What if you found the LACK of hunger in The Hunger Games hard to stomach?

While reading the Hunger Games trilogy, I relished Suzanne Collins loving descriptions of food, especially given they were accompanied by a wider critique of the politics of hunger. As I read, I shook my head in dismay along with Katniss at the capitol’s fondness for purging tonic and obeisance to the body beautiful. More recently, I was dismayed to find this beloved series has been purged of its more political components on its journey to the big screen, not only via the heightened focus on romance, but also via the purging of the political critique of hunger.

Katniss Everdeen, our intrepid heroine, comes from the food impoverished District 12, where starving to death is a pressing, daily concern. Food shortages serve as a driving part of the narrative, and the astute Katniss realizes the capitol deliberately uses food as a weapon to manipulate the populace, that food is “just another tool to cause misery…A way to plant hatred between the starving workers of the Seam and those who can generally count on Supper.”

But food is more than a weapon in the book – the procuring and sharing of it is an act not only of survival, but of love. The book’s heroic characters – Katniss, Gale, Peeta  – all provide food for others while the villains – the Capitol, the Career tributes – hoard and waste food. In the book, the perennially hungry Katniss (how refreshing to see a female character that appreciates food!) is astonished by the lavish meals at the Capitol, noting “I’ve never had food like this.” When presented with delectable rich soup and irresistible desserts she shares “probably the best thing I can do between now and the Games is put on a few pounds” (again, how refreshing, a female that wants to GAIN weight!) Here, Katniss is thinking strategy – she wants to nourish herself for the games. She also realizes, though, the work required to put on such a meal, noting she would have had to hunt and gather for days to even approximate such a sumptuous meal. In a political analysis typical of her character, she muses

“What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by? What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to roll in and die for their entertainment?”

Alas, Hollywood, like the citizens of the Capitol, seems more interested in decorating bodies and mass-producing “entertainment” than in bringing the more political messages of Collins book to life. While the film does not completely jettison the book’s focus on hunger, it is by no means a driving part of the narrative – food is relegated to a side table, so to speak, with a loaf of bread captured on screen here, a fancy dessert propped before Katniss there. But, Katniss is not driven by the threat of starvation like she is in the books, nor is Panem society excoriated for its 99%-1% divide.

While Jennifer Lawrence is brilliant in the role, and while the visual feel of the film is mesmerizing, I left the theatre feeling hungry, feeling a bit like it was one of those “hollow days” described by Katniss in the book, where her empty belly echoes the gaping maw of injustice in the society in which she struggles to survive. “I’ve lost a lot of weight in the arena, I need some extra calories,” she noted at this point in the book. The film, like Katniss’ in the games, is emaciated, lacking the weight of the densely caloric book with its meaty political analysis.

If only the filmmakers had taken Katniss’ comment in the book to heart, “I mean, it’s the Hunger Games, right?” Here, she is strategizing with Rue regarding taking action against the Career Tributes, and explaining that taking out their food supply is key. Katniss recognizes that forcing the privileged Career Tributes to be hungry, as she has been most of her life, could turn the tide of the games. If only viewers would be forced to be hungry in the same way – to have the appetizing visuals removed, the romance made less palatable, the sweet, fast-food narrative rendered harder to chew, maybe we too could experience some game-changing hunger. If only the film had not lost the more weighty dealings with food, and given us a richer, more politicized meal…

 

 

Published in: on March 23, 2012 at 9:17 am  Comments (7)  

What if you want a film that promotes “the egg as person” meme of recently proposed pro-life laws? Then Breaking Dawn: Part 1 is the Flick for You

This review was originally posted at Ms. Blog here.
SPOILER ALERT: This review reveals major events in Breaking Dawn.

As I sat watching the vampiric ode to white weddings that dominated the opening scenes of Breaking Dawn: Part 1, I waited anxiously for the honeymoon and morning-after scenes, wondering how the latest Twilight film would present vampire Edward’s “headboard-busting” sex and his new wife Bella’s bruised body.

