Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Mission: Impossible – Conquering the Smurfette Principle


        The full-length trailer for the fifth Mission: Impossible movie, now sporting the not-at-all-laughable subtitle of Rogue Nation (at least it’s not Dawn of Justice or Ragnarok?), popped up online Monday, and the world got yet another opportunity to gawk at Tom Cruise’s commitment to jaw-dropping and likely ill-advised stunts with a mixture of bemusement, exasperation and awe. While I have little doubt that the film’s action scenes will be thrilling, an ideal spectacle for blockbuster season, I would be infinitely more interested in it if 1) Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol helmer Brad Bird returned to the directing chair and 2) more importantly, if Paula Patton were not conspicuously absent from this sequel, while Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames will all reprise their roles.

        Even if it is for harmless scheduling reasons, this means we have yet another major movie boasting a single major female character (newcomer Rebecca Ferguson) in an ensemble otherwise consisting of all guys. Yes, we’re talking about an action franchise whose primary draw has always been its over-the-top gadgets and stunt work, so it’s obviously not surprising that Rogue Nation, at least based off the trailer, will be extremely dude-centric. However, this tokenism and the trailer’s heavy use of the male gaze suggest that the movie and, by extension, the franchise as a whole, isn’t especially interested in women – either in terms of portraying them as more than eye candy or in attracting us as an audience.

I couldn’t get a non-blurry screengrab, but in case you’re wondering, Rebecca Ferguson is about to snap this guy’s neck with her legs, and I’m so here for that.


 This, not so much.

        The Mission: Impossible franchise’s difficulties with female characters can arguably be blamed on one particular source: James Bond. Not only is the iconic action hero notoriously misogynistic as a character, but the franchise basically created its own trope in the Bond Girl. Notice that it’s ‘girl’, not ‘woman’, and she doesn’t have a name, emphasizing that these characters exist in relation to Bond rather than as individuals with their own narratives and agency and are designed to be replaceable, disposable. Often playing the same role that femme fatales did in classic noirs (that is, as a simultaneous love interest and adversary for the hero), the Bond Girl can be intelligent, savvy, sweet or manipulative, but above all, she must be beautiful, always in a conventional, fashion model kind of way that will seduce both Bond and the men watching these movies. She never carries over from one film to the next, usually vanishing without even the slightest mention or explanation. In other words, the Bond Girl exists not as a meaningful character that audiences need to emotionally invest in, but as sexy decoration, serving essentially the same purpose as Bond’s shaken, not stirred martinis and signature Aston Martin.

        Unfortunately, while the Bond Girl may not be the only female character to appear on-screen, she is usually the most prominent one. 2012’s Skyfall, which featured Judi Dench’s M in a pivotal role, was an exception, and even there, she was killed off by the end of the film and promptly supplanted by the decidedly male Ralph Fiennes. If Naomie Harris wasn’t returning as Eve Moneypenny, we would be in the exact same situation with the upcoming Spectre that we’re in with Rogue Nation; while a number of women have been added to the cast of the new film, with Léa Seydoux presumably serving as the de facto Bond Girl, forgive me for being skeptical that any of them will get much to do beyond flirting with Daniel Craig and, if we’re lucky, one action scene to show how “badass” they are. Because, obviously, if a lady gets to shoot a gun or kick some nameless henchman’s butt, it doesn’t matter if she still has no more actual characterization than a prop, right?

        In the end, though, what’s most frustrating is that the tokenization of women isn’t confined to a single franchise or genre. As evidenced by everything from Star Trek, Pacific Rim and Edge of Tomorrow to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the Marvel and DC cinematic universes, and even non-blockbusters like Margin Call and The Imitation Game, ‘The Smurfette Principle’ is the norm, not the exception. It’s why the initial casting announcement for Star Wars VII, which mentioned Daisy Ridley as the sole new female cast member, was greeted with not so much an uproar as fairly vocal yet resigned exasperation that was placated when Lupita Nyong’o and Gwendoline Christie were later added. Of course, four women, including Carrie Fisher reprising her role as Leia, to at least nine men just in the main ensemble still isn’t exactly an ideal balance, but if having half as many women as men can be accepted as a reasonable expectation, then most movies don’t even live up to that bare minimum.

