Stilettos, Catwoman and The Dark Knight Rises

WARNING: Discussion of The Dark Knight Rises. Don’t think that there are any serious spoilers but the purists may want to give this a miss. There are also serious spoilers for The Dark Knight discussed.

The costumes of female superheroes are often the objects of intense scrutiny from various corners of fandom for various reasons. Anne Hathaway, who will be playing Catwoman in the latest incarnation of the Nolanverse Batman films, stated that “I love the costume because everything has a purpose, nothing is in place for fantasy’s sake, and that’s the case with everything in Christopher Nolan’s Gotham City.” The Hero Complex (spoilers at the source) has stated that in a scene they viewed, Catwoman was ‘navigating the steps with stiletto heels that, on closer inspection, turn out to have serrated edges capable of leaving nasty claw marks in a fight.’

Now, Catwoman is a thief. Whether she is a thief in the Nolanverse isn’t entirely clear, though I see no reason for her not to be. Barring the Batman Returns interpretation, her whole aesthetic relies upon the cat burglar motif and as a thief, what she relies upon most is stealth. By the time she’s been seen or heard, it’s too late. Anybody who has ever worn stiletto heels knows that they are really fucking loud.

And that’s without even talking about how hard it is to run in heels, how easy it is to turn (or even break) an ankle, how hard it would be to land from a jump of any height in heels. Anybody who has seen a Batman film or read a Batman comic book knows that they spend a lot of time running and parkour-ing across rooftops.

The ability to cut somebody when you kick them (something which seems a ridiculous idea to me in the first place) is surely secondary to all that. The fact of the matter is that Christopher Nolan seems to care about gritty realism with regard to his male characters but not his female ones. Catwoman is the first female member of Batman’s rogues gallery introduced in the Nolanverse, the first woman in the Nolanverse who could be considered to be a “superhero” or “supervillian” in the same vein as Batman himself.*

This is significant, particularly in a series that is severely lacking in women. Rachel Dawes and Martha Wayne are almost literally the only named women in the first two films and between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rachel Dawes receives a rather unfortunate personality transplant. This of course is not actually the case and the problem lies with the source material as well as with the films. Anyone who has watched The Dark Knight with more than a passing knowledge of the extended Batfamily and any investment in Barbara Gordon was more than likely appalled at the final sequence of the film with Two-Face and Jim Gordon, which focused not on Barbara, a significant person in the Batman mythos, but on Jim Gordon’s rarely-mentioned son.

When a number of photos were released, some bloggers were endorsing a ‘wait and see’ approach with regards to The Dark Knight Rises, implying that Christopher Nolan is someone who can be trusted with female characters, something which I don’t believe to be true. With regards to Batman’s white, male characters I have faith that Christopher Nolan will treat them well and with the respect they deserve.**

With regards to his female characters however, I have little expectation or belief that they will be treated with the respect they deserve. I would very much like to be surprised! But in general, Christopher Nolan seems to work best with female character when they are dead or about to be dead, serving as motivation for his male characters.^ This means that the issue of Catwoman’s costume takes on more significance than it might otherwise, indicating that she may well be being treated with the same level of respect that Nolan often treats his female characters. In a universe where “gritty realism” is paramount, Catwoman’s costume and its practicality becomes an even greater issue than it is in the hyper-real world that the comic books inhabit.

*I’m not counting Nolan’s horrifying attempt to character assassinate Renee Montoya in The Dark Knight. This actually works in his favour! The character ‘Ramirez’ was originally supposed to be Renee Montoya and DC refused to allow him to use the name.

**Both Ra’s Al Ghul and Bane have been white-washed in the casting department and the only POC in the films that has been treated with any kind of respect is Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox. Admittedly Lucuis Fox had been treated with utmost respect but in light of the way in which other POC characters have been treated this seems a bitter trade-off.

^Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight, Mal in Inception, Julia and Sarah in The Prestige.

Iron Man and the problem of Pepper Potts

Note: this post will discuss the first Iron Man movie but contains spoilers for both this and the sequel. The sequel will be discussed in a post coming to an SJL blog near you very soon.

