What if “happily ever after” is only “happy” for us baby loving women? (A review of Shrek 4)

*warning: spoilers

Fairy tales rarely move beyond their tidy endings into the realm of what they promise will be a “happily ever after.” As many end with marriage, one can presume that the “ever after” for the likes of Snow White, Cinderella, et al would likely include children. Shrek breaks with this fairy tale model in its latest installment, moving beyond “first love’s kiss” into that realm where days often are more monotonous than happy –the parenting of young children.

In the clever opening scene, Shrek and Fiona spend a blissful, carefree day parenting their triplet ogres. Fiona, at day’s close, says “I wish every day could be like this.” Then, in Groundhog Day fashion, the film whizzes us through numerous repititions of this same type of day with the triplets crying more loudly, the diapers becoming more toxic, and Shrek becoming ever less happy with the daily grind of raising children.

The film frames Shrek as missing the days before family responsibility. Fretting to Fiona, “I used to be an ogre, now I’m just a jolly green giant,” Shrek yearns to live his pre-dad days again. Thanks to a gleefully evil Rumplestilksin, he is given “One Day as an Ogre” – a do-over of sorts that places him in an alternate world where Rumple rules Far Far Away as tyrannical dictator and ogres are banished to an underground life of toil.

In this alternate reality, Fiona leads “The Resistance,” fighting for the freedom of ogres everywhere. Though the day Shrek is given by his deal with Rumplestilskin threatens to erase his former existence (and thus his marriage with Fiona and his three ogre babies), Shrek is excited to be back in the world of causes and adventure. And herein lies the moral of the story – “happily ever after” is not all it’s cracked up to be – at least not for male ogres. Offering revolution as an anecdote to suburban ogre life, the film speaks to what Betty Friedan might have called “ogre mystique.” Shrek, like the women Friedan discussed in 50s era America, feels trapped within his domesticated sphere. He needs more than mud baths for a purposeful life, more than one eyeball martini at the end of the day to relieve his stress.

Speaking to the more egalitarian approach to parenting many households in the U.S. now attempt to enact, Shrek is experiencing the loss of identity in much in the same way as the “housewives” Friedan studied. Though this plot is explored with the visual humor and zesty wit we have come to expect of the franchise, it also falls into another expected – though less desirable – reiteration, that of focusing on male interests and desires.

Granted, the name of the series is Shrek and we can thus expect his dilemmas to drive the story, but this time around, the lack of focus on Fiona stood out to me particularly. Yes, she got to be a rocking Ogre-Revolutionary, leading the resistance with aplomb – but ONLY in the alternative universe (which the film jettisons at the end, safely ensconcing her back in domesticated bliss). What of her dissatisfactions with domesticated life, her yearnings for adventure? If she has them, they remain un-named. Instead, she is presented as all-too-blissfully wearing the mantle of wife and mother, a problematic representation that perpetuates the notion women are happy and well placed in the private sphere of domesticated happily-ever-after, while men shafe within its narrow confines.

Though I enjoyed the film, I would have enjoyed it even more if it offered a bit more egalitarian focus, and one that was more realistic in its portrayal of mothers. Instead, we get what Susan Douglas calls “the new momism,” where mothers love ever second of their hyper-helicopter parenting, in green ogre form.

I love Fiona, but she is one female character among a slew of males, and one whose story is sidelined.  As revealed by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media, this unbalanced gender phenomenon in children’s media has changed little since the 1940s.

Surely it can’t be easy being the lone green female lead in a fairy tale world that loves it’s suave fighters (Antonio Banderis asPuss n Boots), its sidekick comic relief (Eddie Murphie Donkey) and its  jolly green giant (Mike Meyers as Shrek) so much more than its cursed human/ogre Fiona (Cameran Diaz) – just as it can’t be easy for all the girls who have to watch movies where there stories are either absent or in the background.

Yes, there is the cadre of witches this time around, and other Shrek iterations have involved kick-ass princesses, but this franchise, like most animated films, still puts males front and center. Here’s hoping that soon some of these happily ever after tales will focus on a female who longs – like Shrek – for adventure and purpose rather than merely “true love’s kiss.” Or, as Geena Davis puts it, here’s hoping for the day “when gender equality is no longer a fairy tale

What if we waged “war” on child sex trafficking?

