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Sunday, January 03, 2010

Women are Just No Good. with Spoilers

This post will probably be full of a lot of stuff people don't want to hear, but here goes. Point One: Beautiful animation won't save a weak story and neither will state of the art special effects. Point Two: Story is usually the weak spot in film, whether it be animated or live. Most of us would agree on these two points.
Point Three is the kicker. I'm noticing disturbing subtexts in some films. Subtexts that marginalize or actually despise the female characters--sometimes, women in general.
I'll discuss three of them here: AVATAR, UP, and UP IN THE AIR.
AVATAR, in addition to being the most overproduced and overrated film I saw this year, was the worst subtextual offender.
We are asked to believe that an uneducated, ignorant Marine can outwit both the 'science pukes' and professional Marines and lead an alien population better than its chosen tribal leaders. It's possible that a grunt might be brighter than his commanding officer, but...
Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is a tough woman scientist who will not survive this movie. We know this because she is not deferential to men and she smokes cigarettes. She has taught the Na'vi English, which is very convenient for the film --but let that pass. She knows the culture and the people. Yet none of the Na'vi listen to her, though they presumably know and trust her. They listen to Jake, even though he is a total screwup and knows nothing of their ways. (All right, he presumably is taught by Pocahontas--um, Neytiri, during his dubiously-earned three month training period, during which time he somehow forgets to explain to her that he must negotiate their move from the Tree so that no violence will occur. He waits until the very last minute when the bulldozers arrive to mention this minor problem. Since she is fluent in English, why does he not tell her earlier? Jake is not, to put it mildly, an efficient or organized person.) But Neytiri falls in love with him anyway. She rejects him when her Tree and half her family are killed as a result of his stupidity, but...falls in love with him AGAIN anyway almost immediately. Women are so fickle!
Dr. Augustine and Trudy Chacon the helicopter gunship pilot Die Heroically, or Heroinically, in this film. You know Trudy will die when she claims she didn't sign up for 'martyrdom'. Ask and ye shall receive. Every story point in this movie is written in crayon.
Heroic Deaths in some older films were often assigned to African-American characters; how nice that women have now achieved this dubious distinction. (Trudy is a Latina, which makes her Even More Heroic.)
So the girls can play, but they can't win. Dr. Augustine dies but unlike Jake, can't be reincarnated in her Avatar since she is 'too weak'. Telling words. I guess it would be too inconvenient having a strong woman around, enjoying life on a new planet with a cute Na'vi male.
You know that Jake is going to get the top post in the clan because he is boinking the Chief's daughter. This sort of thing appears to be common on Pandora as well as on Earth. Chief Daddy is conveniently killed, and Neytiri's Mom (who is supposed to share power with Daddy) is reduced to leading New Age chants and Waves beneath a glowing neon tree which presumably was invisible to all those warships and choppers casing the planet from the air. Tsu'Tey, Neytiri's chosen mate and Chief-in-waiting, is conveniently killed, almost as an afterthought, while attacking gunships. But he's already delegated authority to Jake so his death is unimportant.
The other men in the experiment, Norm Spellman and Dr. Max Patel, are just there to Be Jake's Friends (and conveniently get him information, etc. when he needs it.) Spellman is nerdy looking and Patel is fat and nerdy looking. Both are deferential to Jake even though Spellman can handle a gun as well as a scientist's viewscreen. But he is also a nerdy looking Na'vi. (How did they clone his baseball cap?)
So our untrained, ignorant Marine gets the Chief's daughter and gets to lead the clan, all without cracking a book or being the least bit prepared for the job (though he remembers his Marine training well.) This gives an even more disturbing subtext to this movie: Military might is right and good, when you break the rules. And pretty girls can stick around--but it's the man who is the boss and has the brains. (I mean, couldn't NATIRI discover how to ride the Big Red Flying Dragon? She's lived on that planet all her life.)

