Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Breaking: Distress no longer afflicts damsels

In honor of International Women's Day, someone posted this video about how exceptional Hiyao Miyazaki has been about giving his female characters agency. It certainly seems to be true, though if you follow my blog, you know I'm shamefully behind on Miyazaki's films and trying to make up for that this year through my bi-monthly series Audient Anime. My wife shared it with me on Facebook because she knows I just saw (and loved) My Neighbor Totoro.

The video also contrasts Miyazaki's approach with what it deems "conventional movies" (i.e. Hollywood movies), which view women largely as damsels in distress.

Yeah, maybe once upon a time they did.


If a female character does not save her own ass, and probably rescue at least one man as well, the movie doesn't even get made.

Don't for a minute think I'm opposed to it. I'm not. But this tendency has course corrected to such an overwhelming degree that you will never find a woman in peril in a movie anymore. Or if she is, she saves herself, or another woman saves her.

Simply put, men have forfeited that job.

To be sure, in a time when the American president is grabbing people's pussies, no amount of female empowerment is too much. There's always more needed to even the playing field when (something close to) a majority of voters deem a presidential candidate perfectly qualified for the office, despite a preponderance of evidence suggesting he's a sexual predator.

But I guess I do think it's sort of funny to hear women I know (among them my wife) talk about how they like a particular character because she "saves herself," as opposed to being saved by a man. The reason I think it's funny is that almost all female characters are written that way now, because screenwriters are scared to death to write them any other way.

I mean, it's a good thing. No doubt. I'm just starting to wonder if any damsels will ever be in distress again.

You see, I have a basic philosophy that you can make a movie about anything as long as you do it sensitively and in a way that doesn't offend people. (Or if it does offend them, it offends them in challenging ways.) We watch movies to witness the grand spectrum of human experience, not just a limited selection of that spectrum.

And yeah, there are experiences we've already had plenty and don't need to continue to have over and over again. One of those is the man saving the woman from certain death, as something about his masculine traits is particularly well suited to saving her. Left to her own devices, movies have historically told us, this woman would perish, in part because she's lost her head too much to try to figure out her own method of escape.

We don't need to see that movie anymore. But I think we're limiting ourselves if we only see movies in which women are perfectly self-sufficient. If a female character shows herself to be a capable, three-dimensional human being who solves complex mathematical problems, talks her way out of dangerous situations, keeps a cool head under pressure and always makes the decision that involves the most rational consideration of the relevant factors, so what if a man needs to swing in on a vine and keep her from descending into a pit of fire at the end? I mean, even just once?

I think the problem that has traditionally plagued Hollywood is not that a woman must sometimes be saved at the end of a movie, but that she has consistently demonstrated less ingenuity, less intelligence and less cleverness over the course of the rest of the movie, some of which may result in her ending up in a position where she needs to be saved. Her being saved at the end is the most symbolic moment that reinforces our patriarchal societal infrastructure, but it's the way her character has been written, or more likely underwritten, up to that point that's really the most problematic.

So we need better characters overall, not rules that ban specific plot points from ever happening.

I guess I resist anything that's quite so absolute as the mandate "a man must never save a woman." That mandate doesn't inspire screenwriters to be more creative -- it just prompts them to reverse the roles. For example, you know that old chestnut of two people falling off the side of a building (or bridge, or what have you) and one grabbing the arm of the other as the other dangles over oblivion? By rights they might have just retired that one. Instead, now it's the woman who's above, holding the man. I can think of two examples of that from the last year, and there are probably more (Zootopia and The Great Wall, though two films more otherwise unrelated or more distant from each other in quality I cannot think of). Maybe instead of flipping these tropes to show us how enlightened they are, they ought to just be putting them out to pasture.

You'd think that an individual movie could handle this kind of thing with a kind of aplomb that would allow a man to save a woman and still avoid public scorn. The problem is that no individual movie exists in a vacuum. It is a member of a community of movies, always emblematic of a larger trend. And we are all so aware of the desired trajectory of that larger trend that any individual movie can feel like a counterexample to that trajectory. Instead of a screenwriter having the freedom to write a complex movie in which characters have real depth and dimension, and their weaknesses are examples of our common human frailties and not an example of the frailty of a particular gender, that screenwriter must adhere to the safest possible forms of political correctness.

Whoa. I am coming dangerously close to coming out against political correctness. I try to be politically correct whenever possible, and do so freely and gladly. But there are times when it goes too far, and limits the range of potential outcomes of something as messy and as indefinable as art.

As my cursor hovers over the big orange PUBLISH button, I hesitate, fearing that some of you reading this will interpret me the wrong way. You will see me as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. That's not at all what I want to be.

But having written this, neither do I want it to reside permanently in my drafts folder, the same purgatory in which other ideas that weren't quite fully formed or didn't quite express myself the way I wanted to express myself have been consigned.

So publish it I will. You might misunderstand me even with my dozen protestations clarifying my position, and there's nothing I can do about that.

I guess the real problem is that we are not post-gender. As indicated earlier, the results of the presidential election are proof positive of that. I know that female characters could save themselves in every movie made for the next 20 years and we'd only be starting to do enough with subliminal gender representation to convince certain skeptics that men and women are really equal. We aren't post-gender the same way we aren't post racial and we aren't post-sexual preference.

So for now, we can't have movies where the black characters are reprehensible, the gay characters are serial killers or the Asian characters drive badly, and we certainly can't have a movie where a man must swing in on a vine to save a woman from descending into a pit of fire.

Someday, I hope, we'll get there.

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