Friday, November 21, 2014

Strong Female Character Friday: Mako Mori (Pacific Rim)


I freaking love Mako Mori, okay guys? I just feel like I should get that out there. I am not now, nor have I ever been, even close to being objective on the subject of Pacific Rim. I've written about how the movie just makes me happy on a simple and pleasing entertainment level, how it works as a denunciation of capitalism, and why Raleigh Becket is the movie girlfriend I always wanted. But up until now I've never talked directly about Mako Mori and why she is the heroine I've been waiting for, and how much I stinking love her.

Well, clearly that ends today.

For those of you who haven't bothered to click those links up there, and who didn't see any of my previous raving on the topic, Pacific Rim is an action movie that came out in 2013 and just so happens to be one of my all time favorite films. It's set in the not particularly distant future, when giant aliens from another dimension or galaxy or something, called Kaiju, have started to spill out of the Pacific Ocean and are attacking cities.

Because this is a great movie, the human race's first response is to band together and build gigantic, city-sized robots, called Jaegers, to fight the Kaiju. The Jaegers require two pilots, because they're so big, and these pilots are neurally linked to the Jaeger and each other in a process called "the Drift". The pilots use the Jaeger to kill the Kaiju, and everyone stays safe.

Except our story takes place about fifteen years into the war, where the Kaiju are coming through faster than ever, and the governments of the world have lost confidence in the Jaeger program. They're defunding it, just in time for the world to be destroyed. So Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), who is in charge of the Jaeger program and one of its most decorated veterans, comes up with a brilliant and suicidal plan. Why not just wait for the breach - the opening between our world and the Kaiju's - to open, and then have a Jaeger jump through carrying a giant nuclear bomb to destroy their home world.

It's insane and terrifying and a little stupid, and it's the plot of the movie. Now, at the beginning of the film it looks for a hot minute like the main character is going to be Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), an all-American boy who used to be the poster-child for the Jaeger program, until an accident in a fight lost him his brother and his sense of confidence. Pentecost digs him up five years later and convinces him to be their newest Jaeger pilot, and to help with his crazy plan.

But Raleigh isn't really the main character. He's the central character, definitely, and we see the film through his eyes, but he is not the hero. The hero of the movie turns out to be Raleigh's new co-pilot, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). Mako is not only the hero of the story, but the one with the tragic backstory that must be emotionally healed, the compelling take on the situation, and the one who has the most to lose in this fight. 

Now, it's revolutionary in and of itself for a movie like Pacific Rim to make a woman its central hero, let alone for her to be a non-sexualized woman of color. The film takes great pains even to show that Mako is a full and developed character, and goes to a lot of effort to make sure she's never shown in less clothing than any of the male characters, or subjected to the male gaze.* Moreover, Mako is the one who bears the brunt of emotional arc in the film. She is the one who must exorcise her internal demons by fighting very literal ones.

Her backstory is distinctive only in the fact that she is the hero. It's a pretty standard background for a character in this type of movie, and the sort of thing you can totally imagine the writers giving to Raleigh or even some side love interest character. She was a happy child growing up in Japan when the Kaiju came and attacked her city. Her family was killed and she was injured, but she managed to get away. The Kaiju was incredibly close to killing her when there was a big explosion, and as the dust settled, baby Mako could see that her savior was none other than Stacker Pentecost, Jaeger pilot. In that moment she vowed to become a Jaeger pilot herself and destroy the Kaiju to get vengeance for her family.

She was literally raised in the Jaeger program, adopted by Pentecost and trained to be a Jaeger pilot. She also gained degrees in engineering and was head of the team that restored their remaining Jaegers. In other words, Mako is a high ranking officer, brilliant, a technical genius, and one of the best potential Jaeger pilots in the world. Her one weakness is her anger, her rage at what happened to her family. Because of this, and because he can't bear the thought of losing her, Pentecost refuses for a lot of the film to let Mako go out and fight.

That's a lot of backstory I just dumped on you there, but I want you to take a minute and sift through it, then tell me if that sounds like the backstory of the hero. It does, right? But we're so not used to the hero being a woman of color, and we're really not used to the hero being non-American. It's great. Honestly, it's just plain great. Mako Mori is everything we're taught not to expect from a central hero, and she's pretty much perfect.

Because not only is her emotional arc indisputably the center of the film, the story also validates her choices. She wants to be a pilot because she knows she can do it. And she's right. She's the best dang pilot anyone has ever seen. She wants to be the one to go fight this Kaiju? Turns out that, yeah, she's the only one that can kill it. Mako is pretty much always right, and she's not afraid to make herself known. She's not afraid to call it like she sees it, all while being incredibly kind and respectful.

Heck, the movie makes it very clear that Mako and Pentecost have a relationship that is built not on obedience but trust and respect. Even when she considers going against his wishes, Mako understands and honors what Pentecost has done for her. She completely subverts the expectation that the emotionally damaged hero in an action movie has to be a loud, abrasive, rule-breaking white guy. She's none of those things, and she's still damn heroic.

Now, the movie does get a little bit of flack sometimes for having Mako not be the one in the end to pull the trigger. Instead, Mako's oxygen is damaged and she's jettisoned to the surface while Raleigh detonates the bomb and barely survives. They say that this indicates that Raleigh was the hero of the film all along. But I disagree with that. I think that while what Raleigh does is heroic, it doesn't negate Mako's heroism earlier. And I think that there's something very powerful and important in the fact that the movie establishes Mako as the character who is definitely going to survive. Because Mako has to survive. She's the hero, and she's the one who's going to rebuild the world.

Raleigh even acknowledges it himself, by saying, "All I have to do is fall. Anyone can fall." He knows that the hard part is over, and all that's left is to literally fall - the Jaeger has a failsafe program where if he slumps back in his harness it will jettison him in an escape pod. So when he says all he has to do is fall, he's right.

In this story, Mako is the one who sacrifices, changes, fights, and ultimately gets her emotional resolution. She's the dang hero, and it's so refreshing.

It's even more refreshing that the film adamantly refuses to include a love story. Or, well, that's not right. It does include a love story, several of them, but none that are unambiguously romantic. The story between Mako and Pentecost is clearly a love story, and it's one of deep familial love and respect. The story between Mako and Raleigh is a love story, and it's one of friendship and kinship and possibly romance, but never explicitly. I like that. How often can you say that? How often do you get to see a movie where the man and woman don't kiss at the end?

