Monday, December 30, 2013

Coin Operated Girl

Okay. Okay, look. I’ve got another little annoyance digging in my brain.

The token “strong female character.”

I went and saw the second Hobbit film last night. I won’t really dig deep into what I thought of the film as a whole (summary: good fun, many great elements, was on the cusp of feeling bored multiple times, probably won’t see it again), but I will speak about a very specific character decision that was made: the pretty red-headed elf lady. The orcs call her She-Elf, for some reason. It’s entirely possible that it’s a Tolkien thing, man of his time and whatnot, but really? Not elf. No, not elf. She-Elf. Totally different breed, apparently. Silly She-Elf.

Now before I continue on my ranty ranty bit, let me say this: Evangeline Lilly is lovely as the elf Tauriel, both in appearance and performance. And the little girl inside me enjoys watching her dance gracefully on the wind and on the earth as she shoots and slashes her way through spiders and orcs alike. I genuinely like her character. Tauriel’s compassion, her feisty defy-orders-to-do-what-she-feels-is-right attitude, and her battle skills all mesh together to make… Movie Arwen 2.0. Except redheaded and with more bloodlust.

Here’s my problem: an unnecessary plot addition was written so one single female character got to stand out as strong willed, feisty, and beautiful, among the men she interacts with. Is that, by itself, a problem? Not necessarily. Is it a problem that a female character was written in to a story that originally featured only men? No. Is it a problem that we have a gal who fights, is empathetic, and makes choices independently? Certainly not.

The problem is this character has been written many times before, in different stories and different circumstances, but she fills the exact same slot. She is a token writers stick into a story when they suddenly realize they need or want a female character, because this is nearly 2014, and shouldn’t we be progressive and stuff?

Her name is Tauriel. Her name is Arwen when she holds a sword to her lover’s throat and brags about sneaking up on him (Liv Tyler herself later recognized “you don’t have to put a sword in her hand to make her strong”). Her name is Fiona, from Shrek. Sure, she does kung-fu, but so do all princesses these days. What else do you have for her? She’s the blonde from the most recent Star Trek movie, whose only purpose seems to be functioning as a plot device and a hot piece of ass. Her name is Black Widow, to a certain extent, as depicted in the Iron Man movies and The Avengers.

It’s not bad to be kick-ass and pretty, that can be kind of awesome. But it’s not enough to be kick-ass and pretty. Those two elements do not a well-developed character make. Is Legolas strong? Is he kick ass? Is he pretty?

He’s all three of these things. Funny, we don’t seem to need to ask those questions. Well, except maybe that last one. But we often skip the “strong” adjective for male characters. Why? A) it’s a given or B) it doesn’t matter. It isn’t necessarily a part of the character’s merit. That doesn’t have to be proven, so we get to skip ahead to the other parts.

This woman’s token is wearing out real fast because it’s easy to use and it’s used often. The token’s characteristics have expanded to include “strong” and “badass fighting skills” but the role has not changed. The ratio of male to female protagonists has not changed.

But, you might say, some of these stories are based on older works and all the main characters are male! What do you want us to do?

The people behind the 2004 adaptation of Battlestar Galactica did something brilliant. They turned Starbuck, originally a male character, into a female (who was her own person). And it fucking worked. It worked brilliantly. Now, will I always expect gender bending in classic stories? No. Do I want every single story to be carefully balanced between male, female, and othergender characters? No. But tossing in a woman who can fight and be feisty and pretty does not warrant an automatic pat on the back. It does not warrant a “good job, look at how mindful you are to making sure women get positive representation! Look how much you get that women can be strong, independent, and badass! Here, have a cookie, because: Yay! Equality!"

This is not about women being depicted as sword wielding badasses or not. This is about WHY they are depicted as such. The why is incredibly, incredibly important. The why is the difference between a token and a thoughtfully constructed complex character. The why is the difference between a character who impacts and shapes the story and a character who is simply given something “to do” by the creation of elaborate side stories. Tauriel, in the midst of all her badassery, is also kind of just... an excuse for a romantic interest triange. 

