It’s been quiet around these parts, we know, we know. But look, we’re all really busy and important (at least one of those things anyway). There has been some moving internationally, some uni assignment completion (and procrastination) and some of us, naming no names, have been playing a lot of Glitch.
On Wednesday the members of SJL, still in the same country (*sob*), went to the cinema. We even managed to get our applicable concession tickets and good seats! Just as an aside, can I just talk about going to the movies? Why is so ridiculously complicated? It’s like one of those mini quests in Glitch which involves a lot of jumping between constantly moving levels and makes me feel intensely anxious because everything just won’t line up and I never played Nintendo as a kid and my fine motor skills suffered.
This complaint should probably be accompanied by the world’s tiniest violin because I don’t think they even have concession tickets in the US? (Presumably because it’s socialism). Anyway, SJL are still in the process of completing Uni, doing unpaid internships and being un/under-employed. Basically it’s like Girls but with slightly more POC and better sex. [1. Rest of SJL: not happy with this comparison]. Also we get some money from the government for being students because, socialism. Basically, we aren’t going to pay $5 extra for movie tickets if we don’t have to, so we must all assemble [2. Who is thinking about The Avengers now?] with correct student cards at the allotted time even though we are all, invariably running late or early. But we totally nailed buying the correct tickets to the correct movie because we are motherfucking adults! [3. Eds note: perhaps writing a whole paragraph about this undermines your point?]
And what movie were we going to see? [4. Further eds note: Are you planning to get to the action any time soon? This is a blogpost not a Tolkien novel, no one wants to know the songs you sang on the way to the cinema, OK. ] We were going to see The Sapphires a movie you have probably heard about if you are Australian and almost certainly haven’t if you aren’t.
Things that are almost always true of Australian movies:
1. There are about 100 credits as the movie starts because it takes a lot of people and a lot of effort to get a movie made in Australia. I know this is also true of American indie releases because it’s hard out there for a pimp/movie maker, but for Aussie movies at least a few of the “this is a [BlahBlah Production]” credits are for government government funded bodies (again with the communism!).
2. It is nice to hear Australian accents on film. It just is, OK? We aren’t in many movies and when we are often we are played by English people or, even worse, New Zealanders. There is a joke in the movie where Chris O’Dowd’s character, speaking in his Irish accent, says “As you can probably tell from my accent I’m not from around these parts, I’m from Melbourne!” Which SJL laughed uproariously at, hopefully foreign audiences also get this.
3. It is exciting to see Australian life/places on screen. Maybe it is condescending for me to say this but I really don’t think many Americans get this. Until I went to America I thought the following things only existed in movies: those red plastic cups at parties , yellow school buses [5. I’d like to make it clear that we do have busses in Australia, even school buses, they just don’t look so yellow and story-bookish (I make this point because when I exclaimed about school buses in the US my American friend looked at me with horror and said “You don’t have buses in Australia?” and as much as I tried to reassure her I don’t think she ever really believed me).] , NYPD cars, people calling their friend’s parents by their last names, prom, high school cheerleaders, high school sport being SRS BSNS, college sport being SRS BSNS etc. I also have a completely mangled view of the legal system of my own country because I’ve watched a lot of US court dramas. I am forever this close to thinking 911 is the emergency number I should call, whatever country I am in. Which is not to say that American Cultural Imperialism Is Ruining Everything. Because, I really like a lot of American popular culture, but it’s a nice change to see a movie set in outback Australia and the city in which I live (and also Vietnam, a place I have briefly lived. Basically, they made this movie for me).
4. You recognise most of the actors from a combination of the following: being in every other Australian movie you’ve ever watched, being the Australian actor who made it big overseas and is now back to prove their Aussie-ness and “give back”, your twitter feed and that time you once saw them at the shops and thought you recognised them but weren’t sure.
