Monday, March 3, 2014

Jocelyn Is Starting a Gender Revolution. Rock On. (A Knight's Tale)

If you grew up in the nineties, or if you had a pulse then, let’s be real, you probably remember when A Knight’s Tale came out. It starred a young Heath Ledger, hot off the also epic and amazing 10 Things I Hate About You, and I don’t know anyone who wasn’t super pumped to see him jousting and speaking with an English accent and being all medieval. And then we saw the movie. It was…not what we expected.

But not in a bad way. I’ve heard a lot of people who fondly reminisce about the first ten minutes of the film, where they were so confused because we were all expecting a warm, fuzzy traditional hero story, and what we got was Queen, sing-a-longs, classic rock, and naked Paul Bettany. It was a little surprising.

And the movie itself got a lot of accolades, not just for being possibly the funnest thing ever (still true), but for being revolutionary and daring. After all, it’s the story of a poor boy who dreams of becoming a knight and decides to make his dreams come true, even though he could die if anyone finds out, and even though he faces extraordinary obstacles and he has to learn how to joust and he’s not actually very good at being a nobleman. William Thatcher (Ledger) wants to joust and “change his stars”, and that’s exactly what he does. Yay!

Only as we all got older, it became increasingly apparent that while A Knight’s Tale is still the most stinking fun you can have in a movie theater (Alan Tudyk for the win), and it had a crazy talented cast (seriously, all of those people went on to do super awesome stuff), the story itself really wasn’t all that revolutionary. At least not when it comes to class.

You see, the story is about William Thatcher, a nice young man who is sold in service to an aging knight to be his squire and make his fortune. Young William grows up on the road with the knight and his other two squires, Watt (Tudyk) and Roland (Mark Addy, also from Game of Thrones). One day the old knight dies right before a tournament, and while Watt and Roland are kind of happy, because it means they can go home, William is angry. He’s hungry, they have no money, and they’re stuck in the middle of nowhere France.

So he hatches a terrible, impossible scheme. He will dress up in the knight’s armor and joust for him, which will win them the tournament, as long as he doesn’t fall off the horse, and then they can use the tournament prize to buy food or go home or anything.

It works, and William is hooked. He convinces Roland and Watt to keep the scam going. He can pretend to be a knight, and he’ll learn how to joust, and they can enter in tournaments and make lots and lots of money. Foolproof, right? Except for the part where William is terrible at being a nobleman, and they don’t have any papers or proof that he’s really who he says he is, and his armor is crap and all that. Some of these problems are more fixable than others.

For example, they happen upon Chaucer (Bettany) in the road, having succumbed to gambling debts, and agree to give him some clothes and a ride on the horse in return for proof of Will’s nobility. Naturally, Chaucer sticks around through the rest of the film. Along the way they also meet Kate (Laura Fraser), a blacksmith who makes the best armor in the land and becomes Will’s personal armorer. And then he meets Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon), a noblewoman who entrances and entices Will. He falls for her, and the movie’s pretty self-explanatory from there on out.

Oh, and there’s a bad guy, Lord Adhemar (Rufus Sewell), who also wants Jocelyn and who is a right dick, but the whole thing really follows a pretty standard sports movie script. Sure, it’s kind of weird because it’s set in the middle ages, and, again, it’s a Queen soundtrack, but whatever. It’s awesome.

The thing is, while you want to look at this as some kind of class warfare, or as a victory for the people when Will, in the end, is allowed to joust, it really isn’t. And that kind of stinks.

Will gets found out eventually, because of course he does, and he is sent to the stocks, but his crew stands with him and it’s all very heartwarming, and then Prince Edward Colville (James Purefoy), the Prince of Wales shows up. Will earned his respect earlier in the film when he didn’t refuse to joust against him (everyone else withdrew because you can’t joust at royalty), so the Prince is here to see what’s up. And he decides that since Will is such a nice guy, he’s going to save him.

Only he saves Will by making an announcement: Will’s family is actually one that is long ago descended from the royal line, which makes Will actually a nobleman, and therefore he wasn’t lying and can totally joust in the big tournament. Yay!

