What if what Mars needs is PARENTS, not MOMS? (A review of Mars needs Moms)

(Cross-posted at Ms. Magazine blog here)

Given the official trailers’ focus on mothers as nags whose main purpose is to cook and vacuum, I was very pleasantly surprised by the new Disney film Mars Needs Moms. However, I seem to be in the minority–most view the film as an anti-feminist screed.

Going into the film well aware of Disney’s representation of mothers as either good and dead (see Cinderella, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid), as evil-stepmothers (Cinderella, Snow White), or as non-maternal villains (The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, The Rescuers), I fully expected Mars Needs Moms to p0rtray the tired mother as either dead angel or evil witch. To my pleasant surprise, it instead explored gender as socially constructed, parenting as problematically gendered and both sexes as equally good at heroics.

Though the trailers themselves play on sexist, anti-mom stereotypes (using copy about moms such as “we can’t live with them”), the film, a 3D sci-fi tale of the young Milo travelling to Mars to rescue his kidnapped mother, nods to what a difficult job parenting is (noting at one point that the Nanny-bots created to raise young Martians have to be retired after raising only one child even though Martians excel at robot creation).

The film opens with the standard depiction of moms as overbearing nags who limit the fun of (boy) children, but it quickly moves into a nuanced (and entertaining) portrayal of a planet without traditional mothers. Martians are supposedly no good at mothering, which Gribble (sidekick to the young male protagonist Milo) notes is ironic, seeing as Mars is a society run by women. Here, Gribble plays the role of gender essentialist, assuming only women can fulfill the mothering role. Yet what the film ultimately suggests is that either gender can mother and, even more radically, mothering should be re-vamped as “parenting.”

Though one post I read interprets the depiction of parenting as heteronormative, noting “Mars Needs Moms is an incredibly anti-gay film,” I disagree. The post argues that “The movie goes out of its way to show that before Butchy McLes-alien took over, all children were raised by a man and a woman. Just like the Martian bible says it should be! …” It then goes on to claim that the film is “offensive to anyone who has a non-structuralist family … the overall message of the film is ‘Unless you’re raised by one Mom AND one Dad, then you’re wrong.’

However, what the post doesn’t note is that the movie makes a marked shift from it’s opening use of the term “mother” to closing emphasis on the non-gendered term “parent.” In fact, in one scene a slew of male parents holding young Martian hatchlings dominates the screen, indicating that what these hatchlings are missing is not mothers, per se, but parents rather than nannybots.

This same post rallies against the “inter-species romance between Gribble and Ki, since apparently that’s okay, as long as it’s not gay.” I would instead argue that this romance queers the heteronormative model.

Other reviews offer what I see as a misreading of feminism. For example, Alynda Wheat in her People review cites the “nasty gender politics of the film,” arguing that the evil Supervisor is “a vicious caricature of a feminist who thinks men are stupid and raising kids is a waste of a woman’s time. While I see what Wheat is getting at, her wording suggests feminists are man-hating, anti-mother villains and that the Supervisor is a particular nasty incarnation of these tenets.

In another review, Tom Long mocks women’s studies as a discipline, writing that the film’s portrayal of the “ideal mom” as “stay-at-home housewife”  is likely to instigate a “stampede of women’s studies doctoral candidates trying to file thesis proposals” about the movie. Again framing feminism as an anti-mothering movement that demonizes the housewife, Long also makes a faulty assumption that the mother of the film is a housewife. She may be, and we only see her at home doing “domestic duties,” but to presume she does not also have a job falls into the old dualist trap that suggests some women work outside the home, some inside it. The reality is that most women do both. This take also falsely promotes the tired notion that feminists are anti-housewife and anti-mother.

While Melissa Harris argues the message of the film is that “ambition turns women into soulless ugly overlords who give up motherhood & dispose of men,” I would counter that the film displays the “power-over” model as the problem–a paradigm that denies the importance of parenting (in the film and the world). Yes, “boy with gun sets the world right,” but Milo also goes through a gender-troubling transformation, learning to empathize, co-operate and appreciate caregiving and nurturance–quite a shift from the boy’s-boy at the outset who talked back and loved zombies.

Other critics were troubled by the film’s representations of race. Admittedly, the dreadlocked hair and tribal-type dancing does smack a bit of the Dances with Wolves/Avatar meme, but the film suggests it is these more communal, non-hierarchical and gender-troubling characters who offer a better societal model than that promoted by the militarized Supervisor. And here, the film again deconstructs norms of gender, revealing that what we presume to be hyper-masculinity is actually a hyper-militarism that can be acted out regardless of gender.

Mars Needs Moms is no uber-feminist utopian film, but it’s a step in the right direction for the notoriously anti-feminist Disney. And at least the mom is not dead.