Iron Man is, without a doubt, an immensely entertaining movie. RDJ gives a very charming and entertaining portrayal of a man who is basically unlikeable. He coasts along on genius and family money and seems to avoid anything even vaguely like hard work and responsibility and is basically a man at the beginning of his very own redemption arc. (Not, I would argue, a traditional heroic narrative, as seen in the more recent Captain America movie.)

Marvel has, generally, done a very good job with their adaptations (for an analysis of Thor as a feminist movie, click here!). Iron Man, unfortunately, falls on its face with regard to its main female character, Pepper Potts. Not assisted by an unremarkable performance by Gwyneth Paltrow, the narrative has nothing positive to offer us with regards to Pepper that is not directly connected to Tony Stark. She is Tony Stark’s assistant, a job that she seems to be quite good at, but unfortunately reinforces the distinct impression given to the audience that Pepper has no life and no personhood at all outside of her job and her job itself is all about Tony. Her only role in the movie, and it seems, in her life, is to help Tony be Tony.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with being an assistant, in life or on screen. Many assistants in many films and tv shows are amazing characters, filled with agency and interiority and power all their own. For instance, Donna from Suits, Mrs. Landingham from The West Wing, Patti from Eli Stone, Leonardo from Fairly Legal. However, considering the lack of overall agency and interiority that Pepper is afforded within the narrative it would be nice if they would have at least indulged in the pretense of having given her half a thought when developing the movie.

Early on in the movie, not long after he returns from captivity in Afghanistan, Tony tells Pepper than she is ‘all [he] has’. This is a rather bizarre statement, considering what else the movie has shown about him—for one, he has Rhodes (in a wonderful, layered performance by Terrance Howard, who was bafflingly and insultingly recast in Iron Man 2) and his work, which he seems to find fulfilling. For another, at least some members of the audience are going to be aware of the friendship that develops between Tony and Steve Rogers (Captain America) and that he ultimately joins the Avengers. She is most assuredly not all he has. She is, potentially, all the (created, non-related) family that he has, though this is never outright stated in the text.

Later in the movie, Pepper tells Tony that he too is all she has, a statement that, sadly, seems far more literal than Tony’s. At the Tony Stark Benefit for Firefighters Family Fund* she appears not to have a date (which is, without context, fine) and no friends or family are mentioned throughout the movie, except for some non-specific plans that she has on her birthday. Not only does Tony not remember her birthday but he actually states that he ‘doesn’t like it’ when she has plans. These aforementioned plans could be anything. Is she going out for dinner? If so, with who? By herself? (Also fine! I do this!) Does she have a date with takeout food and her television? I don’t care what she’s doing; I would just like to have some idea of what it is.

There is no indication that when she isn’t on screen, that she’s doing anything, which is the death knell of any character. Her job is Tony. She is not really his assistant, in my opinion. She is his nanny. Literally, her entire life as presented by the film is Tony Stark. More than that, it seems to be presented that she has worked for Tony for years and the question of why she hasn’t quit is never explained, beyond her being in love with Tony. There is nothing wrong with any of these things in isolation. There isn’t anything wrong with any of these things even not in isolation. If she did all these things and they made sense because of the way in which she, as a character, was constructed that would be fine. But they don’t, because she isn’t presented as a character; she is presented as an object to be desired.

This perhaps can be best summed up as the fate of so many women in film and television, that of the Love Interest. She has no life or existence beyond that. Every choice that she makes ultimately comes back to her being in love with Tony, which is pretty sad considering that Tony is a pretty terrible human being.** Not only that, but she doesn’t function into his choices at all. Even if Tony himself hadn’t noticed that she was in love with him, somebody, sometime, surely would have pointed it out. Yet he still leaves her to dry clean his one night stands clothes and escort them out in the morning.

Last, but surely not least, is the scene in which she literally refers to a woman that Tony has casual sex with as ‘trash’. It’s rather ironic, that the text and Leslie Bibb’s performance do not at all support this rather horrific instance of slut shaming. The woman is a reporter named Christine Everhart, a woman who is portrayed as being driven, smart, funny and has all the agency and interiority that Pepper lacked. We unfortunately don’t get a reaction shot from her after Pepper’s  ‘trash’ comment. (When a character who has about four scenes^ and five minutes of screen time—tops—has more interiority and agency than your female lead, you have a problem.)

