Friday, April 8, 2016

Strong Female Character Friday: Gazelle (Kingsman)

Last week's Strong Female Character Friday marked the start of Arab-American Heritage Month by looking at a character who isn't technically American but definitely comes from American media - well, this week we're bending the rules a little too in order to talk about a character who seems to be primarily British, but nonetheless represents an intriguing look at the Arab-emigre experience that we don't often see. So today we're going to talk about Gazelle in the movie Kingsman: The Secret Service, because she's badass, deadpan, and really not what you expect. Good? Good.

If you haven't seen Kingsman: The Secret Service, an under the radar Bond film parody that came out last year (and was one of our Big Budget nominees for the Undies), you're missing out. While the film has a couple of really odd sexist or insulting moments, for the most part it's a fun and engaging action movie that also examines class and privilege in present day England. 

The story follows Eggsy (Taron Edgerton), a lower class British boy who gets in some trouble with the law and finds himself recruited to compete for a job opening at Kingsman, Britain's biggest independent intelligence agency. The bulk of the film follows Eggsy as he competes for the position and goes through his training, but it also has a side plot following Eggy's mentor, Harry Hart (Colin Firth), as he looks into a number of strange disappearances. The disappearances are all connected to mysterious and shady billionaire Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), who thinks humanity is a virus and needs to be eradicated. So typical supervillain stuff.

Because this is how these movies work, eventually Harry is out of commission and it's up to Eggsy, his training partner Roxy (Sophie Cookson), and their trainer Merlin (Mark Strong) to stop the bad guys and save the world. It's pretty great. Not perfect, but pretty solidly great.

So how does Gazelle play into all of this? And how does her ethnic and cultural background play out?

Well, Gazelle (played by Sofia Boutella) shows up as Valentine's personal assistant and right hand woman. She's actually one of the very first characters we meet, swooping in to stop Kingsman from interfering in their goals and killing a whole bunch of people in the process. She's presented as being incredibly physically capable - arguably the most dangerous person in the film - as well as incredibly intelligent. I mean, she's keeping up with this universe's version of Evil Steve Jobs. Clearly she's bright.

She is also, and this is where things get really interesting, a double amputee, having lost the lower part of both of her legs. What's fascinating about this, though, and therefore about the character, is that this hasn't slowed her down one bit. Instead, Gazelle's two calves have been replaced by runner's prosthetics that just so happen to have super-sharpened knife blades attached. So when she fights, and she fights a lot, she is able to cut people open by kicking them. It's really impressive.

In the film itself, I do have to admit that Gazelle doesn't have her own storyline. But what we can glean about her from her role in the narrative is fascinating. So here we go.

Gazelle is Richmond Valentine's personal assistant and righthand woman. She is clearly privy to his plot to kill almost everyone in the world and just as clearly approves of it and is helping to make it happen. The two of them have a very close relationship, though the actual nature of that relationship is unclear. 

What we do know is that Valentine and Gazelle are both fiercely protective of each other, that they enjoy each other's company, and that they share a general disregard for everyone else. While Gazelle does act like a servant sometimes and treat Valentine as her superior, behind closed doors we more often see her treating him like an equal and vice versa.

As the righthand woman of the supervillain, Gazelle is therefore a character who has to be taken down at the end, a "big boss fight" for the finale. What's really interesting here, however, is that instead of doing what films like this usually do and having Gazelle face off against Roxy, the only other fighting female character, the movie admits that she's the big threat and therefore the villain who Eggsy, our hero, must overcome. 

In other words, Gazelle is important enough and dangerous enough to be the final fight in the film. And, in the end, Eggsy doesn't win because he beats her - he wins because he outsmarts her, essentially, nicking her with a deadly neurotoxin instead of trying to actually prove his manhood and wrestle her to the ground. This is worth pointing out because it's so rare. No one ever questions why Gazelle is the big fight when she's "just a girl". No, we just accept that she's the deadliest person in the film and that there's no shame in Eggsy acknowledging that he can't beat her in a fair fight. That's a pretty huge deal.

And, when you get down to it, it's emblematic of the way the whole movie treats Gazelle. She's one of the most complex characters in the movie simply because she doesn't fall into any one box. She's a fighter and clearly very physically strong, but she's also represented as liking feminine things. She wears sleek, stylish clothing and even gets herself a super cute hat for Ascot at one point. 

She's a mild-mannered assistant, but when the time comes for her to take down some people threatening their plan, she springs into action with a gleeful grin. She's quiet and understated, but she has sass like you wouldn't believe behind closed doors. Her boss puts his hand on her butt, but it's genuinely hard to tell if it's even sexual or if it's just supposed to seem sexual.

