilding and backstory are two of the qualities I look for most in a narrative. Stories without sprawl, while nonetheless capable of being utterly awesome,¬†tend to feel like closed ecosystems. Combine Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters with The Law of Conservation of Detail, add a dash of¬†Chekhov’s Gun, and you can start to see what I mean. Such stories aren’t predictable, per se – though this is can definitely be a problem – but are rather defined by absolute catharsis. They’re murder mysteries without the red herrings, worlds where you can’t go off-mission and explore the map, meals without any delicious leftovers to be used for future cookery and consumption. Speaking of his Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett has said that he created the city of Ankh-Morpork as somewhere that would keep going once the book is closed; the sort of place where the characters have lives to be getting on with even after the story ends. The Discworld might well exist on the back of four elephants stuck to a giant turtle flying through space, but it feels real, because its many stories, inhabitants and cities are – just like our own world – awash in irrelevant detail. To wankily quote myself, I’ve said before that:

The stock premise of epic fantasy ‚Äď defeating the Dark Lord to save the kingdom ‚Äď has always sat awkwardly with me, if only because it so often comes to feel as though the world in question only exists as a setting for that one battle, and not as a realm in its own right…¬†Ultimate confrontations with ancient evil¬†are fine, to be sure, but they don‚Äôt lend much to the idea of a world which, left to its own devices, will just be a world: one where good and evil are intermingled in everyday human activity, rather than being the sole province of warring gods and their acolytes.

It’s a view I stand by, and something I think it’s important to remember. More and more often, it feels like arguments about writing in the SFF community – such as the recent Mary Sue debate, for instance – hinge on a fundamental failure to distinguish between bad writing and narrative tropes and decisions exacerbated by bad writing, as though the inclusion of specific ideas, character traits or story-forms¬†¬†is the real problem, and not, as might actually be the case, the quality of their execution. Point being, I think we’ve started to become a bit too deeply invested in streamlined narratives. We talk about trimming the dead weight from stories the same way one might imagine some shark-smiled management consultant talking about axing the creative department over budgetary concerns; as though the story is a high-profile office in which can be found no room for cheerful, eccentric sentences who wear colourful shirts on Friday and eat all the biscuits at meetings. Stories without foible, indulgence or quirk, but where everything must arrive at 9am sharp in a business suit with a briefcase.¬†In fact, it strikes me as telling that much of the language we use to discuss the improvement of books is simultaneously fat-phobic, sports-centric and corporate. Bad books are flabby, soft and bloated; good books are lean, raw and hard-hitting. Or maybe I’m just projecting.

In my own writing, I tend to sit somewhere in the middle of the pantser/plotter continuum, which isn’t particularly unusual. Though I almost always start with a single protagonist as a narrative focal point, my casts invariably grow in the worldbuilding process, and while I do write out copious backstory for my original characters, I’m still frequently surprised when bit-players queen themselves, or when planned protagonists turn out to be happy in the background. I chart my main plot points and narrative arc, but leave everything else to chance – often with unexpected results. Some writers are far more rigid; others are far more lax. But if this blog had a point, it was the realisation that the reason my stories tend to end up with so many main characters is because I inevitably become involved with their backstories. As has been pointed out by innumerable people, every character is the hero of their own adventure – and as I’m now nearly 40,000 words into a new novel, jumping between POVs while wrangling multiple events, this felt like a good time to stop and discuss what that actually means. Thanks to O’Duffy, I’ve come away with a much stronger concept of what backstory is – to me, to others and in general. Thanks to Wendig, I’ve got a sharper idea of how to apply it without turning my story into a swamp of boring detail. And thanks to Bodard, I’ve realised the importance of sprawl – not just in the worlds I already love, but in the creation of my own.

Warning: complete spoilers, much rant.