I guess, if I had to sum it up, the core of why I love Mako so much is because she's an embodiment of everything we're told not to think of as heroic. She's a physically small, soft-spoken, Asian woman. And yet, she's the one who saves us all. She sends the message that it doesn't matter what you look like or what demographic you fit, you are capable of great and mighty things. She also sends the message that people will pay a lot of money to go see a movie with a predominantly non-white cast where the main character is a woman of color. 

I just can't get past that. I don't want to. I want to savor it.


*Interestingly, this film is one of the few really solid examples of the female gaze. There's a scene where Raleigh, who gets a lot more naked in this movie than Mako does, is changing shirts while Mako watches him through a pinhole in her door. Mako, meanwhile, is only ever shown in clothes that fit her position and situation, with the skimpiest outfit she ever wears being a properly fitting tank top in the dojo.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Wednesday Addams, Smasher of the Patriarchy


What does it mean to be a little girl? There's so much cultural baggage associated with female childhood. On the one hand, little girls are pure and innocent and needing of protection. They're the emotional backdrop of a thousand action movies - the father must get home and save his darling little girl. On the other hand, little girls are threatening. They're creepy. They're the demons of a thousand horror movies - the family unit must save itself from the imprecations of a terrifying little girl who wants to destroy them.

And then there's Wednesday Addams. She's another thing entirely.

Wednesday Addams was the hero of my childhood. A little girl who looked sort of like me, who was pasty and awkward, but who took no crap from anyone. Who defended her right to self-determination with a vengeance if needed. Who spoke up for those who weren't given a voice. Who set fire to her enemies. I'm not saying it was healthy or tame, but she was my favorite character as a child. In a lot of ways, she still is.

She's not nice, she's not fragile, she's not kind or sweet or even vaguely pleasant. She's mean and angry and cynical and disaffected and sarcastic and snide and everything I wanted to be as a child. She's also an intersectional feminist. And a little girl. She's the best.

The Addams Family movies of the early nineties (The Addams Family and Addams Family Values) were the kind of movies that never really made sense logically, but somehow worked all the same. They were loose on plot and big on tone, with outlandish storylines pretty much just there so that the actual Addams family had something to react to. 

The movies were like extended improv sessions, where we stuck the Addams family members in weird situations and got to watch how they reacted. See Gomez and Morticia go to parent teacher meetings! Watch Wednesday and Pugsley at summer camp! What's an Addams family wedding like? A birthday party?

The point of the movies was never the plot, but rather the experience of the characters in contrast to the world around them, and as long as you remember that, the movies hold up very well. They're still fun and weird and kooky and occasionally deeply disturbing. They're still deeply ridiculous. And Wednesday is still really, really threatening.

That's right, threatening. Part of why I loved these movies so much as a kid was because Wednesday, far from being a delicate flower, or even playing second fiddle to her brother, is arguably the most dangerous character in the whole story. She has a sense of apathy and morbid misery mixed in with a violent streak and superhuman strength. She's very threatening. Especially to everyone she views as, well, a threat.

Now, admittedly, most of this is coming from Addams Family Values. While I really do enjoy The Addams Family, it's not until the second movie that Wednesday's character really crystalizes, and there's a good reason for that. Simply put, in the second movie, she's at precisely the right age to perfectly subvert our expectations of girlhood.

In Family Values, Wednesday is directly prepubescent. A tween, if that were ever an appropriate word to apply to her. She's just on the cusp of developing hormonal urges, secondary sexual characteristics, and a more formed idea about who she herself will be as an adult. But, she is still a child, so she still occupies that cultural space of supposed innocence and vulnerability. She's at once both a potentially developed teen, and a fragile child.

The movie directly addresses this dissonance early on. When Wednesday and Pugsley are dropped off at summer camp - as part of a duplicitous plot to get them out of the way - one of the other moms comes up to Morticia and asks after Wednesday. Morticia responds, "Oh, Wednesday's at that very special age a girl has just one thing on her mind."

"Boys?" asks the excited upper class white woman.

"Homicide."

The expectation for Wednesday in this movie, at least the expectation of those around her, is that she fit into either one or the other roles of idealized femininity. Either she can be a pure and adorable child, something Wednesday is not naturally inclined towards, or she can be a teenage temptress, something she similarly has little interest in. Throughout the film the camp counselors try to turn Wednesday into a normal child, punishing her with Disney movies and singalongs, while a secondary plot tempts her with the offer of romance, albeit romance with an asthmatic, morbid fellow outcast.

It's telling then that Wednesday eschews both of these options. She flirts with Joel (David Krumholtz), but is very ambiguous about whether or not she wants his attention. While at one point she does say a tearful goodbye to him, using endearments and kissing his cheek I think, later she seems utterly uninterested in his existence, and admits that if someone loved her as much as he implies he does, she would pity him and probably murder him.

So, not so much the icon of seductive femininity. But neither is she a convincing child, because Wednesday possesses a level of awareness about the world and frankly alarming superhuman strength that make it virtually impossible to view her as someone in need of protection. Because she isn't someone in need of protection. She's not just virtually unkillable, she's also unconcerned with her own safety. She's not afraid, and weirdly that's much more terrifying.

Wednesday isn't scared of what might happen to her, she's only afraid of being forced to submit to cultural standards she doesn't agree with. She's perfectly willing to risk life and limb (hers and other people's), but she's terrified of Disney movies. I would say that if she fears anything, it's becoming normal.

And that's a powerful message. The idea that the biggest thing we have to fear is not abnormality but the loss of what makes us distinct. It's especially poignant coming from Wednesday, because what makes her distinct is so, well, distinctive. As Joel says when Wednesday asks if he'll ever forget her, "How could I? You're too weird."

But let's bring all of this back around again: how is Wednesday Addams a smasher of the patriarchy? Because she uses this discomfort around her, the fact that adults and her peers have absolutely no way to categorize her and her place in society, to sabotage them. She uses her place as a "child" to speak truth to power, and as a "woman" to make them uncomfortable. I mean, the best example of this, and my favorite moment of the movie, is when Wednesday destroys the camp's end of summer play.

