Thursday, August 14, 2014

Accessing The Future and That Movie Where The White Straight Cis Non-disabled Guy Saves The Day Despite Everything.

I wanted to join in the blog hop to raise awareness (and hopefully money) for Future Fire's latest project Accessing The Future,which they describe as an "SF anthology exploring disability & the intersectionality of race, class, gender & sexuality."

If you enjoy science fiction or have any interest in promoting diversity in fiction, please support this project. Also check out (and join in) their blog hop - here are Jo's and David's intriguing contributions, as well as this post by A C Buchanan on disability in speculative fiction.

I have not managed to do anything new and am soon to be invaded by small children. However, I unearthed this monster from my Drafts folder as the subject matter is not irrelevant to diversity (or the lack thereof) throughout fiction:

That movie where the white straight cis non-disabled guy saves the day despite everything. 

This is jam-packed full of spoilers – can’t work round that.

Most of the greatest films ever made feature a hero from a very narrow demographic; straight cis non-disabled white men make up around a quarter of the British population and even less of the US (where most English language movies are made). And yet this minority are often treated as a massive majority in movies; these are the faces we see most often on screen and indeed, these are the faces of some fantastic characters: James Bond, Philip Marlowe, Indiana Jones, the Man with No Name and up to a point, John McClane. 

The fact that in 2014, film-makers treat a character's whiteness, masculinity, straightness etc. as necessary criteria for a protagonist, particularly in action, science-fiction and fantasy, is disappointing. But something worse is happening. In recent years, I've seen a whole raft of movies where heroes with these qualities have very little else. They don't save the day because they behave heroically; they save the day just because they are that guy. 

This hero is not heroic.

In many cases, he is outright incompetent.

In Non-Stop, Liam Neeson's character is an alcoholic who was thrown off the police force for his drinking and then, miraculously, employed as a Air Marshal.  White House Down begins with Channing Tatum's character being turned down for a job at the White House because he’s unqualified and has terrible references. In Star Trek, Into Darkness, Kirk is the least talented person on the Enterprise, an incorrigible lech with a reputation for getting into brawls, a man of thirty-something they talk of sending back to the academy.

These are not men who are underestimated and come to prove themselves; in Non-Stop, our hero fannies about, upsets everyone and eventually follows protocol after the bad guys have messed up their own plans. The most pivotal action Kirk takes in the entire movie is to fix a machine by repeatedly kicking it in frustration. The hero of White House Down is good at shooting people, but he isn't crafty or cunning. He's just sufficiently violent.

I assume there must be an idea, somewhere, that movie audiences want heroes they can relate to - ordinary people who aren't particular good at anything and don't make good choices. Only, most of us are good at stuff and we do make good choices. Flawed heroes are great - we want to consume fiction featuring human beings (even if they are pixies, rabbits, crockery or whatever). But where's the entertainment in watching someone just get lucky?

He was a far greater man in the original film or book. 

It's also remarkable how this treatment has been applied to established characters. William Shatner's Captain Kirk had tremendous charisma and often made smart choices, even though his wisdom was a little inconsistent. You understood why everyone wanted to follow him into battle and/ or eat his face. Chris Pine's Captain Kirk, on the other hand, has a surprising large forehead.

Given the immense amount of time and effort they put into making The Hobbit into three - three! - movies, you'd think they would have considered the character of the eponymous hobbit, Bilbo Baggins; a small man who uses wit, cunning and the help of his friends to overcome enormous foes. In the movies so far, Bilbo is a small man who happens to be aggressive and fast. 

In the book, when the dwarves have been captured by spiders, Bilbo makes himself invisible and sings to them, freaking them out before driving them off by throwing stones. In the film, he fights them, stabbing them and waking up the dwarves so they can pull the spider's legs off. In the book, they gradually win the trust of Beorn (apparently a recluse since leaving Abba) by introducing themselves and telling stories. In the movie, the gang run away from Beorn's bear self, occupy his house and wait for him to turn human. 

If you're determined to suck the dynamism out of your heroes, you need to bring in a lot of outside help to make sure they save the day. This is done in two ways:

It is his destiny.