Or not. Because let’s think about this for a second. The big reveal, the saving moment, is when there is a deus ex machina that doesn’t destroy the class system in place, but rather enforces it. Yay, Will can joust, but only because Colville was willing to lie and say that he’s of royal blood. If he weren’t, he wouldn’t be able to joust. So the common man still can’t participate. They still have fewer rights. So, it’s actually not revolutionary at all.

Well, it’s not revolutionary at all with regards to class. It is pretty surprising with regards to something else: gender. That’s right. This movie? Secretly kind of awesomely feminist.

Let’s roll it back. Remember Jocelyn, Will’s lady friend? Well, one of the more defining things about her character, insofar as her character has defining traits (she’s a pretty standard movie girlfriend), is that she loves fashion and dances and parties and girly stuff. And that’s cool. Her costumes are pretty awesome, and the scene where they dance to David Bowie is super rad.

But there’s a scene right after Will’s won another tournament that really makes you realize that Jocelyn, bland character that she is, is kind of stinking awesome. So, Will’s just won the tournament, but he only won because Adhemar withdrew (because he wouldn’t joust against the aforementioned Colville), and Will is pissed. He really wants to beat Adhemar. So he’s storming around, throwing what can only generously be referred to as a tantrum.

Jocelyn comes up, all excited about the ball, and Will lays into her. Insults her. He takes out all of his rage and frustration on her, complaining that she’s so obsessed with dresses and balls and stupid stuff, while he’s over here, thinking about what really matters. It’s disgusting and annoying, but it’s pretty standard movie stuff, let’s be real.

What Jocelyn does next, however, is not standard movie stuff. Instead of apologizing or crying or even screaming at him, Jocelyn just looks at Will very calmly and says, “Better a silly girl with a flower than a silly boy with a horse and a stick.”

I want you to think about that for a moment, because while on the one hand it is a pretty sick burn, it’s also a freaking shocking statement to come out of a movie that is otherwise a perfectly comfortable masculine sports movie with traditional gender roles. This one line, this line where we as the audience are meant to be appalled at Will’s behavior and rooting for Jocelyn, subverts the entire idea of the movie itself: namely, that it is somehow important that Will win these tournaments.

In one moment, Jocelyn reminds him (and us) that no, it’s really not.

More than that, though, Jocelyn challenges and shuts down the idea that his pursuits are more worthwhile than hers. She speaks out against the idea that because Will is doing something traditionally masculine, that his efforts are more important than her love of dresses and social events. Jocelyn is challenging the idea that masculinity is inherently worth more than femininity.

Because, when you think about it, it’s totally true. Yeah, Will loves jousting and by jousting he’s supporting his friends and making a living and getting to do something he’s good at and enjoys.

Well, Jocelyn loves parties and dresses and social stuff. She’s good at it. Hell, she’s used her party magic to save Will’s ass before, thus keeping him from being a laughingstock of the jousting circuit and keeping him from being a target of investigations into his heritage or people who just plain don’t like him. If you look at the movie, Jocelyn is actually a more effective figure than Will.

She’s the one who saves him from public humiliation (and possible imprisonment). She’s the one who goes to rescue his father and bring him to Will’s tournament. Jocelyn is, in fact, the more powerful of the two. She’s the one with political know-how, and she’s the one who has the connections to get Will freed. Oh, and there's this tiny little thing where she knows her own worth. Like, really well.

The concept of the plot, in general isn't super feminist, but it takes a surprising turn. Jocelyn has come back to the tournaments because she's mostly forgiven Will, but not totally. They meet, and he stumbles all over himself trying to convince her that he will win the tournament for her. She (rightly) points out that literally every man has promised to win for her. What she wants is someone who will lose for her.

Think about it for a second. She's asking him to damage his life and livelihood by proving his love to her. On the surface, that sounds kind of sadistic and like a terrible girlfriend. But what it really says is that she knows exactly what she is worth.

