Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Think of the Children! Tuesday: 'How to Train Your Dragon 2'

So, disclaimer way the hell up front, before I even saw How to Train Your Dragon 2, I read this article by Tasha Robinson: "We're Losing All Our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome". In this article (which is awesome and you should totally read in its entirety), Robinson makes the argument that in a lot of our movies we have a problem with our strong female characters. Using Trinity from The Matrix as her chief example, but pulling other ladies in from different franchises, including Valka from HTTYD2, Robinson goes on to explain that Trinity Syndrome is when a female character is introduced from the beginning of a film as an abiding badass, a super strong, super cool, super awesome fighter and hero. And then the movie just...gives her absolutely nothing to do.

I read this article when it came around a little over a year ago, and I was blown away by how accurate it is. And now having actually seen HTTYD2, it's striking me all over again how much this film really dropped the ball when it comes to their female characters. But more on that in a minute. First, let's do a brief synopsis.

Taking place five years after the events of How to Train Your Dragon, How to Train Your Dragon 2 gives us in the first few minutes a view of Berk that is very different from how we left it. Berk is now totally infested with dragons, but in a good way. Nearly everyone in Berk has a special dragon friend/pet, and some people even have several. They've gone so far as to invent new sports for dragonriders and it's no surprise at all to see that Astrid (America Ferrera) is ace at it.

But Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) isn't there. At least, he's not in the village and he's not playing dragonball (or whatever they call it). Hiccup is actually off with Toothless somewhere, testing some new gear he made for himself and exploring the archipelago that was previously out of their reach (because, you know, it was full of dragons). He's also brooding because that morning his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), told Hiccup that the time has come for Stoick to step down as chief and for Hiccup to take his place. The thing is, Hiccup doesn't want to be the chief. He's only twenty. He wants to fly around and explore and he doesn't know who he is well enough to know if he'll be a good leader yet. Which are all pretty reasonable arguments, actually.

Astrid thinks so too, and we're given a sweet scene of the two of them interacting as a couple clearly comfortable with each other and secure in their relationship. This scene is helpful because immediately afterwards everything goes to crap.

In their explorations, Hiccup and Astrid come across a fort that appears to have been blown up with ice or something. It's weird and cool, but also apparently full of incredible hostile pirates. Or, as they prefer to be known, dragon trappers. The trappers, led by Eret (Kit Harington), are furious because all the dragons they'd trapped were set free last night and some kind of wild dragon blew up their fort. Unacceptable! They assume that Hiccup and Astrid are to blame, which naturally escalates into badness.

Eret, it seems, is collecting dragons for some guy named "Drago" to add to his dragon army. It's never a good sign when someone named Drago is collecting dragons. I mean, that's supervillain level naming conventions. Anyway. Eret and his men try to capture Toothless and Astrid's dragons because they need something to show for their time, but our heroes escape in the knick of time and race back to Berk to tell Stoick what's up.

Stoick, who ran into Drago once before and has a healthy fear of the guy, insists immediately on closing the gates and holing all the people and the dragons up in the heavily fortified Berk. No one goes in or out and we wait for Drago to get distracted by something else and stop possibly trying to murder all of us. But Hiccup isn't okay with this plan. He's sure that if he just meets Drago he can change his mind. After all, people can change! That's what happened with his father and the whole village of Berk in the first movie. They changed their minds. So if he reasons with Drago, then he can change his mind too.

Hiccup flies off, Astrid right behind him, and enacts his slightly stupid plan of getting himself captured so that Eret will have to take him to Drago. Unfortunately, the plan is snarled when Stoick and all our lovable outcasts from the first movie turn up and set them free. Not in the plan, guys. So eventually Hiccup flies off on his own and everyone ends up chasing after him, both good guys and bad.

Before Hiccup can get too far, though, he runs into a mysterious dragon rider - clearly the person who stole those dragons and blew up the fort. Said dragon rider is really really really cool and powerful and manages to capture both Hiccup and Toothless by outflying them and then bring them back to a magical ice cave in the ocean. It's only once we're in the cave that the big reveal happens and our story starts in earnest. See, the mysterious dragon rider is none other than Valka (Cate Blanchett), Hiccup's mother who he thought was dead for twenty years.

Cue the awkward and weird family reunion.

I'm not going to keep taking you step by step through the movie, because I want to skip forward to the end, but understand here that Valka is amazing. She's complicated and full of regrets but also really loving and kind. She was flown away by a dragon during one of the Berk raids when Hiccup was just a baby, but she had always believed that dragons weren't naturally beasts. She ended up living among the dragons, accepted as one of their own, for two freaking decades. Seriously, Valka is basically a viking Jane Goodall only she studies dragons. How cool is that?!

