Monthly Archives: January 2011

When you’re trying hard to be your best, could you be a little less?

Hello there, neglected blog. So, during my big awesome winter holiday (of which today is the last day, boo), I’ve been enjoying lazing around in pyjamas and watching tons of excellent films old and new: from It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) and West Side Story (1961), via some 1980s gems (Footloose, Weird Science, the Back to the Future trilogy) all the way to Tron: Legacy (2010), which I finally got around to seeing yesterday, in 3D, directly after watching the first instalment (Tron, 1982) for the first time.

I really enjoyed both the films, actually, but for today let’s focus on Tron: Legacy. It left me with a number of impressions, roughly as follows:

  • I love Daft Punk
  • I love shiny things
  • I love Michael Sheen
  • I love bikes
  • I love very pretty girls in very tight outfits
  • Seriously, I wish my job was Daft Punk
  • But… why so sexist?
Cindy Morgan in Tron

Whoa, wait. Tron: Legacy is about a million times more sexist than the one I was in 30 years ago? FFFFUUUU-

Seriously. I find it really difficult to write coherently about things like this, I get very conflicted on multiple levels. As a feminist (sorta, kinda, I think), is it okay for me to enjoy films with terrible gender politics as much as I do? As a bro (sorta, kinda, honorary), and as someone who’s never made a film, is it okay for me to criticise films with excellent direction and acting and photography and music? Can I voice what I actually feel, and have it both ways? It’s a difficult tightrope to tread, for me; I’m very aware that I run the risk of sounding like a humourless killjoy or a brainless ladette, neither of which, I’m fairly sure, are accurate at all.

This issue is pretty much why I never got around to writing down my feelings about another of my favourite films of last year, Inception, and Christopher Nolan’s work in general, of which I have been a longstanding, faithful fangirl (Memento, Insomnia and The Prestige are all magnificent, and I got more excited about each of the new Batman movies than… well, than is at all normal for an adult woman, Christian Bale notwithstanding). I remember that I tried to talk to my (lovely, intelligent, and very film-critical) partner about it on the way home from the cinema, opening gently with something like ‘Um… do you think Christopher Nolan maybe had some kind of bad experience with a woman at some formative point in his life?’, and getting a surprising ‘THOU SHALT NOT QUESTION NOLAN’ stonewall in response. I believe ‘you can’t have everything’, ‘you’re overthinking it’ (NB: Ha. That was before I even knew there was an, ‘not every film is about feminism and equality’ and ‘SIGH, BORING’ came up in the ensuing discussion, along with ‘ARG there were two women in that film out of a large ensemble cast with about 8 strong male characters, both the women are very pretty, but one is a crutch and exists solely to spur the male lead’s ‘character arc’, and the other one is NAMED ‘EVIL’  (subtle!) and literally the entire time she’s on screen she’s either killing herself, crying, being killed or trying to kill someone, and she kills herself because her weak female brain can’t handle an idea although his is fine with it, and everything she ever does revolves around DiCaprio up to and including coming back from the dead solely to fuck with him and get killed again and also this is not the first time I have noticed that a disproportionately large number of Nolan’s female characters either kill themselves because of a man or get killed, by a man, because of another man’ on my side of the table. But apparently I didn’t win that round. (Other people have also noticed and done a really good job of writing about it, though!)

So, yeah, back to the SHINY THING in question. I thought the first Tron had a pretty balanced, sensible approach to gender for a film that is older than I am and set mainly in a video game arcade, a software company and inside a computer. There are three major male protagonists (and their programs), a male antagonist, and one female programmer (Cindy Morgan as Dr. Laura Baines/Yori, pictured above), who is beautiful, sassy, and spirited. She does admittedly spend quite a bit of time hugging the male leads, and disappear for a good while and for no particular reason when Flynn first enters the mainframe and meets Tron and Ram, but she survives the film without her life or limbs being sacrificed, knows what time it is, and as the ex of Jeff Bridges’ character at the start she provides a likeable and realistic foil to his boyish, charismatic arrogance.

Let’s compare that with Tron: Legacy (while trying not to spoil what little plot there is too badly – I would definitely still recommend everyone who likes AWESOME THINGS to go see it, and don’t want to ruin anyone’s enjoyment!). It opens with the revelation that Flynn (Bridges’ character) now has a child – it’s a son. This development must entail the involvement of a woman, right? Wrong. She’s dead, she doesn’t have a name, that’s dealt with in the first 5 or 10 minutes and never mentioned again. Apparently the tragically early death of a partner/mother doesn’t affect either of the central male protagonists much – once he’s all grown up, the son in question (Sam Flynn, played by Garrett Hedlund) even says something to Alan/Tron (Bruce Boxleitner) about how he no longer needs a ‘surrogate father’ to play catch with, after his real father disappeared, which was after the unexplained death of his mother. Unspoken: he never needed a surrogate mother, because female role models = lol no. (His paternal grandparents looked after him; you get to see them looking pretty sprightly briefly in the first scene but in The Future, you guessed it, they’ve joined Mum in the nameless’n’dead fridge.) We also get a glimpse of the board at Encom, now a huge multinational software company that may or may not rhyme with ‘bicrosoft’ and that Sam Flynn is rebelling against by not giving a shit about. The board are largely male (my sister has pointed out that I fail on this point, apparently there is a sassy black lady in this scene who I managed to instantly forget about because shortly afterwards my MIND WAS BLOWN BY AWESOME LIGHT BIKES BEING AWESOME).