Up until about a week ago, I hadn’t planned on seeing Sucker Punch¬†at the movies, primarily because I didn’t know it existed. That all changed when rumblings in the blogsphere alerted me both to the film itself and to the suggestion that it was a sexist, misogynistic piece of rape-obsessed trash, as opined (among others) by The Atlantic reviewer Sady Doyle and blogger Cassie Alexander. This did not provoke in me a desire to spend money at the box office so much as a profound feeling of disgust – and yet, I remained a little bit intrigued, too, if only because of the amount of controversy racking up. First, lead actresses¬†Emma Browning¬†and Abbie Cornish¬†both defended the film, and then I saw a favourable review that had been¬†published, of all places, on the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center blog, wherein the author praised it as “the best movie about dissociation [he’d] ever seen.”¬†

Despite my initial reaction, Sucker Punch was starting to look like something I ought to see, if only for curiosity’s sake. Going in, I was prepared for the worst, but also open to the possibility of redemptive surprise, particularly as I’ve found Zack Snyder’s previous three efforts to be something of a mixed bag: I loathed¬†300, was on the fence about¬†Watchmen, and liked¬†Legend of the Guardians. Given that these were all adaptations, what then might I make of a story that Snyder had written himself? Accompanied by my long-suffering husband, I bought some popcorn and prepared to find out.

Visually and narratively, Sucker Punch operates in three different realms: the real world, where heroine Baby Doll has been committed to an asylum after her abusive step-father frames her for the murder of her little sister; the first dissociative layer, portrayed as a bordello, where Baby Doll and four of the other inmates plot their escape while enduring sexual abuse at the hands of the male orderlies; and the second, deeper dissociative layer, where the girls’ efforts to overcome their situation are expressed as ¬†fantastic battles against giant warriors, dragons, androids and – wait for it – steampunk zombie Nazis. (And I’ll bet you thought only Hellboy had those, right?) In honour of this approach, I’ve elected to critique the film on three different levels – construction, continuity and context – in order to cover all bases.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.

1. Construction 

Besides Baby Doll and her fellow inmates – Sweet Pea, Rocket, Amber and Blondie –¬†Sucker Punch¬†has three other noteworthy characters: villain Blue Jones, a crazed orderly (real world) and sadistic pimp (bordello); ally Vera Gorski, their psychiatrist (real world) and madame (bordello); and a character listed only as the Wise Man, who commands the girls during their fantasy battles. ¬†(He also appears in the real world, but we’ll get to that later.) From the moment she enters the asylum, Baby Doll is on a tight schedule: unless she can escape within five days, a doctor will come and lobotomise her. To this end, the Wise Man lists the items she needs to achieve a “perfect victory”: ¬†a map, fire, a knife, a key, and a fifth thing he refuses to name, which Baby Doll doesn’t mention to her friends. One by one, these items are acquired during the fantasy scenes, returning afterwards to the bordello realm, in which we spend the greatest amount of time. Our only visits to the real world, in fact, are spaced far apart: the very beginning and very end of the film. While this lends a certain sort of symmetry to the narrative, it’s a conceit which swiftly becomes problematic (more of which during the continuity section).

Despite their disparate themes, Zack Snyder’s previous films are united by a common visual aesthetic to which¬†Sucker Punch is no exception:¬†stylistic¬†slow motion interspersed with lighting-fast flashes of violence and a sepia-tinted colour scheme give the film an eerie feel, while his trademark close-ups and swooping vistas provide a strong contrast between personal scenes and battles. The soundtrack is, I’ll admit, catchy, but at a price: the song-to-dialogue ratio is so heavily skewed that vital character development is done away with in favour of what are, effectively, music videos. Snyder’s distinctive visuals only compound this problem: the action scenes are long, almost totally unscripted except for the Wise Man’s briefings, and delivered with such a predictable rhythm that they soon become self-defeating, like endless cut-scenes in a video game.