5. They are not very good. I know, I am bringing dishonour to my country but it’s true! Usually Australian movies are cheap and either:
a) so incredibly arty that you know you should be appreciating the art but you find yourself thinking in deep shame about how much fun Magic Mike was,
b) so incredibly broad you feel yourself at once wanting to dive under the cinema seat and suffering deep shame at your cultural cringe or,
c) Animal Kingdom, which I hear is great and all the nerdy movie podcasters/bloggers I follow really liked it but I’m kind of a wimp about violence so I haven’t seen it but I totally pretend to have at parties.
The Sapphires, though, is actually totally great! It’s the story inspired by real life of four Aboriginal women who go to Vietnam in the 60s to sing for the American forces there. It explores issues of race and gender, and there is singing and dancing. I laughed, I cried! (I actually cried a lot, so much so that it caused SJL to rummage through their bags for a napkin).
But I hear this blog is supposed to be a Social Justice blog so let’s try that. I am not going to “spoil” the movie in this section but I will reveal some background information and some plot developments so if you prefer to go into your movies with as little knowledge as possible, stop reading now!
- Race. Clearly I am no expert on this and I welcome POC to pull me up if I am missing nuance. The film addresses the level of racism in Australia during this time, and the limitations this placed upon what aboriginal people could do and the places they could go. There are a lot of jokes about race in this movie, but none of them are made at the expense of the POC. They are jokes about stereotypes and about the horror and stupidity of racism. I was particularly impressed with the way that the film dealt with the idea of “passing” as white and the complications that causes. This is an issue regularly brought up by unenlightened “commentators” in Australia . Kay, one of the singers is pale enough to be perceived as white. The film at once acknowledges the privilege this confers upon her while also exploring the pain and confusion this causes.
- Holy female gaze batman. The film delights in treating male, (often) black bodies in the way that movie-makers usually treat (generally) white, female bodies. So when you see that slow upward pan of Kay’s love interest’s rippling abs remember you are doing it for feminism (feminism is a lot of fun guys, lets be honest). Also, I can’t lie, I do enjoy the reverse-Bella they pull on that guy by making his main, characteristic the fact that he is clumsy. While the love interest we learn the most about is white, the black male characters are shown to be at times desirable, funny, clever, enterprising and nuanced.
- The feisty female character doesn’t have to submit to the male love interest. You know fairly early on, if you’ve ever seen a movie before, who’s going to end up together and from that point I was concerned that the female character was going to have to give in, to tone down her opinions. She never does. Also the way that he asks her to marry him is probably one of the sweetest and most egalitarian proposals of all time (I welcome alternatives in the comments).
- Body diversity. At SJL we reject the assertion that some women’s bodies are better, or more womanly than others, while at the same time acknowledging problems of representation and the overall thinness of womens bodies in the media. (This is high level feminism folks, and please do try it at home, on the bus and at parties etc). So, it’s really nice to see a movie where the main female lead and part of a romantic pairing is not thin and her weight is never mentioned. Of course it shouldn’t be an issue because women Deborah Mailman’s size are not some kind of niche minority, they are us, our friends, our mothers and our co workers but they are weirdly absent from the screen.
The movie, unsurprisingly for a feel-good movie featuring musical numbers, is schmaltzy at times. Often these moments are cut through with jokes (because Australians think feelings are gross [6. A massive generalization! Also many English people think feelings are gross.] ). There is a scene where Kay secures them passage through land held by the Vietcong by giving a speech in an Aboriginal dialect. It’s also worth making the point that it is somewhat reductive to view the Vietnam War along entirely racial lines as this scene appears to. If nothing else the (North) Vietnamese wanted freedom from anyone who tried to deny it of them, including the Chinese, the Japanese, the French and the Americans (and not all the American soldiers were white, as the film itself makes clear) and they would fight them all. As guests of the US Army The Sapphires would surely be viewed as the enemy. The Vietcong were pretty hardcore (understatement) and I’m fairly certain that speaking to them in the Yorta Yorta language would not have worked, but I was crying a lot at that point, and narratively it worked so you know, whatevs.