        I’ve ranted before about how the idea that the Mako Mori Test would “improve” the Bechdel Test is severely misguided, so I won’t go into that again, but as long as Smurfette Principle remains common, movies that pass the Bechdel Test will still be depressingly far and few in between. In a way, the Smurfette Principle and Strong Female Character trope also are closely related, because when you only have one female character to work with, she must carry the burden of not only representing all women, but also giving all audience members what they want. In action blockbusters, the kind that dominate the modern cinematic environment, this essentially translates to the heroine, if she exists at all, being designed as both a symbol of female empowerment, as limited and superficial as that idea of empowerment might usually be, and an object of male pleasure. You can find male characters with a wide range of identities – hero, villain, leader, sex symbol, nerd, sidekick, comic relief – because there are usually tons of them in any given film, but these solo women have to fulfill all those roles simultaneously, resulting in characters that feel less like well-defined individuals than amalgams of vague, generically admirable traits whose overriding signifier is ultimately that they are female.

        Some might argue that there are signs that things might be getting better, pointing to the success of such franchises as The Hunger Games, where there may only be one major, active female character but at least she’s the lead, or to the impending all-ladies installment of Ghostbusters and Paul Feig’s entire post-Bridesmaids career. However, while I’m nearly always a little glad to see a female-driven movie do well and Feig seems to have the best of intentions with projects like The Heat and the upcoming Spy, vehicles for female stars can still be tokenistic if they’re forever surrounded by men (how hard can it be to just give Katniss a female friend?). Having an all-female Ghostbusters or similar movies doesn’t solve the underlying problem that women are still marked as Other while men get to be the default.

        If this Ghostbusters thing and other highly publicized moves to diversify major franchises feel like gimmicks or merely part of some marketing trend, that’s because they are. To stick with the Ghostbusters example, perhaps the all-female cast would seem less like a calculated publicity stunt if they’d announced the movie by simply revealing that Kristen Wiig and co. had been cast instead of doing an entire build-up to it, because as it is, the presence of women isn’t incidental to a larger, planned story or concept, it is the concept. Imagine a film being promoted solely for having an all-male cast; the thought is absurd not just because we have plenty of movies without a woman in sight, but because the gender of your characters isn’t actually the basis for a story or even a decent elevator pitch. Studio and network executives aren’t suddenly interested in diversity for moral or political reasons or even because they know it’ll result in better, more interesting art. More likely, they’re investing in ideas like the all-female Ghostbusters or a Wonder Woman movie (finally!) because they’ve seen a bunch of surveys showing that women and minorities make up a good portion of the movie-going audience and that films that have a woman and/or person of color have been doing better at the box office lately than ones that don’t, so for now at least, diversity seems to be where the money’s at. That’s not to say these projects aren’t welcome and a relatively refreshing change of pace, but they’re not reflective of significant structural or institutional changes within the industry. The new Ghostbusters in particular serves as a reminder that greater visibility for marginalized groups doesn’t always – or even often – coincide with increased power or more equality, and history suggests that this diversity-related trend, like all past ones, will be temporary with little lasting, widespread impact.

        All of this is to say that I don’t wish Rogue Nation had retained Paula Patton or at least added more new female characters to the cast because I think having more women would automatically make the Mission: Impossible franchise more progressive or because this should be an important battleground for feminism. I do think, however, that we should be calling out art when it doesn’t have diversity instead of praising it when it does, and dammit, I just want to be able to enjoy watching Tom Cruise hang off the side of a plane without feeling irritated and guilty for indulging in some pleasure that I know is explicitly not meant for me. Yes, these movies, just like most blockbusters, are male power fantasies to their core, but maybe I’m naïve or giving men too much credit, I don’t think that kind of wish fulfillment needs to be completely sexist and exclusionary. I would like to actually be allowed to escape into my escapist entertainment. That honestly doesn’t seem like too much to ask.                       

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