The play is horrible, a mawkish retelling of the first Thanksgiving that somehow manages to be more offensive than usual. The main character is Sarah Miller, played by Wednesday's blonde camper nemesis, Amanda, and Sarah Miller goes on long speeches about how superior Western culture is, before admitting Pocohontas, played by Wednesday, and her tribe - played by all of the other camp outcasts. 

Wednesday plays along with the script for a few lines, and then takes it on a rapid detour:
"Wait, we can not break bread with you. You have taken the land which is rightfully ours. Years from now my people will be forced to live in mobile homes on reservations. Your people will wear cardigans, and drink highballs. We will sell our bracelets by the road sides, and you will play golf. My people will have pain and degradation. Your people will have stick shifts. The gods of my tribe have spoken. They said do not trust the pilgrims. And especially do not trust Sarah Miller. For all these reasons I have decided to scalp you and burn your village to the ground." 
Which they then proceed to do.

Now, this speech is wonderful because it so directly confronts all of the assumptions made earlier in the play, and because it speaks up on behalf of those who are being misrepresented, even though they are not there to defend themselves.* But it's also wonderful because it's the kind of thing that only a child could say. Specifically a little girl. I mean, if a boy said that, can't you imagine the camp directors just picking him up and dragging him off the stage? If a teenage girl were to say it, she would be ruining something for children. If an adult said it, well they wouldn't be given the opportunity would they?

Wednesday is the only character in the film who can make that speech, and it's all the more powerful for how it subverts their expectations of her. It's also worth noting that this speech is followed by a strong reversal. Wednesday, Pugsley, Joel, and the other camp outcasts (who are notably children of color and differing abilities) overthrow the camp leadership, burn the campgrounds, and are actually seen roasting their camp directors on a spit.

The idea of course being that if you're not afraid of anything, then you can accomplish pretty much whatever you set your mind to. Wednesday isn't afraid of repercussions or bodily harm, and she has the assurance that her family will support her no matter what, so she's emboldened to act out. She smashes the patriarchy, really literally, and she can get away with it because she's a little kid. No one's expecting it. Arguably by this point in the movie they really should be, but they're not.

I'm not saying Wednesday is perfect. She isn't. She's still a very privileged white girl from an unusual but still pretty standard background. She hails from a nuclear family and has never known want or hunger (except maybe voluntarily because she's weird). 

But that's honestly okay. She's a slightly problematic representation of intersectional feminism, but at least she is a representation of intersectional feminism. And, even better, she's an unapologetically outspoken dissenter. She's sure of who she is and what the world ought to be, and she's perfectly comfortable telling everyone that. With a smirk and a sneer and a withering glance.

Hell yes, Wednesday Addams is smashing the patriarchy by not conforming to social expectations, being a creeptastic little girl, and inviting you to join her. Right on.


*Arguably one of the only big criticisms that can be made of this movie from a thematic standpoint is that this speech is given by Wednesday, an upper class white girl, rather than an actual Native American, but it would be hard to change that in the narrative without drastically changing the story, and I think it's worth having someone say it at least. Still, worth noting, the upper class white privileged girl really doesn't speak for everyone.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Nimona Asks Us, What If the Princess Is the Dragon?


What is our cultural emotional thing about princesses and dragons? Seriously, what is it? They each make sense on their own, what with people discovering dinosaur bones and lacking the context in which to understand them as fossils instead imagining them as giant fire breathing lizards, and what with people always seeming to be obsessed with young women whose fathers are of high social standing. I get dragons, and I get princesses. But why princesses and dragons?

I'm sure you all could tell me the story. It's about this princess - she's beautiful of course, because they're always beautiful - and her parents love her very much. She's the perfect princess, all sweet and nice and kind and did I mention beautiful? Because that's the highest virtue a woman can have. Her beauty.

Anyway, this princess is universally beloved because blah blah blah, until one evil day the kingdom is attacked by an evil dragon. This dragon, who is generally without specified gender or purpose, destroys a huge part of the kingdom and castle before flying off with the princess in its clutches. Weirdly, the princess is not hurt or killed by being picked up in the claws of a giant flying lizard and then carried for miles somehow without being dropped or impaled by talons.

The king and queen (if there is a queen - she might have died for dramatic effect) beg the people to help them. Find us a prince! Find us a prince who can go slay the dragon and rescue the princess!

The princess must wait years in the dragon's lair, or in the helpfully provided and inexplicable tower that the dragon has thoughtfully prepared for her. Finally, though, her dreams come true, and a handsome prince - they're always handsome - comes to rescue her. He fights the dragon, and even though an entire army couldn't kill the thing the first time, this one prince manages to kill it with his sword. He saves her, and she is his. His prize. Because even though they've literally never seen each other before in their lives, she is automatically his property once the dragon is dead and they get married and presumably have lots of babies in order to secure the line of succession for both of their kingdoms, thus perpetuating a system of inequality and unsustainable economic oppression for the proletariate.

Sorry. Got distracted.

I want to talk today about a very different story. This story, Nimona by Noelle Stevenson, is the rare story where the princess is the dragon, and frankly, it's a lot more interesting than what we're used to hearing.

But before we begin, some background. Nimona started out as Stevenson's art school project. She was tasked with coming up with some original characters to draw, and a joke with a friend had her coming up with the idea of "monkpunk", or a medieval world with improbable mad science mixed in. Laser guns and knights in armor. The idea spiraled and out of it came Nimona, a webcomic still available for free online, but that will also be published in full form (with additional content) May 2015 by HarperCollins.

It's one of the great internet success stories of a good project getting the person who made it enough recognition for everyone else to see how dang talented they are. Noelle Stevenson started out as an art student with a weird project, and now that project is getting published while she works as a very much in demand comics artist and writer. She helped create and now writes the awesome comic Lumberjanes, does a special back page in Sleepy Hollow, and starting next year will be working for Marvel on the revamped Thor. So, yeah, I think it's worked out well for her. Which is awesome.


