Sunday, 11 December 2011

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937): The History and the Legacy of Disney's Original Fairy Tale

This post first appeared at Bitch Flicks as part of their Animated Children's Films series.

‘Hell, Doc ... we just make a picture and then you professors come along and tell us what we do.’     Walt Disney, Time Magazine (1937) 

With the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as their first feature length film in 1937, The Walt Disney Company began negotiations for the complete buy-out of the fairy tale genre. Their venture paid off with profits in excess of $66 million. They capitalised upon this success adapting no fewer than seven more fairy tales to the big screen, and built an entire theme park empire around the idea of their enchanted kingdom whilst making a bomb through the marketing of princesses to little girls. Unsurprisingly, given the seventy year monopoly on fairy tales afforded Disney, many forget the original source tales for these works. Straparola, Basile, Perrault and Madame de Beaumont go unmentioned while Disney still hog the spotlight. 

As for the Brothers Grimm, whose tale ‘Schneewittchen’ provided the source for Disney’s adaptation, they fare slightly better in popular culture. In many ways Disney are the natural successors to the Grimms, sharing many of the same conservative values and imparting similar messages about good girls and heroic boys to their audiences. But there are also several differences between the two versions, especially concerning the role of the prince. As is the case in many of the Grimms’ tales, the prince is barely even a character, he just shows up the end in order to whisk the princess away to his castle. In Disney’s version however the prince has a more prominent role. As discussed by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in their seminal work The Madwoman in the Attic, women’s stories are often framed through male discourse and they are, ‘(enclosed) in his texts, glyphs, graphics’. Disney’s prince is the beginning and the end of Snow White’s story; he literally frames her narrative. Then there are of course the dwarfs, so much more prominent in the Disney version than the Grimms’ that they are included in the title. Snow White’s character is so massively one dimensional and underdeveloped that she needs seven little men as a supporting cast (and the Evil Queen) in order to make the film even remotely interesting.

But of course, Snow White is not supposed to be an interesting character. She is a template; a parable for how girls should behave. In the Grimms’ version she is just seven years old. I’m presuming she is older in the Disney version, but the point is irrelevant really. No matter her age she is supposed to be childish, innocent, naïve, unknowing. But most importantly she must be domesticated. In the Grimms’ version the dwarfs tell Snow White, ‘If you will keep house for us, cook, make the beds, wash, sew, knit and keep everything neat and tidy, then you can stay with us, and we’ll give you everything you need’, to which Snow White replies, ‘Yes, with pleasure’. In the Disney version she offers to ‘keep home’ if the dwarfs let her stay with them. She also shows that cleaning is darn good fun, and I imagine it really would be if you had a troop of woodland creatures doing most of the work for you. Disney’s Snow White is good and obedient, she does what she’s told and she says her prayers before bedtime. Her only act of disobedience occurs when she ignores the strong warning given to her by the dwarfs: beware of strangers! She is tempted by the old hag’s red apple, and we all know by now that there are always disastrous consequences when it comes to disobedient women and apples. Unable to bring themselves to bury her in the ground, the dwarfs creepily decide to display her dead body in an ornately decorated glass coffin, so they can always enjoy her beauty. In the Grimms’ tale the prince, who has searched high and low for a dead chick in glass coffin, says to the dwarfs, ‘Let me have the coffin. I will give you whatever you want for it… Make me a present of it, for I can’t live without seeing Snow White. I will honour and cherish her as if she were my beloved.’ Note how she is simply referred to as an ‘it’ here; she is a mere possession for the prince. In the Disney version Snow White is then awoken by ‘love’s true kiss’, another deviation from the Grimms’ tale and presumably an element borrowed from Sleeping Beauty. Perhaps it appealed to Walt’s romantic side – his creepy, bordering-on-necrophilia romantic side. As a reward for her unrelenting submissiveness Snow White gets to spend the rest of her life in a giant castle with a man she barely knows who calls her ‘it’. Believe it or not the evil Queen’s fate is far grizzlier.

Despite the pervasiveness of the ‘evil step-mother’ as a stock character in popular culture, it is actually the biological parents who play the villains in many fairy talesOften the Grimms would alter certain tales they had collected, substituting birth mothers for step-mothers, so as not to shock their readers and tarnish the image of the motherhood. In Snow White, her good biological mother dies in childbirth at the beginning of the tale, paving the way for a truly monstrous step-mother. In Disney’s version they go even further by eradicating Snow White’s birth mother from the narrative all together, leaving us with just the good, pure and passive Snow White contrasted with the evil, jealous and powerful Queen. The whole virgin/whore dichotomy thing, which Western culture still cannot get enough of, is prominent in the original tale but is amped to the max by Disney. In versions of the tale pre-dating the Grimms, most notably Giambattista Basile’s ‘The Young Slave’, much is made of the Queen’s jealousy of Snow White’s suitors. Once fairy tales became more exclusively aimed towards children sexual themes began to be repressed, and although The Grimms and Disney still focus on Snow White’s step-mother’s jealousy in their tales, the psycho-sexual undertones are far more subtle. Competition for male approval could be seen to be the most prominent theme of the story. Whether it be for the affection of young suitors, or for the attention of the absent father (In the Grimms’ tale Snow White is not an orphan, but her father is only mentioned once in the text. Child psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim suggested that the rivalry between Snow White and the Queen was oedipal.) Or, as Gilbert and Gubar suggest, for the approval of the patriarchal voice of judgment in the mirror ‘that rules the Queen’s – and every woman’s – self evaluation.’ The Queen’s obsession with beauty merely reflects patriarchal society’s own obsession with it. This is still relevant today, and it is still an issue which pits women against each other. Again, Gilbert and Gubar highlight this, ‘female bonding is extraordinarily difficult in patriarchy: women almost inevitably turn against women because the voice in the looking glass sets them against each other.’ Of course, for the Queen there is no happy ending, and she meets a sticky end in both tales. In the Grimms’ far more horrific version she is forced to dance in red hot iron shoes until she drops dead. In the Disney version the violence is more sanitised, with her death taking place off-screen. However, her treatment is still harsh and she is pursued by the dwarfs onto a cliff where she falls to her death, destined to be pecked at by wild vultures.

