Monday, August 23, 2010
Scott Pilgrim vs. The Dominant Narrative
Good stormy morning all! May the dark clouds congealed over our fair city not impede your day overly much!
I just got back from vacation and my brain is still mostly on the beach, and so this is a good time to write a movie review! Yay movies! Last night I got out to see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, based on the comic series by Brian Lee O’Malley. First thing to note: this is a fun movie. It speaks pretty directly to the heart of the (male) gamer, and the number of asides, homages, and tributes to video games and gaming culture made it a jolly good time. For someone like me who also has a weak spot for fight choreography, the movie’s also got a lot of fun glitzy wushu-esque fight scenes with lots of spinning jumping twirling rotating madness. I do so enjoy my twirling madness. All in all, it’s a hilarious, feel-good movie with great art direction, a solid sense of humor, and fun action sequences that both give action-movie addicts a little dose of the violence they need while also lampooning violence in video games. I’ll probably buy it when it comes out.
My only disappointment with it is perhaps an unfair one. I was hoping, really hard, that this wouldn’t be a romantic movie with the standard geek-boy plotline. I kept my fingers crossed really hard that maybe, since this one had such an over-the-top tone, that it wouldn’t just be about an outrageously awkward mid-20’s guy who wins a token hot girl by doing something traditionally masculine that no one thought he could do. You know, the plot of every romantic comedy ever that’s aimed at men?
I understand that movies need to use short-hand for describing emotional arcs. Filmmakers don’t have enough time to detail how two characters fall in love, so they use lighting, slow-motion, close-up shots, etc, to give the audience the idea of what’s going on in the minds of the characters. Except, in this type of film (the romantical comedyish film aimed at dudes), it’s usually only the dude who gets that treatment. Ramona, Scott’s main squeeze in this film and the girl for whom he is willing to fight to the death seven times has as major personality traits…what, exactly? She changes her hair color every couple of weeks! She delivers packages for Amazon.ca! She…sometimes wears gloves when she’s inside! We think she likes indie music (the type that Scott plays, perhaps) but we’re not entirely sure! Mostly, the only thing we know about her is that Scott thinks she’s hot. He was completely transfixed by her hotness, and he is now willing to put himself in mortal danger over and over and over (and over four more times) again because he presumably wants to sleep with her. Who is she? Why is she Scott’s dreamgirl, as he mentions? Does his dreamgirl not possess any persona of her own?
Ramona probably isn’t quite quirky or sprightly enough to be considered a manic pixie dream girl, but a good chunk of the criteria for being one are present:
As the A.V. Club deftly notes, “Like the Magical Negro, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype is largely defined by secondary status and lack of an inner life. She’s on hand to lift a gloomy male protagonist out of the doldrums, not to pursue her own happiness.”
I never quite understood why Ramona was interested in Scott. She never indicates that she thinks he’s hot. She never really indicates that she likes his music. They have awkward, stilted conversation, mostly about their exes. She even tells him “we don’t really know much about each other, do we?” It would have helped make her a better, more fully fleshed out character if we had at least one scene where she indicated, somehow, that she actually liked him, and why. She does tell Scott a couple of times that he’s the “nicest” boy she’s dated. Why? He’s continually passive-aggressive, kind of surly, and awkward. Why are we sympathizing with him? He does pull a pretty badass 540 kick, but I wasn’t of the impression that that’s the only thing a dude needs to do to get into a lady’s heart.
So this movie, while having a really cool veneer and presentation, is pretty much the same story about boy falling for hot girl and then doing all sorts of things to win her, so he can have sex with her. The female love object isn’t really a character; she’s a cypher, a symbol at best, for the male protagonist’s desires. She is the other, the non-default. We don’t see anything from her perspective. Of course she can be won! Of course our protagonist, once he learns the correct sequence of moves and/or actions, can will her to his side. Does she want to be there? Does she perhaps have some already existing interest in him? It doesn’t matter because she’s not a real person with interests and desires. She is, basically, not a human; she’s a plot device.
Just like telling men that women are children, telling men that women aren’t human isn’t going to help open up gender relations. Why should men care about, listen to, or respect the boundaries of these strange creatures who so fascinate our libidos? They are so strange and fickle and weird, but they certainly aren’t human.
Now, to be fair, this movie IS better than most in this genre - Wallace, Scott’s roommate, is openly gay and not particularly effeminate. He sleeps around a lot and isn’t penalized for it or shown to be mentally messed up as a result (he’s actually much more normal than Scott). Likewise, in an early scene, Ramona decides not to have sex with Scott and he respects her wishes. That’s a good thing. On the level most directly related to rape and sexual assault, this movie gets an A+ for respecting consent and boundaries. I’m a fan of that.
I’ve mentioned media before and its ability to shape the social narratives that make up our lives. This movie is a good example of the types of messages our culture is currently kicking out at us. “Seriously,” a hypothetical reader might say, “are you nit-picking on a comic-book movie for not having progressive feminist undertones? Really? This is a cute story about a boy who falls in love! And then fights bad guys by tiger uppercutting them. That’s awesome and why are you so full of haterade?” And that hypothetical reader would be completely correct - this story falls exactly in line with the cultural script for what young straight-boy love looks like. But that’s the problem! The social script for young straight-boy love doesn’t include a real woman! If this is what we think of as a standard, if this is the typical story we tell both men and women, that makes everyone think of women as strange non-human beings who need to be won, like a video game. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World joins a lengthy list of movies, many of which have been critical and commercial successes, like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Garden State, and Elizabethtown (maybe not so much the success on that last one) that have as a major plotline: boy loves girl, except that it’s really boy loves object. Ramona is, for all intense and purposes in this movie, a macguffin with boobs.
None of this helps create a cultural narrative where we take women seriously, especially not the young men that this film targets. As much as I like it (and again, I really did like this movie!) I keep wanting to see a film that has the sense of humor this one does, but also does open up the conversation a little bit more. As bad as the movie itself was, one of my favorite films in this mildly subversive category was the Amanda Bynes film She’s the Man, a mostly goofy take on Twelfth Night. The main protagonist is female, she tries to win over a boy, and the boy gets a (for a teen movie, anyway) reasonable inner life. It’s not a good movie, but it’d be nice to see a couple more major media products start to move towards that idea of full personhood for female characters.