Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Spirit and Female Superheroes

I watched The Spirit on blu-ray a couple of days ago. The film was enjoyable enough, bouncing between some really strong, fun material that was baffling in the way only current era Frank Miller can be, and some scenes that just didn’t work at all. I think it’s totally understandable why the film bombed, and was poorly received, but for me, it was more exciting to watch than most movies out there.

Reading a bit about the film, a lot of people are knocking Miller for his objectification of every single female character in the film, a trope that goes back to his comics work. Miller definitely falls into many standard men writing about women tropes, the virgin/whore dichotomy and identifying a woman by her ass before her face, as well as dressing most of the female characters in a variety of fetishized outfits. But, at the same time, the narrative action in the film is largely propelled by the female characters, and they invariably take center stage over the rather blank slate hero, The Spirit. The Spirit actually does very little, he is bounced between various other characters who define him, be it Ellen who draws him to a normal life, Sand who pulls him towards adventure or even Silken who tempts him towards evil. Essentially, The Spirit himself is placed in the role traditionally held by women in action movies, of being a pawn the other characters use as an excuse to fight each other.

Now, that’s not to say that the film doesn’t have some problematic thoughts on gender roles. The Spirit flirts with everyone he encounters, and is able to have a climactic kiss with Sand, then walk right over to Ellen and be cool with her, even as he flirts with Morganstern at the same time. And, you could argue that the entire film is Miller putting various actresses he finds attractive in outfits he likes and making them fall in love with a blank slate male protagonist. But, in lavishing so much attention on them, they control the film, in a way you very rarely see in a superhero movie.

I’d argue that the film becomes its own kind of feminism, a distinctly male brand of feminism, but valid nonetheless. It reminds me a lot of a Russ Meyer movie, where female characters are presented as objects of visual pleasure, but also become dominant actors in the narrative, and control the movie, lording their power over generic beefcake men who have little personality and no say in how the movie proceeds. Look at the film’s climax, it’s really about Sand vs. Silken, The Spirit and The Octopus are just there to backup their female associate.

Yes, like a Russ Meyer movie, there’s a heavy emphasis on showcasing the beauty and particularly the tits and ass of the female characters, but does doing so invalidate the agency of the female characters? I don’t think they’re particularly fully realized characters, but no one in the film is, you certainly know more about Sand than you do about Denny.

I’d argue if this movie were directed by Joss Whedon, people would look at it very differently. In the same way they can overlook the way he dresses Echo in everything from schoolgirl to dominatrix fetish because Whedon is a self professed ‘feminist,’ they would hail the strong female characters at the center of the narrative, and write off the photocopying an ass bit as just having some fun, or presenting a character with a strong sense of her sexuality. Because Whedon makes such a big deal about being a feminist, it’s a lot easier to accept the contradictions of his work, to accept the fact that a high school girl is presented in a sexualized fashion throughout the first three years of Buffy. Or, look at River on Firefly, a mentally challenged teenage girl who is consistently sexualized throughout the series. Because Whedon is a feminist, it’s okay, but if Miller did the same character, people would find it objectionable.

Now, admittedly tone is a big part of this. Whedon’s work is much more self aware, and pokes fun at its own indulgence, even as it still gives you the pleasure of that indulgence. People don’t seem to realize that ever since Dark Knight Strikes Again, Miller has been messing around with the ultra-serious image he had in the 80s and 90s. To criticize All Star Batman, or this film, by calling it self parody, is like criticizing Airplane for having jokes, and not treating its aircraft disaster story seriously. He’s intentionally pushing things to the point of total insanity, and when it works, it’s a lot of fun to read.

More generally, I find it interesting that this film gets so much criticism for the presentation of its female characters, when it’s one of the only recent superhero films to have a female character who’s anything more than just the girl waiting at home, worried about her hero boyfriend. Who’s a more interesting character, Sand Serif or Pepper Potts? Silken Floss or Rachel Dawes? The Dark Knight is a particularly notable offender, using its female character as an excuse for the men to fight, then killing her off to motivate the final act of the story. She’s a cipher, existing solely for plot purposes, with no will or agency of her own. As in many recent films, she’s given her own job, but essentially she’s just there to support the man she’s involved with.

A large part of the problem stems from the fact that there aren’t that many compelling female characters in either the DC or Marvel universes. Thanks to the efforts of Grant Morrison and Greg Rucka, there’s more than there used to be, but they’re still not the brand name characters that can headline a film. Still, I’d love to see Renee Montoya as The Question pop up in a Batman film, or see some kind of standalone movie about Zatanna.

Over at Marvel, there’s a lot of great female characters in X-Men, but very few in the Marvel universe in general, where most of their movies take place. Is The Wasp the best we can hope for in the Avengers movie, a woman who’s best known for being a victim of spousal abuse? In the X-Men though, there’s a ton of great female characters, largely thanks to the effort of Chris Claremont, who much like Joss Whedon, has created a lot of really strong female characters, some of whom are fetishized, but no more than the male heroes were in his run.

Claremont most importantly manages to have a wide variety of female characters in his X-Men run. There’s the Earth Mother goddess type, Storm, there’s the everyday girl Kitty Pryde, the powerful and dangerous Phoenix and many others. Jean Grey or Storm are probably the most well known female superheroes beside Wonder Woman.

The X-Men movies never made Storm really work as a character, and Jean existed largely as an excuse for the Logan/Scott rivalry. There haven’t been that many great female superheroes on screen. The best presentation to date was Catwoman in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. The film has an underlying feminist subtext, but melds it with the narrative such that it never seems preachy. And, the dynamic between Catwoman and Batman, Bruce and Selina, is consistently interesting and challenging. She’s the character with most of the agency, the one who defines their relationship and her own identity. He’s the one who just wants to settle down with her in a big house and have a family.

Again, the character is presented in a sexualized, fetishy way, but I think there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. She’s a fully realized character, who dresses that way for a reason, it’s a means to express something within herself. She becomes a kind of grotesque parody of the sort of “bad girl” that men want. Men want a “bad girl” who’s just bad enough to still be controlled by them. It’s the illusion of a dominant woman. She subverts that by then pushing things further, to the point that her power becomes dangerous to the male order that’s trying to control her.

Compare her role in the narrative to Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight. Selina controls things and actually pushes the narrative forward for her own ends, not just to get together with whatever man she’s interested in. And, though it’s far from the film Batman Returns is, that’s what the women of The Spirit do as well. So, even if you're to say that The Spirit is just pandering to men with its parade of hot women, isn't it better to see hot women who can actually do something and have their own lives, than hot women who exist just to support the male hero?