Friday, May 9, 2014

Strong Female Character Friday: Gwen Stacy (Amazing Spiderman 2)

In case you haven't heard, Agent Carter is going to be a real live TV show! This makes me deeply happy. In light of this recent revelation (and because I was planning on doing this anyway), today we're going to talk about another female character from the Marvel universe and why she is kind of seriously spectacular. I am speaking here about Ms. Gwen Stacy (played by Emma Stone) of The Amazing Spiderman and The Amazing Spiderman 2.

If you haven't seen the movie yet, you can read my general review of it here. I'm going to act like you all know what I'm talking about from here on, though. You've been warned. Also, SPOILERS.

So, over the past week or so I've been seeing what other people thought of the new Spiderman movie, and while a lot of people have been calling it dull and long, which are arguments I can kind of see, even if I disagree with them, the thing that's bothered me is the response from the feminist media outlets. Or rather the lack of response. And this surprised me. A lot.

Not because the movie was so ragingly offensive to women that I feel like we should all be up in arms and freaking out. The exact opposite. Despite it not actually passing the Bechdel Test, I'm pretty sure this was one of the most feminist movies I've seen in a very long time. And almost all of that is thanks to one specific character and the treatment of said character in the story: Gwen freaking Stacy.

In this movie, you can't really make the argument that Gwen is just here because she's Peter's girlfriend. Why not? Because the two of them are at least somewhat broken up for the majority of the film. Nor can we argue that she's only there to be eye candy. Gwen, first off, never dresses in a way that is out of context for her life or designed for the male gaze, and second of all is clearly a vital and necessary part of the plot. It's Gwen who uncovers the conspiracy about Max Dillon's death, Gwen who figures out how to fix the webshooters, Gwen who saves the city power grid. Gwen Gwen Gwen.

And it's more than that too. Gwen isn't Peter's girlfriend or even his friend in this movie. She's not his sidekick or his "white light at the end of the tunnel". She's his equal, and she expects, no, demands to be treated as such.

Take the second scene she's really even in. The first bit of the movie saw her nagging her boyfriend to show up to his own damn graduation on time, and then giving a seriously awesome speech at said graduation, having managed to still be the valedictorian even when dealing with a superpowered boyfriend, an internship that went south on account of her boss becoming a giant lizard monster, and her father dying tragically. And then immediately after that we see Gwen out with her family at dinner, waiting for her erstwhile boyfriend to show up.

When Peter finally does show, he's all conflicted, trying to break up with Gwen again, "for her safety". He made a promise to her father, after all, that he would stop dating her in order to keep her safe. And Peter is trying so hard to respect his promise.

Gwen is pissed the hell off.

She makes the point, and rightly so, that while her father was a good man, and Peter is very kind to try to honor his intentions, neither of them have any right to dictate her choices. If she wants to date Peter, fully cognizant of the risks associate with it, then she has every right to do that. By trying to deny her that right, Peter is actually being a jerk and stepping on her agency as a person.

Please bear in mind that this happens about ten minutes into the movie. I was stunned. Flabbergasted. And it only got better when Gwen, absolutely done with Peter's waffling and belief that he's doing the right thing by making her choices for her, removes the choice and dumps Peter herself. I was genuinely pretty close to standing up and applauding.

Now, later in the movie, Gwen and Peter make the effort to hang out as friends, which doesn't really work out because they still have feelings for each other and also because Peter has totally been stalking Gwen. I did sort of want her to be more upset about the stalking thing - that's my one big quibble here - but if your ex is Spiderman, I guess you probably assume the stalking is coming. Still. Would have been nice for her to get on him about that.

I did love what came next, though. Because Gwen, aware that she and Peter were very close to starting something again, made her intentions clear. She's up for a scholarship to Oxford, part of an incredibly elite scientific research team, she's probably going to get it, and if she does, she's not going to stick around.

Like, you have to remember, Gwen is the love interest in a superhero movie, and here she is, halfway through, after having dumped the guy at the beginning, telling him in no unclear terms that she is going to pursue her dream and her skills, move to London and be absolutely amazing in her chosen field. And, even more important, the narrative at no point paints her as a bad person for doing this.

Am I dreaming? Is this real life?

Gwen also contributes to the main plot of the film, as I mentioned above, by being the first one to really look into Max Dillon's disappearance and his connection with Electro, and for being the one to get in trouble for figuring it out, etc. There's also an amazing and honestly very important scene where Peter comes to her as she's walking down the street and starts totally downloading his problems on her as she walks right into the Oxford offices for her interview. 

And instead of letting him keep going, or telling him to screw off, Gwen does the seeming impossible. She makes it clear to Peter that he is not her priority right now, but that his feelings do matter, and then she goes off to her interview. She doesn't stay and sacrifice her interview so that she can help out her maybe boyfriend. She gives him exactly as much attention as she can spare, and then tells him when he has to go.

Again, the writing commends her for her actions. Peter is wrong for following her blindly into the building and assuming that he was going to be the most important thing in her day, that Gwen didn't have anything else going on besides him. Gwen is right for choosing to go into her interview instead of talking to Peter. The narrative supports her choice to pursue her own dreams. Holy crapbeans.