2001 welcomed an alternative to the Disney fairy tale with the release of Shrek, an animated comedy which made fun of the old classics. To date there have been three more Shrek films, as well as other similar animated features such as Hoodwinked and Happily N’Ever After. Even Disney jumped on the bandwagon with the release of their live action feature Enchanted, which tells the story of a fairytale princess transported to modern day New York. In these films fairy tale tropes are lampooned and mocked for being old fashioned and out of touch. In one scene in Shrek the Third the princesses find themselves trapped in prison. Their solution to this problem is to ‘assume the positions’ which means sit around and wait to be rescued. And there is of course the scene where Snow White, accompanied as always by her posse of cute creatures, enchants two guards with her beautiful singing voice, only to then take them surprise by unleashing her song birds as weapons, all to the tune of Led Zeppelin. In Disney’s Enchanted they mock their own little Snow White with a city version of the ‘Whistle While You Work’ scene. This time it is a host of vermin, clusters of cockroaches and swarms of flies that help her with chores. Despite these films making fun of the old fairy tale cliché, and trying to create a more modern outlook, they tend to reinforce the same values. They still end happily ever after with a wedding, and they continue to focus on hetero-normative plot points.

After gaining little success with The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, Disney announced in 2009 that they would no longer make fairy tale adaptations. Which I’m guessing they are starting to regret right around now as it seems fairy tales are once again en vogue. There are two new TV shows, Once Upon a Time and Grimm, which deal with the genre and a whole host of new movie adaptations on the horizon. These include the Shrek spinoff Puss in Boots, and not one but two new Snow White adaptations. The first, Snow White and the Huntsman, seems far grittier with Snow White in armour and a supposedly more active role. Despite this, not one line of dialogue does she get to speak in the trailer. The other adaptation, Mirror, Mirror takes its cue much more from Disney and seems more whimsical and light-hearted. Yet in this trailer Snow White actually gets to speak, and fairytale clichés are made fun of with the prince needing to be rescued instead. However, both trailers still fixate on the monster/angel dichotomy of the two female characters, with no one seeming to understand that this is the most outdated idea of all in the tale. These trailers have prompted much debate over both films’ lack of racial diversity. Considering the wealth of different variations of fairy tales available, from a multitude of different cultural backgrounds, it is completely ridiculous that the only versions we still pay any attention to are those that have been manipulated by upper-class, white guys from the 18th and 19th centuries to suit their own religious and social morals. It would be so easy to put a real spin on the tired old tales, using a more diverse cast and less passive women, because these tales already exist. They are there in the form of traditional folk tales that collectors and publishers chose to ignore, and in the form of post-modern fairy tales, where authors have written out the elitism, racism and misogyny in order to create more exciting tales. Fairy tales are meant to be adapted, manipulated, toyed with and allowed to evolve and to grow. They have travelled from the workrooms of peasants to the literary salons of Paris. They have settled in the nurseries of children and have been adapted to the big screen. They are not meant to be left to stagnate, tracing the same old stories in the same old style. It’s time for change.

'Fair fair fairest- white white whitest'  Hilarious video from Second City Network 

Texts used:
Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, ‘Snow White and Her Wicked Stepmother’ and The Brothers Grimm, ‘Snow White’ both contained in The Classic Fairy Tales, ed. by Maria Tatar (New York; London: W.W. Norton, 1999) .

Friday, 9 December 2011

October/November Film Catch-Up

I watch a lot of films. But I also have a serious problem with procrastination so here are some observations on the films I have been too busy/lazy to write about in the past month or so: 

Contagion (2011) Dir. Steven Soderbergh
Female Characters: 5 (Beth/Dr. Orantes/Dr. Mears/Dr. Hextall/Jory) 
Male Characters: 7 (Mitch/Dr. Cheever/Alan/Sun Feng/Roger/Dr Sussman/Lyle) 
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? No. 

Much of the buzz about this film revolved around the fact that MEGA-star Gwyneth Paltrow dies within the first few minutes (and Kate Winslet follows not all that long after). Women are already massively underrepresented in film, do we really need to start killing off the few women who get big parts as a gimmick? Where are the films where Tom Cruise gets the axe within the first five minutes, huh? Because that can really only be an improvement to any film. And of course this whole virus mess is spread by a woman, and they really labour the point that she had been having an affair. The downfall of this society will inevitably be caused by those slutty, adulterous vessels of venereal doom called ‘women’ - For heaven’s sake don’t touch her, you don’t know where she’s been! Then follows the pretty schlocky, and almost voyeuristic, spectacle of Paltrow’s head being cut open and oozing goop (get it?) all over the operating table. The film does redeem itself a bit by having the only female scientist discover the cure, and truth be told it was a decent watch. I can’t be too hard on Soderbergh though - he still scores major brownie points with me for Erin Brockovich (2000).

Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part I (2011) Dir. Bill Condon
Female Characters:  7 (Bella/Alice/Renée/Esme/Rosalie/Jessica/ Leah)
Male Characters: 7 (Edward/Jacob/Charlie/Jasper/Carlisle/Emmett/Sam)
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? Yes.

Isn't it every girl’s dream to wake up the morning after her honeymoon ‘decorated’ (Actual word used by Meyer in the novel) with bruises because her husband is such a voracious sex beast he just could not control his passionate strength? Twilight thinks so. It also thinks that even if you have a demon vampire baby growing inside you, slowing sucking all the life out of your frail, emaciated body, abortion is WRONG! Honestly, there are not enough hours in the day to explain all that is wrong with the Twilight saga and the messages it sends to young girls. However, despite this, I feel the need to defend the series as I hate the way it’s sneered upon mainly because it appeals to a market of teenage girls. Even Twilight was not able meet the extraordinarily low standards I held for it, and I was impressed that they managed to deal with the shit-load of weird crap contained in that last book. Funny how censors manage to turn a blind eye to blood and guts when vast sums of money are involved, eh?

In Time (2011) Dir. Andrew Niccol
Female Characters: 2 (Rachel/Sylvia)
Male Characters: 3 (Will/Raymond/Philippe)
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? No.

This is a fairly cheesy film, with some truly ridiculous dialogue. But for me it is science fiction at its best because it exaggerates themes in order to create an analogy about real world problems, instead of you know, making robots fight either other. This is a dystopian thriller set in the year 2161 where people stop aging at 25, and in order to stay alive they must work to earn more time. There are those who live from day to day, hand to mouth, and there are those with so much time that they are effectively immortal. There are really only two significant female characters, both white. One plays the lead’s mother and dies early on, and the other is a spoiled rich kid who plays his love interest. She does play a big part in helping start the revolution, even if she does do it wearing ridiculously high heels. The film makes light of the fact that everyone is young, but focuses on only how this affects men with several cheesy jokes how you can’t tell whether a woman is a man’s wife, daughter or mother. There are no observations on how this would affect women’s lives. I mean, how would the rigid standards of beauty be enforced without age as a factor? And will someone please think of the poor anti-wrinkle cream companies!! Overall though, still some fairy radical ideas about society’s greed and the general inequality of the times we live in, for a mainstream, big-budget film at least. Occupy Hollywood anybody?

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) Dir. Lynne Ramsay
Female Characters: 2 (Eva/Celia)
Male Characters: 2 (Kevin/Franklin)
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? Yes.

Made by an excellent female director(and a Glaswegian too – Hooray!)Lynne Ramsay, with an excellent performance by the female lead Tilda Swinton. I was disappointed that it didn’t deal as much with issues surrounding the social expectations of motherhood, and the taboo of not bonding with your child, as I really loved this aspect of the novel.  I also felt that the novel lent itself to the possibility of some truly gory, and very shocking, scenes. However, Ramsay did not do the obvious thing and for a film with such a controversial subject matter there is very little blood on screen. Instead, she used the colour red to stunning effect and also created some genuinely uncomfortable moments through the use of what I can only describe as ‘audible gore’ – for example the scene where Kevin eats a lychee after the incident involving the loss of his sister's eye. I'm a big fan of Ramsay's previous work Ratcatcher (1999) and Movern Callar (2002), and trust me, I would much rather have saw her adaptation of The Lovely Bones. This film, and Ramsay herself, should definitely be nominated come Oscar time. The chances however are slim, with this film and others by female directors already being overlooked.

 The Help (2011) Dir. Tate Taylor
Female Characters: 11 (Aibileen/Skeeter/Hilly/Minny/Celia/Elizabeth/Mae Mobley/Charlotte/Constantine/Missus Walters/Yule Mae)
Male Characters: 2 (Johnny/Stuart) 
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? Yes.

One film where I don’t have to complain about the lack of women. But perhaps still about the lack of women of colour. There are seven white main characters to just three black main characters – isn’t this supposed to be from the point of view of the help? However, unlike the book, which is narrated mainly by a lead white protagonist called Skeeter, the film shifts the focus onto Aibileen (stunningly portrayed by Viola Davis) and her account of what it’s like to me a maid in civil rights era Mississippi. Still, a decent adaptation and side-splittingly hilarious at points … especially when it comes to the topic of pies.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Misfits: Series 3 Episode 2

Female Characters: 4 (Alisha/Kelly/Melissa/Emma)
Male Characters:  6 (Simon/Curtis/Rudy/Sean/Seth/Jay)
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? Yes.

