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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

You've come a long way ... maybe

From the early days of the blog, I've made known my fandom for certain female superheroes.  OK, some more than others.

"That would be me!"
But while some of that fandom is influenced by the amazing group of female geeks in my life and those who I have met at conventions or become fans of online, it really boils down to a very simple fact. I have male heroes in my life (Hi, Dad!). I have female ones. (Hi, Mom!) I always have.

There are a lot of hot-button gender issues being discussed in geek culture.  From the cosplay is not consent movement, to the idiotic concept of the "fake geek girl."  But one issue that our little circle has settled on lately is the portrayal of female characters in geek culture, particularly in movies.

There are female heroes, many of them quite physical and tough; Seline, Black Widow, ... anyone played by Milla Jovovich.  I love the ass-kicking-hottie trope as much as any other Joss Whedon fan. (Also, most cartwheeling 95lb women could probably kick my ass.) But come on!
I'm just saying, we can do better. What's more, we deserve better.  All of us. 
And for me, honestly, the antihero version of the trope, usually reserved for TV, is even worse. You can't just put a gun and a frown on a female character and call her "strong," "groundbreaking" or "uncompromising."  The "edgy, in-your-face" female tough is rarely portrayed as concerned with the greater good as much as she simply demands to be viewed as "just as good as any man."  It's a stigma she rarely shakes.  She's no hero, nor is she allowed to be strong enough to be a villain.  Events happen around her, and usually she reacts irrationally to it.  It's one of the reasons that I will argue to my dying day that Andrea from The Walking Dead is anything but a strong female character. 

No i am not Agent Dunham!  Or the woman from V!  Or Starbuck, damnit!

But at least TV tries!

There may always be distressed damsels, Gal Fridays and femme fatales in geek culture, but with an amazingly simple amount of effort, these roles can exist with the same complexity and nuance that  male characters already have.  But as I wait for Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Supergirl, X-23, Hack/Slash (and Bomb Queen) to be made into movies, the good news is, little by little, some sense seems to be finding its way into the system.

See, as much as there is to complain about, and there's a lot,  there are some signs from recent geek movies this summer that lead me to think we can actually get there.  And that's worth mentioning.

 In case you have not figured it out, spoilers follow.  But if you haven't seen these movies, what on Earth did you do with your Summer?!

Pacific Rim

I'll admit, I almost left this example out.  Pacific Rim is a movie that miserably fails the Bechdel Test (Passing the test requires that there are (1) at least two women in the story  (2) who have a conversation with each other (3) about something other than a man.)
It's definitely a sausage fest.  It's Rocky with robots and monsters, but minus the fantastic montages.  The more-or-less lone female is Mako Mori (actress Rinko Kikuchi), the "girl rookie."  She is is cute and docile.  She wants to be a big-girl Jager pilot some day.  This is not a great start.  And it goes back and forth from there.
 She's got a matter-of-fact smartness and is skilled and steadfast.  Progressive. But she is also unable to control her emotions and struggles to assert herself.  Stereotype.

The characterization is not what I think many would hope for, but there is an important difference.  For one, she may be pretty (... not half as pretty as Charlie Hunnam), but she is not objectified. And as for her weaknesses, they are rooted in an actual story arc.  She isn't emotional because "she's a girl!"  She has suffered immense personal loss and carries that with her - and the sense is that she wants revenge.  She's not incompetent; she simply hasn't been given a fair shot.  For being female?  No.  Because of an overprotective surrogate father scared to put someone he loves in harm's way.
You wrecked my car when you were 16.  I am not giving you the keys to a robot!

 Is there a certain hypocricy to that?  An unfairness?  Yes.  And that realization comes; but not in the form of "Girls can do it too!"  It comes in the form of Idris Elba as Stacker Pentecost (You know you wish that was your name!) telling her not only that he was wrong to disbelieve, but that without her, it all fails.  When he tells her he needs her to protect him, that matters to me.  A father who sees his daughter as a warrior and an equal.  In that moment, I find them both relatable.  And that's one of the pillars of a movie hero.  Which she is.