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What if instead of trying to jump on the Twilight bandwagon, Little Red Riding Hood opted for a feminst re-envisioning of the tale?

There is no doubt that the studio execs who greenlit the new film Little Red Riding Hood were likely licking their wolfy chops at the thought of creating the next Twilight, hoping to lure innocent young maidens to their darkened theaters. The film obviously echoes the Twilight franchise in many regards–it uses the same director as the first Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke), casts Billy Burke as the father (the same actor that plays Bella Swan’s father Charlie in the Twilight films), relies on soaring camera angles to capture Forks-like forests, is saturated with color symbolism, utilizes slow motion and extended stares and relies on first-person voiceover narratives a la Bella. However, unlike Twilight, Little Red Riding Hood does not encourage viewers to invest in the narrative of its flat characters and predictable “who is the monster” mystery.

Heck, Little Red Riding Hood makes Twilight’s Bella, Edward, and Jacob seem like incredibly rounded, complex characters. Valerie (Amanda Seyfried), she of the Red Cape, does little more than stare wide-eyed into the camera–that is, when she is not kissing or imagining herself kissing her love, Peter (Shiloh Fernandez). Peter is the woodcutter who doesn’t make enough money–we know that, but we know little else. The rich love rival, Henry (Max Irons), seems a rather nice fellow, but other than being vaguely likeable and somewhat heroic he, too, is a very flat. At least Jacob had a sense of humor, Edward’s angst was palpable and Bella–that character we so love to hate and hate to love–was, among other things, clumsy, insecure, stubborn and well-read.

Though many critics framed female Twilight fans as mindless, shrieking ninnies, this newfangled attempt to cash in on the Twilight craze is thus far failing with audiences. Why? Because Twilight seduces its fans on many levels (as I argue in my forthcoming book), tapping into cultural anxieties about sexuality, religion, race, the institution of marriage and changing norms of femininity and masculinity. Granted, it is no literary masterpiece, but it is a modern-day fairy tale replete with all the ideological underpinnings of that genre. Little Red Riding Hood, on the other hand, is ironically less of a fairy tale than Twilight. In effect, it is a shell of fairy tale, with all the props and costumes and requisite “what big eyes you have” lines, but with none of the moral lessons or deep allegories that make fairy tales (and their modern descendants such as Twilight) so resonant.

As Catherine Orenstein argues in her book Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale, fairy tales are “among our most powerful socializing narratives.” This is why Twilight tapped into the cultural imagination, because it functions as a socializing narrative–teaching, for example, that abstinence is the best policy and (white) family values must be preserved at all cost. Not desirable lessons, but lessons nonetheless. Little Red Riding Hood, in contrast, teaches little else than the fact that Amanda Seyfried looks fantastic in a red cloak.

In her book, Orenstein examines the origins of Red’s tale, arguing that its permutations over the years reflect changing cultural mores. While it started out as a “bawdy morality tale” hundreds of years ago, with Red dying after she stripped down and slept with the wolf, it mutated into more of a damsel-in-distress narrative, with the woodsman/father saving Red’s life (and also her virginity, or “little red cap”). Fast forward to today, where Bella/Red is caught in a love triangle with a gorgeous vampire and an abs-tacular wolf-boy. While Bella’s forays into the forest function on various levels–eroticizing abstinence, making sexualized violence seem romantic, and framing marriage and motherhood as the happy ending for 21st century females–Valerie/Red in Little Red Riding Hood seems to go into the woods, her red cloak contrasting so beautifully with the snow and menacing trees, only because making the film look good (and like Twilight) will guarantee its success.

Valerie may be the feminist character author Sarah Blakley-Cartwright claims she is in her YA book adaptation of the film script, but on screen, her character is little more than a quasi-feminist shell. Yes, she walks into the woods when she is not supposed to, yes she has sexual longings (gasp!), yes she is determined to solve the mystery of the wolf and save the village, but none of these feminist leanings are framed as such. Instead, the focus is on her romantic yearning to make out with Peter without the pesky fear of wolf interruption. Even the close of the film focuses on this desire, with her gazing into Peter’s eyes. Yes, she has escaped arranged marriage and slain the wolf, and yes, she is living outside the strictures of society in her grandmother’s cottage, but she has hardly become a rabble-rousing Red. Instead, she embodies the “you go, girl” type of faux feminism, wherein being a sexual creature is framed as the only path to empowerment. While she gets down and dirty with her male hero of choice, that is hardly a feminist re-imagining of the tale.

As noted in a NYMag.com review,

Like Bella Swan, Amanda Seyfried’s Valerie is a swooning obsessive who is ultimately a bystander to her own life, whose beauty is power and whose only important choice is who she will marry.