I've gone on long enough about this movie but I just have one more small question to ask. Some of the humans are invited to stay on Pandora when the others go home. It's a bit of a blur for me, but was anyone wearing those facemasks with Earth atmosphere that prevent humans from dying in a few minutes' time? How were they to survive without them, or when the juice ran out?
And I wondered if the Na'vi would die afterward in their millions through exposure to Earth bacilli and viruses introduced by the invaders, the way actual Native Americans did.
UP can be handled in far less time, since it's mainly concerned with the bonding of old Karl and young Russell. Russell was easily the best character in the film but he had a backstory that really bothered me. His parents are apparently divorced and his father doesn't have time for him any more since he has a new wife or something. Okay, point taken. But did they really have to marginalize his mother at the end of the film? She is sitting in the audience and not onstage with her son when he gets his final Merit Badge. Old Karl is standing on that stage with her son because...because, dammit, he's a MAN and she's not.
Mom does not count.
She is useless.
She allows her son to accept his award with a total stranger because he IS a Man. She couldn't even be on the stage with the two of them. It would have been so simple to put her there.
You know, I thought we went through a lot of protesting and lawsuits in the Seventies to eliminate this sort of attitude. Guess I was just wrong.
Some of my female students were sure that the dull looking vapid woman was a stepmother or something. Nope. She's Russell's Mom. Check the film's wiki if you don't believe me.
UP's subtext is that the most important relationship in life is between a boy and his father, or the nearest male equivalent. Women stay at home and are either useless or dead.
This attitude appears in other Pixar and Disney films as well and I think it's time to retire it once and for all.
UP IN THE AIR, my other nominee for most-overrated film of 2009, asks us to believe that Ryan Bingham is a basically lonely man who is deserving of our pity because he cannot settle down with his woman of choice, even though he looks and acts like George Clooney. He makes his living as a parasite, flying in and out of cities, as a subcontractor to various companies who are firing their people. Ryan pulls the trigger, but does it with a nice smile.
You are supposed to sympathize with this guy. Now, George Clooney is a likable actor. He is also so handsome that he could snap his fingers and have ten women salivating like Pavlov's dogs in that instant. I'd say he is seriously miscast as Ryan Bingham, though he is charming and affable and easy on the eyes.
But his character is a parasite doing a miserable job that should not be done.
What horrified me most about this movie was that it wasn't all 'actors'. There are scenes of (what I thought was) brilliant acting by the fired people, describing how they felt about their jobs and lives. The scenes are in fact actual fired people. They are not acting.
This is schadenfreude on a horrific scale. (an untranslatable German word that means 'joy in another's suffering.') The film is described as a COMEDY, but it includes this incredibly sad footage. I'd say it was a gesture-- in the worst possible taste. How can you feel 'sorry' for a fictional character when there are real life tragedies in the film?
The female characters are ambivalent. Clooney's character Ryan Bingham meets Alex Goran, a woman friend-with-benefits who proves to even more amoral than he is. But it is the young, go-get-em girl geek Natalie Keener (note the name) that I wish to discuss here.
At one point in the film this annoying little person thanks the older woman 'for all that you've (feminists) done for me'. She then proceeds to justify her selfish, geeky little life. But she redeems herself by quitting her hellacious job --which she only took because she followed a man, who dumped her--and doing what she really wants to do.
I haven't met anyone as vapid and unreal as Russell's mother (and have obviously never met a Na'vi) but I've met girls like Natalie. They sometimes say they are post-feminist. (Hint: You don't get an Avatar body, so you had better get used to being 'feminist' for the duration). Some of these girls are appallingly ignorant about how bad it used to be for women in the workforce. As late as 1961, a woman could be fired from her job if a man wanted it.
Simply because he WAS a man and she was a mere woman. It was assumed that she had a husband who was working the REAL job and she wasn't serious about hers.
Significantly, Natalie leaves and Ryan keeps his job in this movie. In the real modern world, Natalie would be retained because she is cheaper, and Ryan would take early retirement.
But UP IN THE AIR is a romantic comedy, isn't it? I call it a fantasy.
The strongest female characters in 2009 films were African American. PRECIOUS is a jolting, horrific story that features stunning performances from Gabourey Sidibe as Precious Jones, and Mo'nique as her monstrous mother Mary. Both performances deserve the highest praise, and neither character was one-dimensional. Sadly, I can say that I have met women like Mary and Precious.
THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG's Tiana was virtuous, hard working, and far more intelligent than the useless playboy Prince Naveen. For this, some reviewers called her 'dull' but I think she could have easily carried more of the film, with less reliance on sidekicks. PRINCESS is also commendable in that it introduces its (young-skewing) audience to early Jazz.
And so (as the rabbit said) Dat's De End. Happy New Year, all.


Janet Benn said...

I agree with you about UP - I have not seen Avatar. That badge scene at the end bothered me too - at first I thought, Well, he's just got home, still dirty from the trip, so no family would be there - but there is his mother! Literally a blank - no face, really. And isn't it odd that the old man looks so much like Spencer Tracy - no respecter of women's rights there - how did Kate stand it?

Brett W. McCoy said...

Ugh... the more I read about Avatar the less I am inclined to see it. The most common criticisms I have read about it are "all flash and no story".

Nancy said...

HI Brett,
It has a story, but there are no original elements in it. Everything is a cliche; you can literally tell the ending of the film before it starts.

Nancy said...

Janet, I do believe Karl was modeled on Spencey Tracy's appearance, but I don't think his personality was.

Wood Mouse said...

Now I have not seen Avatar, nor will I as when I heard 3D that put off from the start. However, the anti-feminist sub plot does not surprise me as I have seen creeping back even here in British television. Equally the might is right aspect is simply political propaganda. The media will always be used for political propaganda, but the crucial matter is peoples critical thinking. political propaganda though never works when it is supported by poor story lines, bad plots and hopeless casting. So no matter what the political intentions of the film companies, we the public have more sense than to be taken in by all this. Are we not?

Nancy said...

I don't know, Mouse. That film is awfully popular.
And UP IN THE AIR, the most pernicious of the lot really, is being touted for a lot of awards.

Megan Kearney said...

I think Mark Mayerson made an interesting blog post that touched on gender roles in "Up" a little while back. He suggested that Pixar ought to switch their default setting to "female unless the plot dictates otherwise". That sounds like a nice turnabout!

