The Sexual Politics for Movies in 2016
by Chris Morris
“It’s getting better” seems to be what the internet tells me. All the time. Women are starring in major blockbusters and not only that, but they are directing them too! We finally have a Wonder Woman movie coming out, directed by Patty Jenkins. A Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel movie! Still no Black Widow, but still…Captain Marvel! The all-female Ghostbusters came out and the world didn’t end! Suicide Squad’s star isn’t Will Smith’s Deadshot but really it’s Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. The new Star Trek Beyond had more female speaking roles for actresses; possibly more than in any Star Trek film before it! So things are getting better, then…right? Or are they?
A closer look points out that things might not be all sunshine and rainbows though. Is it enough that more women have speaking roles, or does it matter HOW they are used? Let’s look at three recent major summer blockbuster films that could be seen as break outs for women but are they really? Are they really just sexist and are things going backwards?
*Spoiler warnings for Suicide Squad, Star Trek Beyond and Ghostbusters (2016)
1- Suicide Squad (WB)
One female guard who “has a mouth”
Amanda Waller has been a symbol of female righteousness since she debuted in DC Comics’ “Legends #1” company-wide crossover in 1986. A short, overweight but strong black female character that took no crap, from The President or even Batman for that matter. In the film, Waller acts basically the same, possibly the best representation of her character yet, played by Viola Davis, outside of CCH Pounder’s portrayal of Waller in “Justice League Unlimited” and “Batman: Assault on Arkham”. But while “The Wall” is badass and cutthroat, she is kind of one-dimensional, only showing the badass side and no hints that she is in any way deeper than that. Maybe in the sequel?
Enchantress is actually two characters, the powerful centuries-old witch and June Moon, her “secret identity”, with glasses and everything. Enchantress is power hungry while June is scared and motivated by her love of Rick Flag. While Enchantress ends up the evil femme fatale villain and June ends up “The girl”, do two stereotypical characters add up to one strong female? Katana shows up halfway through the film, has very little dialogue and when she does speak, in one scene, she is crying and emotional, while all the dudes in the scene are stoic and keeping it together.
The female guard who “has a mouth” and is punched out by Slipknot is merely there to help Slipknot seem a tiny bit cool before…well, his head is blown off. The guard gets no comeuppance, even a smile on screen when what happens to Slipknot happens. She is there to service his character. Clearly, director David Ayer didn’t think that moment would have been as cool if Slipknot decked a dude right after Captain Boomerang decked a dude. In fact, two of the biggest “laughs” of the film are women being punched in the face.
And speaking of that, what about Harley Quinn? I could write a whole article, or term paper or book, on Harley but I’ll try to keep it brief. Harley has become a female icon, a cosplay favourite for many, many, MANY women and girls. Even some guys too. Recent comments by DC’s Jim Lee suggest she may be the fourth most popular DC character period, behind the Trinity of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman.
There was some worry before the film came out by female fans of Harley as to which of her origins they would use. Apparently (like any good DC character, she’s been rebooted at least once or twice) one origin is sexist and one is more empowering. I’m not enough of a fan to describe which is which here. But based on early trailers, where Harley is shown being pulled out of a vat of chemicals by Joker, people weren’t optimistic. But the fact that Harley DECIDED to jump into the chemicals, does that make it different? When Joker seemingly tortures her, there fact that she says “bring it on” basically – is that empowering?
Harley, to some, is the symbol of a battered spouse who eventually leaves her abusive relationship and finds a life of her own. Notice there aren’t “Joker and Harley Quinn” comics, just “Harley Quinn” comics. But at the end of the film, Joker breaks into Belle Reve to “save” her, and she goes with him. How empowering is THAT? She should have kicked him in the balls and told him to get lost, in my opinion. But Harley is seen as the star of the film, or if not the star then the character who steals the film. And since the movie seemed to be a basic testosterone filled summer film, is that okay? Most teenage boys won’t be dissecting film like I am. So is it a step forward that Amanda Waller shoots the people who work for her in cold blood? That Harley is everyone’s favourite character? That Katana looks badass swinging around that sword in a totally impractical outfit? Is it “representation first, characterization later”?
2- Star Trek Beyond
Uhura (Zoe Saldana)
Leeloo er Jaylah (Sofia Boutella)
Ensign Syl (Melissa Roxburgh) That alien with the storage container where her brain should be
Kalara (Lydia Wilson) The alien that betrays the Enterprise crew
Commodore Paris (Shohreh Aghdashloo)
I’m not sure how much I need to write, as my feelings are probably apparent about how women were treated in this film by my descriptions above. Uhura is a competent Star Fleet officer, treated with respect who sacrifices herself to save Captain Kirk during the invasion of the Enterprise. But the main change in this timeline to her character is that rather than her character just spouting technical jargon, she does that still but also is stuck in an on-again off-again relationship with Spock that basically defines her role on the ship at this point. Although she did get to kick some alien ass here and there.