As I’ve been writing I’ve come across this problem. It’s not a male vs female vs somegender problem, it’s simply a character writing problem. I find myself thinking “Oh! I want this character to do this, I want them to end up here. So this, this and this needs to happen, and then they can have this moment.”

Characters inevitably fall flat when they just react to whatever plot is written up. They will do anything I tell them to, but that does not mean they should. Characters, when they are allowed to be given life, will shape their own destinies. Is the plot serving the character and story, or is it simply serving a situation? Is the character breathing life, or is she coin operated? 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Thoughts on Frozen: Sisters, snow-dorks, and stone smurfs. (Contains spoilers!)

So I saw Frozen today. I cried.

Which should be no surprise to anybody.

After talking at (and with) a couple friends, I’ve developed a fairly cohesive review of my experience. As should be apparent by the title, this will contain spoilers. Please read responsibly.


First impression of the opening title screen and first scene: Dude, music.

And then… everything changes. Kind of.

Looking back, the opening scene has little to do with the rest of the film. So we see Kristoff and Sven’s origin, but what the heck happened to the rest of the ice men?

Change scene: we peek into the childhood of two sisters: Elsa and Anna. They’re adorable little princesses. They frolic, then something bad happens. We glimpse Elsa’s magical abilities (“winter” powers), and the resulting consequences. Terrified of a power she has, but doesn’t understand, Elsa learns she can accidentally harm those closest to her. Because of some vague warning from a few stone trolls, her parents shut her away from her sister and her world. She is shaped by a very strong belief more powerful than her magic: she must stifle and hide a part of herself to keep herself and her world safe. It’s the twisted interpretation of “with great power comes great responsibility.” Aka: “Don’t kill your sister, cause you totally will, even if you don’t mean to. So, just, hide your face or something. Cause, you know, shame! Dishonor! Dishonor on your whole family! Dishonor on you, dishonor on your cow, dis-“  er, ahem. Anyway. While she lives with her family, she is still separated and isolated from them.

Time passes, other stuff happens, and Elsa soon has to face the fact that she cannot hide forever because of, you know, circumstances. She’s terrified, naturally, and Anna has no idea why her sister is as cold and reserved as she is.

But let me take a break here: Where the hell did Elsa’s magic come from? She was born with it, not “cursed.” Okay. Does magic run in the family, then? Why are her parents so inept at helping her harness her powers? Presumably, if they think she can just wear some gloves and everything will be fine, then ice magic has either never been a big problem in their family, or it’s a new thing. Why was she born with it, but no one else in her family has it? What is her magic’s purpose (besides being a metaphor for being “cold” and “unfeeling”)? How does it work? How did it hurt Anna the way it did? Why did Anna’s memories of magic have to be removed entirely? I get the fear, I get the desire and urge to control something that isn’t understood, I get the love themes, I get the acceptance and the sisterhood themes.

But, but questions!!

I like the direction Disney is going with these princess stories. I’m guessing Brave, which focused on the mother/daughter relationship, broke open a new paradigm: stories about women protagonists without a romantic center. This is a new direction for Disney and sadly, a new direction for mainstream film and media in general. While Frozen is not devoid of romantic relationships/interests, I found those that WERE included were more self-aware and organic. Anna starts off excited about finding her “one” true love (which I see more as excitement about finding love and intimacy in general; she too has grown up so isolated, but without her sister’s internal struggle). Anna’s naiveté (which the film is self-aware of) kickstarts a journey to understand what “love” means as a whole. How SHE creates love herself, and how love defines relationships, period, whether it’s between sisters, friends, or partners/romantic.

While Disney may be heading that direction, their vision and execution is not perfect. I sense the legacy of these films shifting but Frozen as a whole is disjointed and scattered. My primary issue with this film is the same issue I had with Brave: too much going on and not enough focus/exploration on the stronger themes.