But her real awesomeness comes at the end of the movie. Having actually finally gotten into Oxford, Gwen is on her way to the airport so that she can fly over now and start summer classes. It's a little cheesy, since realistically there would be some wait time (she seriously got a cross-Atlantic flight the same day?), but whatever. Movies. The point is that Gwen loves Peter, and yet she still refuses to sacrifice her dreams for his. And the movie rewards this.

It's freaking beautiful. Peter writes a big grand gesture to say he loves her, but instead of using it to guilt her into staying, Peter then turns around and says, "So I guess we're going to London?" Gwen was never wrong for following her dream, and Peter has finally gotten to the point where he can support it. Gwen wasn't the one who had to change for this relationship to work, it was Peter all along. And now that he's on board, they can work together as a team.

Of course, immediately after this it all goes to crap, like we all knew was coming, but still. Great moment.

And as much as the going-to-crapness bothers me, it's still in line with her character, and really does add to why this is a hella feminist movie.

So Electro attacks the power grid, and Gwen comes up with a way to magnetize Peter's webshooters so they won't get fried. Then he tries to web her to the policecar so that she can't come after him and help. Gwen isn't freaking taking that. She cuts herself free with a penknife, drives the car over to the powerstation (stealing it, for the record), and then runs over Electro before he can kill Peter. She saves his life.

Then she gets out of the car and furiously yells at him the following words. "You don't get to make my decisions for me! I make my choices! Me!" Or something like that. Gwen vocally and repeatedly affirms the central premise of her role in this film: it's not up to Peter whether or not Gwen is in harm's way. It's up to her. It's always been up to her.

So she goes up to to the control room and saves the city, managing to throw the right switches and make the right connections to save thousands of lives. Peter couldn't have done it without her, and he knows it. We know it. Everyone knows it.

It's at this point that things turned kind of sad. Because Harry as the Green Goblin attacked, put Gwen in peril, and eventually caused her death. I give the writers props for making her death pretty close to the original in the comics, but I give them more credit for this: while Gwen's death is tragic, it's not what I would consider a fridging. It's not the death of a female character in order to add character development to a male lead. It's something different. A larger point.

All throughout the movie, Gwen makes it clear that if she wants to fight crime and save New York, she's going to fight crime and save New York. Peter doesn't get to decide whether or not she's at risk, she does. So yeah, it's sad that Gwen Stacy dies just as she was about to get this awesome scholarship and go cure cancer and stuff, but she died because she chose to save the city. She died because she chose to put herself in harm's way.

I respect the hell out of that.

What actually pops into my head here is an exchange from the first Captain America movie, when Peggy and Steve are talking in the bar right after Bucky has "died". Steve is trying to blame himself for Bucky's death, and Peggy stops him. "Allow Barnes the dignity of his choice. He damn well must have thought you were worth it."

Gwen made a choice to walk straight into danger. Instead of criticizing Peter, or even the writers for killing her off, I think we should do something else: we should allow her the dignity of her choice. Because let's be perfectly clear. Gwen chose this. She didn't have to. And she did it anyway. To me, at least, that makes her the most heroic character in the whole dang movie.

Some final thoughts. Like I said, I stinking love this movie, and I really do feel it ranks as one of the most feminist superhero movies to date, but there are a few quibbles I have with it. It doesn't pass the Bechdel Test, and I know that at least part of the problem is because they cut MJ Watson out of the movie. She was going to be played by Shailene Woodley, and they actually filmed all her scenes, but she was cut from the film because it was already too long and it just made the film more confusing.

I totally get it. The movie was pretty bloated as it was. Sure, whatever. But I still feel like I was kind of robbed. Because in the comics one of the things I love is that Gwen and MJ weren't catty rivals for Peter's attention. They were friends. Best friends. And after Gwen's death, MJ's most memorable line was simply, "I miss her too." I would have absolutely loved to see this in a movie. Gwen and MJ commiserating about how Peter is being all mansplainy again and trying to run her life. Gwen and MJ meeting for Ethiopian food. Gwen and MJ being best friends and fighting crime.

Ugh. I want it so bad and I'm devastated it wasn't in the movie. 

But I am very happy with the movie I got. It's not perfect, sure, but I am immensely grateful for this film. A movie where the superhero's girlfriend isn't a trophy or a goal or a warm spot to remind him of what's good in the world, but her own distinctive person with wants and feelings and full and complete agency. She's not going to be anyone's tragic backstory, mister! Gwen Stacy is the headline, and don't you forget it.

PS. If you're like me and you need more Gwen in the world, you should totally read this fic: Maggie Fitzgerald and the Saltwater Drip by antistar_e. I don't often (ever) recommend fanfic on here, but this is my new favorite thing, and I want it to be canon, or at least a couple of issues of standalone, so badly it hurts. Basically, this is Amazing Spiderman if Gwen got bit instead of Peter. And it is so freaking awesome.

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