I am not a fan of the whole “war on drugs” ideology. I don’t much like the idea of waging war generally. And the DARE campaigns and Red Ribbon Week’s seem pretty useless in lots of ways — as well as full of misinformation. My daughter learned, for example, that aspirin and caffeine are DRUGS in 1st grade. Seeing me pour my morning coffee the next day she wailed, “Mommy, don’t drink that, you’ll die.”

Though not a fan of turning problems into wars, I agree with Dan Rather’s suggestion here that it’s ludicrous we have a “war on drugs” but no concomitant “war on child sex trafficking.”

This issue needs to go mainstream, and I hope the hour long coverage pulls a wide audience and sparks not a war,  but a movement to end what is in practice child abuse, sexual assault, and rape on a MASSIVE scale.

Read Rather’s full piece here.

What if you wanna read about military rape culture?

Well, check out my new article in the Spring issue of Ms. magazine on newsstands now. So excited to be included in a mag I have read for over 20 years!

What if men are made of iron and women are made to ogle? (A review of Iron Man 2 with a few spoilers)

(cross-posted at the Ms. Magazine blog here)

It’s right there in the title – Iron MAN- not man in terms of the (supposedly neutral) term meaning “human,” but man meaning male. As I sat watching the movie with my thirteen year old son (and cringing at all the overt sexualization of females), I came to the conclusion that Iron Man 2 is really about the glory of males, the fact they are indeed “iron,” that with their strength and ingenuity, the world will be saved.

Along with this key lesson, a number of other gender lessons are imparted in the film:
On men and masculinity:

  1. Men don’t cry, they scream – as Ivan (played by Mickey Rourke) does when his dad dies.
  2. Men like power tools, technology, welding and weapons. Talking, not so much.
  3. Men are “big wheels” and “lone gunman.” They may say “It’s not all about me” – as Tony Stark (played Robert Downey Jr) does at the beginning of the film – but, really, it is.
  4. Men need to leave a “legacy” and build a better future. The best way to do this is via weapons, wealth, and womanizing
  5. Men are fabulous businessmen – so fabulous they can successfully privatize world peace.
  6. “Real men” (aka Tony Stark) think the “liberal agenda” is “boring.”
  7. Men will always need to be in “the theatre of war.” As such, they might as well turn their bodies into weapons.
  8. Men’s hatred of women is cute and humorous – or as one blogger puts it, “Tony stark’s privileged sexist playboy antics are hilarious” teaching viewers that “Men’s sexism is funny and endearing, as is their greed.”
  9. The male body is a weapon. Literally, figuratively, metaphorically. Man is iron. Or, as Andrew O’Hehir naming of the Iron Man suit as “impenetrable iron-dong costume” in his Salonreview suggests, the iron suit allows for the fulfillment of the male body not only as weapon, but as walking erection – hard and ready all the time.

On females and femininity (these lessons are longer, you see, because females need a lot of teaching):