In this regard, the film is a sad copy of Twilight’s weakest parts. Additionally, as it fails to tap into cultural anxieties or desires in any meaningful way, it is little more than a pretty red cloak draped over a skeletal version of its Twilight predecessor. (Maddeningly, it also copies the white privilege, racialized underpinnings of Twilight, with all leads played by white actors and the heavily accented guards/servants played by men of color!)

When a movie makes Twilight look like good cinema, we need to question what those wolfish studio execs were thinking. They may be able to lure us into theaters with their glossy images and lovely cinematography, but such lightweight, derivative rehashes can hardly capture our hearts and minds, let alone create the type of cultural zeitgeist spawned by the much-maligned but hugely successful Twilight franchise.

Little Red Riding Hood admittedly gives us a semi-strong female at its center (and throws in a strong grandmother as well), but it fails to be the feminist tale I hoped for. Instead, it seems little more than an attempt to cash in on the supernatural YA craze–this eyes-on-the-dollar-signs seems to me what critics should be questioning rather than blaming Twilight for the lackluster Little Red Riding Hood. Twilight is not the monster; rather, the cultural messages that encourage females to buy into their own cultural subordination are monstrous, and such narratives are pumped out by Hollywood at an alarming rate. Sadly, Little Red Riding Hood is hardly an exception.

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

What if you want to be the hero of your own narrative AND you are female? Well, don’t look to Rango for the answers… (A film review)

Rango opens with our lizard hero accompanied by a headless, legless, one-armed Barbie as his female companion. Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp) imagines himself as a suave leading man instead of the googley-eyed lizard he is, draping his arm around Barbie and asking “are those real?” Ah, the joy of objectifying sexist jokes in kids films. What fun!

As you can imagine, this opening did not bode well for my hopes that this film might just be the one that has equal female and male characters (in numbers as well as in narrative arc) and maybe, just maybe, a representation of femininity that goes beyond the princess, witch, dead mother meme stamped on our psyches by Disney.

Thankfully, the film moved beyond dismembered Barbie, introducing us to a key female character – Beans (voiced by Isla Fisher) – a rebellious, smart, and outspoken female lizard trying to save her farm as well as discover the truth behind her town’s water shortage. Alas, she is not the hero, Rango is. He has to mosey in with his Depp swagger to save the town – and, in the end – to save Beans as well, with the obligatory blossoming romance between Rango and Beans closing the film.

Yawn, you might be thinking.

But wait — even though the representation of females is problematic (not to mention the stereotypical depiction of the one Native American character who is – surprise surprise – a noble warrior type of few words), the film itself is a visual treat with the dessert dwelling animal protagonists vividly portrayed, the action scenes expertly paced, and the narrative itself offering a lovely blend of adventure, mystery, and humor.

Yet, I don’t want to like this film, damn it!

Yes, I like Johnny Depp, yes I appreciated the updating of the western genre with the tongue in cheek critiques of corruption, consumerism, and our apathy towards the environment, but NO NO NO I don’t want yet another film that has scant female characters and for the billionth time relies on the damsel in distress being saved by a plucky male hero. Puke.

It’s true that in a key escape scene, Beans does the driving and she is the one (yes ONE!) woman to join the group setting out to save the town, but is this type of paltry tokenism really enough? Why not make her Rango’s EQUAL? Why not nix the romantic, hetero-monogamous ending? Why not cut the horrid cat-fight scene between Beans and one of the few other female characters, a fox named Angelique, in which Beans and Angelique call each other “tart,” “tramp,” and “floozie”?

To keep with the “all women are catty sluts” message, there are also a handful of saloon-hall prostitutes in the background. Why place women front and center when you can instead place them on the side, all tarted up and ready to claw each other apart? At least Beans is closer to the center of the film – too bad she has an affliction where she freezes up, going all catatonic at the most inopportune moments. How feminine of her!

I can hear the groaning right about now – why do you have to be so picky? Can’t you just enjoy the film for what it is – a crazy take on the western genre with several metatexual components, a great voice cast, and jaw-dropping animation? Well, yes, I can, and I did. Yet, I can also, like Rango, call for a “paradigm shift” – one that stops representing the world as if it was 90% male, 7% slut, 2% silent/catatonic female, and 1% headless Barbie.

What if you don’t want to wrestle a girl? Just justify via religion and voila, instant hero!

(cross-posted from Ms. Blog)

“Really? Girls wrestling with boys? Has feminism really lost its mind?” So goes the question from Catholic blogger Defend Us in Battle, writing about Joel Northrup’s decision to withdraw from the Iowa state wrestling tournament rather than compete with female opponent Cassy Herkelman.