The highly sanitized depictions in the film, compared to the Twilight book series, removed the vast majority of Bella Swan’s “violet blotches” and her subsequent attempts to conceal them. In the book, as she gazes at herself in the mirror, she notes:

There was a faint shadow across one of my cheekbones, and my lips were a little swollen…The rest of me was decorated with patches of blue and purple. I concentrated on the bruises that would be the hardest to hide—my arms and my shoulders. … Of course, these were just developing. I’d look even worse tomorrow. [italics mine]

The movie only decorates her with a few tiny bruises on her arm and shoulder, a diminishment that can be seen as an improvement given that it does not romanticize a bruised and battered body to the same extent as the book.

But another narrative thread in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga that is problematic from a feminist perspective–the latent anti-abortion message—is heightened, not diminished, in the film. While some argue that the book is pro-choice, as Bella chooses to carry out her pregnancy, the way Bella’s pregnancy is depicted and discussed–along with the strong pro-abstinence messages of the saga, the religious underpinnings and the motherhood-is-the-natural-and-happy-ending-for-all-females tone–result in a narrative that leans far more towards the anti-abortion stance.

When Bella discovers she is pregnant, 14 days after her wedding to Edward, he is horrified, telling her that Carlisle will “get that thing out.” Bella responds “That thing?” seemingly distraught at his choice of words. This attention to language continues in further scenes when the psychic vampire Alice repeatedly uses the word “fetus” and is corrected each time by her vampire sister Rosalie, “Say the word baby!…It’s just a little baby!”

Given that the film ultimately depicts the pregnancy and resulting birth as miraculous, the word “baby” is framed as more apt than the more pro-choice-preferred “fetus.” Bella’s instant transformation into a woman who will protect her pregnancy at all costs–even her own life–also echo common anti-abortion narratives.

Edward, Jacob, Alice, Carlisle and the Quileute wolves are all against Bella’s choice to carry out the pregnancy–and understandably so, given she looks like a living skeleton. The fetus, as Carlisle tells her, “isn’t compatible with your body–it’s too strong, too fast-growing.” Yet Bella never considers not carrying out the pregnancy, even though her life is clearly at risk—something that would no doubt make those who propose “egg as person” laws and “let women die” acts quite happy. The life of the fetus is framed as more important than Bella’s, a sentiment that colors these pieces of anti-abortion legislation. And Bella is portrayed as a heroic martyr, the ultimate mother-to-be, rather than as a delusional lovestruck teen with a seeming death wish.

Bella is duly punished in pregnancy and childbirth, bringing to mind Genesis 3:16: “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; In pain you shall bring forth children; Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Yet the closing birth scene is more sanitized than depicted in the the book–yes, Bella’s spine is broken, but there are no crunching bones, no sounds of the vampire-human hybrid gnawing its way out of the womb, no vomiting of blood. Instead, Bella lays prone and skeletal, looking like a very bruised, very pregnant, very dead Snow White, as Edward, Vampire Charming, bites her neck, arms and legs in hopes of turning her into a vampire before she dies. The “happy ending” is the birth of Renesmee, whom Rosalie—depicted in the books as having a ruined life because she cannot have children—happily swaddles and kisses.

If you know the saga, you know that Bella does not die–another message that her choice to carry out the pregnancy was the right one. While it’s true she makes this choice, the book and film never suggest any other choice, leaving us with an anti-abortion message seductively packaged as a true-love fairy tale. Bella is cast as a modern Snow White, whose body, shriveled and bruised like a rotting apple, is able to bloom once again thanks not only to Edward’s life-saving bites but to Renesmee’s birth.

What if In Time Wastes Time? : A Review with Occupy Musings

Originally posted here, at Ms. blog. 

Based on a very timely premise, the new film In Timeironically moves rather slowly over the course of its 109 minutes. Lacking a “time is running out” feel and failing to deliver an edge-of-your-seat “every moment counts” experience, the film instead plods along in its attempt to examine wealth disparity through the metaphor of owning time. The allegorical futuristic dystopia in which the film is set aptly echoes the 99 percent/1 percent split popularized in the Occupy movement, but the narrative itself lacks political punch.