The comic itself is, however, our main point of discussion today. Here's how Stevenson describes it:
Lord Ballister Blackheart has a point to make, and his point is that the good guys aren't as good as they seem. He makes a comfortable living as a supervillain, but never really seems to accomplish much - until he takes on a new sidekick, Nimona, a shapeshifter with her own ideas of how things should be done. Unfortunately, most of those ideas involve blowing things up. Now Ballister must teach his young protégé some restraint and try to keep her from destroying everything, while simultaneously attempting to expose the dark dealings of those who claim to be the protectors of the kingdom - including his former best friend turned nemesis, Ambrosius Goldenloin. [x]
Here's what I have to add to that: The story is madcap, fun, and a little loose on the plotting. It's good, don't get me wrong, but there are big stretches that feel like filler, and sometimes it's hard to tell how it's all going to tie together. I'm very curious to read it in the final form in the book, to see if any of the additional content adds to the emotions of the story or not. But, in general, the story of the comic is solid and interesting.

The story is told from the perspective of Ballister Blackheart, but it's really about Nimona. Nimona who just randomly shows up one day and badgers Ballister until he lets her be his sidekick. Why? Well, it's hard to say without spoiling it, but suffice to say that she does have a reason, and it's a good one. Nimona's a shapeshifter, with a strong predilection for the more violent and untamable forms. She can turn into a dragon, a shark, a wolf, and she does.

Mostly she uses her powers for good. Sort of. Ballister is officially a supervillain, but the story is a lot like Dr. Horrible in that Ballister isn't the bad guy. He's not sanctioned by the government, but he has no beef with the people. His fight is with the Institution, a shady para-military organization that maimed him, stole his best friend, and is just generally super shady. Also he used to work for them.

He thinks of himself as a crusader against the Institution and for the people. One of those people? Nimona, who, because of her shapeshifting ability, is someone the Institution would very much like to get their hands on. Which would probably be a bad thing.

But what makes the story really compelling, at least for me, is who Nimona is in all of this. Because in this story, Nimona is literally both the princess (okay, technically not a princess as she is not of royal blood, but go with it) and the dragon. She has a duality of personality and literal physical form that makes her a manifestation of this trope. There comes a point in the story where Nimona is both a little girl in need of being rescued, and the fire breathing dragon the girl needs rescuing from.

My head hurts just thinking about it.

And yet I can't stop thinking about it. I mean, dang, that's deep. Nimona is the dragon and the damsel all wrapped into one. She is the thing that she most fears, and she is also the thing with the most capacity to destroy herself. She's just...it's really cool, okay?

It's an idea that I love and that I can't get out of my head because it's so true. When it comes to human nature, and that's what those stories about princesses and dragons are ultimately about, it's hard to remember that we are actually ourselves the containers of the things we fear most. As much as we want to blame our circumstances on external forces, like dragons, we have to remember that we have ownership of our lives and ourselves. In other words, your demons or dragons or whatever are yours. You own them. The dragons are you just as much as the rest of you is.

I know that's weird and deep and confusing, but that's what I love about this comic. It makes me think weird and deep and confusing things. It makes me think about the places in my life that I've chosen to be a damsel instead of a dragon, or a dragon instead of a damsel, and it makes me wonder, how do I be both? Is that possible? Is that something worth wanting?

I've never really understood our cultural fascination on dragons kidnapping princesses, but weirdly this webcomic about a foul-mouthed, foul-tempered little girl who can literally turn into a fire breathing dragon helps me get it. It's about conflict and the battle between good and evil in all of us. And, most importantly, it's about realizing that you, in fact, are the one in control of your own heart. So what are you going to do with it?

Also it's very funny.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Think of the Children! Tuesday: Ella Enchanted and Obediance


Growing up, I was not the most obedient child. It's a fact that runs through my head every time I tell the Munchkin and Kiddo to do something and they just stare at me with blank faces and ask, "Why?" I have to swallow back my frustration when they do that, because I remember, I was the exact same way, and it's petty to get angry just because someone else is doing what you do too.

I didn't really think about it as a kid, though, mostly concerned with how I could get my own way. I only ever obeyed in full when there was a consequence attached to it. Like, being told not to climb the tree out back of the church? No clear consequence attached to that one, so I did it and I hit the boy who told me I couldn't on the head with a block. On the other hand, being told that I had to sweep the stairs came with the consequence of my parents being mad at me if I didn't, and so I was pretty decent about stuff like that. I was okay. Not great.

I didn't give much thought to the complexity of obedience and how we teach children to listen because I was a kid. You don't think about that stuff when you're a kid. At least, not usually. It's not been until I started taking care of children that I realized how incredibly hard it is to get a child to obey you without breaking down their own free will. How to give them boundaries and make it clear that you will be obeyed, but also to let them know that they are allowed to have opinions on things, and that are allowed to object.

It's really hard. Especially with the Munchkin, because he's three. With Kiddo, it's easier, because she's eight and susceptible to logic. I can always explain to her why I want her to do whatever it is I want her to do (take a shower, do her homework, eat something healthy, not eat anything because she just ate, not play with the kid next door who is dangerously sociopathic, etc). But with the Munchkin we're only just getting into the stage where I can explain myself to him and he can follow my logic.

I could very easily just tell him what to do and insist that he do it, centered around the (reasonable) belief that as I am an adult who loves him, I am within my rights to exert control over his life. As he is a toddler who would rather eat cookies and stick toy cars in his mouth, I would be pretty well justified in that assumption.

But here's the thing: the Munchkin is still a person, even if he is a small, sticky, unreasonable, grumpy one (who I love). He's a person who is being shaped by his experiences in life now. So I don't want him to just blindly obey me. I want to give him the tools to be able to make his own good decisions later in life, based on what he learns now.

And that? Is really hard to pull off.

Which is what brings us to the movie of today's discussion: Ella Enchanted. Based on the book of the same name, the movie is a frothy confection of jokes about fantasy movies. It's very different in tone from the book, but frankly I didn't mind. I never cared much for the book, and I like the irreverent, bizarre wackiness of the movie.

Starring Anne Hathaway, Hugh Dancy, Minnie Driver, and a whole host of other people far too famous and talented for something like this, the story is based on a simple premise: What if instead of giving "kindness" or "beauty" or "grace", some little girl's fairy godmother gave her the gift of obedience?

Hathaway plays Ella, the unfortunate child. Growing up, she always knew there was something off about her, but her mother and her nurse, Mandy (Minnie Driver), kept the exact nature of her curse a secret for years. Finally, she found out what it was, and she was devastated. Meant to be a gift to make Ella a more biddable child, the curse forces Ella to do whatever she is told. Even if what she's told to do is very personally unpleasant. Even against her moral code.