There were some truly great things about the first Iron Man movie—RDJ and Terrance Howard’s performances, the display of Tony’s wit, the rather interesting story of a fairly terrible person who chooses to use an horrific experience to work towards his own redemption—but, unfortunately, Pepper is not one of them.

Coming soon: A discussion of the mess that was Iron Man 2, in which Rhodes was the only person recast, Tony is accidentally George W Bush, Pepper has a brief brush with agency and I ended up rooting for the villain.^^

*I don’t know it’s something like that okay?
**Yes, yes, beyond being rich, charming and handsome. She’s spent years with him. Those three things would have gotten old by the time the movie starts.
^One of them the most awkward sex scene I have ever seen on screen.
^^Not actually relevant. True nonetheless!

The Case of Polly Courtney: How the media attempts to dismiss women

The DailyMail website published an article titled ‘Novelist who left banking because of sexism fires publisher for putting ‘fluffy and degrading’ covers on her books’. It’s an interesting example of the changes that are currently occurring in publishing, where a writer—particularly one like Polly Courtney, who appears to have an established readership base—can choose self-publishing in order to have greater control over the outcome of the final product. In this instance, she is particularly concerned with the book cover, which for her novel ‘It’s a Man’s World’ is an image of a woman looking overwhelmed, on a mobile phone with folders in both hands. She appears to be shrugging, overwhelmed by her work, and the focus is on the woman’s bare legs.

Overall it’s a fairly typical ‘chick lit’ kind of cover, which isn’t my issue.The complaints of the author seem to me to be relevant—she sees it as demeaning, both to herself and the book she wrote, which, according to the summary given, is about the ways in which women are forced to compromise themselves in order to “get ahead” in a male dominated workplace. According to the article, Courtney left her job in the financial sector as a result of sexism in the workplace so this would be something that she has personal experience with and considers important.

None of that is really the issue either: the article sums up her arguments, the arguments of her publisher and then goes on to say that Courtney once took a pole dancing class and talked about it on her blog and, the article seems to say, as a result we shouldn’t consider her complaints genuine.

No. Really. The article says: “Courtney, who has previously posted photographs of herself pole dancing on the internet, said the image was too racy” and, later in the article, “In 2006, Courtney’s website carried photographs of her pole dancing – which she said she had done ‘for a laugh’.”

Why the author of the article felt the need to include this I don’t know. It’s entirely irrelevant and the idea that she should not be taken seriously if she once took a pole dancing class and posted pictures of it is downright insulting to women everywhere (and sex workers in particular). God forbid if she’d been an actual stripper or enjoy her sexuality or do anything fun ever.

This is how women are told to shut up and sit down rather than have their complaints taken seriously. It’s how sexism is dismissed and women’s stories are demeaned. It plays into the virgin/whore dynamic, where if a woman ever does anything overtly sexual she should never be taken seriously ever again but if she doesn’t she is a prude. However you feel personally about the cover—racy and demeaning or inoffensive—the insinuation that Courtney’s complaints should be ignored or dismissed outright because she once took a pole dancing class is hugely offensive.

Nudity and the heterosexual male gaze in Game of Thrones

Note: Contains spoilers for all aired episodes of the TV series but none for the books.

 

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a show that contained as much nudity as Game of Thrones (something not unusual for a show produced by HBO and something which also featured heavily in the books), a great deal of discussion has addressed the use of “sexposition” on the show. Though in many ways I feel this goes unsaid, I’m going to say it anyway: nudity, whether male or female, is not inherently exploitative. It can be used in order to make significant character or thematic points, a process which Game of Thrones uses very effectively in many cases.