The movie opens strongly with Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) conversing with his mother (Olivia Wilde)–yes, I know their respective ages make that seem impossible, but keep reading–about how they will manage their remaining time so that each can survive the day. As we quickly learn, “time is now the currency.” People are genetically engineered to stop aging at 25 and then given a year on their “clock”–a glowing countdown mechanism embedded in everyone’s arm. When the clock hits zero, one dies instantly, which drives the need to replenish one’s body clock.

In this world of huge wealth differentials, where time is now literally money, the “rich can live forever” and those in the “ghetto” function from minute to minute, scrounging each day to beg, barter or steal enough time to stay alive. The film is saturated with time(ly) references–there are Minutemen gangsters who steal time from others, Timekeeper law enforcers, Time Borders that one has to pay in months or years to cross, 99 Second Shops, hotels with suites that cost two months a night, and Time Missions for the needy that donate time to those starving for minutes.

[SPOILER ALERT--the rest of this review contains plot spoilers]

In a particularly effective early scene, Will’s mother can’t afford the bus fare to get back home from her garment district job–it’s been raised from one hour to two—and she only has an hour-and-a-half left on her body clock. She tries to make it back to Will before her clock runs out, and the two run towards one another, her dead body collapsing into his arms as her clock runs out. The scene evocatively captures the run-for-your-life existence of the “time poor.”

On the other side of the spectrum, the rich have thousands of days on their clocks, and hoard millions of years in the bank. Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried) “comes from time,” as the film puts it, or is one of the lucky few born into immortality–the class that will never run out of time.

After his mother dies, Will crosses multiple Time Borders into New Greenwich, an uber-time-rich zone, and meets Sylvia. The two eventually become a sort of Bonnie and Clyde for the Occupy generation, stealing time from big banks and pilfering minutes from Sylvia’s father Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser), who is the face of the evil 1 percent of the time-rich. Meanwhile, the lead Timekeeper, Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy), hunts down Sylvia and Will, doing the dirty work for the corporate time holders. However, as the end of the film reveals, Raymond harks from the ghetto himself, echoing the real-life tendency for law enforcement to come from the ranks of the poor and the working class, rather than from the corporate elite the justice system often protects.

Though made prior to the Occupy movement, the “police brutality” thread of the narrative echoes police violence against Occupy protestors. In accordance with these real-life acts of police violence and the repression of protest, in the film, Will has not broken any laws—at least not when he is first targeted by the Timekeepers and the Time Rich who control them. Even when he technically breaks laws by stealing from the time banks, he points out, “How can you steal what’s already been stolen?,” thus suggesting that the real criminals are the Time Rich–much like the Occupy movement is suggesting that the true crime is perpetrated from within the 1 percent.

Though based on an intriguing and very timely premise, the film unfortunately deserves the “Most Obvious and Pun-Filled Allegory” award given in CNN’s review. As it notes, the “brutally fascist world” depicted in the film ultimately “doesn’t say much, except in the simplest It’s-bad-when-rich-people-hoard-resources fashion.”

I agree that so much more could have been done with the idea, but instead of a modern-day 1984 or Brave New World—or even a V for Vendetta for the Occupy generation—what we end up with is more of a sexy robber-duo heist. Granted, the film does a nice job portraying Sylvia and Will as equal partners in crime, but any examination of how gender, race, class, (dis)ability, beauty or other markers of social difference affect one’s “time” are virtually non-existent. Further, as also noted in the CNN review, Sylvia’s  “’rich girl with a rebellious streak’ isn’t as well-developed a character as it could be”:

It’s never really clear if Sylvia’s transition from slightly rebellious rich girl to full-on criminal is due to her belief in Salas’ Robin Hood-esque cause or to her having the hots for him.

While it seems to be a bit of both, it would have been nice if the film had grounded her rebellion, as well as Will’s, in political gumption and activist intent. Instead, each character just happens into his or her rebellious role. Though the film indicates Will’s father was a rebel trying to bring down the time system, Will and Sylvia don’t seem to have a specific agenda; instead, they steal time from the rich to give it to the poor, and look damn good doing it.