  1. Women are for dancing – either around poles (as in Iron Man 1) or on stage as props for Tony Stark at the Stark Expo (in Iron Man 1). Wherever they are dancing, they should be scantily clad. And a note to cameramen – shoot them from behind so as to get maximum amount of booty shots – as in the opening scene of Iron Man 2 where our gaze is directed to numerous bent over butts in tight red spandex hot pants. As O’Herir points out in his Salon review, there is “no irony” in these “loving, loop-the-loop tracking shots of these dancin’ hoochie-mamas with their spray-bronzed legs and perfect Spandex asses.” Rather it is, as this blogger aptly names it, “a vomit-inducingly sexist scene involving various swooping close-ups of womens’ body parts as they gyrate.”
  2. Women are objects to be ogled and joked about. This lesson permeates both films. In the sequel, when Tony is shown his new car and “the new model” is ready, he makes a joke about the woman standing next to the vehicle: “Does she come with the car?” Or, in other words, women, like cars, should be sleek, good looking, fast, and expendable. Tony assesses the new female character Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) using the same parameters – her intelligence, multi-lingual skills, and martial arts training don’t seem to matter as he uses Google to find her old modeling pictures. As Froley of ReelThinker notes, she is put “in her underwear just for the hell of it” and her character is no more than a “near-cameo.” This incites Froley to assume that director “Jon Favreau must be some kind of chauvinist dog, because he takes every opportunity to objectify women.”
  3. Women need to have good make-up know how. Both Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Natalie are not only beautifully made up themselves, but also have the foundation skills to mask Tony’s various bumps and bruises. This skill, along with their ability to take precarious, mincing steps on incredibly high heels, frames femininity as a performance that benefits males (whether via hiding their bruises for press junkets, wiggling their butts for the male gaze, or spreading their bodies for male pleasure – as the female reporter, later referred to as “garbage,’ does for Stark).
  4. Womens most important asset is their body. Even when they are in full-on battle mode (as Natalie is near the end of the sequel) they should remain hyper-vigilant about their bodily display. They don’t get to wear “iron man” suits – only really tight body suits. What fun would it be if their boobs and butts were hidden under metal?
  5. Women are petty and jealous – as when Pepper refers to Tony’s reporter liaison as “garbage”. Make fun of their jealousy by telling them “green doesn’t look good on you” (as Tony says to Pepper when his ogling of Natalie is obviously bothering her).
  6. The female body is weak. Pepper, after being saved by Tony near the end of Iron Man 2, says “I quit…My body can’t take this stress.” So, after two hours of watching Tony’s body take bullets, bombs, electric shocks, and Palladium poisoning, we hear poor Pepper can’t take “the stress” of being CEO for a week.
  7. Women are very forgiving – ignore her, lie to her, bring her the one food she is allergic to as a gift (strawberries), and generally make it known that you are a lifelong womanizer – none of that will matter as long as you kiss her at the right moment. Or as Kyle Smith gleefully notes, “the Gwyneth Paltrow character is comfortable with being Tony Stark’s assistant instead of judo-chopping and blasting away at bad guys herself, in the somewhat silly manner of virtually every female lead in action movies these days.” Yes, it’s soooo silly when we act as if females want to be part of the action! Instead, as noted by Lou Lumenick at the New York Post, “Paltrow is reduced to mothering our hero.” Or, as another blogger more caustically puts it, “if I were Gwyneth Paltrow and I just played the role of a stiletto-heel-wearing submissive secretary cleaning up after some rich white chauvinist asshole, I’d send back my Oscar.”

In case these gender lessons are not enough backlash for you, the film also provides some lessons in racism, homophobia, and the wonders of militarized capitalism as follows:

  1. Tony Stark explains his desire to no longer making weapons with “I saw Americans killed by my own weapons in Afghanistan!” I can’t put it better than this blogger: “do I even need to mention how stupid and racist it is to say that he was ok with his weapons being used to kill all those other non-Americans?” In this same vein, as noted in my earlier post, various Others are framed as “evil terrorists,” namely Middle Easterners and North Koreans.
  2. Black actors are exchangeable. Swap Don Cheadle for Terrence Howard. No one will notice.
  3. Organizations which discriminate against homosexuals deserve huge donations. (In the sequel, Tony donates a modern art collection, which Pepper has collected over 10 years, to the Boy Scouts of America).
  4. The government is made up of almost entirely of white males. As is the military. This is a good thing. As is capitalism.  Or, as O’Hehir argues, the films takes the superhero genre and “embraces its most militaristic, fascistic, ultra-individualist ideology. “

And, that’s not all, the message of the films are spilling-over into our fast food culture with Burger King offering four lifestyle accessories for girls and four action-packed toys for boys.” Yeah, now those kiddos that may not get to see the film can still learn important gender lessons. Girls, get busy accessorizing! Boys, take action!

As for this feminist, I won’t be stepping out in my non-high heels in any hurry to see the sure-to-follow Iron Man 3, that’s for sure.