Like when she's told to stop speaking to her best friend. Or when she's ordered to hand over the necklace that's all she has left of her mother. Or when she's told she absolutely must not ever tell anyone about her curse. Ella is stuck in a life where anyone can tell her to do anything at any time, and has to comply. It's a nightmare.

The film is a comedy, though, and it follows the basic plot and outline of the Cinderella story. Ella's father gets remarried to a horrible woman (played marvelously by Joanna Lumley) with two daughters: Olive (Jennifer Higham) and Hattie (Lucy Punch). Hattie, being both smart and mean, figures out pretty quickly that something is funky about her stepsister, and seeks to exploit it as much as possible. 

Ella knows that she can't keep going like this, so she figures it's time for a change. With some help from a sympathetic Mandy, Ella decides that instead of sticking around and resenting her fate, she's going to go out there and find Lucinda (the fairy who cursed her, played by Vivica A. Fox) and demand that she take back the curse. And so our story begins.

Since this is a fantasy tale about magic and fake medieval kingdoms and all that, there is of course a prince, played by Hugh Dancy. Said prince, whose name is Char (short for Charmond, but we all know it's really "Charming"), runs into Ella rather repeatedly throughout her journey, and eventually just figures he might as well tag along since it will save him the trouble of having to rescue her all the time.

Char and Ella fall in love, completely fail at finding Lucinda, run into more than a few comedy sidekicks, and all the while Ella keeps doing what she's told. Char, to his credit, does figure out that there's something weird about how Ella reacts to people, and is very careful not to order her to do anything. But then he thinks that she'll do whatever he says because he's the prince. Not the other reason.

And there's an evil uncle secretly plotting for the throne of the kingdom, because of course there is (he's played by Cary Elwes). Said evil uncle eventually figures out that he can use Ella as his assassin because she has to do what he tells her. Ella valiantly resists, not least because she doesn't want to kill anyone, but also because she really does love Char. In the end, it's her love for Char and her determination and will that break the spell. She's free! Only to have to fight to save the kingdom from Edgar's tyrannical rule, etc. 

Like I said, the movie is pretty light and fun considering how weighty its premise is. It's got a strange mixture of current pop culture and fantasy tropes, the sort of thing that someone like me absolutely loves but plenty of people find obnoxious. Like, Hattie and Olive are members of Char's official fan club. And Ella is a social justice protestor with strong feelings about politics that she'll talk Char's ear off about. And it's pretty much just our world with some fairy tale embellishments on top. Which is fine. I like that. It's quirky and silly and fun.

But, when you come down to it, the subject matter really is pretty freaking dark. I mean, the movie makes it clear that up until the point when Ella breaks the spell, she literally cannot avoid obeying a direct order. She can't even put it off much. Which has so many implications that the movie thankfully didn't go into, but that I can't unsee. Like, what happens if Ella gets catcalled and someone tells her to do something sexual? I can't not think about that, because, in a real sense, that's why this movie is so powerful.

See, Ella's predicament, that of being the perfect obedient child, is a microcosm and extreme example of what I think we often actually want for young children. Especially girls. We have this cultural ideal that says that children, especially girls, need to listen and do what they're told. That women would be better off if they were "better listeners". That everything would be better if people were just orderly and obedient.

I know this is true because I've heard those words said to me. That everything would be easier if I would just do what I was supposed to do. I get told to do things on a daily basis, things I have no intention of ever doing. It's hard sometimes not to just roll my eyes, suck it up, and do the thing I've been told to do, even though I know it's not my job or not something I in particular should do. Sometimes it's just easier to do what you're told.

Only in the long run it really isn't easier. It makes you feel worthless. Like your only value comes from doing what people ask of you. Or, it can make you feel like your own needs and desires don't matter. Ella is an extreme case, but her situation really just highlights, at least for me, the dangers of teaching a child that all that is required of them is blind obedience. 

Teaching a kid to obey without teaching them why and how and what the good reasons in this situation are is bad. Kids need those tools to tell them when something should be obeyed, and when it shouldn't. Kids need to know that, because adults need to know that. A child who doesn't know who and when to obey is equally scary, whether it's a kid who disobeys everything or a child who obeys no matter what. Both situations are unhealthy.

My solution is long-winded and not particularly simple or even necessarily effective. It'll be decades before I know if this worked. But I feel like it will. What I do is simply tell them why I want them to do whatever it is I'm demanding of them. I tell them everything. Seriously. Everything. I tell those kids why they have to drink that cup of water before they can go play, why they have to stop talking back and why they have to change their attitudes. It's time consuming and repetitive and really boring for me. But, I think, it's working. 

Because now when I tell them to do something, they do it. Or, they argue with me. Sometimes I tell Kiddo to do her homework and she comes back by telling me that she would rather read for half an hour before she does her homework because she feels like it's stressful to do it right when she gets home. And you know what? I let her. That's good logic. Or sometimes even the Munchkin will do that. I'll tell him to get ready for nap, and he'll tell me that he would like to play for another five minutes because he isn't sleepy yet. And I let him, because he's not wrong.

It's important for kids to know how to listen to authority. I'm certainly not going to argue with that. But it's also important for them to know how and when to question authority. A big part of being a functional adult is knowing when and when not to obey. My parents did not get a particularly obedient child, but I've never really gotten the impression that they minded. Personally, I think they got something better. They got a kid who knows which rules to follow and which ones to break. Maybe I'm biased, but that's what I want for my kids too.

I would also like them to be well-read social justice warriors, but I'll settle for independent thinkers.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Interstellar: Entertaining, Sure. But Worthwhile? Maybe.


I went to see Interstellar by myself on a Friday night with a kid's pack from the concessions stand (the only affordable way to get a little bit of everything) and nothing better to do. I settled in for what I already knew was going to be a long movie, but what I was hoping would include some cool lady characters and more than a little science fiction landscape eye candy. I was not disappointed.