I can’t decide whether Olaf the snow-dork was a cute comic-relief character that worked within the story, or if he was misplaced. ( Olaf is CLEARLY a big hit with the kids and he’s a great marketing tool; I can’t fault Disney for that.) I get that he is a bridge character between the sisters, linking their past and their current struggle. But if that’s the case, I wonder if there was a better way to use that character. What if the comic relief came from elsewhere and his character explained (or even hint at) the source of Elsa’s magic or its significance?

What if Elsa’s power was somehow connected to Anna in a bigger way than “oh, if I don’t hide it, I’ll hurt her again?” What if Elsa’s magic developed to entertain and protect Anna, out of love, but when it backfired and Elsa accidentally hurt her sister, it raged out of her control? What if the ice magic was an ancient gift bestowed on the rulers of the kingdom, but over the years it was forgotten and Elsa was the first child in generations to have it?

Elsa has a power she is afraid of, and Anna’s power is that she faces her fears. Elsa’s journey to truly embracing herself revolves around her relationship with her sister, just as Anna’s journey to understand what love is revolves around the same thing. While the ice magic serves as a powerful metaphor, ultimately I think it becomes a vague situation for the story to happen around, not through. Like at the beginning? When the royal family goes off in the night to find those trolls to save little Anna? The mind is easy to change but not the heart? What exactly did Elsa DO? Give Anna a bad case of brain freeze? (I admit I was a little confused at that bit. I figure when someone gets hit in the head with a bolt of ice, they’d either end up with a bad headache or, you know, no head. What was the difference between the physical/material ice and the “magic disease ice?”)

And oh god, those trolls. There was another chance to give a little back-story or context for how magic functions in this world, but no. Sure, these trolls seem to have all this knowledge of magic, but besides ridding little Anna of a bad ice-headache and a vague warning to Elsa and her parents of “beauty” and “danger” if you don’t get that darn frost problem under control, what do these supposedly wise, old trolls do?

Apparently, kidnap the kid from the opening scene, raise him as their own, and then sing a little song mid-movie about fixer-upper relationships. A weird song about fixer-upper relationships. I get it was supposed to build the relationship between two of the main characters, but, really? And they look like stone smurfs. Smurfs. Stone. Smurfs.


Not only did the story feel disjointed in parts, but the music was aaaaall over the place. I am not musically educated enough to articulate WHY, but that’s exactly how I experienced it. Intense, powerful opening music and then… where the hell was that during the rest of it?

I found “Let it Go,” sung by Elsa, to be one of the strongest songs overall, and one of the most impactful. Elsa goes from barely keeping her magic hidden to completely unleashing it from her fingertips, creating this gorgeous ice castle. But Olaf the snow-dork has his own style of song (which is admittedly adorable), the trolls have their own weird song (a total wtf moment), a few Disney-style pop songs, and… I don’t really remember much else. Regardless of whether or not the songs had merit, the main thing I remember is… not remembering them very well.

Growing up, Disney movies were all about the music for me. As questionable and cringe-worthy as Pocahontas was, damnit that movie had some amazing music. Lion King? Unforgettable, plus my all-time favorite villain song. Each decade, each “age” of Disney had its own flavor, animation, story, and perhaps most importantly for many of us, music.

Watching Frozen in a theater filled with children and families, I wondered how this generation of kids will remember the music. To them, is it the best thing ever, and am I just biased because I’m not their age anymore? Perhaps.

I really did enjoy the film. The visuals of ice and snow are stunning, the journeys of both sisters are wonderfully done and tender (like a steak, hehe). Character dialogue and exchange felt organic and fluid, right down to the most subtle of body language details, which made the motivation and development of each character clear and engaging. While largely scattered, the music did contain a couple gems that I hope kids will sing loudly in the backseats of cars, much to their parents’ chagrin or joy (or both). The kids sitting with us in the theater loved the movie, and were very vocal about it. And while I question how focused the story was and the roles some of the side characters played, I think those critiques are best served in thinking about how we might make even better films, stories, whatever, in the future.