And Hiccup responds exactly that way. Since he was a baby when she went away, he didn't really miss her growing up. He even mostly understands her reasons for staying away all this time. So the second act of the film sees Hiccup and Valka bonding over their dragons and studying them and building a super rad relationship built on trust and respect.

This is what makes act three so difficult and frustrating for me. By act three we've come to a collision of all of our characters and plotlines, with Drago and his dragon army coming after Valka's dragon sanctuary. Hiccup and Toothless fight to protect the dragons, as do all our other heroes, but in a weird and shocking twist, Valka is basically useless in this fight.

Despite being the kind of badass who can live among dragons for twenty years, who outflew Hiccup and Toothless while standing on her dragon, and who has done literally nothing else for two decades than learn about dragons, Valka spends this whole battle cowering while Stoick, recently reunited with his wife, protects her.

Um, what?

I mean, I'm totally in favor of the married couple overcoming their differences and coming together and reuniting and true love and all that, but it literally makes no sense in the narrative - and is straight up insulting - that from the point of their reunion on, Valka loses all of her power and becomes a female figure only there to dispense encouragement and pep talks and cower when the villain comes near her.

By the end of the movie all of Valka's power has been stripped away, and she's now there basically just as Hiccup's mother. She has no other real role. She doesn't do anything or contribute to the story. Her character's role was to be interesting in act two and then just disappear, I guess. It makes no sense, and it's not good writing.

Even worse, this happens across the board with the female characters. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is interesting in that it has three different and very distinct female characters who each have their own plot through the movie, until the third act when they just stop contributing. What the hell?

Astrid, for example, is set up as a supreme athlete and dragon rider, a woman secure in her relationship and very happy, who even goes so far as to basically mentor Eret throughout the film. But in act three, Astrid has nothing to do besides be a supportive girlfriend for Hiccup and smile encouragingly. That's it. This is super frustrating because I really thought the film was setting up a different storyline, one where Hiccup does not have a change of heart and become chief, but Astrid does.

Walk with me here. Astrid and Hiccup make a great couple, but if we're breaking down their relationship dynamic, they're a lot like Stoick and Valka. Hiccup is always off in the clouds and thinking about exploring and pushing boundaries and taking new and different roads with people, just like his mother, while Astrid is very practical and grounded and enjoys the day to day realities of their life, just like Stoick. 

Astrid would make a freaking great chief, which is what I thought we were building up to. She's well-loved, a strong leader, understands the people, and is great at making tough decisions. She and Hiccup would do very well leading together. Unfortunately, that's not what happens.

Instead, Astrid is relegated to a "girl role" of support and encouragement while the third act sees Hiccup take on all of the responsibility and storylines himself. I mean, the climax of this film is literally a battle between two alpha dragons - and between their two male riders, Hiccup and Drago (Djimon Hounsou). Astrid, and Valka, have nothing to contribute here. There is no subversion of gender tropes, just solid reinforcement. Grrr. 

The worse problem is that at no point do we see Hiccup really change and decide he wants to be the chief. He never gains those qualities that would make him a good leader, he just has Astrid and his mom tell him he'll do a good job and decides to go for it. Astrid's actual leadership skills are never acknowledged, and that bothers me.

Hell, even Ruffnut's story goes south in the third act. Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) is mostly a comic relief character, but her story in this film is actually pretty cool. Now a dragonrider and attractive woman - apparently - Ruffnut has two different dragonriders vying for her love and attention. Only she's not even remotely interested in either of them. Ruffnut is into Eret, who barely gives her the time of day and seems mostly creeped out by her affections. It should also be noted that Ruffnut is primarily attracted to Eret sexually, and seems to have no qualms about this.

But in the third act, the movie basically shames her for the way she's been treating her two suitors. When she falls off her dragon, they catch her together, and she is astounded by how attractive they look. Then at the end, the two men run towards her, only to run right past her and hug their dragons. We're treated to Ruffnut looking sad for a moment, as if the film wants to tell her, "serves you right for not picking one of them when you had the chance, you heartless harpy!"

Which is not okay at all. Ruffnut shouldn't be shamed for knowing exactly what she's looking for in a romantic or sexual partner. And she doesn't toy with the guys at all. She's not into them and she tells them that. Repeatedly. Her brother also tells them that. So when the movie makes it clear that she should have been grateful for their attentions, it's saying that Ruffnut is responsible for friendzoning these guys. She's a bitch who didn't want a "nice guy" when she had the chance, and now she's all alone. Haha!