Sure, Sylvia believes “The clock is good for no one. The poor die and the rich don’t live,” but the message audiences are left with is that the best way to live is not to try to radically change the system or incite mass revolution, but to strap on high heels and a weapon and steal from the time banks. The film closes with Sylvia and Will poised to achieve their biggest “time heist” yet. If only the film had instead taken the time (OK, guilty as charged) to offer a more politicized, deeper message–one that now hovers under the surface but never quite manifests. Ironically, one comes out of the movie feeling it wasted it’s own time.

Published in: on November 2, 2011 at 5:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

What if a female screenwriter makes a frighteningly good difference? A review of Fright Night

The following post originally ran here at Ms. Magazine blog.

Debates about whether women’s writing was uniquely female or if there was a “feminine voice” permeated much femininist theorizing in the ’70s and ’80s. While I tend to be wary of claims about difference grounded in biological determinism, I do think that for many female writers their experiences as women, or as what Simone de Beauvoir famously called “the second sex,” often inform their writing. This is partially how I account for the remake of Fright Night being much better–and more feminist-friendly–than the original: The screenplay was written by a woman.

Marti Noxon, known for her work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and then Angel, is obviously no newbie when it comes to vampires–nor when it comes to vampire narratives that take on gender norms and critique them.

In her version of Fright Night, gone is the girlfriend-as-sweet-virgin and the overprotective-but-ineffectual mother. In their place, Imogen Poots is an independent, savvy Amy, and Toni Colette is the smart, successful single mom, Jane. When things turn violent after nice-looking neighbor Jerry (Colin Farrell) is found to be a vampire, Jane drives the get-away SUV, and then saves her son Charley (Anton Yelchin) by staking Jerry with one of her real estate signs. Later, Amy, no damsel in distress, fights alongside Charley against Jerry and the converted Ed (Christopher Minz-Plass).

In the 1985 film, Amy (Amanda Bearse) didn’t do any fighting–she only sweetly hung by Charley’s side–until she was turned vampire by Jerry and became the typically sexed-up evil female. Evil because she is sexual, as has been the case in vampire narratives since Carmilla and Dracula. Contrastingly, in the remake Amy has far more sexual agency–and is not demonized for it.

Further, the film offers an interesting take on masculinity, exploring the ways violent masculinity (as embodied by Jerry) intersects with sexism. Jerry claims women are “ripe” for picking, an attitude echoed by many other male characters, from the “cool kids” at school to magician/vampire hunter Peter Vincent (David Tennant). The script skewers this type of male–both literally, in Jerry’s demise, and figuratively through jokes regarding Vincent’s inability to sexually please his female lover.

Charley, the film’s hero, is held up as a model of good masculinity–not because he successfully kills Jerry so much as because he cares for his mom, loves his girlfriend and helps his neighbors. The film is framed around his “growing up,” something the outset of the film links to his abandoning his superhero playacting days and becoming “cool” so he can snag Amy as a girlfriend. But he is ultimately punished for this “tough guise,” realizing through his interactions with Jerry (the womanizing vampire) and Vincent (the womanizing fraud) that he does not want to be that kind of guy. To add a cherry on top of this already enjoyable meditation on masculinity, we learn that Amy likes him because he is not cool in the tough-guise way. This cinematic portrayal of a lead female refusing to be seduced by violence is all too rare; in fact, it’s usually just the opposite, with women being attracted to “bad macho.”

This is certainly true of Twilight, the modern juggernaut of vampire stories, which Noxon’s screenplay nods to when Amy reads Wuthering Heights (Bella Swan’s favorite book) and knowingly jokes about how “hot” that type of delayed gratification is. Here, Amy is framed as reading between the lines of romance narrative and understanding what it is about such stories that seduce readers. Likewise, she sees underneath Charley’s attempts to be cool, and loves him for not being the type of guy that sees women as “ripe for plucking.”