The movie is good. If that's all you're reading to find out, then you can go now. Interstellar is a perfectly competent, entertaining film. Matthew McConaughey does a credible job holding the movie together, though personally I did think he was outshone by Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain, who were the real stars of the movie. If you're generally a fan of Christopher Nolan's brand of slightly intellectual big budget action movies (like Inception and The Prestige and of course the Batman movies), then you're apt to like this one as well.

But that's not to say that the movie is perfect. It's largely what I was expecting. Ambitious, intense, philosophical, and relentlessly white and male.

I don't just mean that because the protagonist of the film is Cooper, an all-American astronaut turned farmer who stands in for the everyman and is played by Matthew McConaughey. I mean that because, aside from the aforementioned Hathaway and Chastain, and David Gyasi as the single major character who is not white, everyone of note in this film is a white guy.

Even more than that, though, this is a movie that somehow manages to be both cosmic and incredibly narrow in its focus. We travel to the outer reaches of space, to another galaxy even, and encounter fantastic wonders, but the action on earth is contained within about a couple hundred miles in rural North America. We are never told or shown what is happening in the rest of the world, and whenever someone talks about "saving all the people on earth", we are shown images of white, American children.

In other words, this is movie, though entertaining, is probably one of the single best examples I've seen of the idea that a middle-aged, middle-class white American man can stand in for the wealth of human experience. Cooper is the everyman, as in the default person, and everyone else is a deviation from the form.

But, again, it's not a bad movie. It's arguably even a pretty good one.

The film starts out with a pretty simple premise: Instead of being devastated by war or evil robots or alien invasion or floods or a giant volcano, in the end what seems to be killing the earth is simply nature. The environment has turned on the people of earth, making it almost impossible to grow enough food to keep the population alive. Everyone has turned to farming, but it's not a good way to live, just a decent way to not die. One by one the crops fail until, by the time the film starts, there are only a handful of crops that haven't been eaten by blight. Everyone grows corn.

And the dust. The changing climate has created dust storms that rage across the middle of North America. Life? Is just plain hard.

Our hero, Cooper, is an astronaut-turned-farmer who lives with his kids and his father-in-law out in the middle of the countryside, trying to grow enough food to keep themselves afloat. He's not a very good farmer - he's a much better engineer - but they get by. Cooper's two kids, Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and Murph (Mackenzie Foy), couldn't be more different from each other, but he loves them both very dearly. Tom is a steady, quiet boy who takes after his grandfather, Donald (John Lithgow) and wants to be a farmer when he grows up.

Murph, on the other hand, is a brilliant, moody, complicated little girl who loves science and making things and asking questions, but is also open to the unexplained. She insists that there's a ghost in her bedroom making the books fall off the shelf in a pattern, and gets in trouble at school for insisting that the moon landing wasn't faked and then punching a kid who tells her it was.

Cooper and Murph have a special relationship. They're very close, and it's nice to see that, far from the usual movie like this where that relationship is used to humanize Cooper and nothing else, that relationship becomes pivotal for the film.

The whole thing gets started when Murph's "ghost" or whatever is messing with her room seems to actually send a message. It's a weird message, and it's in binary, but the "ghost" leaves a couple of lines of dust on the floor in specific piles that spell out coordinates. Cooper, being intrigued by the weirdness, decides to check it out, and Murph, being incorrigible, sneaks onto the truck and goes along with him.

When they get to the coordinates they find...an abandoned NORAD base? Only, as it turns out, not so abandoned. The base is actually the secret headquarters of NASA, which is still in operation, but in hiding, as public opinion would not condone the use of hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars on a space program when people are struggling to eat.

But, as Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) and her father Professor Brand (Michael Caine) point out, that's exactly why the space program is necessary. The earth isn't going to be habitable for humans much longer, and it's up to them to find a new planet for us to call home.

That's where the movie really starts. After a couple of ridiculous coincidences (what are the odds that a retired astronaut would mysteriously be led to NASA just days before their final mission to the stars begins?), it's decided to that Cooper will go along on the mission. It'll be him and three scientists, including Dr. Brand, visiting three of the most promising worlds they've found in another galaxy. This galaxy is accessible only because of a mysterious wormhole that opened up out by the rings of Saturn, and its possible that we are being led into a trap by aliens.

Plus, the planets have already been visited by humans. Ten years ago NASA sent out twelve exploratory missions with one person each, and they will be visiting the most promising of the worlds. But it won't be an easy trip. It will take, at minimum, years. Possibly decades. And there's no guarantee they'll ever get home. If they do, though, Professor Brand shows Cooper that he has actually turned the NASA building itself into a space station. As long as he can solve the "problem of gravity" before they have to leave, Professor Brand will be able to take "everyone" up to space with him before the planet is destroyed, and save mankind for their new home.

The central tension of the movie then becomes trifold: can Cooper and the others find a habitable world for mankind, can Professor Brand solve the equation, and can Cooper get back to earth in time to see his daughter again.

I won't go spoiling all of these questions and their answers, because that's the bulk of the rest of the film. Murph doesn't take Cooper's leaving very well, and we get a vague impression that she's going to grow up to be a hellion before the plot jumps ahead rather rapidly. Cooper and company have trouble finding a suitable world, and run into a lot more problems with the theory of relativity than they anticipated. And, of course, solving the problem of gravity turns out to be a lot more complex than anyone imagined.

What makes the movie really work is how all of these plotlines tie into each other. Murph grows up (and becomes Jessica Chastain), who works with Professor Brand to solve the gravity problem. Their biggest barrier is that they lack data, and the only way to get that data is to see inside a black hole. Which is impossible. Meanwhile, Cooper and Dr. Brand and their cohorts go down to visit a promising planet, only to discover that the time dilation on this planet is extreme (due to its proximity to a black hole), and the couple of hours they spent trying not to die on the surface translated into decades lost back home.

The film turns into a race against time. While Cooper and Dr. Brand remain untouched by age and disease, everyone back on earth is dying and aging and falling apart. It's strangely compelling, the idea that they might find another planet for humans, and they themselves would have barely aged, but by the time they get back to earth, the human race might be extinct.

There are also a series of plot twists late in the third act, but most of those are relatively tame. I think they were supposed to be mind-blowing, but one of them, involving Matt Damon as the legendary scientist Dr. Mann and the planet he's discovered, is painfully easy to predict, and the other, involving the gravity problem, is just kind of lame. Still, the movie hums along, and eventually we are swept up into the metaphysical question of how Cooper will save his daughter, across time and through space, when she's apt to die of old age before he ever gets home.