And finally, I’m pretty sure that “bag of dicks” was not a thing that people said in 1960s Australia, but prove me wrong. OK, now let’s chair dance it out…
Hopefully I am not the only one who still remembers/watches weekly 10 Things I Hate About You. It is the the story of Kat Stratford, and her younger, more popular sister, Bianca. They are at high school and there are boys and bets and Important Dances. It is, ostensibly, a remake of The Taming of the Shrew (?). Mostly it is important to remember that there are a lot of great lines and a bit where Heath Ledger sings a song and that Kat Stratford Is Really Awesome OMG.
I was going to come up with some tenuous tie in for this post eg. “isn’t it still sad that Heath Ledger is dead?”, it is [some random year] since this movie came out, “isn’t Joseph Gordon Levitt cute?” etc. However, I have decided to eschew such fakery in pursuance of my art. My art called for me to write a list of things.
A (not entirely) random number of things I love about Kat Stratford, in a mostly random order.
- “I suppose in our society being male and an arsehole makes you worthy of our time.” When I watched this movie I was in early high school and critical and/or feminist approaches to texts were not something with which I was familiar. The scene in English class near the beginning of the film is so perfect. This scene includes Kat informing Heath Ledger’s character (Patrick) that all he has missed is “The oppressive patriarchal values that dictate our education.” I didn’t know what patriarchal values were but gee they sounded bad and I wanted to know more.
- Kat is angry about things which are angry-making. So maybe injuring someone to extent that they need a testical retrieval operation because they groped you in the lunchline is somewhat disproportionate but also it’s awesome… Oups?
- Banter! So much beautiful banter. When I watched Ten Things the first time my “moves” around boys I liked were mostly a mixture of blushing, sweating and mumbling, sometimes I managed all three moves at once! So that exchange where Heath Ledger’s character says “I know a lot more than you think!” and Kat whips back with “Doubtful, very doubtful” and others like that, were very aspirational. Would I ever be so cool?
- According to (unethical!) sleuthing it is found that Kat likes “Thai food, feminist prose and angry girl music of the indie rock persuasion.” Would I still like Pad Thai and The Handmaid’s Tale and Bikini Kill if I hadn’t met Kat Stratford at such a crucial time? A controlled trial is not forthcoming. I do know that I lived pretty far from a shop that sold Riot Grrl, so it certainly helped. (Shortly after watching the movie I used my parents newly acquired dial up internet to download Rebel Girl and it made my life better).
- Aside from Bikini Kill, Kat references some other pretty great stuff: Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir, Charlotte Bronte and the Feminine Mystique for example. Women make great and important cultural works!
- The conversation between Kat and Bianca at the party. I was long from attending such events, and of course such events don’t really exist because yay, Hollywood movies! But that scene where Bianca refuses to talk to her because she’s not cool enough and Kat looks genuinely hurt? Oh my heart. She’s fierce and badass and has all the best comebacks but she is still a teenager girl capable of feeling hurt in the way that teenage girls are so very skilled at inflicting it.
- “You don’t always have to be what they want you to be, you know?” Which is just the best advice and an excellent tattoo idea and great words of wisdom I hope to impart on my future hypothetical sons and daughters. ( Of course my hypothetical future children will also no doubt fail to listen to me, just like Bianca).
- That bit where she makes out with Heath Ledger while rolling in the hay, covered in paint.
- So Kat isn’t great at communicating all the time, but eventually she brings Bianca ‘round and then Bianca hits The Douchebag in the face. Who wouldn’t want to be that much of a positive inspiration in someone’s life???
- That she takes him back. So maybe this is counter-intuitive but stay with me OK? You really like this hot guy and he seems to like you but then it turns out it was a bet. So you think a) can I trust this guy again? b) does he even really like me? And then it turns out that yes you can and he does (as far as you can tell) actually like you. Choosing not to be in a relationship with someone should not be about denying someone the gift of your presence/vagina in payback. If you still really want to be with someone and have assessed things as levelly as you can, I say go for it! (Shockingly I may have over-thought this). Also, he bought her an awesome-looking guitar!!!
