On Heroines

(Spoiler Warnings Various)

I was very fortunate that, growing up, I was able to find books in which girls were the protagonists, the chosen, the ones who saved their homes or their worlds. Particular thanks to Tamora Pierce, who practically codified this as a subgenre, but the truth is that between my school’s surprisingly large collection, given the number of students, and the vast resources of the New York Public Library, my books were full of people like me.

Where I was more lacking in representation was in films, although I never thought it was an issue. Sure, I had some complaints — Leia is undoubtedly awesome, but I wanted to wield a lightsaber goddamnit — but for the most part I accepted that the protagonists of my favorite movies were mostly male. Or that even if the main character was a woman, she would be surrounded primarily by men.

I didn’t think it was a problem.

Then, I learned I could have something different.

Ghostbusters

I went to see the revamped Ghostbusters because I was a fan of the original. It was as simple as that. That the characters were female was a nice plus but I wasn’t expecting to be blown away. I was expecting to have fun. Which I did.

What I didn’t expect was to leave the theater with a curious feeling of satiation — over and above what such a “fun” or comedic or “silly” movie should have given me. Because the humor was actually funny. And the women were developed characters. And the hot dumb secretary being a guy was played for laughs, but in a tongue-in-cheek way, and without much of the associated meanness usually present in the usual version of that trope. It was a movie designed for someone like me. I’d never had that before to such a degree, and never quite realized it.

And then there was That Scene, the one that made me think, quietly, firmly, yeah. 

On our walk home, the three of us who had gone to see it (all girls) kept sharing glances, just to confirm — you liked it too, didn’t you.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Fury Road was a movie I only went to see because men on the internet whined about it. I still remember the first time I saw a trailer — there wasn’t much to go on, just a lot of sand and a sort of post-apocalyptic car chase and WHAT THE FUCK DID THAT GUY JUST SHOOT FLAMES OUT OF A GUITAR?? I shared a look with my brother as if to say what did we just see. Furthermore, I was unfamiliar with the original trilogy so I had absolutely no context for what I’d just been given. Internal shrug. Not going to be seeing that movie.

Then it came out, and then came the protests and editorials. The fragile egos whining on Twitter; the opinion pieces from Vox or Jezebel or i09 or whatever hailing it as a feminist move.

Really? Well…okay.

What got me in the end was the promise of numbers — not only were the female characters important, there were seven of them with major speaking roles. Even in this wasteland where a man hoards and cultivates women’s bodies as a natural resource, even in this hellscape where the villain is the Patriarch, women talk to each other. It’s more than you see in most films.

So I went.

And I loved it.

Somehow, someway, a two-and-a-half-plus hour car chase managed to work in significant character development with minimal dialogue. It’s done with a light touch, and it works. There are seven-odd main women with speaking roles who help and rely on each other; Max is very much their observer, perhaps their helpmeet but not their savior. His one arguable moment of glory happens nearly entirely offscreen. The shots are framed without the ubiquitous male gaze of Hollywood.

But more than that, it’s just a wonderfully constructed piece of art. The colors, the visuals, the soundtrack, the subtle character work, the performances, the effects…Fury Road is a good movie, and a feminist one. So much for “pandering” affecting quality.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I’m only going to talk about one moment in this movie. Only one.

In the woods. In the snow. Finn is down; the lightsaber has been thrown into the tress. Rey faces down Kylo Ren. She forcepulls the lightsaber into her hand.

The lightsaber is in her hand.

I never thought they would give me that. I was glad that they gave me Leia, no-nonsense rebel doing damage with a blaster, and later Genera Organa in charge of the whole alliance. But I never thought I would get that. So many times, playing with my cousins as a kid, or simply imagining myself into the story, that I had to invent wholesale a new character, and feel like a fraud while doing it.

And then I saw it onscreen. The lightsaber, in her hand.

I’m not ashamed to say that I cried.

Wonder Woman

So this is the context in which I saw Wonder Woman: my eyes opened to a lack I hadn’t felt before. My appetite whetted for a taste that I hadn’t known I craved. Wary, still, from a long history of disappointment (Avengers, anyone?).

And then it was everything I wanted and more.

I wish the opening scenes had been longer; I would have loved to revel in that all-female world of Themyscira. But what I got in those few minutes was a feast — fierce, cooperative women, Robin Wright kicking ass and taking names, and a perfect set up for Diana to be Struck by Awe of Steve’s Manhood that wasn’t taken.

Oh yes, I allowed myself to think. I like where this is going. 

There were moments of humor, but not at Diana’s expense. (We, the audience, delight with her as she joyfully discovers ice cream — we don’t laugh at her.) The makeover scene lacked any hint of male gaze, instead giving the audience a very funny lampshading of the “glasses disguise” trope.

There were moments of glory. No Man’s Land. My god.

There were things to criticize, certainly, though this isn’t where I’m going to do it. (Consider the treatment of Dr. Poison, for example; consider that despite Wonder Woman’s origins for most of the movie she is surrounded by men). But despite its flaws, Wonder Woman was a phenomenon.

This Must Be What It Feels Like

This must be what it feels like to watch a movie if you are a man. To have a piece of art that is catered to you, to your preferences, to your desires. That treats you like a person. That shows you a reflection of yourself onscreen.

I didn’t know what I was missing.

Now You?

If you’ve seen any of these movies, talk to me about them. If you had any of the same feelings as I did, commiserate. If there are other films like these out there that you’ve seen, recommend them.

What’s on your  mind?

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