For instance, in the case of the character Daenerys in the episode “Winter is Coming”, nudity is used to indicate vulnerability and her own lack of agency—she has nothing that protects from the world and, perhaps more importantly, it is used to show that those who you would expect to protect her (first her brother and then husband) are in fact the people she has the most to fear from. Her discovering her sexual agency—in taking charge of her sex life with her husband—is used to indicate her increasing overall agency in her own life. At the very end of the first season, in the episode “Fire and Blood”, Daenerys’ nudity is meant to indicate emancipation and rebirth. There is certainly nothing exploitative about any of that nor do any of the scenes seem to me to pander to the heterosexual male gaze.

Ros, a sex worker who worked in both Winterfell and Kings Landing, is a wonderful character, liberated and funny and comfortable in both her own skin and in her profession. (In case it isn’t clear: no, there isn’t anything inherently exploitative in sex work.)* In a scene between her and Theon in the episode “The Wolf and the Lion”, they have had sex and are discussing Theon’s position in the household. She is funny and confident and deals with Theon’s ridiculousness very effectively. This is certainly a case of “sexposition” and it works fine. The camera does not pan over Ros’ body or linger on her nakedness in any obvious way and her sexuality is her own.

There are many other instances in which nudity is used in a way that is neither exploitative nor offensive, such as in the scene in “Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things” between Viserys and Doreth in which they are in a bath, relating information while having sex. The scene ends jarringly, knocking the viewer (and Doreth) out of the sexy way the scene had gone those far and nailing home the difference between the situation of Doreth (a slave) and Ros (who isn’t a slave). The scene also emphasizes how horrific a person Viserys is, as later in the episode he drags Doreth violently into a scene by her hair.

The instances in which the heterosexual male gaze is used strongly—unavoidably—is in the two lesbian scenes in the series. One is between Daenerys and Doreth, who is teaching Daenerys about the best ways to have sex. The scene is heavily charged with sexual tension, as one would expect such scene to be. However, the scene does not appear to be between two women with same-sex attraction. These are not queer women or, at the very least, they do not appear to be to this queer woman. They are straight women, one teaching and the other learning, not how to please another woman but how to please a man.

This scene is relatively mild, especially in comparison with the lesbian scene that follows in  the episode “You Win or You Die”. This scene has a very strong connection with lesbian porn aimed at straight men. Like the scene between Daenerys and Doreth, these are not queer women. No doubt this time, these are straight women (when the other woman in the scene is going down on Ros, and Ros is moaning, it is implied that she is faking it for her imagined audience) who are performing for a literal male audience, in this case Petyr/Littlefinger. There are many problems with this scene and I’m going to start with the least egregious: Aidan Gillan, who plays Littlefinger, isn’t great in this scene. I wouldn’t go as far as saying he’s terrible but he can’t carry what is basically a monologue.

This, however, is hardly the worst thing about the scene.  As mentioned above, it has a very strong connection with lesbian porn aimed at straight men. Unlike in the previous “sexposition” scenes, one of the participants—Littlefinger—remains fully clothed. He instructs the women in what they’re doing and, in an aggravating show of heterosexism, declares Ros should this time “be the man”. The majority of the scene is designed to mimic sex between a cisgendered man and a cisgendered woman. In the other scenes described the camera lingers on faces and eyes and you certainly don’t get the types of shots you get in the scene with Littlefinger, which occasionally lingers on bodies without heads and the camera panning down the woman’s bodies.

Game of Thrones actually manages to be quite progressive in general in terms of how it deals with nudity—female nudity in particular—and the use of the male gaze. However, in the way it deals with nominally lesbian scenes and sexuality is extremely problematic. I would love more queer ladies on my television. Funnily enough though, I actually want them to be queer, not there for the enjoyment of men who happen to like girl-on-girl.

 


* Though as she is the only sex worker mentioned in relation to Winterfell it could lead one to believe that it is a town with only the one person employed in sex work or, as a friend of mine assumed while watching, that “Ros” was just the standard name given out by sex workers in Winterfell.

 

Disclaimer: The treatment of queer sexuality is not the only problem Game of Thrones has, merely the one I wanted to discuss right now. In particular, the treatment of race and people of colour in the narrative is extremely problematic, and I hope future posts can deal with this.