This episode gives us a much needed insight into Curtis, who has perhaps been a little neglected in previously, and hasn’t made as much of an impact as the other characters. Having given up his previous power to rewind time to an elderly Jewish man who wants to kill Hitler, Curtis is now endowed with a new power; the ability to change sex. He can morph (at will, it would seem, which makes a change from the sporadic nature of his previous ability) into a female alter-ego named Melissa. As a woman there are few new things Curtis has to get to grips with (undergoing a drugs test where he is required to pee into a small container proves especially difficult) but the overwhelming amount of unwanted public attention and scrutiny directed towards his new female body proves to be the most problematic. I read one review which referred to this episode as a ‘preachy tale about women's rights and men's inability to empathise with the opposite sex’. A particularly unfair analysis in my opinion, as I felt that the episode was in no way preachy, but actually managed to pursue a fairly radical (for mainstream television at least) and responsible exploration of complex issues such as sexual harassment and rape, whilst still remaining true to the overall ethos of the show. 

Despite this programme being about a group of outcasts gaining super powers via a lightning storm, I felt that the topic of rape was dealt with in a fairly sensitive and realistic way. According to statistics, ‘Women are more likelyto be sexually attacked by men they know in some way, most often partners (32%)or acquaintances (22%), and ‘most rapes are carried out by men known to the woman. Around 54% of rapes are carried out by partners/former partners. Only12% are by strangers.’ Despite this, when rape is portrayed in film and television, it is generally at the hands of a deranged sociopath who is a stranger to the victim. Presumably this somehow makes the topic of rape a bit more palatable for mainstream audiences. In Melissa’s case it is her athletics coach, someone who is in a position of trust and power, and someone who she knows, who spikes her drink and attempts to rape her. At first he seems like a nice, normal guy who is genuinely interested in her athletic abilities and helping her reach her potential, but as the episode progresses we see her becoming more and more uncomfortable with the attention he gives her. However, one thing I found disappointing and extremely incongruous about this episode is that it begins with that most puzzling and oxymoronic of things; the rape ‘joke’. Of course it is Rudy who delivers the line, ‘I feel like I’m being raped here and not in a good way’ and I can see how it might somehow be defended with the excuse that this simply reflects his character. He is obnoxious, crude and generally scummy therefore we’re not supposed to relate to him and we’re not supposed to laugh with him, but at him. Whilst to a certain extent this may have been the case when it came to Nathan, I don’t think it holds up with Rudy. We’ve only just been introduced to this character, and given what was covered in episode one, I think it’s clear that despite his faults we’re supposed to sympathise and relate to Rudy on some level. To be honest, I don’t really buy into the excuse in any case and I don’t think rape ‘jokes’ are ever funny. But it completely astounds me that the writers could include a line like this in an episode which shows two scenes of attempted rape. There has been a recent rise in the acceptability of rape jokes, and other similarly inappropriate topics which are generally lumped together under the vague heading of ‘un-PC’ humour. I find it difficult to get my head around why people find this brand of comedy funny. In addition to the obvious shock factor, one reason I can think of to explain it is that people generally conceptualise these ideas in a sort of unethical vacuum. If they really stopped to consider how just horrific topics like rape or paedophilia are there is no way they could laugh at them. In this particular case, given that an inappropriate joke is made about the very topic the episode deals with, I don’t see how anyone could find it humorous. Rudy is later made an example of for taking advantage of a drugged Melissa, with Curtis warning him, ‘The next time you find a girl unconscious you don’t touch her.’ I appreciate the attempt made here to address some of the ambiguities that often surround issues of rape and sexual assault, and whilst I do think this should be commended, the point is somewhat undermined by the inclusion of a rape joke at the beginning of the episode. 

Sexual harassment is also addressed throughout the episode. Curtis experiences completely different treatment as Melissa than he does as a man. Simon (whilst generally quite awkward anyway) is especially awkward around Melissa. And from Sean he gets lingering sleazy stares and unwanted sexual attention. Rudy is the only exception and remains his usual disgusting, shameless self when caught pissing in the sink. Entering a bar proves to be a particularly uncomfortable experience as he receives sleazy stares from several men and we can see that he feels self-conscious. He is pursued almost predatorily by Sean throughout the episode despite clearly articulating that he is not interested and wants to be left alone. In one scene Sean grabs Melissa’s arse, and when he told to back off he mutters ‘lesbian’ under his breath. For me this highlighted the common perception that women are perpetually playing hard to get, and for some men the idea that a woman genuinely isn’t interested in their advances is unthinkable and will be met with hostility. Negative attention doesn’t just come from men though. Melissa faces just as much scrutiny from the female characters in this episode. Unaware that Melissa is really Curtis, Kelly suspects that Simon is cheating on Alisha with her. They both gang up on Melissa and Alisha calls her a slut. 

I found this scene particularly interesting because it shows just how critical women can be of each other. It also shows the impact of sexual harassment and constant public scrutiny and how it can affect someone, with Curtis snapping under the pressure:

 ‘I’ve got an attitude? You can’t even talk to me without staring at my tits! You had your hands all over my arse… [To Rudy] And you ask before you touch!  -  all the groping and staring and sleazy chat-up lines – you have no idea what it’s like to be a woman!’

I think the fact that it is a man experiencing this, and communicating just how degrading and infuriating this sort of treatment is, makse it particularly effective. The sexual harassment of women, whether in the workplace or on the street, is often undermined by arguments that it is just harmless flirting or that it should be regarded as flattering. For example one journalist, and I use the term extremely loosely because it’s The Daily Mirror, wrote an article in response to the amazing website Hollaback! with the headline, ‘When the wolf whistles stop it’ll be time to die.’ What I think this episode highlights well is that it is not harmless and for many women it makes up a relentless and extremely tedious part of their daily life. Annoyingly, this scene is interrupted by Melissa’s period and I’m not really sure what that was supposed to achieve. Perhaps it was supposed to signal a bad ending to a particularly bad day? The episode does seem to focus almost solely on negative aspects of being woman, with a few clichéd references to multiple orgasms included in attempt to balance it out. 