So, that’s Tron: Legacy‘s version of the real world of 2010. How about the futuristic, super-shiny virtual world which Flynn Senior intended to be perfect and which Flynn Junior inevitably enters? Is it an egalitarian paradise, I wonder? Look, here are some women! Four of them in fact. They are all very pretty, wearing very tight shiny white outfits, and they literally emerge from tomb-like boxes in the walls to undress and redress the male lead and then go back in their boxes. Oh, and the black ones stay in the background of all the shots. Oh dear.

After some completely awesome fighting and Daft Punk, we finally get to meet the film’s real ‘leading’ woman in the pleasing shape of Olivia Wilde (Quorra). She saves the Flynnlet and drives a sweet vehicle like a total badass. So far, so good! I remember seeing this interview (let’s not talk about the bit in the preamble where it assumes everyone reading has a ‘girlfriend’…) where Wilde says she ‘didn’t want her to be this slinky, sexy thing who looks hot in the suit, and [who] the boys like but the girls feel alienated from, and they don’t understand. I wanted her to inspire young women to feel tough and embrace both their intelligence and sexiness.‘ Woot!
She’s… very pretty and wearing a very tight shiny outfit. Okay! She sits around looking pretty while The Menfolk Are Talking (and expositioning – as my heterosexual male partner commented, the lingering shots of her stretching out on a futuristic chaise apparently improve the ‘boring exposition scene’ no end. I have to admit that I was also enjoying the interior design). Hmm! Then we find out her actual story, such as it is. She’s a naive wee soul who’s learned everything she knows from Jeff Bridges and looks to him for direction on everything throughout the film. She’s super important and precious and special because of what she is, not what she does, and both Flynns must save and protect and ooh-and-ah over her so that Daddy Flynn can show-and-tell her IRL later. And she dies and gets brought back to life in order to inject a bit of angst (and awesome special effects) into a travelling scene. So in other words, she is a perfect Disney princess, in fact one with significantly less balls (fewer balls? smaller balls?) than Belle. FAIL.

Olivia Wilde in Tron: Legacy

I'm inspiring young women to feel tough and intelligent! Yay!

Gah. Oh, the shiniest and whitest of the shiny-white women pops out of her boob-lidded coffin again as well, just in time to flutter her eyelashes a bit more and then die by virtue of being in the same place as her far-more-interesting, far-more-talkative, ambitious male partner. Brilliant.

I guess I just find all this, Hollywood’s bizarre view of gender and gender roles… fucking baffling, to be honest. Am I right in thinking that in general terms, mainstream films are making no progress towards equality, in many cases actually seemingly more ‘backward’ and dated in their presentation of gender roles than they were decades ago when second-wave feminism was fresh and relevant – is a backlash happening, or is recuperation taking place as rights movements become equality movements? (To revisit some of the classic films I mentioned at the start: West Side Story is from 1961 and is an adaptation of Shakespeare, and it has a genderqueer character and doesn’t make a big deal of it (truth! They’re called Anybodys. Watch and learn!) as well as headstrong, sensitive women like Anita, kicking ass and looking awesome at the same time; as we’ve seen, Tron was doing pretty well in 1982; Weird Science (pictured below) is a 1985 film about teenage boys connecting a Barbie doll to a computer and it has more interesting gender politics than Tron: Legacy. Hell, Madonna (as quoted above) has on occasion had better gender politics than Tron: Legacy, and she’s Madonna, for fuck’s sake.) Is it okay? Should I just be accepting it, sitting back and enjoying the explosions? (Or worse, should I be leaving the boys to their explosions and watching rom-coms and Sex and the City instead? ERGH). Do stereotypes really affect people’s perception of real-life people – real-life women, gay people, people of other faiths? Or are they some kind of shorthand that everyone accepts as dated and unrealistic?

Kelly LeBrock in Weird Science

I mean, to take myself as an example, I consume a lot of mainstream entertainment, and it doesn’t seem to have screwed my understanding of gender (or sexuality or race, for that matter) up all that badly; I know that gender is fluid and complex and that it’s not, we’re not opposite or binary. I love shoes and make-up and fashion. I love football and comics and video games. I love art and music and philosophy. I refuse to be defined by any one of those characteristics. And I can recognise when things – films, games, musicians – have poor gender politics and call them on it and still enjoy them on a more aesthetic level. Should I just have more faith in everyone else to be equally unaffected by Hollywood bullshit?

Does it not matter any more? Should I be more ‘gender-blind’; should I trust the little girls who’re growing up watching stuff like this to understand that their role models don’t have to be female, to know that of course they can grow up to be computer programmers and pirates and robots and warriors and superheroes, even if women in films don’t, just like how I always wanted to be Panthro and not Cheetara in Thundercats when I was a kid? Are parents still making that clear to their female and male kids? What do y’all think?