In the end, Jerry, who Melissa Lafsky aptly describes as “all id and ego: a walking erect cock” is brought down by Mr. Nice Guy. Destroying Jerry also saves the people he has turned, thus suggesting that not only do evil vampires need killing but so does evil masculinity–and that killing it would benefit all of us, not just the men under its thrall.

Published in: on August 24, 2011 at 10:36 am  Comments (1)  
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What if You Would Like to Help Yourself to a Nice Slice of Pie? A Review of The Help

(originally posted at Ms. Magazine Blog)

If Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Helpwas an angel food cake study of racism and segregation in the 60’s South, the new movie adaptation is even fluffier. Like a dollop of whip cream skimmed off a multi-layered cake, the film only grazes the surface of the intersecting oppressions of race, class, gender and geohistory.

Let me admit that I was, in contrast to Ms. blogger Jennifer Williams, looking forward to the film adaptation of The Help, especially as I initially enjoyed the book. However, in hindsight, I realize my initial reaction to the book was naïve (and possibly compromised by a Christmas-chocolate-induced haze).

I maintain the novel is a good read. But its shortcomings–its nostalgia, its failure to really grapple with structural inequality, its privileging of the white narrator’s voice and its reliance on stock characters–are heightened rather than diminished in the film.

While the civil rights movement was a mere “backdrop” in the book, in the film it is even less so: a photo here, a news clip there, as if protagonist Skeeter, with her intrepid reporting, discovers that wow, racism exists–and it’s ugly! And even with these occasional hints that the nation was sitting on top of a racist powder keg, overall, civil rights are miscast as an individual rather than a collective struggle. To judge by The Help, overcoming inequality requires pluck (Skeeter), sass (Minnie) or quiet determination (Aibileen), not social movements.

Also gone is the book’s suggestion that male privilege works to disempower and disenfranchise women in the same way white privilege works to disempower and disenfranchise people of color. While admittedly the novel problematically framed black males as more “brutish” than whites, at least it nodded towards the ways in which hierarchies of race, sex and class intersect and enable each other. The relatively powerful white wives are “lorded over” by their husbands (or, in Skeeter’s case, her potential husband), then turn around and tyrannize their black maids in much the same fashion. The movie, in contrast, puts an even happier face on men/women relations than on black/white ones.

Simultaneously, it frames Skeeter, Minnie and Aibileen as a trinity of feminist heroes, but rewards only Skeeter with the feminist prize at film’s end–an editing job in New York. In the meantime, Aibileen has lost her job but walks the road home determinedly, vowing she will become a writer, while Minnie sits down to a feast prepared by Celia Foote, her white boss.

The audience is thus given a triple happy ending. The first, Skeeter’s, suggests it only takes determination to succeed–white privilege has nothing to do with it! The second, Aibileen’s, implies that earning a living as a writer was feasible for a black maid in the Jim Crow South. The third, Minnie’s, insinuates not only that friendship eventually blossomed between white women bosses and their black maids, but also that such friendship was enough to ameliorate the horrors of racism.

Thus, if the book was “pop lit with some racial lessons thrown in for fiber” as Erin Aubry Kaplan’s described it, the film has even less bulk. Instead, it’s a high-fructose concoction as sweet as Minnie’s pies. And like Minnie’s “terrible awful” pie, with which she infamously tricks the villainous Hilly into eating shit, the film encourages audiences to swallow down a sweet story and ignore the shitty Hollywood cliches–as well as the shitty reality that racism can’t be “helped” by stories alone.

As Jennifer Williams predicted, the film indeed offers:

The perfect summer escape for viewers who embrace the fantasy of a postracial America, [where] filmgoers can tuck the history of race and class inequality safely in the past, even as the recession deepens already profound racial gaps in wealth and employment.

To put it another way, viewers can tuck into this terrible awful slice of the past, forgetting how the ingredients that shaped pre-Civil Rights America have a seemingly endless shelf life and, even more pertinent, still constitute a mainstay of our diet.

Further Reading: For an in-depth analysis of the film in its historical context, check out An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help by the Association of Black Women Historians.