As per the traditional laziness of the trashy action genre, our five man – or in this case, five girl – army is desperately under-characterised. Although we witness the chain of events leading to Baby Doll’s imprisonment, these opening scenes have no dialogue, leaning heavily on the straw-man Evil Step-Father image to justify her wrongful incarceration. Of the other girls, only sisters Sweet Pea and Rocket are ever given the slightest bit of history, and even this is flimsily done: Rocket ran away from home after clashing with her parents, and Sweet Pea, despite not being part of the argument, followed. How they ended up in the asylum is anyone’s guess – but then, there’s not much real world logic to Sucker Punch, even when we’re actually in the real world.

2. Continuity

As was demonstrated by the recent success of Inception, it is entirely possible for a Hollywood blockbuster to switch back and forth between multiple interlocking realities in a way that actually makes sense. Sucker Punch, however, does not do this. Partly, this is down to laziness, but there’s also an ample helping of fridge logic, too. For starters, it’s inferred that the real world is not the present day, but rather sometime in the 1950s, an assumption supported not just by the cars, technology, clothing and general mood of these scenes, but by the type of asylum Baby Doll is sent to. The fact that her step-father openly bribes an orderly to admit her might¬†still work in the present day, if one were willing to explain the visuals as an affectation; but the threat of a lobotomy conducted via a chisel through the skull-front is undeniably past tense. To borrow from another recent film, think Shutter Island with women. That’s our base level of reality, and even with the dearth of early dialogue, it’s still as plain as day.

And that, alas, is a problem. Even allowing for the creation of an internally¬†dissociative¬†fantasy, I cannot buy the presence in that world of anachronisms – one or two, maybe, but the number here is enormous. Baby Doll’s outfit, for instance, is pure weaponised Japanese schoolgirl, down to the fact that her gun is accessorised with cute little dangling charms. The same is true of all the fantasy costumes, never mind the presence of touch-screen technology, battle suits and silver-gleaming androids. This is further compounded by glitches in the bordello realm: near the end, one male orderly plays with a touchscreen device, his ears adorned with the trademark white earbuds of an iPod, while earlier, a major plot point revolves around Sweet Pea’s ability to photocopy a map of the asylum. Or at least, that’s what we assume she’s done: a machine that looks like a very old, very simple photocopier is shown in Blue’s office, and if Sweet Pea was only going to draw a copy – a lengthy and improbable option – she wouldn’t need to take the original off the wall.

But these are all nitpicks when placed against the bigger problem: understanding how anything in either fantasy world possibly corresponds to the real. In the bordello level, for instance, Baby Doll dances to distract the men while the other girls steal each item – but what does the dancing represent? Sex? Are we witnessing a calculated seduction of all the male orderlies as expressed through Baby Doll’s decision to dance for them, or is she taking advantage of their ongoing¬†coercion? When Amber takes a lighter from one of the men, giggling in his lap¬†while Baby Doll¬†dances nearby, what is actually happening in the real world? Either way, Baby Doll is meant to be so distracting that the men don’t notice the other girls sneaking around – and that’s before you factor in that Baby Doll’s dance is always the cue to segue into the higher fantasy world.

During the botched theft that results in Rocket’s death, for instance, we switch back to the bordello from the fantasy to witness two interpretations of the same event. In the fantasy battle, Rocket is blown up by a bomb on a speeding train, unable to escape because her jetpack is broken. In the bordello, we see her stabbed by the cook, dying in Sweet Pea’s arms while finishing the conversation they’d ¬†started on the train. At no point do we drop down into the real world – because, of course, doing so would reveal the entire action to make no sense at all. If the bordello-dance is already a layer of metaphor, then how do we explain a reality in which Baby Doll distracts the cook in his tiny, cramped kitchen so effectively that he doesn’t notice that four other girls are occupying the same space? The final break with reality comes when Blue kills both Amber and Blondie in the bordello world, with Gorski and several other orderlies as witnesses. Clearly, the girls must die by Blue’s hand in the real world, too: and yet, despite this overwhelming evidence of his savagery, Blue remains in charge. In fact, his next act is to try and rape Baby Doll, who defends herself by stabbing him in the shoulder. So total is the dissonance between the bordello world and reality that when, much later, real-world Gorski is explaining Baby Doll’s history to the lobotomist, she mentions that yes, the patient did stab Blue,¬†but omits to mention that Blue is a murdering rapist. And lest we think she’s simply glossing over a tragic, traumatic event, in the very next scene, we see that Blue is still working at the asylum.¬†As, for that matter, is the equally murdering cook.

