Whedon, Lord of the Flies and Feminism

As a forty year-old guy, I probably shouldn’t really talk about feminism, but I’m going to.

Also: A warning – I wrote this while on a bus ride from a city to city, which meant I was without access to the Internet for part of the way and I wasn’t able to fact-check while writing, so I might have wild assumptions within the text, which I forgot to check later. Oh well.

What prompted me to do this? First, of course, the Joss Whedon debacle and today I heard there’s going to be a new version of Lord of the Flies with an all female cast.

So, let’s talk about Joss Whedon. I haven’t really followed the ‘scandal’, but as I understand it, Whedon himself has claimed to be a feminist, because he was raised by his mother, while his ex-wife says all that talk about feminism isn’t worth anything, because he doesn’t really act this way. Well, first of all, we shouldn’t really mix these things. You can be supportive of an ideology and not live it. It is hypocritical and you really shouldn’t do this, but you can believe things and not really act like it, because we are still humans. It’s a shitty thing to do, but still a thing humans can’t get over.

But why is (or was) Whedon regarded as such a feminist? I don’t really know. He’s work doesn’t really convey that. Sure, there are “strong female characters” in them, but to me they’ve always come off more like jerk-off material he’s making for himself. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I would appreciate a certain amount of honesty about it, although there is a long tradition of avoidance on this. Think about it. Sure, these women can kick ass, but where are all the female authority figures? There’s Book and Giles, but where’s the wise old women guiding and giving advice to the younger heroes? Apparently some people find it hard to use them for masturbation.

Then there’s these weird problems. Black Widow, easily the coolest character on Avengers despite not having any powers what-so-ever, can’t have children, because of an operation from her youth, which was meant to make her more docile. Well, she isn’t and that is cool, but this whole thing feels troublesome to me. You wouldn’t take away the ability of male heroes to reproduce, because that would emasculate them. So, why would you give your only female member of the team (not any more, but you know what I mean) this weakness? Is it a weakness? I don’t know, but it feels like something they can use the female character as a fodder for. I guess alcoholism, father issues, inability to relate to modern times, anger management problems and alien origins were already taken, so this is what was left. Yes, the female characters need these traits as well, but when putting them into the script, they shouldn’t feel like female problems and you give those to the female characters because they aren’t real people. As if being female is a special trait of the character, not something over half the population is.

So yeah, Whedon’s work doesn’t really feel like feminist. It feels more like what someone, who doesn’t really understand the issues, thinks feminism should look like in a movie. I’m not saying bad ass women isn’t part of the equation, as it definitely should be, but there’s also so much more there that needs to be explored. I know it originated as a joke, but Bechdel test is still something that’s often cited in these situations. How much of Whedon’s work would actually pass it? (To pass the Bechdel test, a movie needs to have a discussion between female characters, which lasts at least 90 seconds and doesn’t involve men.) Somehow I feel he just assumed the mantle once someone gave him a chance. It doesn’t seem to be something he ever actually worked for.

But moving onto a wholly different end of the spectrum. First there was the all-female Ghostbusters. I haven’t seen it, but I was sort of looking forward to it. I mean, I didn’t really know two of the four major actors in the team, but I have a certain amount of respect for Kirsten Wiig and even though I don’t really enjoy Melissa McCarthy’s over the top improvisation, she has good moments. The whole thing felt like some misguided attempt to show what women are capable of. Well, the movie still needs to be solid in other respects to make it all worth it. From what I’ve seen of the movie, they missed the whole point by making middle-aged men trying to get their small business to work into action superheroines. I’m sure there was a lot of studio pressure to do exactly this and to a degree it was probably necessary, because that’s the way most of the audience probably remember the first one anyhow (well, as an action-comedy, not one with heroines).

So, when I heard of the aforementioned Lord of the Flies remake, my first thougth was basically ‘oh shit’, because they seem to be missing the mark from the beginning. I’m not saying it’s wrong to do it, but if this is supposed to be the major draw of the film, then these people still haven’t caught on. And well, the writer-directors are both male, of course. But it’s not only their problem. There’s a backlash, because many people feel girls wouldn’t actually resort to physical violence and therefore things wouldn’t happen as they do in the book and the previous movies. Okay. There probably is a certain amount of truth to that, but should the movie be about that? I mean that seems like the most boring movie ever. People hugging things out. Should there really be a rule that if you have female characters, they should be boring? Lord of the Flies is fiction and it has a message to us about who we are. Won’t that message be diluted if the girls just live happily on the island until someone happens across them and saves them all? Who would go out and pay money to see that movie?

Things get heightened in fiction either to entertain or to make you think. Suppose you saw this particular film and the girls were as brutal as their male counterparts? It would make you think about whether this is something that could actually happen. If you feel it can’t, it doesn’t really make the movie worse. Again, it is fiction. FIC-TION. Something that isn’t real, even if it is trying to raise a point about something. That point is about humanity and last I checked women are humans too. If you think women can’t be as horrible to each other as men can, than you really need to check your sources. Sure, there are fewer psychopaths among women, but the difference is smaller than you’d think.

I would hope studios would finally wake up to the idea that they shouldn’t treat women as a minority group. Sure, Ghostbusters wasn’t very successful. Does that mean you shouldn’t do movies with a group of women as the stars? Of course not. You should just stop using that as the basis of the movie. They should just happen to be women. Should the fact that Wonder Woman did so well be a sign that you should only hire models as your female movie stars? Of course not. Gal Gadot might be gorgeous in that role, but it’s clear from the movie that she isn’t there just to be eye-candy. Her costume might be revealing, but it wasn’t redesigned to be more so.

We also need to get over the notion that men want male characters or only accept female characters as something to gaze at. Let’s take an example from Dishonored 2, where you can choose between Emily, the usurped empress, and Corvo, her illegitimate father and royal protector. From the story point of view, it doesn’t matter very much which one you choose, since they follow the same paths, although they have different abilities. Emily isn’t really something you can gaze at, since most of the game is from your characters point of view. Still, according to the statistics on Steam, of all the players who have played that game on Steam, 25.3% have finished it with Emily and 17.4% have finished it with Corvo. Why is that? I’d say we identify with her more. It’s not a matter of sex, it’s about her being out of her depth, while her father is a veteran of this stuff. Maybe her stronger emotional responses to various things she finds within her empire are more interesting than her fathers nostalgic notions. Maybe we like her, because even though she isn’t really the best leader for the country in the beginning, at least she wants the best for her people, which is much more than we can say about our own leaders (who are often even more incompetent as well). Whatever it is, it’s not the sex appeal, because her ass isn’t there for us to stare at throughout the game.

Maybe we, as males, can relate to female characters. Huh. Who would have thought? Most of the population under 40?

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