Published in: on August 12, 2011 at 8:39 am  Comments (1)  
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What if Cowboys and Aliens offers the same old message wrapped in a “new” alien package?

Orignally posted here at Ms. Magazine blog.

Given that the new film Cowboys and Aliens is the structural and symbolic equivalent of “Cowboys and Indians,” I went to see it in order to discover if this newfangled Western-Alien mash-up is marred by the same racial representations as the majority of its Western film predecessors. And yes, for the most part, it is.

The horrid title, which equates “alien” with “Indian,” was audibly laughed at in the theater. I heard similar chuckles when the film was discussed at Comic-Con, along with comments indicating the film would be a lark–an exciting and wacky new twist on two genres that have been done to death. My reaction to the title was viscerally different: In and of itself, to me it is incredibly problematic from a race perspective. To equate Native peoples with aliens is in keeping with the history of the word “alien,” which has been used to construct the Other, both human and extraterrestrial. Given that the term “illegal alien” is still widely used to refer to migrants and undocumented workers, the word “alien” is equated with both the racialized Other and baddies from other planets. As expected, then, the film did indeed further, rather than undercut, many of the racialized components of Western films–especially in relation to the following six tropes:

Us Verses Them

The film displaces Native people as “the enemy” of whites in the 19th century West, replacing them with aliens from another planet. Throughout, a refrain of “our people” echoes racist terminology such as “those people” or “your people”–phrases used to typically name whites as the good people and everyone else a dangerous Other. Though the film constructs the key enemy as outer space aliens, it still relies on a system of white people at the center–as “us.”

White Cowboys Are the Heroes

As argued by whiteness scholar Richard Dyer, in Western culture whites play predominant roles. As he writes, “At the level of representation…whites are not of a certain race, they’re just the human race.” This is apparent in the film in its representation of all the white characters as “just human” while the characters of color are carefully singled out as types: the hot Spanish wife, the exotic Ella (Olivia Wilde), the good Native American farmworker and so on. As Dyer argues,

This assumption that white people are just people, which is not far off saying that whites are people whereas other colors are something else, is endemic to white culture.

Further, as most of our ideas about Native cultures come from white culture, whites and white history are glorified. As Native scholar Elizabeth Bird argues, “These stories, at a mythic level, explain to Whites their right to be here and help deal with lingering guilt about the displacement of Native inhabitants.” In the film, whites are the “good cowboys” who make the defeat of the alien invaders possible. It is suggested that the earlier defeat of both Latinos and Natives are a good thing, for now good white cowboys are able to ward off yet another threat–“real” aliens from another planet.

Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) is clearly a racist character, yet we are supposed to like him. As for the other lead white hero, Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig), at the outset of the film he has amnesia, and when asked “what do you know” he bluntly replies “English”–as if knowing this is enough. This was one of the few moments in the film that the audience responded with laughter, again revealing that joking about alien otherness (this time in relation to language) is seen as funny. The absence of Latinos in the film has not gone without comment. Being that the film is set in Arizona, the whiteness of the cast seems historically inaccurate, as the “Shouldn’t there have been more Latinos in the film?” discussion thread at IMDB addresses.

The Good Native

As scholars of Native American literature and film regularly note, Natives are often depicted as types: the Good Indian, the Bad Indian (or Savage), the Noble Warrior and so on. Nat Colorado (Adam Beach) is the film’s Good Native. He clearly loves Dolarhyde as a father and serves as the posse’s tracker (another stereotypical portrait) and defends Dolarhyde when their group meets up with a group of Apaches, telling them they need to open their hearts to Dolarhyde. Just before his death, he says to Dolarhyde, “I always dreamed of riding to battle with you,” to which Dolarhyde replies, “I always dreamed of having a son like you.” Here, the film attempts to ameliorate Dolarhyde’s racist ways in one tender moment, much in the same way that people who have racist histories deny their racism with the “but I have black friends” comment.