Let me repeat that, in case you missed it: three girls have been killed by two staff members in the space of a week. Two of the murders took place in front of multiple staff witnesses. And yet neither man is disciplined, or queried, or imprisoned or suspected or anything until – cue the Narrative Convenience fairy, and also the fairy of Unbelievably Stupid And Offensive Plots – just after Baby Doll’s lobotomy.

Oh, yeah. She gets lobotomised at the end. Apparently, the fifth thing Baby Doll needed was to sacrifice herself so Sweet Pea could escape instead. And by “sacrifice herself”, I mean “get lobotomised”. By a doctor who didn’t really want to do it. In a way that makes no sense. Or, sorry: in a way that makes even less sense than you might already think, because in order to get Baby Doll lobotomised, Blue had to forge Gorski’s signature on the paperwork. Except that Gorski, who is standing right there throughout the procedure while holding the paperwork, objects to the lobotomy taking place. And presumably, if Blue had to forge her signature to get it done – this is, after all, what Baby Doll’s father bribed him to do – then only Gorski has the authority to authorise lobotomies. So you could be forgiven for wondering why, at some point prior to Baby Doll getting lobotomised, she didn’t stop to look at the fucking paperwork and question why the lobotomy was taking place. Oh, no – that particular revelation is saved for three seconds after an irreversible procedure has already happened. Which is also when, all of a sudden, the other orderlies suddenly declare that they don’t want to help Blue hurt the girls any more. Oh, but they’re still willing to leave him all alone with a newly lobotomised girl they’ve just helped strap to a chair – it’s just that they’ll feel bad about it now.

And then the cops come Рliterally, they reach the place in about two seconds Рand arrest Blue, just in time to stop him molesting Baby Doll (well, molesting her more, anyway Рhe still gets a kiss in). And not because he killed Amber and Blondie, though. Heavens forbid! No: Gorski has dobbed him in for falsifying her paperwork. 

Capping off this carnival of narrative errors and continuity gaffes, we come to the final scene: the newly escaped Sweet Pea at a bus station, trying to find her way home. As the bus doors open, the police appear and try to question her on the suspicion that she is, indeed, an asylum escapee. It looks like she’s doomed, but wait! Who should the bus driver turn out to be but the Wise Man himself?That’s right: the figment of the girls’ collective dissociative imaginations who commanded them through their battles is actually a bus driver, that is to say, a person previously unknown to them who actually exists in the real world. And of course he lies to the police, telling them that Sweet Pea has been on his bus for miles now, when of course he’s never seen her before (But has he? Wait, no, because that makes no fucking sense)¬†and so they let her go, and on she gets, right behind a young male passenger whose face, as it happens, we’ve also seen in the fantasy world, fighting in the trenches of the zombified World War I. Which also makes no sense.

Yeah. About that.