Northrup’s withdrawal resulted in the first-ever win for a female at the tournament. However, Herkelman was denied the opportunity to actually wrestle for the win due to Northrup’s forfeit. Referencing his personal faith as the reason for his forfeit, Northrup stated:

As a matter of conscience and faith, I do not believe that it is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner. It is unfortunate that I have been placed in a situation not seen in most other high school sports in Iowa.

Females have been competing with boys on wrestling teams in Iowa for more than two decades. If Northrup’s beliefs translate into a personal conviction that he cannot wrestle against a female, then why is he wrestling in a state where wrestling is co-ed? Even more pertinent, why are so many championing his choice, framing him as a religious hero? If he had used religion to similarly state he could not wrestle against a person of color or a homosexual, would he still be applauded? Likely not.

I don’t wish to condemn this young male for his decision, especially as he may not have been given a choice of whether he would follow the patriarchal tenets of the faith his family follows. Rather, I would like to condemn the championing of this “choice” by news outlets and bloggers who fail to consider how this relates to Title IX, to the sexism still commonplace in sports and to the supposed separation of church and state. For example, this story names three key questions of the debate, none of which even obliquely refer to sexism or Title IX.

Northrup has been championed by many, particular many religious and/or MRA (men’s rights activists) bloggers, most of whom fail to recognize that his statements are not only about “faith” but also represent an implicit condemnation of Title IX, the 1972 amendment that states,

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…

Northrup goes further than using his faith as excuse: He suggests that such a “situation”–namely, girls competing equally in sports–is “unfortunate.” Yet Northrup is being framed as a “genuine” hero for his decision, as in this newspaper article, which goes to pains to note he has “four little sisters he adores.” (Yes, kind of like the “I’m not racist; I have a black friend” excuse.)

Another story from Mercury News frames Northrup as a heroic martyr who “found himself in a quandary no sophomore should ever have to face–paired against a girl in the state wrestling tournament.” According to author Gary Peterson, Northrup “did the only thing a gentleman could. He forfeited.” Yes, because competing with a female who worked just as hard to be there as he did, who has just as much dedication to her sport as he does, would be the coward’s way out, right? (Notice also the latent sexism in this author’s language: Herkelman is a “girl” while Northrup is a “gentleman.”)

Peterson then suggests we “shoot a raised eyebrow at the Iowa High School Athletic Association” for not recognizing that:

there are plenty of sports in which men and women can compete together as well as against one another on more or less equal and nonthreatening terms–golf, tennis, bowling, Pictionary.

Pictionary? Please.

Bloggers on the religious right, such as Defend Us in Battle, also argue that this story is not about sex/gender, but rather, “about conscience and faith.” Not surprisingly, Defend Us offers the huge generalization that feminist-liberal school officials don’t care about things like conscience or faith,” equating this story with claims that feminism promotes violence against women (!), goes against god and/or is bringing about the ruination of humanity. Wow, all because a young female with great skill as a wrestler threatened the faith of a male. If one’s faith is that tenuous, perhaps one should not be competing in wrestling in the first place?

Alas, as Defund Us notes, such sports can be “intimate and touchy.” Gasp.

He writes,

I just don’t think boys and girls should compete against each other in most sports, especially ones like wrestling where the physical contact is so intimate and touchy. Yes, I know gay boys probably compete, but they are the ones having to make the decision and deal with any uncomfortableness.

Here, the author suggests that “gay boys” can make such decisions and “deal with any uncomfortableness” but that girls (regardless of sexual orientation) cannot. Hmmm.

True Manhood similarly warns readers that female wrestlers go against god and “natural manhood,” writing,

Deep inside every man is a sense of wildness, a rugged ‘warrior’ drive and our natural inclination towards adventure.  There’s nothing natural inside a man that says ‘I should [sic] my brute strength to pin a woman to the floor to win a tournament.’

True Manhood goes on to write:

It’s not authentically feminine for women to do things men are naturally inclined to do … It’s not about some notion of equality that a woman should be able to do whatever a man can do.  It’s about the notion of order.

He ends with a call to “TrueMan up!” Excuse me while I vomit up my latte.

It’s about order?!? As in the “divine right” of male rule? Yes, because the world would clearly fall apart if females wrestle males–next thing you know, those little ladies might want to vote and such!

Meanwhile, as Northrup is granted sainthood on the Internet, the achievements of Megan Black and Cassy Herkelman–the two girls who made history by qualifying for the Wrestling championship this year–have been relatively silenced. So it’s up to those of us on the side of gender equity and fairness in sports (let alone the separation of church and state) to salute the first female win in the Iowa State Wrestling Championship! To those of you shouting the “True Man Up” chorus, your thunderous support of Northrup is insulting to the young females who earned their spot in the tournament in the same way as the males.