I did, however, really enjoy this episode overall, and there were many other positive aspects. For example, the episode begins with Curtis having his ego taken down a notch when he learns that he is not as good in bed as he thought. He is shown pulling at Emma’s clothes, pushing her head down so that she will give him head, and generally being selfish and inattentive. Given the growing ‘pornification’ of mainstream culture from music videos to advertising, and how these forms of media promote hyper-sexualised images of women who are used and abused by men for their own pleasure, I especially liked that it was highlighted that the reasons for Emma’s bad sexual experience were Curtis’s selfish, forceful actions and his general lack of respect for her. Another great moment was Simon’s inability to get his head around Melissa sleeping with Emma, prompting him to ask Curtis if that makes him a lesbian. For me this scene really highlighted the stupidity of our society’s obsession with restrictive labelling when it comes to sexuality and gender, and I loved Curtis’s reply, ‘I don’t think there’s an official term for this shit'. The next episode focuses on Simon so I'm looking forward to more baffling but brilliant time travel weirdness!

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Misfits: Series 3 Episode 1

Female Characters: 4 (Alisha/Kelly/Charlie/Tanya)
Male Characters: 5 (Simon/Curtis/Rudy/Sean/Seth)
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? Yes.

(Given that it is one of the most innovative and entertaining programmes that British television currently has to offer, I felt compelled to begin writing about the new series of Misfits. My intentions are to go back and write a little piece on series one and two, but for now I’m just going to catch up on the first few episodes of series three and follow it weekly. WARNING: Heavily spoilerific!)

After the departure of fan favourite Nathan I guess the writers were a little worried about who would provide the necessary dick, shit and jizz jokes. Enter new character Rudy who is every inch as obnoxious and puerile as his predecessor, (if not more so given this episode’s continuous references to all things anal). However, in contrast to Nathan, Rudy’s power means that he literally has a more vulnerable, sensitive side. His cocky bravado and obnoxious posturing is a front to make himself appear more confident and hide the insecurities that literally split apart from him in the form of a duplicate. Through this alter-ego we learn about Rudy’s confusion about his sexuality, his guilt over a sinister childhood prank and his heartbreak and depression when he was rejected by Alisha. Provided that we get to see more of this other side of Rudy in future episodes, he will most probably prove to be a little easier to stomach than Nathan ... maybe.

The other eagerly anticipated plot point in the new series concerned the new powers each character would choose. One of the most interesting aspects of Misfits is that each individual character has a power that is not just arbitrarily assigned, but specifically chosen depending
on their personality and situation. The ironic twist given to each power provided an element of dark humour, and was for me one of the programme's major strengths in that it instantly gave each character more depth. I was keen to see whether their new powers would be equally apt, but found myself disappointed as I struggled to see connections as clearly as I did with the original powers. First of all there is: 

Simon, a socially awkward loner who often feels invisible, originally developed the ability to literally become invisible. His confidence grows throughout the series and it is revealed that he is the time-travelling masked hero who has been looking out for the gang throughout the series. Unsurprisingly, his new power really only relates to his personality in so far that it enables him to fulfil his role as Superhoodie in training. However, I am interested to find out how being able to glimpse a few seconds into the future will develop into the ability to travel back and forth through time. It does mean that Simon has gone from being invisible to being the hero, suggesting that maybe these new powers symbolise each character moving in a more positive direction.

Curtis, a promising young athlete who finds his prospects limited after  being caught with drugs, can rewind time. However, he is unable to control his power, making it impossible for him to rectify his past mistake. His new power enables him to become a woman, who we see briefly in this episode and is later revealed to be named Melissa. This ability gives him the opportunity to compete in athletics again, and also makes way for a very interesting episode exploring gender roles in episode two. 

Kelly is concerned with that others think about her and resents being labelled as a ‘chav’. Her powers enable her to hear other people’s thoughts, which often reinforce her insecurities about herself. Her new power is played mainly for laughs, with Kelly exclaiming several times throughout the episode, ‘I’m a fucking rocket scientist.’ Hopefully her power will explored more fully later on in the series, because the only way I can see it becoming positive, and as a contrast to her previous power, is if she proves people wrong and makes them reconsider their initial prejudiced reactions to her.

Nathan, who is to all extents and purposes a cocky little shite, lucks out by gaining the power of immortality, confirming that life is not fair. In the online webisode used to explain his departure, Nathan is seen in Las Vegas, using his new reality-warping powers to cheat the casinos.  Again, he has landed a choice power that appeals to the exhibitionist in him.  However, karmic justice ultimately prevails and he is caught and left to languish in a Vegas slammer*.

Finally, there is Alisha’s power which is a trickier point to tackle and has been a sore spot among some feminist bloggers.  She finds herself unable to  touch anyone without inflicting them with an overwhelming urge to have sex with her, which often results in violence towards her. Yes, basically she has the ‘power’ to inflict rape upon herself so it’s hardly surprising that this plot point rang alarm bells for some.  I was reluctant to read Alisha’s power as being a punishment for her promiscuity. Given that all the characters have an ironic twist to their powers that seem to play upon their deepest insecurities and regrets, I read Alisha’s powers as an exaggeration of her feelings that she was only judged by her looks and her insecurities about being labelled a ‘slut’. However, let me digress for a moment to explain why this episode’s harsh treatment of Alisha made me reconsider my initial analysis. 

