Saturday, October 26, 2013

Representation, Point-of-View and How to Fix Blockbusters


             One of the most common responses to women who criticize the lack of prominent, well-written female superheroes is something along the lines of: “Who cares if the main character is a man, as long as the movie is good?” Which is technically true, since movies like Citizen Kane and The Lord of the Rings aren’t any less great for revolving around rich white men (or, in the case of the latter, hobbits), and despite the growing dissatisfaction with TV antiheroes, Tony Soprano, Don Draper and Walter White will always be complex, fascinating characters.

             But as much as some people try their damnedest to ignore it or to dismiss it as irrelevant, media representation is a big deal. Consider the explanations studios use to defend their reluctance to release a mainstream superhero movie headlined by a woman:

1)      Women can’t carry movies (ahem, Sandra Bullock says hi and go fuck yourself).
2)      Women don’t go to see genre movies (indeed, every single person who’s ever gone to any sci-fi, fantasy, action or horror movie is a white male between the ages of 12-25).
3)      Catwoman and Elektra sucked, so clearly, female superhero movies just inherently suck (never mind that Daredevil and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, among others, also sucked).
4)      It’s too big of a risk (after all, The Hunger Games was a major box office bomb – almost as bad as John Carter!).
5)      There aren’t many actresses who are kick-ass enough to pull off action roles (oh, please).

            So, yes, it matters a lot. It matters because, 27 years after Sigourney Weaver vanquished a colony of aliens in James Cameron’s adrenaline-charged action classic, we shouldn’t have to tolerate these bullshit excuses anymore. It matters because we live in a world where a feature-length, live-action blockbuster centered on Aquaman seems less far-fetched than one with Wonder Woman, where we have to struggle to get Black Widow her own solo project, yet Marvel can make a movie containing a CGI raccoon with a freaking rocket launcher and no one bats an eye. It matters because at one point this year, the D.C. metropolitan area had a whopping 25 screenings of movies about women. It matters because whenever a non-white actor is cast in an even moderately high-profile role, Internet message boards are flooded with commenters fuming about how the PC police are destroying the integrity of their beloved franchise with “lazy” attempts to “diversify” (apparently, the continuity of a fictional universe matters more than any desire to break down decades of institutionalized prejudice).

Let’s not forget that time when so-called “fans” of The Hunger Games spewed racist complaints about a character that was explicitly written as black in the source material.

           Perhaps most importantly, though, it matters because, as any English teacher will tell you, point- of-view is a vital part of storytelling, if not the most vital part. After all, at their core, stories are about the journeys of characters, their efforts to complete a task, satisfy a desire or overcome an obstacle; who those characters are defines the story’s direction, tone, pacing, ideology, everything. You can’t just choose any random character to be your protagonist, and you can’t change your protagonist without completely changing the story.

Monday, October 14, 2013

On The Bechdel Test and “Strong” Female Characters


Pacific Rim
Iron Man 3

        One of the first topics brought up in any conversation about gender politics in pop culture is the Bechdel Test. You probably know what I’m referring to, but in case you’ve been living under a rock or need a refresher, here’s a helpful link that not only explains the test’s rules, but also evaluates recent movies based on well they fulfill those requirements.  When explaining the test’s purpose, it’s tempting to say that it shows how “feminist” a movie or TV show is; however, that’s not quite accurate, and such an explanation is both overly simplistic and misleading.

        Really, the Bechdel Test has very little to do with indicating what films are women-friendly or the overall quality of the work itself, and as an arbiter of individual movies, it’s a next-to-pointless exercise. Nowhere is there any criteria dictating how complex or plot-essential a female character should be in order to count, though a sometimes-included rule requiring the characters to have a name means passing movies will have two women who aren’t just glorified extras. Even then, they could be horribly offensive stereotypes (see: Anne Hathaway’s shameful post-first-Oscar-nomination dud Bride Wars). In addition, its pass/fail grading system makes it easy for people to turn the test into the be-all-end-all of feminist pop culture criticism, potentially shutting down more in-depth conversations about how the work actually deals with gender. Again, just because a movie passes, it doesn’t mean that it’s feminist or a good movie, and a movie that fails isn’t necessarily sexist or bad.   

        This isn’t to say that we should straight-up burn the Bechdel Test. In fact, even almost thirty years after it was first conceived, it remains an important and (sadly) relevant tool. Its problems arise less from the test itself and more from people who misuse or don’t completely understand it. The test works best when you broaden the scope and critique entertainment on an industry-wide scale; whether one specific film does or doesn’t pass is of no consequence, but after looking at enough movies, a trend emerges: the fails are way more numerous than the passes. Considering how rudimentary the test is, this knowledge is sobering, to put it mildly. ‘Cause women never have anything more fascinating than dudes to talk about, amiright?

I think these ladies would beg to differ.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Gravity Review: The Final Frontier


              Gravity starts with noise, a rumble that crescendos to an almost unbearably deafening roar, the title displayed in stark white letters on a black background, and then – silence. The screen cuts to a shot of Earth from space, a tiny object emerging from behind the arc of the massive planet and drifting slowly toward the camera. It’s an unnerving sensation to sit in a movie theater so quiet you can’t move, let alone whisper or reach into the popcorn bag on your lap for a handful. From the very opening moments, director Alfonso Cuarón takes your breath away, and he refuses to give it back until the title card flashes across the screen again 90 minutes later.

              To abuse a cliché and the notion of hyperbole, Gravity isn’t a movie so much as an experience. You’ve probably heard people say that about all sorts of movies, and you’re probably rolling your eyes at this very moment, but in this case, it’s completely true. The story is serviceable, essentially 127 Hours set in space, but there’s a reason why critics came out of Venice and Toronto gushing about the special effects and not, say, the nuanced character development or innovative plot arc: simply put, the movie is an absolute marvel to look at – and that’s putting it lightly. Even without IMAX or 3D, it’s impossible not to get swept up in the awe-inspiring scope of the imagery, the graceful, dizzying ballet of the camera as it circles around the astronauts and zooms out to remind the audience just how tiny they are compared to the vast universe. To describe the visuals further would almost do them a disservice, as you can’t appreciate just how damned gorgeous they are unless you see the film, so suffice to say that cinematographer  Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber should be all but locks to win Oscars in their respective fields.