Also the end of the movie gets kind of weird. Like, 2001: A Space Odyssey weird. It's not a bad thing, necessarily, and it doesn't ruin the movie, but it is deeply strange. Cooper, who, throughout the film has represented the interests of the everyman, ascends even further into being the messianic father figure I'm not sure we as a culture needed. His desire to save his children, especially Murph, becomes an actual physical manifestation of love (sort of) and well, it's complicated. But the idea that Cooper is always right in the movie because he's a father and he has children and because none of the rest of them can understand his pain, that bothers me.

It lessens the impact of knowing that there are twelve astronauts who went out into space never expecting to see another human face again, on the belief that they might be helping save the human race. Cooper's insistence on his own supremacy throughout the film, his relentless belief that he is automatically right because he is a father, makes Dr. Brand come across as shrewish and petty, and the other men on the team as useless and spineless. That's not a good thing.

Still, I will give the movie some credit for making the two most important characters after the main character two ladies doing science. Dr. Brand and Murph are both established as absolute geniuses in their fields, and the kind of women who get stuff done. Murph is the sort of girl who sets fire to a field so she has more time to study an anomaly, while Brand is the kind of practical scientist who may not like her circumstances but will keep going no matter what.

It's a little problematic that they're both presented as tempests ruled by their emotions, but actually the film does a pretty good job redeeming that. Murph's frustrations and anger at the men in her life are by and large supported by the narrative, because the men in her life suck. Brand's emotional reactions to the situations around her and her desire to follow her heart are actually born out when it turns out that if Brand had followed her heart, they all would have had a much easier time of things.

So that's pretty cool.

But the inherent whiteness and maleness of the narrative still bothers me. Why is Matthew McConaughey the only person who can save us all? Why is a random white guy the savior of the universe? Furthermore, why do we only ever see white Americans? Where is everyone else? Out of everyone in the entire world, why is the story based around a handful of white people in rural America? Did no other nation have a space program? Did NASA not bother trying to contact anyone else? And, seriously, why is Cooper the center of this movie?

Ultimately, the problem with this very narrow focus on a very small group of people is that it makes the central problem of the movie - the survival of the human race - feel like it's actually about the survival of a certain demographic of people from a certain part of America. The idea behind this film is universal, but the choices made in casting and writing make it feel very specific.

And that's damaging. For both people who do fit that very narrow demographic that the movie is speaking to, and everyone else who doesn't. It says that, yes, the world really does revolve around middle-class, white American men, and that everyone else is superfluous to the narrative. The story of the universe is the story of white American men, this seems to say. It also seems to suggest that no one has it harder, and no one is more qualified to stand in for all of humanity, than a white American man. And we all know that's crap.

While there is a twist at the end that suggests that the focus of the story the whole way through has actually been Murph and not Cooper, sadly, that's not actually true. Murph is central to the story, but it's never her story. It's her father's story, in which she plays a very large role. And I am, for the record, very happy about the size of her role and very happy that she's a dude at all. I've heard that originally the character was supposed to be a man, and I'm glad she isn't.

There's something wrong with taking a movie that's just spent three whole hours pounding into our heads the supremacy of this one particular white guy, only to turn it around and claim that actually the hero all along was his daughter. Nope. Movies don't work like that. Murph is amazing, don't get me wrong, but she is not the hero of this movie. That's just not how the movie was written or shot, and it's disingenuous for the story to claim she is. I would have loved to see the movie where Murph actually was the hero, but that is not the movie we got.

Still. Interstellar is entertaining, and there's a certain extent to which I cannot find fault with it for that. Yes, it's a roiling mess of weird plots, inexplicable coincidences and ideas that are never fully explained, bad science, and white people everywhere. But. I did sit through the whole three hour movie with my eyes glued to the screen, reluctant to get up even when I realized that I had to pee incredibly badly. Like, so badly. But I sat through the whole thing until the end, even when I was positive I knew where the plot was going, and I was right.

That says something about a movie. Its sheer entertainment value. For all that I can analyze this to the stars and back, there's an inherent value in the fact that it's just a plain entertaining film. I don't want to take away from that. If you go see this movie, chances are, you won't regret spending the money. However, just because I think that the inherent interestingness of the movie is a value in and of itself doesn't mean that I think all that analysis I just did is worthless. Far from it. 

In a weird way, I feel like entertaining movies are actually more needing of analysis and criticism and deep intellectual pulling apart. Because these are movies that we just kind of enjoy watching, and they can contain ideas and assumptions that weasel their ways into our heads without us noticing. See, movies with an inherently high level of fun are better at sneaking ideas past us. We don't notice the sometime toxic underpinnings of these movies, because we're too busy having fun.

That's why, for all that I am a highly nerdy person who absolutely loves art films and foreign documentaries and crap like that, most of my reviews and writing is about pop culture, low culture, whatever you want to call it. I like popcorn movies, but I also think that popcorn movies are the movies we really need to be talking about. They're the ones most everyone is going to see, and they're the ones that will ultimately have the most impact on our culture. We should know what they're about.

Interstellar, for all that it's a movie about the human race and our survival and our place in the cosmos, is a very narrow movie. It's fun, and it's probably worth seeing. But it's not the kind of movie that we should be uncritically enjoying. It says a lot of problematic things, both implicitly and explicitly. It has some deep issues. 

So yeah, watch the movie. But never forget what it's really saying.

Murphy Cooper gets stuff done. This should have been the movie.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Strong Female Character Friday: Amy Santiago (Brooklyn 99)


Sometimes, I have to admit, my life feels an awful lot like a sitcom. Yesterday, for example, featured a day of missed calls and sitcom level misunderstandings, complete with some physical comedy in the form of a chiropractor adjusting my rib injury and making me scream in the middle of his office while surrounded by children getting face-painted, and then followed by a great youth group session, after which I got loudly and violently ill all over the back steps for literally no reason. I'm just saying. Sometimes my life feels kind of sitcom-ish.

Of course, it's not hard to tell that my life isn't a sitcom most of the time. My problems are rarely solved by the end of the day, there are no improbably attractive men who bicker with me at work (because I work alone, but that's beside the point), and I don't live in an alarmingly nice apartment in a big city. I live in a perfectly reasonable apartment, with roommates, outside a big city. Because money.