3. Context

Speaking in a recent and undeniably sympathetic¬†interview, Zack Snyder said that¬†Sucker Punch was “absolutely” a “critique on geek culture’s sexism.” Regarding two early moments of metatextual dialogue, he has the following to say:

“She [Sweet Pea] says, ‚ÄúThe dance should be more than titillation, and mine‚Äôs personal,‚ÄĚ and that‚Äôs exactly a comment on the movie itself. I think 90% are missing it, or they just don‚Äôt care…¬†As soon as the¬†fantasy¬†starts, there‚Äôs that whole sequence where Sweet Pea breaks it down and says, ‚ÄúThis is a joke, right? I get the sexy school girl and nurse thing, but what‚Äôs this? A lobotomized vegetable? How about something more commercial?‚ÄĚ That is basically my comment on the film as well. She‚Äôs saying, ‚ÄúWhy are you making this movie? You need to make a movie more commercial. It shouldn‚Äôt be so dark and weird.‚ÄĚ”

In some ways, this is a perfect explanation of the film’s failure. Snyder has tried to be ironic in his handling of sexiness and objectification, taking schoolgirl fetishism, harem fantasies and sexy nurses and putting them in a situation which is decidedly unsexy -that is to say, a deeply misogynistic environment rife with violence, rape and abuse of power – in order to make his male audience members feel guilty about finding the girls attractive, and thereby forcing them to realise that their lusts align with those of the villainous male characters. To quote the same interview:

“Someone asked me about why I dressed the girls like that, and I said, ‚ÄúDo you not get the metaphor there? The girls are in a brothel performing for men in the dark. In the fantasy sequences, the men in the dark are us. The men in the dark are basically me; dorky sci-fi kids.‚ÄĚ”

It’s a self-aware sentiment – and yet, the film itself is anything but self-aware. Despite his intentions, Snyder has created a film which systematically disenfranchises its women in order to teach men a lesson about not disenfranchising women. Which, you know, would seem to defeat the purpose. Certainly, it’s possible to empathise with the characters, despite how thinly they’re drawn – but that’s because the entire film is engineered to paint women as victims and men as abusive bastards. What Snyder sees as a dark, edgy ending, perhaps even a cautionary tale about the dangers of male lust – that is, Baby Doll’s lobotomy and the deaths of all her friends bar Sweet Pea – actually reads as a story of victimisation: the girls couldn’t save themselves. Even in the very depths of their fantasies, they still needed a male general to formulate their plans and give them orders. I understand the sexy costumes of the bordello realm, to an extent – it’s a logical leap of dissociation, given the culture of sexual abuse – but why, then, would the girls still imagine themselves in¬†titillating outfits during the second realm’s fantasy battles? The answer is, they wouldn’t: those scenes are there as fanservice, not to make a disquieting point about fetishism and rape, and however much Snyder might have wanted the film to rebuke exactly the sort of objectification its merchandising¬†provokes, the Hollywood factor means that in the end, it can’t help but reinforce the very cultures it attempted to satirise.

In the end, Sucker Punch is a sexist wasteland: a ham-fisted attempt to make chauvinist geeks care about rape by luring them in with action scenes. The idea of creating strong, competent, interesting female characters whose looks play no part in their marketability is apparently too radical for Snyder, who might have saved himself a lot of bother by watching Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof and seeing what real girl action heroes can do, if only you don’t embrace the “rocks fall, everyone dies” approach to storytelling. Because, look: when your five main female characters are all being raped, wrongfully imprisoned and generally abused; when the only names they have are diminutive, sexy-sounding¬†nicknames¬†bestowed on them by rapists, which they then use even among themselves; when you dress them in sexy outfits, call it ironic and then merchandise statuettes of the characters wearing those outfits to your male fanbase; when your female resistors, even in their deepest dissociative fantasies, must still take all their orders from a Wise Man; when all your girls bar one are either murdered or lobotomised at the end, and that selfsame Wise Man calls it a “perfect victory”; then you have not created a film which is empowering for women. Instead, you have taken the old, sexist trope of hurting female characters to motivate goodness, chivalry and protectiveness in their male counterparts to a new and disturbing level: that is, you are hurting female characters to motivate goodness, chivalry and protectiveness in the male audience. And I’m sorry, but I just can’t bring myself to see that as an improvement. Because of how, you know. It’s not.

Great soundtrack, but.