Iron Man 3

 The role of Pepper Potts in the Iron Man movies has always had potential.  There's no doubt that she is the love-interest/damsel, but as played by Gwyneth Paltrow, there is also an easy strength and  intelligence, not to mention a fun give-and-take between her and Tony Stark.  But after two movies of her telling Tony to be safe and then scolding him when he disregards, I wasn't expecting much more from ol' Pepper in Iron Man 3.   There's the early scene in which Pepper, wearing a suit intended to protect her from harm, uses it to save Tony; and that's nice, but since he designed it that way, it's not all that meaningful. 
And when villain and creepy-nice-guy meme come to life, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), kidnaps and experiments on Pepper with the Extremis technology that's been turning people into bombs, we all know what to expect: Tony Stark saddles up to Rescue his lady.  Again!
Except that is not what happens in the end.

Instead it is not only Pepper who saves Tony, but vastly more important, it is Pepper who defeats Killian-the-Villian.  Why is that such a big deal?  Because literally countless times in fiction, the damsel is a victim from start to finish: kidnapped, assaulted, bound, tortured and worse.  Revenge-bait.  And it is the usually-male hero who steps in, saves the day and we applaud and largely ignore the actual victim's lack of resolution, to say nothing of the years of counseling she has ahead of her.  Yeah, it's a goofy geek movie, but if a mad scientist kidnaps and experiments on you, can you tell me you don't want to be the one to beat him with a lamp post?

In the beginning of the movie Tony tell Pepper, "I hope I can protect the one thing I can't live without."  What Pepper's character proves is what great couples already know well.  You protect each other.

Man of Steel

There was a lot to get needlessly worked up about when it comes to Man of Steel.  Enough so that I think (or choose to believe, at least) that the biggest complaint about Lois Lane was Amy Adams' red hair.

By the way, I find this to be a legitimate complaint since, something like 98% of all superhero comic book women have red hair for some reason.  There's more gingers in comics than there may be on the entire planet.! Now back to the blog.

Anyway, I love almost everything else that has to do with the portrayal of Lois Lane in this movie.  The first is that she is a real reporter.  Oh, snap!  Finally, instead of hearing how great Lois is as a journalist, we actually get to see her get to the bottom of a news story.  A story that becomes central to the movie itself and ultimately flips the script on what writer Matt McDaniel calls "a fundamental piece of the [Superman] mythology."  (Since he covers it in depth, I'll link here for the article)
And we get to see her ethics as well.  She defends her source.  She protects his identity, even as she trusts - or at least hopes - Clark will do the right thing.  And that helps fix something that has kept me away from most incarnations of Superman for most of my life. 
Lois Lane is usually just awful.  And it's not even her fault.
In theory, she should be a perfect foil for Clark and for Superman. He has the brawn, and a down-home do-good-because-it's-good value system; she has street smarts, perceptiveness and high intellect. Brain, brawn, grit, conscience.  Perfect power couple.

Do you keep any Altoids in that blue suit?

In application, she's the supposedly tough-skinned, suffer-no-fool, in-your-face journalist.   But, too often, writers just strip out that complexity and water it down by just making her just ...  an asshole. Draped in a male writer's shitty, cliffs-notes version of feminism, she becomes merely self-centered, abrasive, egotiscical, castrating, and then somehow additionally kind of incompetent at her job (constantly proven wrong or put in her place).
Insufferable is the same as competent, right?
Man of Steel's Lois Lane is not just tenacious, she commands respect even from those who dislike her.  Her primary relationship with Col. Hardy (Christopher Meloni) is antagonistic, but he respects her equally as much as he finds her a thorn in his side.  And in the midst of things going bad, he doesn't spend the rest of the movie needlessly distrusting her.  A refreshing portrayal, by the way, that makes more sense than the usual patronizing manner writers like to make military folks treat women - which is another by-product of making such shitty female characters.  This is the Lois for me, someone with her own moral center, convictions and ideas. Y'know, a person.

Making Lois Lane, Pepper Potts... even non-aliterative women in geek culture more believable, with understandable motivations isn't just something that serves and benefits women.  Frankly, it's so overdue, that would be enough.  But it also gives me, as a man, something that feels more honest and true to the world I live in and the people I love and respect.  I celebrate that world with male, female and transgendered geeks - I even extend an olive branch to those weird non-geeky people.  As we celebrate inclusiveness in geek culture, we should demand the same from the people who create it.  Hopefully it becomes so commonplace, I stop noticing it altogether. 

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