In other words, Gazelle is complicated and I love it. She's so clearly in on the whole plan, she's more a partner than a henchwoman, and yet she's so understated. I love that you can't pin her down as any one thing. She's not the Bond girl for Eggsy to seduce, she's not the dopey right hand man to get easily defeated, but she's also not the secret mastermind behind it all. She's not particularly sexualized and she's not particularly dramatic, she's just there, quiet and competent and super lethal.

She's also not white.

This is where we get into slightly shakier ground. While it's easy to do an analysis of Gazelle as a fascinating figure in terms of ableism and the idea that disabled people are either inherently villainous or innately virtuous, it's slightly more complex to talk about her ethnic background. The reason for that is simple: Gazelle's disability is obvious and a part of the text. Her race is not. Instead, Gazelle's race is implied, but those implications are still really fascinating. 

One of the things worth talking about in Arab-American Heritage Month is how a lot of times ethnicity is thought of as a black and white issue. And not just in the sense that race in America is frequently reduced down to black people and white people. I mean that we often think of someone's race or racial background as being a concrete proposition. Sofia Boutella is from Algeria. Algeria is an Arab state, therefore Sofia Boutella is considered an actress of Arab descent. Straightforward, right?

But what that straightforwardness belies is the genuine complexity of the issue. I'm not going to get into details of Sofia Boutella's personal background, but to reduce the complexity of ethnic and cultural background down to a single yes or no question is to do the diversity and richness of the human race a disservice. I quite frankly don't know Boutella's whole background, nor do I know for sure if the filmmakers intended Gazelle to read as an Arab-descended character. 

What I know is that considering the complexity of these questions is good for us. It's worth our time to consider the diversity of the Arab world. It's worth our time to think about the stereotypes we have all unconsciously ingested about people in the Arab world. And it's worth our time to consider if one of the reasons we don't want to think of Gazelle as a representative of that world is because she contradicts a lot of our conceptions of it.

First off, we most generally think of Arab-descended characters as having to be specifically from the Middle East. That's not true. The Arab world extends pretty far beyond the Middle East and North Africa is still solidly there. But for some reason we still think of Arab-descended people as being fundamentally Middle Eastern. And by that I mean that we Westerners think of them as wearing big baggy clothes and riding camels and lots of other really specific and vaguely racist stereotypes. You know, Arab women can't show their faces or speak in public, that kind of thing.

Gazelle clearly doesn't abide by those racist stereotypes. She wears form-fitting clothing that looks like it was tailor made for her (and probably was). She's attached to her smartphone. She moves with a fluidity that suggests a lot of dance training*. She wears her hair freely down and doesn't seem overly concerned with modesty rules. She refuses to let her disability define her. She lives and works with a man with whom she has an ambiguous relationship. She's not aggressively sexual, passively sexual, or visibly oppressed. She's definitely not waiting for someone to come save her.

Most importantly, though, is the simple fact that Gazelle is the bad guy. She's an Arab-descended woman and she's the villain. She's the big boss fight. She's not good, not secretly conflicted, and certainly not being coerced into any of this. In our desire for a simple answer, for simplistic morality, we often insultingly create worlds in which women of color, particularly Arab women, aren't given the agency to be the villain in our stories. Gazelle pushes back on that. Yeah, she's an a disabled Arab-descended woman and yeah, she's the bad guy. What's it to you?

We have these conceptions of what an Arab woman should be, and they often get in the way of our recognizing the person who an Arab woman actually is. Gazelle doesn't fit our ideas of Arab femininity, and I think that's very good for us. Sure, she's a relatively minor character in a movie that didn't exactly break the box office, but she's still a very unusual and very welcome depiction of an Arab femininity that dares to work outside the bounds of Western stereotypes. She's a person, and you don't get more valuable than that.

And, before I let you go, we really do have to talk about what Gazelle means as a disabled character who is also the biggest badass in the whole movie. I mean, damn. I kind of wish we did get some background on her as a person, because she's so fantastically interesting, but at the same time I kind of love how the lack of explanation forces us to accept her as is. 

She's a woman of color who has managed to turn her disability into a literal weapon with which she fights (very literally) white male patriarchy. It's a fantastically subversive idea planted firmly in a not particularly revolutionary movie. Gazelle's disability in no way makes her lesser, and I thin that's a worthwhile message all in itself. She and Furiosa and Bucky Barnes and Misty Knight should start a club for people with prosthetic limbs who still kick some major ass.

I don't think that Gazelle and Kingsman have any larger agenda here - I don't think this movie is supposed to upend your ideas about Arab women or revolutionize our understanding of the world. But I think that's okay. Instead of trying to make a statement, what Gazelle represents is something arguably more important and also harder. She's a walking reminder to take everyone as they are now. To not stereotype or assume or jump to conclusions, but to just say, "Yeah. You're a person. You are a human being with the same amount of complexity and contradictions as me. I acknowledge you." That's really all you need.

*That's because Sofia Boutella is a professional dancer and you should totally go youtube her dancing because it is amazing. Here, I'll even get you started.