Natives as Savage Warriors

Contrasted to Nat’s Good Native character, the film gives us a group of Savage Warriors in the Apaches. When they are first represented, there is an overwhelming sound of their yelping–thus keeping with the tendency to animalize Native people in filmic depictions. The chief blames white people for the arrival of the evil aliens, but as the narrative doesn’t hold up this accusation, he becomes an unlikeable character who wrongly blames whites. In other words, the Natives are the racists, not the whites. The audience is encouraged to take Dolarhyde’s view that the chief is a fool who doesn’t understand battle tactics. When Dolarhyde tells him, “We can’t just run around hollering and shooting arrows at the damn thing,” the film draws on the images in Western films of Native peoples as savage but ultimately unsuccessful warriors. Here, the film asks the audience to side with Dolarhyde, agreeing that “white ways” of battle are better.

Though Dolarhyde, Jake and crew ultimately form mutual respect, and both groups are instrumental in the aliens’ defeat, the fact that the film never shows the Apaches again after the battle is in keeping with their framing as tangential–an undifferentiated tribe that is easily forgotten once the aliens are defeated. Further, the fact that a majority of Native peoples were peaceable groups is once again denied, cementing the representations of Natives as warriors.

Native Americans Live in the Past

The fact that the film closes back in the town of Absolution, Ariz., with no further mention of the Apache people accords with the tendency to depict Natives as a vanishing/dying race that exists only in the past. The future, according to the film, belongs to whites like Dolarhyde and Jake. This is further underscored by Nat’s death–the Good Native does not survive. Instead, Dolarhyde’s son Percy (Paul Dano), is set up at film’s end to carry on his father’s (white) legacy.

The Indian Princess

Though Ella (Olivia Wilde) is ultimately revealed not to be a Native Woman, the trailers and film lead the audience to believe she is–especially through comments such as “they took my people, too” and “they killed all my people.” She accords with the Indian Princess model of the exotic, otherized women who is rendered likeable and heroic through her associations with a white hero. Jake, in defending her and insisting she is not the “whore” others call her, frames her as a warrior princess. She is begrudgingly allowed to join the posse with the line, “We got a kid and a dog, why not a woman?”–a line which both infantilizes and animalizes her. Granted, she is given much more of an action role than females often are in such films, but like Nat she eventually dies. Only white guys get to save the day and live.

While this Western may not be as odious as many others in its representation of white/Native relations–and actually allows for a somewhat positive depiction of Native peoples–it nevertheless still accords with dominant racial ideologies in which white males are center and others are peripheral. As such, it can be viewed as an “old movie,” which media scholar Stuart Hall defines as “synonymous with the demonstration of the moral, social and physical mastery of the colonizers over the colonized.” Though the main enemy in the film is the “alien race,” the white colonizers are shown as superior to the colonized Natives. Ultimately, the film frames “us” as white cowboys and “them” as alien and Native

What if you don’t want to be Smurfalicious? (A review of The Smurfs)

The following review was originally published here at Ms. Magazine Blog.

In her classic 1991 article, Katha Pollitt named the tendency in media where “a group of male buddies will be accented by a lone female, stereotypically defined” the “Smurfette Principle.” Twenty years later, this principle is still all too common–including in the new movie The Smurfs.

In the film, Smurfette–the first and usually only female Smurf–is certainly stereotypically defined, as she was in the cartoon. But in CGI her blonde locks are even more obvious, threatening to weigh down her feminized Smurf body. Near the start of the film, Smurf-antagonistic sorcerer Gargamel (Hank Azaria) has a rather creepy sequence praising “the tawny locks of Smurfette.” In a later scene, we see Smurfette distracted in a toy store, first with unicorns then with doll dresses, at which she exclaims, “Dresses! I could have more than one kind of dress. What?!?” Shortly after, she is angry when told it’s time to go, insisting “Wait! I am shopping!” She wears heels, again in keeping with the cartoon, and has a wide-eyed made-up look to her blue face.

As asked in the post “Gendering Smurfette” on the blog Feminist Media, “Why, decades after the original Smurfs were trotted out, are we still portraying the only female Smurf as an essentialized cliché of femininity?” Why indeed. Even if the filmmakers wanted to stay true to Smurf-lore, they could have brought in the later added female Smurfs Sassette or Nanny, or how about one of the witches instead of only including Gargamel?

