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.