An aside: Black “panties” don’t mean you want to have sex some day. Those underpants don’t even fit the stereotype given they look like the type of cotton hipster bikinis you get in a ten pack at Target. That bit is so weird and I am impressed with Patrick Verona’s skeptical face when delivered with this as evidence that Kat is worth pursuing.
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.
All his life Loki believed he was Aesir by blood. For years he’s been fed negative messages about Frost Giants – probably that they’re backwards, barbaric and unattractive. For years he’s participated in the Othering of an entire race (species?) and hating them for just being who they are. As the victors of war, Asgard would paint themselves as the noble and courageous warriors in every story and the Frost Giants as untrustworthy, cowardly and sly. Frost Giants are the butt of every joke. It’s clear Loki views them as disposable as everyone else in Asgard when he lets them into Asgard to be killed, just so he can make a point about Thor’s inadequacies.So what does he do when he finds out he’s adopted and biologically Jotun? Naturally, he manipulates events just so that he can commit genocide on his own people.
Maybe this sounds like a long bow to draw for people who haven’t experienced internalised racism, but in my opinion his reaction is a realistic portrayal of what racism can do to people of colour. I’m not saying anyone is going to commit genocide but that’s a lot of hate that’s being directed to people who’ve done nothing to him personally. And because Loki is a Frost Giant that’s also a lot of hate directed inwards AT HIMSELF.
Realistically, those negative messages don’t melt away the instant Loki knows about his heritage. No, what he wants now is to be accepted as Aesir “in spite of” the fact he is Jotun. Because of that he has to be more Asgardian than anyone else in Asgard. He has to hate the Frost Giants more, he has to be tough (not “soft” like Thor at the end) and he has to do something that will prove beyond doubtthat he is Aesir at least at heart.
Imagine if Loki knew he was Jotun from the beginning. His friends and family in Asgard treat him well, but still make remarks about the Frost Giants and how they’re an ugly race of people. They’d try to watch what they said around Loki, but sometimes let a racist joke or remark slip. And they’ll glance at him guiltily and think they’re helping when they clarify: “No you’re good, you’re not like the otherJotun.” Loki will grow up thinking he’s loved as long as he’s a certain “type” of Jotun and one that acts like he’s Aesir and goddamn, why wasn’t he born Aesir?
After he finds out, Loki monitors his behaviour. He makes sure he does everything Aesir, divorces himself from any Jotun-esque traits he might hold. He denounces the Frost Giants more than anyone else, he hates them and their culture and everything they are more than anyone else. He makes derogatory jokes about them, maybe even encourages others to do the same.
I read much of Loki’s pain and loss through the film as an allegory for internalised racism because I experienced it for myself for many years. Internalised racism is growing up with the message that only white people can be complex and successful and happy. Non-white ethnicity and culture is, at best, regulated to a supporting role for the privileged; at worst, it is outright hated, mocked and derided. You want to be happy right? Your brain does a little irrational flip and tells you the only way to be complex, successful and happy is to emulate a privileged person, right down to the racism.
Of course you can never be as good as a white person but you can try**. You can try to be better, and you can try to out-act their privilege. You can proudly distinguish yourself as one of the exceptions to the rule, the “good” type of minority that “acts white”. The price is giving up your heritage, distancing yourself from native cultural practices, from languages, food and clothing.
The emotional toil of loathing yourself stays until you come to terms with your own oppression. But the sense of loss has never left me. When I think back to how I was operating under internalised racism, I remember the positive experiences and opportunities I refused to take because they were too “ethnic”. I remember the deep shame of being non-white, my embarrassment of being seen with other non-white people and especially those who couldn’t “act white” enough for me.
I think about the racist things I did and got away with because of my ethnicity and I’m really glad I’m not that person anymore.
When Loki announces he wants to “destroy that race of monsters” you know, on some level, he’s referring to himself as well. And then my heart breaks into tiny pieces because I remember exactly how it feels to hate who you are.
*I realise that Thor is pretty white-washed in terms of casting and there are only two characters of colour, but nevertheless I found this storyline compelling when analysing it from a racialised point of view.