Or, they could have made up for only one Smurfette with the inclusion of more female human lead characters. Instead of Patrick Winslow (Neil Patrick Harris) being an ad exec, why not give that job to Grace (Glee’s Jayma Mays)? Instead, she is almost entirely defined by her pregnancy and her niceness. How feminine!

At Smurf.com we learn, as we do in the film, that Smurfette was created by Gargamel to cause trouble for the Smurfs. Ah, the evil that is feminine. To add a nice twist of colorism to her origin story, she originally had black hair but it turned blonde when Papa worked all night to make her a real Smurf! She is described as “the charming Smurfette that melts the hearts of the other Smurfs. She’s one of a kind, full of feminine grace and frivolous. She can also be very much a woman, playing with the feelings of her sweethearts.” Oh my Smurf!

In the film, Smurfette uses these feminine wiles–”making sexyface“ at the camera and coyly telling Patrick, “Ohh, someone looks Smurfalicious.” The poster featuring her character has the same word on it printed in huge letters, metaphorically shouting, “Look, girls, you better be Smurfalicious too. Your looks are all that matter.” In one of the worst instances of sexing-up Smurfette, she has a Marilyn Monroe moment where she models a new dress and her skirt blows up. One of the male Smurfs smirks “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

The emphasis on female beauty (vs. empowerment) is furthered by Patrick’s work at the cosmetics company Anjelou, where his boss Odile (Sofia Vergara), is marketing a new anti-age cream with the name “Juvenel.” In one scene, Gargamel uses his magic to turn Odile’s mother beautiful, which, by the film’s standards makes her younger, thinner and larger breasted. Odile, like Smurfette, uses her “feminine wiles” as she flirts with Gargamel in hopes she can buy some of his magic.

The film is stereotypically gendered in other regards as well. A male Smurf is told to “smurf up” (i.e., “man up”) to be a real Smurf. And when a customer tries to buy a Smurf at the toy store, he asks, “Do they come in pink? My daughter wants pink.” Ah yes, because all girls like pink. This is why Sassette–the second-ever female Smurf, who doesn’t make it into the film–wears pink overalls. Of course. Blue is for boys–and is even the name of the boy child born to Patrick and Grace at the film’s close.

Through such gendered depictions, as Pollitt argued so well 20 years ago,

“Little girls learn to split their consciousness, filtering their dreams and ambitions through boy characters while admiring the clothes of the princess. The more privileged and daring can dream of becoming exceptional women in a man’s world–Smurfettes.”

Like others of her ilk who play by and benefit from patriarchy’s rules, Smurfette is not doing women and girls any favors. Instead, she just shakes her blonde mane and coos in her Katy Perry voice, “I kissed a Smurf and I liked it.” Poor Smurfette, if only she had instead kissed stereotypical femininity goodbye

 

Published in: on August 2, 2011 at 2:34 pm  Comments (1)  
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What if you’ve got Hermione fever? (A Hermione Granger link round up…)

Well, I certainly have. Over the past week or so, I have written five posts discussing Hermione. There is some overlap, but for those of you in the throes of Harry Potter mania, I have provided links below. I have also included three other posts (not authored by me). I am sure there are more – please add more links in comments!

7 Feminist Take-Aways From the Final Harry Potter Movie

Hermione, the warrior princess, or Bella, the total sadomasochist?

Why we Need More “Warrior Princesses” Like Hermione Granger

Popularizing Strong Girls: Will the New Hermione Please Stand Up?

The “Smurfette Principle” Needs Killing Right Along with Voldemort.

Posts by others:

“In praise of Joanne Rowling’s Hermione Granger series”

Hermione Granger and the Fight for Equal Rights

Harry Potter’s Unsung Feminist Heroes

Published in: on July 19, 2011 at 5:25 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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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Published in: on March 25, 2011 at 9:08 am  Comments (1)  
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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)

Published in: on March 18, 2011 at 2:34 pm  Comments (3)  
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