The point I'm making is that when it comes to sitcoms we all have expectations of what they're supposed to be like. A lot of those expectations have to do with the humor, the physical comedy, and the ridiculous situations that come up. But some of the things we think of actually have very little to do with the form itself, and more to do with the stereotypes and character archetypes that have grown in around the form.

Take, for example, the stereotype of the "sexy Latina" in a sitcom. I can think of plenty of examples of this, but let's go with Gloria (Sofia Vergara) from Modern Family as our first and really best example. Gloria is an absolutely gorgeous woman and a very very smart one, but her character on the show is mostly toned down to a series of jokes about how sexy she is, and how she can't really speak English very well. 

Aside from one memorable and amazing scene where she talks about how she hates everyone discriminating against her for not speaking her second language perfectly, the show largely allows these stereotypes to stay in place. Gloria's part in the show is to provide the sex appeal, to be the messy, passionate, intense, non-English fluent love interest.

Which is pretty par for the course for Latinas in sitcoms. Not always, but a lot. There are a lot of frankly racist stereotypes built up around the idea of Latinas in comedy. The idea that they must be sexy and interested in sex, that they must be loud and "firey" and prone to fits of rage. The idea that they are more intuitive and in touch with their emotions. All that crap that has somehow gotten tacked on to representations of Latinas in American pop culture.

And that brings me to why we're talking about Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero) from Brooklyn 99 today. Because Amy is none of those things. At all. I didn't notice it at first, mostly because Rosa Diaz, one of the other detectives, is more my cup of tea, but Amy's characterization on the show actually really manages avoid almost all of the stereotypical problematic representations of Latinas. How? 

They made her boring.

So, Brooklyn 99 is a sitcom set in a police station, mostly about the detectives and support staff working in Brooklyn's fictional 99th precinct. The nominal main character is Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg), an immature manchild who works as a lead character because no one is amused by his immaturity. This most recent season has featured a few changes to the basic setup, mostly based around how Jake has actually progressed as a character (yay!), but it's overall the same.

You've also got a full set of other awesome characters, from Captain Ray Holt (Andre Braugher), the amazingly deadpan and wry man in charge, to Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio), a detective who openly calls himself a foodie and has no issues about his lack of stereotypical masculinity. There's even Gina (Chelsea Peretti), a narcissistic administrative assistant who struggles to balance her life between school and her passion for dance. Weirdly, working a full time job doesn't really come into it at all.

My point is that all of the characters on Brooklyn 99 are awesome, but some of them are more awesome than others. Which brings us back to Amy Santiago. Amy is a classic sitcom character, albeit with a twist. She's a hardcore type-A personality, a woman who dreams someday of being a police captain (so much so that she dresses up in the captain's hat sometimes), and who proudly brags that "in high school I was voted Most Appropriate."

She's nerdy and intense and an overachieving brown-noser. She's so obsessed with getting Captain Holt to be her mentor that she'll go to ridiculous lengths to get his attention. She'll offer to adopt one of his puppies, even though she is literally deathly allergic to dogs. She'll read an eight page, single-spaced ode to his greatness over Thanksgiving dinner. She'll call him "beautiful", and say things like, "Raymond, those slacks are a knockout!" Heck, she'll even snoop through his kitchen to see whether or not he makes hummus from scratch.

She's nuts. But in a very good and refreshing way. Amy is focused on her career, stable, steady, and really awesome. Most of the jokes about Amy are about how obsessive and crazy she can. But not crazy in the way that we're used to seeing Latinas on sitcoms be crazy. Amy's insanity stems from her pathological need for her boss' approval, and her need to be the best cop she can be, dammit. 

She's not passionate or firey, unless she hasn't eaten enough that day, in which case she's kind of terrifying. She's not sexy. In fact one of the running jokes of the show has Jake taking things Amy says and repurposing them as the title of her sex tape. Like, "Kind, Sober, and Fully Dressed." Or, "I'm Sorry About Tonight." Or, "Not Even Gonna Touch That: The Amy Santiago Story." The running gag is that Amy just isn't sexy.

But what's actually great about this is that Amy doesn't mind. She doesn't really care that she doesn't come off as sexy, because she doesn't want to come off as sexy. Sexy is not a thing she's aiming for. She's a fuddy duddy, and she likes it. She had to call her thirteen year old niece for makeup tips, and then disregarded them for being "too sexual". She wears pantsuits, and has no problems with that. Her apartment is full of doilies and collectable tea spoons. She's a boring person inside.

And that's great! I mean, when was the last time you saw a Latina on a sitcom who was characterized as a teacher's pet? Or as a woman so dull that she fakes a root canal to get out of doing extra work she originally volunteered for, just so she can go to a bed and breakfast with her boyfriend. Who is named Teddy. For the record.

Amy Santiago is a deeply boring person inside, and that makes for freaking excellent comedy.

It's easy when you're writing jokes to go for the most obvious one. It's easy to think that stereotypes add value to your humor because they create a shorthand that your audience probably already knows. It's easy, but it's not better. The best jokes, the best humor, comes from comedy that makes an effort. That thinks, "You know what would be really funny? If we have this detective who's really ambitious and intense, but also loves little old lady things, and isn't ashamed of that." Good comedy comes when you step outside the stereotypes and try something different.

Because women, and I hate to break this to you buddy, are people too. And people are infinitely weird and strange and hilarious. We are all just bundles of neuroses and sitcoms waiting to happen. A bad sitcom writer writing my life might make me out into a typical clumsy nerd stereotype. That's not the whole picture. Yeah, I get hurt a lot. But I get hurt because I tackled someone playing mud rugby or because I bumped into a wall in the underground missile silo because I lost my flashlight or because I got headbutted by a toddler and somehow that hurt my ribs enough for me to have to go get them fixed.

What I'm saying is that there are easy jokes you can make, and then there are good ones. Frankly, I love that the writers of Brooklyn 99 gave us good jokes. They gave us Amy Santiago, an unapologetically dorky, unsexy, practical Latina character who can't dance on a network sitcom. I can appreciate that.*

Also I love how much this show does with female friendships.
*Title of her sex tape!