Researching for a paper back in university, I came across some media studies done in the 1980s on school-aged children. It found that girls were happy to identify with and watch characters of either gender, but that boys were quickly disinterested or put off by a female protagonist. Even genderless characters tend to be male-coded, unless the show is "girl oriented" to begin with (My Little Pony, etc.). The same problem happens with race in non-human characters (being the eighties, the focus was on "black-but-not-black" transformers and thundercats).

I think that things have improved and eased up, but that doesn't mean that they've been solved. We're still dealing with tokenism in the media, sexism on and off-screen, and people calling clich├ęs archtypes.

JPilot said...

I think you can find the reversal of this on television, in which men are just no damn good. The sensible intelligent woman married to the retarded, clumsy, clueless man-child is a fixture of every sitcom and television commercial.

That bias is such a cliche that one of the best comedy series of the past decade started last September called "Modern Family" in which Ty Burrell plays an extreme caricatured version of that idiot husband cliche to absolute brilliance. It should garner him an Emmy or a Golden Globe.

These two blogs by television writers discuss the context of "the male gaze" in which the strength of the female character's development is directly tied to the success of a television show.

Unknown said...

Very nice criticism. I had seen Avatar but I didn't pointed out this things at all. You are a good critic I must say, And thanks for bringing this to our knowledge.
3d animation courses

William said...

"There are scenes of (what I thought was) brilliant acting by the fired people, describing how they felt about their jobs and lives. The scenes are in fact actual fired people. They are not acting."
When did people become disposable? When did a person's misfortune become fodder for our entertainment? I haven't seen the movie nor do I wish to see "Up In The Air" but that quote is enough to convince me it's most certainly not a movie for me. The last thing I want to see is the emotional equivalent of a snuff film.

Pete Emslie said...

Personally I think you're all protesting too much. The more you go specifically looking for that which offends feminists' sensibilities, the more you're going to find, even though I doubt that these examples were the intention of the filmmakers at all. I'm probably going to pass on "Avatar" altogether, but that's just because I have an aversion generally to big, hyped up fantasy flicks. But here's the flip side of the equation: my favourite film currently in the theatres is "Nine", which just happens to be chock full of female characters. But some feminists are finding fault with this film too, dismissing these characters as mere "eye candy". I disagree, as I think that the whole point of the film is to show how the central character, Guido, has behaved very badly for most of his self-centered life, and that these women are all far more sympathetic characters, especially Marion Cotillard as his lovely, long suffering wife, Luisa. But some feminists just can't see past the sexy fantasy segments of the film, unfortunately. Furthermore, I can't win either, as I get labeled as a sexist because I admittedly enjoy films showcasing gorgeous, sexy women! Arrgh!

If you want to see really interesting female characters onscreen, I'd suggest checking out the films of Spanish director, Pedro Almodovar. I just saw his latest film, "Broken Embraces", starring Penelope Cruz and it's very powerful stuff. Last night I decided to again watch his manic, screwball comedy from 1988, "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown", which features a cast of mostly actresses, all giving rich comic performances as a variety of diverse characters. Contemporary Hollywood films are not the only game in town - I find a lot more interesting films coming out of Europe precisely because they are almost devoid of special effects and big on character driven stories. And when there's gorgeous, stylish Euro women in the mix, I'm more than happy to watch!

Rob said...

I think maybe you're stretching it a bit when it comes to Avatar. I don't think that Cameron had any intention, conscious or subconscious, of marginalizing women. Let's not forget that this is the man who directed Aliens and Terminator 2. I don't think anyone could dispute that Ripley and Sarah Connor were two of the strongest female characters in sci-fi movie history, and those 2 films were both the best in their respective series.

Floyd Norman said...

I enjoyed your reviews, Nancy.

Actually, all film making needs is more women screenwriters and directors. Hollywood remains an Old Boys Club to this day.

I spoke with Brenda Chapman recently. She's always been my favorite story artist. I told her I'm so looking forward to her movie.

Nancy said...

I'm also looking forward to Brenda's movie. I also heard that Pixar specifically requested a female protagonist (BEAR AND THE BOW is a 'mother-daughter' story) since someone noticed how marginal many mothers were in their films.
I agree there should be more female directors and writers...but if the old boy network only hire old boys, what then?

Amanda said...

I don't know if I'm correct in saying this and it's not something that bothers me, though I thought I'd mention it, but have you noticed that Pixar's first film with a female lead is going to be their first fairytale? It seems a little..cliche to me, perhaps.
I mean, it's cool that they're doing it, no complaints from me since I'm eager to see what Pixar will do with it, but I hope they don't think that woman roles should be exclusively stuck in fairytale-type films :/
Also I realize that Disney has been doing the same thing, heh..

Anyway, interesting post. I usually never think of these kinds of things...

ivan olea said...

Ivan Australia.

Ahhh finally a great review with substance. Passing the link around, cheers!

Elliot Cowan said...

I didn't even see you'd updated your blog.
An interesting post about three very overrated films.
Actually, 2.5 overrated films, because I think Up In The Air is really very good up until it starts to be about George Clooney's feelings.