Yeah. No. Worlds and worlds of no.

I guess what I'm getting at here is that I'm disappointed. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is, in a lot of ways, a more frustrating movie than even the Minions film managed to be, because it has strong and interesting female characters, it just chooses to do nothing with them. Instead of taking these rad ladies and giving them storylines that play to their strengths and say something important about the world, the movie goes out of its way to disempower them and punish them for choosing to act outside the coded roles for men and women.

It's hard to think of a less helpful message to send little kids. Because, as I hope you have not forgotten, this is a children's movie, and while Hiccup is a great character and Toothless is adorable, what does it say that literally every female character in the movie is portrayed as helpless or useless when the chips are actually down? What can little kids glean from that?

Nothing good, obviously. And it's all the worse for coming from a franchise that has such potential to be good and that otherwise does a pretty decent job with its storytelling. I mean, it's made even more annoying because HTTYD2 is a reasonably fun and entertaining film. It's not bad or hard to watch, which makes the messages all the more insidious.

I don't think that Dreamworks is trying actively to send bad messages to the children of America or anything, but I do think that this is a perfect example of how lazy writing can turn into harmful writing. Lazy writing which doesn't think through a character's motivation and strengths but relies on cheap stereotypes and cliches will only end up reinforcing our cultural status quo.

Valka should be badass. Astrid should be the chief. And Ruffnut should get to like whoever she damn well pleases. Those are the messages we want to actually send children. Dreamworks, get it the hell together.


  1. was just SO FRUSTRATING. I don’t understand why Stoick had to save her. Just. At all. And then basically her biggest role in the end of the film was to tell Hiccup that he’d be fine? That he should trust her motherly instinct about it? NO. HECK NO.

    Such a huge part of Valka’s character is that she DOESN’T have a good “motherly instinct.” She doesn’t. The film tries to spin her leaving as being a “good mother,” but let’s face it: she left because she saw something more compelling to her than her family. She wanted to do what she could to be with and protect the dragons, and for that she left her family behind. I love that the film doesn’t make her a bad guy for doing so. But it is absolutely INFURIATING that the film goes on to undermine that and dedicate the majority of her plot arc to “becoming a supportive mother.” It’s not like she needed to be “fixed.”

    The fact of the matter is that there are some women--even women who have kids--who just aren’t good mothers. It sucks for the children. And as a teen mom myself, it’s REALLY hard to come to terms with that: that there are mothers out there who really aren’t up to the task, and because of that their children suffer (at least to some degree). I guess, to me, it’s scary because it could have been me. I could have chosen to give up my son and instead pursue a life unburdened by a child. And it’s frustrating because I know teen mothers who have chosen to keep children, but still go on to put their own interests above providing for their children. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t portray these women, and portray them in a respectful way that allows them to be themselves, “good mother” or not.

    1. ... Somehow when I posted this the first line got deleted :\ Basically, I said:

      "YES, YES, AND YES. I said the same thing when I walked out of the theater, especially about Valka!" Sorry for the mix up!

    2. I completely agree. I liked the complexity of Valka being pretty ambivalent about being a mother. LIke, she loves Hiccup but she didn't love staying at home and raising him. And that's okay! Clearly Stoick did a good job in the end. I really appreciated that the movie let us live with the complexity of Valka being non-maternal. But then there was that scene where she wasn't wearing her armor and was making food for her son and then her husband showed up, and from then on she was all about the female stereotypes. Arrgh!

      There's just so much cultural crap wrapped up in motherhood. We need to figure out how to demystify it on both ends - to make it clear that there are a lot of different ways to be a mother, but being a bad mother is not the worst thing a person can be. And to admit that some women just don't want to be mothers or are not suited to it. I totally agree.

  2. I pretty much agree with all of this and have to admit when I watched it all this didn't first come to mind but now reading this I'm like YEAH. YEAH! YEEEEAH! But like you said because its fun and stuff it makes it more insidious. Good word. But yes to basically all this. :( Astrid would be a freakin badass Chief. And Hiccup can go on being the village's Dragon Expert. And they can be married and have kids if that's what they want and I can totally see Hiccup being the one taking care of the kids because I'm sure kids aren't all that different from Dragons and he absolutely ADORES the dragons. I mean he almost DIED for them in the first one. Can we just rewrite this and remake this the proper way? Lol.

    1. Oh my gosh, stay-at-home dad Hiccup is everything I didn't know I wanted in life. He would be such a good dad! And Astrid has all these amazing leadership skills and would be such a good Chief and they could completely redefine social norms in their little corner of the world...

      I agree. A remake is definitely in order.