What if Peace was Profitable? (A review of Iron Man)

I am re-posting this review from last year as I anxiously prepare to view Iron Man 2. I have not watched ANY previews or read any hype so as to go in without (too m)any preconceptions of the sequel. I will be posting a review at the Ms. blog (and will cross-post here). Until then, let’s revisit my take on the first Iron Man:

The film starts with Stark (Robert Downey, Jr) in full-on cool mode, swilling whiskey on the rocks and quipping “no gang signs” when a soldier holds up a peace sign. A bit later, this womanizing head of a mega-weapons corporation notes that there is no profit in peace – that it would, in effect, put him (and many others) out of work. Yet, Stark has a change of heart (quite literally) after being almost fatally wounded in a secret snuff attack by his partner and nemeses, Obidiah (played with tycoon nastiness by Jeff Bridges). With the help of Yinsen, another captor, Stark is saved and has a new heart in place – literally, a technological heart that keeps him alive, but also, more significantly, a heartfelt awakening to the realities of war and weaponry.

However, as Sarah Seltzer at RH reality check writes, “the movie seems to imply that his moral doubts kick into gear mostly because the dark-skinned baddies got their hands on his stockpile.” Or, in other words, Stark isn’t too concerned about militarization and arms dealing until the arms are in the hands of the ‘evil terrorists.’ Unfortunately, the film does nothing to trouble the ‘you’re either with us or your against us’ dichotomy. According the logic of the film, the Afghan baddies are ‘against us’ (except for Yinsen, the doctor who saves Stark and is, of course, conveniently nixed before the film is in full throttle). Moreover, as the side character from SHIELD (the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division) plays a considerable role in saving Pepper Potts and Iron Man while also making the annihilation of Obidiah possible, the film suggests that the real enemies are ‘over there’ and what we really need are bigger ‘shields’ to protect us – a message with which the current administration would certainly approve. And, even though the baddie is a corporate white guy, he is not framed as bad because he makes weapons or loves wealth and power, but because he trades with the wrong people (the Middle Easterners that the film stereotypically casts as terrorist cave dwellers). This representation of ‘baddies’ using U.S. weapons for evil purposes is furthered when Khan finds the remnants of the first Iron Man suit in the desert in order to retool them for his own use. Here, good U.S. weapons (the Iron Man suit) are stolen by bad terrorists (Khan). Thus, the message is not so much anti-weapon as anti-weapons for (middle-eastern) Others.

Once back in the good ole U.S.of A. (yet another dichotomy the film fails to unpack: US good, Middle East bad) Stark, the head of a corporation at the heart of the military industrial complex, announces at a press conference that his company will no longer make weapons. Heads start spinning and stocks start dropping – just as they would in the real world if Lockheed Martin or General Electric decided to disavow making weapons. Weapons are big business – one of the biggest – and, as the film in its techno-glam super-hero style vaguely reveals, this business requires perpetual war (as well as selling weapons to as many buyers as possible- whether ‘friend’ or ‘foe’).

While its nice to think some of the pro-peace, anti-military industrial subtext will travel home with theatre goers, when I asked one of the boys that joined my kids and I at the movies what he thought the movie was trying to say about war, his enthusiastic reply was “Weapons Rule!” Unfortunately, I think this is the message that many will ultimately take away from the film – that technology rules and what we really need is “better weapons” which could rule the world in an ultra-cool way – via Iron Men! Seems like this type of weapon would in fact be Bush’s wet dream – wasn’t that the sort of look he was aiming for when he donned the flack suit and announced “Mission Accomplished”? Can’t you just see Bush all rigged up in that neato red and gold Iron Man suit, quipping “I ain’t only gonna smoke you outta your caves, I’m gonna fire blast you out!” Of course, Stark plays a much different Iron Man than Bush would – he has a heart and a brain, and really does seem to have turned against the idea that weapons are the answer – only problem is, the audience may not be able to make that turn with him when the movie makes it look so damn much like “Weapons Rule!”

*As an aside, is there any reason Pepper Potts has to wear heels so high she can barely walk? And, why the hell didn’t she ever get to gear up in a Iron Woman suit? I suggest purple and silver, with no heels.

**For great analysis of this film, see WOC PhD and Feminist Underground.