It surfaces that Alisha knew Rudy at college, and that they had slept together. Rudy was deeply in love with her and had lost his virginity to her, so when she ignores him afterwards it affects him majorly and results in him attempting to commit suicide. I couldn't help but think that Alisha’s reply, ‘It’s not my fault that you’re so messed up you tried to kill yourself, fuck you and your sad little fantasies’ was fairy justified. Especially considering the judgmental reaction she gets from everyone around her, including her current boyfriend, when Rudy talks about her ‘going with all them other boys’ and how she was nicknamed the ‘cock monster’. The inclusion of a scene like this makes it hard to ignore the general ‘slut-shaming’ tone of the programme in relation to Alisha. After this scene she has a talk with Simon and explains how she is ‘not that person anymore’. Given that she is now aware that she caused some real hurt to Rudy, this revelation would be fine if it just mean that she now felt she was a more considerate person, and one who would not mess with another person’s emotions as she had previously. However, this is not the case as the conversation focuses more on her past reputation and it seems that by saying she is ‘not that person anymore’ she really means that she is no longer the kind of person who sleeps around. 

There is an extremely negative attitude towards female sexuality when it comes to Alisha’s character, and the only attitude that can possibly be comprehended when it comes to her past is one of shame and regret. In one scene Simon tries to comfort her by making a joke about how he used to be known as the ‘pussymeister’. This is funny mainly because it is so un-Simon, but it also inadvertently highlights the double standard that exists surrounding this issue. It is a socially acceptable idea to consider guys who sleep around, but when it comes to girls it is shameful. This post demonstrates this as I’m finding myself unable to write about Alisha without using negative terminology such as ‘slut’ and phrases like ‘sleeps around’. Men have womaniser, player, ladies’ man and stud but there are no positive equivalents, as far as I’m aware, that pertain to women. Her new power provides even more problems. She describes it as the ability to put herself in other people’s shoes and see what they see through their eyes. Again, I feel that this is too harsh and places a lot of blame on her. For me it suggests that we’re supposed to think that she should learn a lesson and become more empathetic and less self-involved. I’m hoping that there will eventually be more development of her character and more light shed on why she has this particular power. However, I fear that she may wind up being simply relegated to the role of  Simon’s girlfriend, with all subsequent attention being focused on her relationship with him. 

*Given that the photograph of Simon and Alisha in Vegas is yet to be taken (right?) does that mean that there will be a brief return from Nathan at some point later on? Simon mentioned in this episode that they were all invited to Nathan and Marnie's wedding in Vegas, but how will this pan out if he's trapped in jail. 

Boots - For All Your Gender Stereotyping Needs.

Not sure if anyone caught this, but there was a Boots advert on TV up until fairly recently which blatantly ripped off a scene from the film What Women Want (2000). I can’t find it online anywhere, but the gist of it is that a woman doesn’t feel like having sex and tells her partner she has a headache, to  which he quickly (almost preemptively) whips out a box of paracetamol. Hooray for Boots and their ready supply of cheap painkillers, and also for their lazy advertising that not only rips of a mediocre film*, but is also supposed to be aimed at women yet presents them as liars and stereotypes!  

Honestly, I was more surprised at the nerve of their probably overpaid advertising team for presenting an idea that wasn’t their own. I was also mildly annoyed that no one else seemed to have noticed, or if they did they simply didn’t care or see a problem with it. It’s harmless right? Well, considering the stink that was caused by several men’s health websites over this 2010 Boots advert, I find it frustrating that no one recognises the same lazy, stereotypical advertising at work:

The advert was referred to as, ‘typical misandric crap’, ‘very sexist and stereotypical ‘, ‘breath-taking hypocrisy’, ‘lazy humour’, ‘disconnected from reality’ and ‘part of an increasing trend in the negative portrayal of men’. I can actually get on board with some of these views. This is most definitely an example of terrible  advertising which uses gender stereotypes for a cheap laugh. However, for women, this is nothing new and when you consider some of the advertising that is supposedly geared towards women (and most of the advertising aimed at men) there are negative representations and stereotypical portrayals as far as the eye can see. Take, for example, this current advert for a ladies shoe retailer:

Not all women are obsessed with shoes. And those that claim to be are not literally obsessed, they are probably just mildly preoccupied with them. Now, the idea here might just be that the man is concerned because his partner seems to be experiencing some sort of serious trauma when confronted with a delivery of shoes. However, I can’t be the only one who picks up a different message from this man’s panicked expression- ‘Oh god no, I have to pay for these.’ Surely we’re past the assumption that when a woman spends money the husband automatically covers the expense? Especially when it comes to personal expenses such as shoes. Didn't anyone listen to Destiny’s Child when they told you – the shoes on their feet, THEY bought them!! This advert  is also a rip-off (is there no originality in advertising anymore?!) of another advert. This time it is for beer and, whilst also exploiting this strange ‘women + shoes = manic bliss’ myth, it evens the score by including the similar ‘men + beer = manic bliss’ hypothesis. We can all laugh at harmless stereotypes so long as it’s tit for tat in my book, and this one is far funnier so it gets away with it:

*It should be noted that in said shitty movie (and it really is shitty) the idea is dismissed as terrible and offensive. But I guess the Boots advertising team stopped watching at this point, but who can blame them really.