**People of colour who are able to “pass” as white will have to be a subject of another post.
1. The film (and audience) sympathises with the plight of the protagonist and the purpose is to reinforce the dominant sexist narrative that women are emotionally manipulative and “play games” with men, while men get their hearts broken.
2. The protagonist is an unreliable narrator who is selfish and unable to consider anyone else’s emotional needs but his own. As he embodies many of the negative traits commonly given to women in romantic comedies, the film is in fact a subversion of sexist gender stereotypes.
Surprisingly, the latter was the intention and the belief of the writers, the producers and the actors of the film, and they expected the film would be viewed with interpretation #2.* Unsurprisingly, a great deal of people not acquainted with feminism leave Youtube comments about how Tom was too good for Summer and how Summer is a “bitch”.
Thanks to the Death of the Author both of these interpretations are equally correct. But what’s so striking about this case is the divergence of opinion, even amongst feminists who would usually agree (and within SJL for that matter). More importantly, how did interpretation #1 become so popular when it was the exact opposite of what everyone involved in the creation of the film intended?
Some people have pointed out that our post about liking problematic things did not address narratives where bigoted characters were condemned. That analysis is beyond the scope of the post, because the existence of bigotry and bigoted characters do not necessarily make media problematic. This seems like an obvious point to make in say, oh, Harry Potter for example. Voldemort and the Death Eaters are clearly bigoted and racist by any mainstream measure of the word. But they are the villains of the narrative and the plot is a complete condemnation of their beliefs and actions. (I realise Harry Potter is macro-problematic in a lot of other ways though.)
Media is not problematic where bigotry is condemned or punished by the narrative. A character may undertake a bigoted action and it’s not problematic as long as that action is somehow condemned. Ron, who is positioned as one of the good guys, at one point says sexist and slut-shaming things about his sister Ginny. The important thing is that Ginny, another hero of the story, calls him on his prejudices and the audience is alerted to the fact that there is a problem with what Ron has said.
Alternatively, bigotry can be condemned by the position of the character in the text (ie. the actions of the Death Eaters are generally condemned because they’re positioned as villains). While not every narrative will have the more clear-cut good and evil divide of Harry Potter, many characters will often have particular areas in which character flaws consistently manifest. Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly is consistently misogynistic and expresses whorephobic, slut-shaming and anti-sex worker sentiments throughout the show, despite being a “good” guy – an anti-hero really. However, I believe the Firefly text is generally supportive of sex work over all, and presents Inara as a strong, relatable woman who has a lot of agency in her profession (although the show arguably sometimes lapses into positive stereotyping). The audience therefore learns that Mal is unreliable when it comes to views about sex work and perhaps women more generally.
The Unreliable Narrator
Moving back to 500 Days of Summer. The main problem is that the story is told from the privileged person’s point of view. In this case, the point of view of a man who feels entitled to not only a woman’s time, but also entitled to a relationship with her. I believe the intention was to use the unreliable narrator as a literary technique to subvert gender roles in traditional romantic comedies. But, as we all should know, intentions are not magical and do not mitigate marginalisation when it happens. In the context of patriarchy, male experiences are valued over female experiences so this subversion doesn’t work well. No matter where the men are positioned in the text your typical audience will likely sympathise with the men more, because that’s the voice we’re told is more authoritatative and objective.
As a feminist, I read many of Tom’s actions as inherently manipulative and misogynistic. But in the kyriarchy, microaggressions and forms of subtle bigotry aren’t recognised as bigotry at all and people are often told to just “get over it”. While this film might have had some self-awareness in its production, sadly unexamined bigotry from a privileged protagonist is an all too common story played out in Western film. If you want to convey a message or “moral” to a story then subtle bigotry isn’t going to cut it when signalling “THIS IS BAD BEHAVIOUR” to your audience. You’re going to have to unequivocally show how terrible the behaviour is – either by having another “good” character condemning it loudly or by having the bigoted character meet a series of terrible accidents as a consequence of their bigotry.