For Will to promise that he will win for her does nothing for Jocelyn. Will wants to win anyways, so saying he's going to do it for her doesn't mean crap. It's nice and all, but it shows zero commitment. For Will to lose, however, goes against all of his previously held values. If he loses, and loses in her name, then he's actually putting her needs ahead of his own, and therefore is a worthy mate. Because remember, up to this point, it's pretty much all been on Jocelyn's side. Oh yeah, Will's been pursuing her, but Jocelyn is the only one with something on the line in this relationship: her future. If she's tied to Will and he turns out to be a dud, she's screwed (thanks, patriarchy). Jocelyn pretty understandably wants to make sure Will is all he says he is.

That scene, paired with the other one, gives us a pretty cool view of Jocelyn as a character. She's interesting. She's complex. And she knows a whole lot more about what's going on her than it seems at a first glance.

Also, it is nice to see a female love interest in a period piece who isn't white as the driven snow? Sossamon, who plays Jocelyn, is of mixed ancestry, but some of it is distinctly non-white, and the fact that it's in the film, but never really mentioned or made a thing of is cool. She's still the most beautiful girl, and all the men want to have her, even though she doesn't actually fit the usual ideal of medieval beauty. (And, as a sidenote, Berenice Bejo plays her handmaid, who is rad, and also Latina. Just saying.)

The plotline about the jousting and Will losing to prove his love is great, even if it does rather immediately get jossed so we can get back to the main story. (Jocelyn comes back as Will is losing and demands that now he win for her!). The point, however, stands. Jocelyn is an awesome character, but she's one that we've been trained to disdain, because she's unabashedly feminine. Because Jocelyn actually enjoys parties and dressing up, we’re normally allowed to think of her as silly or useless, as opposed to Kate, who is a blacksmith, a traditionally masculine job, and something “useful”.

In fact, they’re both useful, and they’re both important. Jocelyn isn’t worth less than Kate or Will because the things she likes are girly, and Kate isn’t worth less than either of them because her work is manual labor. When Jocelyn lays the smackdown on Will, and then follows it up by ignoring the ever-loving crap out of him for a few months, as a feminist I feel happy. She’s saying the thing. She’s pointing out what we’re all too blinded by the movie to realize: that Will’s dream is just as stupid as hers.

For me, this little moment redeems a lot in the movie. It saves the fact that this is a film that doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, that cut one of the only female characters completely out of the film (Olivia Williams as Chaucer’s hilarious wife), and that Jocelyn, for all her moments of feminist awesomeness, is a pretty bland character.

This single moment makes the movie what it always claimed to be: revolutionary.

If you don't like this movie, I'm not sure we can be friends. Sorry.

4 comments:

  1. Well written. ..you caused profound revelations! Thank you kindly

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  2. A Knight's Tale is a great film but the Jocelyn subplot was the worst part, as she is a pretty unlikable character and the actress doesn't sell her too well. Regarding the part of the film where he begins to intentionally fail to prove his love, it was obviously a mistake on the part of the writer and director. It brings the film to a screeching halt and makes everyone groan while regarding Jocelyn as seeming petty. I don't personally believe a man should have to shirk his values entirely to prove his love to a woman, but rather that two people who care about one another should be able to understand and accept each other's values, and integrate them into one another. Jocelyn showed that she put herself above values that William obviously established over a difficult life time on the road, for no particular discernible reason. Perhaps she wanted William to prove he was different from the other lords and knights, but that much should've been obvious already. If anything, the best thing that part of the film establishes is that Jocelyn has a fault, that she is, like William, an ordinary person who underneath the beauty and nobility was just as insecure and sometimes even as petty as William could be, but that their love could withstand that.

    Fraser's role was a much fresher drink of water, as Kate.

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  3. I really, really hated Jocelyn. I adored Kate, she was a strong female character. But Jocelyn seemed to rude, cocky, and just straight up unlikable. "If you love me you'll lose for me" Really? Make a Knight lose a battle- and this battle is basically his job, his livelihood, AND it HURTS to get hit ya know! I wish she wasn't apart of it at ALL, she added nothing to the story at all honestly.
    She is too cocky and full of herself, and did not belong in the movie at all. Even if this article says she was good and had a few good lines- honestly she doesn't.

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