For more information on the negative portrayals of women in advertising, and the impact this has on society, you can't do much better than Jean Kilbourne's series of talks Killing Us Softly: Advertising's Image of Women. The third installment is available here. (This may or may not be legal, but I didn't upload it so don't sue me.) 

British Airways - To Fly. To Serve. Provided You're a Man.

I hate to rain all over BA's 'weren't they the good ol' days when women knew their place at home with the kids and men ruled the skies' nostalgia-fest - but there are female pilots too these days.

Just look, here are TWO of them in your Pilot Recruitment video - why not give them a mention in your national advertising?

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Drive (2011) Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn

Female Characters: 2 (Irene/Blanche)
Male Characters: 5 (Driver/Shannon/Bernie/Nino/Standard)
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? No

Let me just start by saying, and I feel that I might have to say this a lot in the course of writing this blog, that despite my criticisms I really enjoyed this film. Mainly because it has the best soundtrack I’ve heard since last year’s TRON:Legacy, but also because it explores some interesting ideas regarding masculinity and heroism. However …

Drive contains only two female characters, and whilst unfortunately I don’t find this particularly unusual,  I was stunned that so little screen time was given to such high profile actresses as Carey Mulligan and Christina Hendricks. I realise that Hendricks is making the transition from TV to film and so might not be landing major roles just yet, but her amazing performance as Joan in Mad Men (not to mention the constant public scrutiny of her body in the media) has made her something of a household name. As for Mulligan, granted she is still an up-and-comer, but with a recent Oscar nomination to her name I’d expect to see her in a bigger role. Adam Smith, reviewing the film for Empire Magazine, writes , ‘Mulligan might not have a lot to do, but she looks believably vulnerable’. It seems to me however that, from the little we see of her character in the film, she seems to be coping quite well with her position as a single parent with a husband behind bars. Just take for example the scene where she is shopping in a supermarket with her young son – there are no tantrums, no obvious signs of stress or vulnerability, and basically no indication at all that she needs to be rescued. I found Ryan Gosling’s character similar to that of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, not just because of the late night driving scenes, but also because of the way he latches onto a female figure, idealises her and uses her as motivation for being a better person. Also, both characters feel a conscious need to play the role of the hero and, not knowing how to do so, resort to violent, hyper-masculine actions. In Drive Gosling plays the strong, silent type to a tee. He is a Man with No Name and is usually seen chewing on a toothpick, a parody of Western screen heroes such as Clint Eastwood. In a recent interview Gosling commented on his character’s cinematic delusions:  
I think he’s somebody who’s seen too many movies. He’s confusing his life for a film, and he’s made himself the hero of his own action film. He’s just kind of lost in the mythology of Hollywood
The ‘mythology of Hollywood’ is an intriguing idea, and the film seems to explore how images in cinema have influenced our perceptions of what it means to be a hero. Gosling commented further on this idea and what it means for his character:
I think that he’s psychotic, but he’s not a psychopath. He’s a myth as well, you know? We tried to treat the film like a fairy tale, like Los Angeles is this fairy-tale land based on fantasies, and he’s the knight in his mind and Irene [Carey Mulligan] is the damsel in distress. Bernie Rose [Albert Brooks] is the evil wizard, and Ron Perlman’s the dragon he needs to slay. 
This idea of an L.A. fairytale helped me to look at the film in a different way. I still think that Irene’s character is not presented as vulnerable, but really she doesn’t need to be. The Driver believes that he must play the part of the hero, and therefore he needs someone to rescue, so Irene and her son present him with an opportunity. There does however seem to be some reluctance on his part to accept this role, and in one scene he pauses and sighs before deciding to approach Irene and offer her a lift when her car breaks down. It's almost as if he has taken a moment to get into character as the hero and this scene in particular reminded me of a the knight on horseback rescuing the damsel in distress.

Gosling seems to be drawn to films which explore issues of masculinity, having co-starred in 2010’s Blue Valentine. In this film his character has a hard time dealing with society’s strict definitions of gender roles, often resorting to violence and aggression to assert his masculinity. With several brutal, and often fairy schlocky scenes of violence, Drive also places this theme at the forefront. The most extreme example is the lift scene, where Gosling kick's a man's head in until it resembles a smashed pumpkin. It is juxtaposed with a moment of dreamy, ethereal romance, in which Irene and the Driver share their first kiss. This technique is used throughout the film and it serves to further emphasis the extremity, and often the absurdity, of the violence. This scene could easily have been sanitised, as it usually is in typical action movies, in order to dehumanise the act of the murder. Instead, the brutality of this particular scene, and the look of shame on Gosling's face afterwards, are what make it so effective. As a result of trying to live up to society’s, and his own, expectations of manliness and heroism, the Driver has completely lost himself in a fantasy. Mulligan’s very realistic reaction is also important –she is justifiably horrified and shocked. If this were a typical action movie she probably would have swooned at this display of savagery. Or perhaps, as I was anticipating, she might have reacted like Karen in this scene from Goodfellas(1990).