The narrative in fact relapses into the very tropes it sought to avoid. Summer is at first the antithesis of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl to some extent because she is not interested in a long-term relationship and is not particularly bothered with romance. However, near the end she helps Tom come to grips with his (privileged) (asshat) emotional baggage and idealism, reinforcing the narrative that women are only valuable insofar if they help men realise their true potential or something equally stomach-turning.
While Summer calls out some of Tom’s douche behaviour it’s not strong enough to over-power Tom’s unreliable point of view. More problematically, Tom’s character never really suffers for his bigoted behaviour. (Parts of the film where he is sad and misogynistic about Summer breaking off the relationship is not “suffering for it” in my book.) In fact, he has a “happy ending” where he winks at the camera with the suggestion that he’s moved on to “Autumn” now. At no point does Tom acknowledge how much emotional pain he puts Summer through. At no point does Tom recognise his actions tie into his male privilege (this is all attributed to the fact that he is a romantic and idealist).
I really enjoy the unreliable narrator as a literary device when it’s executed well. I think it’s possible to write an unreliable narrator with deeply problematic views and for the text itself to be unproblematic. But because we’re only getting the narrator’s point of view, the text needs to shout louder and flag more frequently that the narrator is not only deeply biased, but also quite bigoted in action at the very least, if not also in intent.
*All I’ve found is this interview with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but if any one of our new Tumblr fans wants to help me out with additional links I’d much appreciate it.
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!
There’s no easy way for me to break this to you, so make sure you’re sitting down: Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011) is a feminist movie. Okay, I admit that on the surface a movie about an uber-masculine hammer-wielding thunder god doesn’t exactly seem like fertile ground for a feminist reading. But it’s surprisingly subversive of the genre of action movies and an extremely sensitive portrayal of a group of human beings who are dealing with their own crap and other people’s crap and not doing very well with either.
Now, Thor is still vulnerable to the critique that applies to most movies in our culture: it focuses too much on the men’s stories and not enough on the women’s stories. I don’t deny that this is a problem. But where it does focus on women, the film portrays them as real, whole people with internal motivations, emotions and agency. This portrayal is virtually unique in the genre. Consider Jane, the physicist who, er, “stumbles” across Thor in the first scene and becomes his major love interest. Already, this is a departure from mainstream portrayals of women: she is a physicist, a profession that is socially-coded male, and she seems to be dedicated, passionate, and good at her job.
Not only that, but Jane is not your typical leading lady, who might mention her job once and then focus entirely on the leading man for the rest of the movie. No, Jane is obsessed with research and very focused on her career. Several times, she literally risks her own life and the lives of others to get data (I didn’t say she had her priorities straight!). In fact, she repeatedly says that her work is her “whole life”.
Basically, Jane is a highly intelligent workaholic – a kind of female character that is rarely portrayed at all, let alone as a person with emotions and agency. Even better than that, when she meets Thor, this doesn’t change. Jane is never punished in the narrative for being a workaholic – she never has the cliched epiphany that her career-obsessed ways were or are making her miserable, and she does not need to compromise on her workaholism to keep Thor’s interest (indeed, Thor even helps her get her data back).
Yes, Jane is Thor’s love interest, but even in that context she is portrayed as a whole, interesting person, to whom Thor is attracted because she is curious, bright, compassionate, and self-possessed. She is not just a McGuffin to make Thor want to defend Earth. We, the audience, see all of Jane and this implies that Thor sees all of Jane, not just her beauty. Consider by contrast the portrayal of Rachel Dawes in Nolan’s otherwise excellent Batman films, who exists mainly to look pretty, deliver moral lessons to Bruce, and get threatened by bad guys. Superman Returns even butchered Lois “ambition is my middle name” Lane, turning her into a character entirely defined by her relationships with the men in the narrative.
Jane’s assistant Darcy also deserves a mention here, because this kind of wise-cracking, jokester bit-role is rarely given to women in big budget films. The dynamic between Jane and Darcy feels very real, and again, the two play off one another and interact in almost a buddy-comedy-esque manner (ambitious career-girl and sarcastic sidekick have adventures!). It is their interaction that ensures Thor even passes the freaking Bechdel test in the first scene, which I’m not sure any other superhero movie has ever done (please comment if you can think of another).