Commodore Paris is a also a competent Star Fleet officer with two scenes and is treated with respect. But there was something that bugged me, maybe something I missed…was she in charge of Yorktown? If so shouldn’t she have been commanding everyone during Krall’s attack rather than Greg Grunberg’s character? Or was she just a visiting dignitary?
Kalara, as stated above, is the female alien who betrays Kirk and leads the Enterprise to Krall. At first she is seen almost as sympathetic even after the betrayal, as she says she was forced to doing it, but it turns out later she’s just evil. As for Ensign Syl…I know that Simon Pegg, Justin Lin and everyone else involved didn’t MEAN for this to happen, but really? A female alien who, instead of having a brain, has a convenient storage compartment for her Captain to hide things in. Is it stupid or silly?
We didn’t even get the requisite role of “spouse in peril” for a woman, that role was taken by Sulu’s husband instead. But is that a good thing? The women in this film are seen as women of action, no matter how their characters end up. More women with things to do in action films…is this a good start? As with the Amanda Waller example, is it better that they are the ones pointing the guns rather than having the guns pointed at them?
Moving on to Jaylah, who, as I inferred above, was very similar to The Fifth Element’s Leeloo but is that a bad thing? Jaylah is at first presented as a badass, kicking butt on bad guys, but later doesn’t want to help rescue the crew because she’s afraid. Is this an example of a fully rounded three-dimensional character? Someone with layers, not just a badass but has feelings too (unlike Amanda Waller in SS?). Jaylah isn’t “hooked up” with any of the male characters (not even Kirk) and instead of being given a wedding ring at the end of the film, she is enrolled in Starfleet. How’s that for progress? Or is the biggest example of progress in the Star Trek movie series is that there weren’t any “Carol Marcus in her underwear for no reason” scenes?
3- Ghostbusters 2016
Do we need to list them? We all know them cause they are awesome!
Rather than dissect the film’s characters, their motivations and whether or not they were good role models for girls (cause they were!), let’s just look at the end results. It’s come out that Sony will probably lose between $50-$70 million on this film. So now the crybabies that before the film’s release who said this wouldn’t work now have ammo to back that up. Will this affect future sequels…that’s up to the executives. The reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles didn’t light the world on fire yet it got a sequel. The biggest problem with the film wasn’t it’s all female cast but that it got banned in China, a huge money machine for Hollywood these days. But didn’t it get banned because of the all female cast? Hmmm…I’ve been doing a series of articles about Super Hero Movie Math and I’ve been using a simple math formula (probably too simple) to figure out which movies actually make a profit. Let’s apply that formula to Ghostbusters…
Budget $144 million
Marketing $100 million
Total Expenses = $244 million
$118 million domestic
$62 million foreign
= $180 million
– 1/2 domestic ($59 million)
Total Box Office = $121 million
Total $ Made
= NEGATIVE $123 million
So WOW that’s an even bigger bank account hit than the proposed $50-$70 million hit Sony is claiming, but they have insider info like how many dolls are selling at Toys R Us. Of course it’s all a moot point; if Sony WANTS to make more Ghostbusters of course they can, probably just with a lot smaller budget (like the Deadpool model). After all a lot of people, myself included, loved the film and thought it was very funny.
Anyway, despite whether or not the film succeeded creatively or not, it didn’t succeed financially. And that’s what Hollywood listens to. But this film DOES exist and little girls looking for idols don’t know about box office receipts. They just know that the Ghostbusters, THEIR Ghostbusters, are kick ass, whether there is one film or ten. Maybe the generation that grows up watching this film is the one that ultimately DOES make things better for women in film. And that does matter.
Something to consider is that as far as changes in their respective industry, filmmaking, may be the slowest to be able to turn around, so to speak. For a movie to be released in 2016, especially a summer action film with lots of CGI, the script was probably written three-four years ago, sets had to be built, it was filmed probably a year or more ago, put through test screenings, scenes with exposition that added layers to characters or a backstory taken out because it slowed down the action, etc. TV has a lot faster turnaround time, as do comic books (although they seem to want to ignore social trends and keep things in the 90’s, he says in a major over generalization). The only genre that seems to take longer to turn around would be the video game industry, which is a hot mess of a topic as is.
So, to quote Deadpool, is it still sexist to punch women in the face, or is it sexist NOT to punch women in the face? I’m reminded of a time when Chris Rock was on the Oprah Winfrey show and he was asked why it was okay for him and other black people to say “The N Word” and it was not okay for white people. His first response was “Why would you want to say it at all?”. Why is it a big deal for men to be ABLE TO punch women in the face in movies? Why do they want to? Is it because it’s just harder and harder to shock people? Or is there some underlying misogynistic message there? Am I overreacting? That’s possible too…
But what do you think? Take part in our poll below and let us know your thoughts…
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Chris Morris is a filmmaker, world-traveller and comic book writer. He’s currently working on “The Supers: the 3rd Best Super-Team in the World”