The soundtrack is massively important for this film, and director Nicolas Winding Refn scores major brownie points with me for citing John Hughes as an unlikely source of inspiration, appreciating his talent for ‘using music to really underscore emotion.’ The stand-out track which really sums up the film is A Real Hero by College feat. Electric Youth, as it highlights exactly what the Driver is trying to do throughout this film – remain a real human being whilst trying to live up to Hollywood standard of what a hero should be, in a movie he has ultimately constructed in his head. 

Friday, 30 September 2011

30 Minutes or Less (2011) Dir. Ruben Fleischer

Female Characters: 2 (Kate/Juicy)
Male Characters: 6 (Nick/Chet/Dwayne/Travis/Chango/The Major)
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? No

Rape jokes? Check. Child molestation, abortion and AIDS jokes? Check . Racist slurs and misogynistic language? Check.  30 Minutes or Less sure covers all its bases when it comes to offensive, juvenile comedy.  It makes for some particularly awkward viewing, especially since this film is by no means intelligent enough or self-aware enough to tackle the material it does, most notably when rape is the punch-line. Much in the same way that the word ‘fucking’ is used incessantly by Danny McBride’s character throughout the film, (as if swearing automatically makes the mediocre script funnier) rape jokes are used for ensuring cheap laughs.  

And since when exactly did rape become so hilarious anyway? Take for example 2009’s Observe and Report (Why on earth did this year offer up two films about mall cops?) which contained a scene in which lead character Seth Rogen has sex with a drunk, passed out Anna Faris. Now, I know what you’re thinking, how could this get any funnier? Well, I’ll tell you. Midway through the rape (which, contrary to popular belief,  IS the same as the cuddlier term ‘date rape’) Rogen stops, prompting Faris to slur, ‘Why are you stopping motherfucker?’. Hi-larious! And apparently, according to Rogen, this verbal consent is the ‘one thing that makes it all OK.’ When really all this scene does is confuse the issue of rape further for an audience of mainly adolescent boys.  

30 Minutes or Less is also guilty of trivializing rape, with the inclusion of a scene in which a cashier, ringing up toy guns and ski masks, asks the main characters if they ‘wanna grab some condoms’ -  because apparently that’s ‘what men buy before they rape someone’. Ok, I must be a bit naïve because I feel like I’m the only person who didn’t know this side-splitting fact. Just who exactly is this joke intended for anyway? I can only imagine it being intended as a piece of observational comedy for actual rapists. In a recent interview lead actor Jesse Eisenberg was asked what he thought about some of the film's risqué jokes, to which he replied:
I’m very uncomfortable with that word [rape], personally because I do work with domestic violence organisations and I’m very aware of the alarming statistics of women who are abused. So I’m very uncomfortable with that. I’m not uncomfortable with the sexual jokes.
I have to give Eisenberg credit here, not just for realising that rape isn’t funny but also for distinguishing between rape and sex jokes, which I feel are treated as one in the same in some comedies. If the film hadn’t been shot pre-Social Network I might have thought Eisenberg to be a tad hypocritical, because I can’t image it being too difficult for a young, white, male actor, with an Oscar nomination under his belt, to find decent film roles. Hopefully Eisenberg’s future films will focus more attention on being good, rather than exploring the apparently comic side of rape.

In this same interview Eisenberg commented further on the film’s shock humour tactics:
Danny McBride and Nick Swardson’s characters are the bad guys in the movie, and they just say the most insane and crass stuff, because guys like that would be – they’d speak in this awful way.
Whilst it’s fair to say that the film does undeniably set these characters up as the bad guys, and there are occasions throughout the film where we are encouraged to laugh at their stupidity, there are also  many instances where the obvious intention is that we laugh with them. For example, when asserting his role as the mastermind of their criminal operation, Danny McBride quips,  ‘I’m the one fucking this bitch you’re just holding the camera’, and then there’s the conversation where they reason that they need to hit Eisenberg’s character where it hurts, and not  ‘in his dick’ but ‘in his pussy’ – a reference to Eisenberg’s girlfriend.  I’m just not buying that these kind of throw-away misogynistic one liners were intended to make a targeted audience of mainly young men think , ‘Oh, I get it, these guys make incessant misogynistic remarks – they must be the bad guys!’ especially since these are the kind of jokes we hear from the supposed good guys in most Judd Apatow comedies.

As for the female characters, there’s really not much to say because there are only two. On the upside they are both women of colour, on the downside they are fairly insignificant characters. One is used mainly to provide gratuitous T&A shots, whilst the other plays the lead’s love interest and is, unsurprisingly, kidnapped half-way through and turned damsel in distress.

Ultimately one of this film’s biggest crimes is simply that it is just not that funny. However, some credit has to go to go to Aziz Ansari, who plays something of a 'new man' character in the role of Chet. He has a stable job as teacher, makes light of his attempt at quiche making (apparently just as difficult as dismantling a bomb) and at one point delivers an enlightened rant about how the guilt of letting Eisenberg blow up might spoil his future relationships with his wife and kids. I was reminded of a similar character in the 2003 film School of Rock, where Mike White played the responsible half of a duo containing a lazy, immature Jack Black. Contrastingly, this character was portrayed as timid, weak and ultimately miserable, buckling under the thumb of his domineering girlfriend. I find it refreshing therefore to see a male character in the genre of fratboy humour who is not a feckless man-child and, more importantly, is not portrayed as weak or effeminate because of this.

Rape jokes are so funny they put them in the trailer!