Sif is another prime example of how to do female characters right. A super competent female warrior, who is neither hypersexualised nor the butt of jokes? Fuck yes! Even better, Sif refuses to let jerkwad!Thor take any credit for her achievements – he wants kudos for supporting her in her career as a badass warrior, but she shuts him down, and so she should. Believing that women can reach goals that society says are for men only, and supporting women’s right to agency and self-determination, is literally the minimum standard of human decency. No cookies for you, Thor. But refreshingly, Thor’s comment is supposed to be read as arrogant and egocentric – the narrative supports Sif, not Thor, who shortly afterwards gets himself banished from Asgard for being arrogant and egocentric in general.
Not only does the narrative treat Jane, Darcy and Sif with the respect they deserve, but so does the cinematography. In most mainstream action films, the camera often pans up women’s bodies or lingers on their most “attractive” features – not only when a male character is looking at them, but just generally, by way of presentation of these characters to the audience. This may also be accompanied by ridiculously context-inappropriate wardrobe choices such as high heels, tight shirts and short skirts worn regardless of what the female character has to do in a scene (see: every James Bond film ever). Thor does neither of these things! Sif, Jane and Darcy are never panned over by male characters, nor presented for the audience’s visual consumption.
In fact, it is Thor’s body that is panned over to show to the audience that Darcy and Jane are very attracted to him. For the first time in a mainstream superhero movie, ladies and gentlemen, I give you: the heterosexual female gaze! This is a huge deal! Of course it was terribly confusing for some straight men, who apparently began to feel, well, a little bit “gay” (their words). This is a really wonderful subversion of the heteromale gaze, and it shows straight men what it’s like to go to the movies and see bodies not exclusively packaged for their consumption. Now, we can disagree on the extent to which people should ever be sexualised like that, but clearly when this is virtually always done to women and almost never to men, we have at the very least an inequality problem. Correcting this imbalance is one way to start making our culture better for women. And in this context, it is downright subversive. Bra-fucking-vo.
The female characters also wear clothing that is realistic and appropriate! Jane is shown as having very basic personal style, wearing jeans, t-shirts, and baggy checked shirts over the top. Darcy has a more funky style, which expresses her wise-cracking, off-beat charm – again her wardrobe meshes coherently with her characterisation. Sif’s outfit is perhaps the biggest achievement in this department: her armor looks both functional and fucking awesome! Her hair is up and out of the way for fighting! She looks badass, intimidating and strong, in the same manner that Thor, Loki, and the Warriors Three do. A+, costume department. Even her movie poster is in the exact same style as the men’s posters!
Another way in which Thor breaks down sexist narratives is by challenging the traditional hypermasculinity of the superhero. Thor is built like a tank and possesses strength, courage and supernatural power. But his character is achingly vulnerable: he tears up when Loki visits him on Earth, asking plaintively if he may please return home (it broke my fucking heart, you guys, you don’t even know). And his vulnerability does not make him weak! Indeed, it is Thor’s transition from arrogance and bravado to humility and vulnerability that permits him to regain his powers and wield Mjolnir again. Loki, too, is presented as emotional and vulnerable – but again his expressions of anguish make him no less dangerous, intelligent, devious, and threatening. Indeed, it seems to me that Loki is perhaps the first truly convincing and serious supervillain who has cried on screen.
Branagh’s Thor is more feminist than I thought a movie about a male superhero could ever be. Of course, it occurs to me that most of the things I am praising here are things that all films should be doing. They aren’t doing them, though. Thor is. Still, maybe I shouldn’t be giving Kenneth Branagh kudos for not being as outright misogynistic as Michael Bay or as obliviously sexist as Chris Nolan.
Nevertheless, Thor is one superhero movie that I can watch without wanting to reach into the screen and throttle someone. In fact, it is the first superhero movie that has made the social justice part of me very happy. As a fan of the superhero genre and as someone who cares about geek culture, that means something to me.