There's an awful lot of destiny involved in these movies; these are legends, not fairytales. The idea of an ordinary boy or man who discovers he is something significant doesn't make for a bad story - that's Harry Potter, among others. However, Harry Potter found out he was a wizard and then worked hard at being the best wizard he could be, overcoming obstacles, forming alliances, facing down his enemies.

In these movies, destiny is pretty much enough, although unlike Harry Potter, these are privileged boys and men, living very comfortable lives. In Ender's Game, Ender apparently has some skills but he is repeatedly tricked and manipulated by the people who believe it is his destiny. The same people manipulate his colleagues to like or dislike him and to follow him as a leader. He is then finally tricked into saving the world. 

Comic book superhero movies are not generally That Movie; superheroes belong to the metatext and are thus pretty reasonably-constructed characters. But the sheer number of these films and the fact that these heroes triumph because they are heroes (or in the case of Thor, because he is a god) are part of this general pattern.

In Kick Ass, good prevailed because of considerably cunning, courage and acquired skill. In Kick Ass 2, good prevails against far greater odds because... well, it just does somehow.

The other way you overcome the great gap where the hero's heroism should be is to make him adored by everyone around him.

Everybody loves this guy. Nobody knows why. 

Oz, The Great and Powerful came out of the questionable idea that there are no fairytales with strong male protagonists. So what kind of hero did they go for? Well, the first, second and third thing we learn about Oz is that he exploits women for both money and sex, he also exploits his male colleague, he continues to behave with abject cynicism even after he finds himself in a mysterious magical land. Yet everyone he meets adores him and thus he is reformed through the entirely irrational love and faith of others.  

In Non-Stop, two smart women - played by the excellent Michelle Dockery and Julianne Moore - never waver in their faith in our unreformed alcoholic Air Marshal, despite their short acquaintance, knowledge of his drunkenness and the fact he manhandles and accuses them.

In Oblivion, the Scavs risk life and limb to communicate with Jack Harper, a man who has been killing them all, just because he's started to frown and gaze into the middle distance. They already have a perfectly good plan for defeating their enemy without him - a plan that would have worked out if they hadn't brought Harper there to tell him about it. For no good reason.

The hero always gets the girl.

We've apparently moved on from having a final scene where the leading man takes the leading (often only) woman into his arms for a snog, even if they've only exchanged a few lines about nuclear fusion early in the second act. Getting the girl is now more often implied; the final scene features a moment of flirtation or a mutual look of longing. But that guy still gets the girl. Beautiful women are no longer prizes for heroic acts, they are the prize for being the protagonist in the movie, even an incompetent protagonist whose path was largely dictated by fate.

Bilbo Baggins is the one exception - he does not get the girl (although I've only slept through seen the first two movies so far), although the film-makers have invented a love story which begins when the dwarves are captured by the elves. Addressing a lady-elf, the best-looking dwarf says, "Aren't you going to search me? I could have anything down my trousers!" 

At this point, Tolkein's ghost entered the room and smashed in our telly with a copy of The Anglo Saxon Chronicle

There are action, adventure and science fiction movies with black protagonists and women protagonists and those aren't all great movies. They do, however, make their heroes and heroines demonstrate some reason for us to root for them and some means by which they might have a chance at fulfilling their quests or defeating their enemies. In fact, action movies with women protagonists work hard to establish, within the first scenes, this is not just any woman; this is a special woman, with special skills. Or occasionally, this is a very ordinary woman who is about to befall a terrible fate which will force her to learn to be special.

In fact, an irony about these movies is that they are not short of competent women and people of colour. The women on the Starship Enterprise are massively qualified and brave and Sulu takes the helm with great success (let's skip past the casting of Khan). White House Down staffs the Secret Service with smart women and has Jamie Foxx as president (as he deserves to be). Most of the women in Oz, The Great and Powerful are tremendously strong and powerful, despite Oz's baffling sexual allure being enough to turn a good witch bad.

So, as well as these character's failure to engage the viewer, there's a dreadful message of entitlement here. It used to be that a white straight cis non-disabled guy could go to the movies and come away with the message that people like himself were capable of great things. Now he can come away with the message that someone like him will achieve greatness however little he actually does.

Meanwhile, the rest of us? We've got to knuckle down and rally around our hero; the whole world is at stake and he doesn't look like he can save it without us. 


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Nick said...

really like this analysis, especially the line about we love our heroes to be human, even when they're rabbits... :)