Friday, April 22, 2016

Strong Female Character Friday: Aisha al-Fadhil (The Losers)


So far in Arab-American Heritage Month we've looked at a wide variety of character types - from Tzipporah's fierce competence and independence in Prince of Egypt to Gazelle's status in Kingsman as a femme fatale who happens to be Arab-American and also happens to be disabled to Detective Sergeant Hassan's refusal to compromise either her heritage or her Britishness while combating racism in Bodies. Today, for our fourth installment (out of five), we're going to look at Aisha al-Fadhil from the solidly mediocre The Losers and how she simultaneously is and is not a well-written female character.

Complex, no?

Okay, so for those of you who understandably haven't seen The Losers, here's the deal: Based on a semi-popular Vertigo title of the same name, The Losers was supposed to be a tentpole action feature for Warner Brothers, the kind of movie that spawns sequels and franchises and makes them all a lot of money. They stacked the deck with every vaguely affordable up and coming star they could find and tried to make a big fun action movie that people would love and while they did succeed with some of that, unfortunately no one really watched this movie. It was super close to being good, but never quite held together well enough to actually become a hit.

The film stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan* as Captain Clay, leader of a rough and tumble group of special ops soldiers fondly called "The Losers". When they are betrayed while on an op in Bolivia, the Losers find themselves nearly killed, declared dead, and completely abandoned by the US military and every spy agency. The movie is about them trying to figure out why and then trying to get their reputations and lives back. They're fighting against this big bad guy, Max, and that's pretty much all you need to know about the actual plot. 

It's fun. Not complex or particularly deep, but fun.

Our heroine today, Aisha al-Fadhil (Zoe Saldana) comes into the story in Bolivia as a mysterious action lady who offers to help the Losers take out Max. She has a vendetta against him to and would like nothing better than to murder him super dead. The Losers take the deal, though there's a lot more suspicion and double-crossing yet to come, and everyone has fun shooting people and blowing things up.

If this doesn't sound like a particularly detail-filled summary, that's because it isn't. The details in this film are largely ancillary to the actual story, which is negligible to say the least. This is actually one of the reasons why the movie doesn't quite work, despite being super enjoyable. At any rate, it's worth knowing that Aisha, we eventually find, hates Max because she blames him for the death of her father. And she's not wrong. What she doesn't know is that the Losers were also involved, a fact that sets Aisha at odds with the team for a time.

Okay. So why are we talking about this under-developed female character from an okay but not spectacular movie? Are we really so hard-up for representations of Arab-American femininity?

In a word, yes.

But scarcity isn't the only reason. The real reason why I want to talk about Aisha is because, as I said above, she both is and is not a well written character. I find that duality fascinating. On the one hand, she's a mixed race woman of Bolivian and Arab heritage**, reminding us that "mixed race" doesn't just mean "white and something else". She's also a fantastically complex woman with her own motivations in the story and arguably the most agency in the whole film. Aisha makes things happen. She's confident and capable and morally ambiguous and very scary.

On the other hand, she's a pretty straightforward "strong female character", and I don't mean that in the good way. I mean that she's exactly the character we think of when someone derogatorily says "strong female character". She's one of the only women in the entire movie. She dresses sexy but boyish. 

There are gratuitous scenes of her in her underwear. She's "just as good as a man". She's stereotypically interested in masculine pursuits and skills and not at all interested in femininity - "she's not like other girls". She's part of a nonsensical romantic subplot. And her personality can be summed up as "lady who kills people." So, not great.

I find this fascinating. For me, it's even more interesting once you bring race into it too. I mean, from the perspective that this is a part-Arab-American woman, played by a part-Arab-American woman, Aisha is actually a super fascinating character. She subverts many of our expectations about Arab-American women - she's not quiet or meek or submissive, she's not afraid of sex or at all shy, and she's the kind of independent that can get five trained killers to follow her around like puppies. 

When you look at Aisha from the perspective of her status as an Arab-American woman, I think she's a fantastic character. A reminder that moral ambiguity and action-hero skills aren't just the purview of white people. But when you look at her from a feminist point of view, she's disappointing. She's pretty much there as a plot device who Clay can have sex with. She's cool but she's a wash of stereotypes about action ladies and what it means to be a "strong woman". I wouldn't be surprised if she calls one of the guys a "pussy" or a "bitch" at some point in the movie. And I don't love that.

I think this duality is super interesting, because it speaks to the real problems that we have in intersectionally examining characters of color and characters from other marginalized groups. A representation that helps one group can harm another. 

A character who we can call poorly written from one perspective is subversive and awesome from another. Instersectionality - the understanding that the different layers of identity such as race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, age, and so on intersect and interact so as to create complex experiences and existences in the world - means that representations of marginalized identities are a lot more complicated than we often want them to be.

I mean, just looking at this in terms of Aisha, you have to understand that her character is either a tired stereotype or super surprising based on how you think of her. I doubt that's intentional, but I do think it's interesting. The only way to avoid this trap is the only way to ensure that your writing really endures: write people, not stereotypes.

Aisha as a character has a lot of potential. I really want to love her. I don't, but I want to. I want to be able to point to her as an example of a really complex and fascinating woman. I want to be able to look at the intersections of her identities: as Latina, as Arab-American, as female. I want all of these things and gosh darn I think I deserve them. I think we all do.

Instead what we've got is a pale imitation of what we could have. 

I also think, though, that Aisha's intersectional identities are a strong reminder to us white feminist people to hold back before judging characters of color. Just because Aisha is a stereotype of a white female character, the kind of "strong female character" we've seen hundreds of times and written dozens of thinkpieces on, doesn't mean that we get to denigrate her for not fitting into our standards of what makes a good female character. 

This isn't to say that she's magically better written from another perspective, but rather that it is important to stop and ask how this character comes off to the Latinx and Arab-American communities before wholeheartedly condemning her.

Okay. So this isn't a super long article today, but I think that's all right. Sadly, there isn't a whole lot more to say about Aisha. She has a lot of potential, little of it realized, but she is still a very different depiction of what it means to be an Arab-American woman even as she is a stereotype of women in action movies. While her character is not complex, her representation is. 

I guess the point is this: identities are complicated and for all her faults I'm grateful for having a character who can remind us of that.

And hey, who doesn't need to remember a scene where Zoe Saldana wields a rocket launcher like it's nothing so she can save Captain America and his friends? It's a good scene.


*This movie is rife with actors who've gotten big since it was made, like Chris Evans as an adorable computer expert, Idris Elba as a stoic and terrifying badass, and Columbus Short as a hilarious man whose role on the team escapes me.

**In the comics, Aisha is actually Afghani. In the film, however, she is established as being part-Bolivian and part-something else. Her father is not given an explicit national identity, I do not think, so I choose to interpret this along the basic lines of "actor determines character unless stated otherwise" that I use for everything.

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