Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and getting female action heroes so very right.

September 12, 2008

In yesterday’s post I was a little whiny about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but I didn’t want anyone to think that it wasn’t still a great movie. In fact, it’s a remarkably great movie– it’s a great action movie that nevertheless has great women in it!

Most movies tend to do one or the other– Lara Croft’s movies are great action movies, but she’s not a great female character; movies like Mamma Mia are great on women, but are not action movies. It’s fantastic to see a movie with multiple, well-developed female characters in a movie that isn’t about omg shoez. Because I love action movies– especially sci fi action movies– but I also don’t love misogyny, and too many of the former are ruined by the latter.

Common tropes of action movie women: There’s only one. She’s super-awesome at everything but not awesome enough to actually do anything plot-important. She doesn’t fight men. She doesn’t fight the Big Bad. We don’t pay any attention to her life goals, only her cleavage. (She has some pretty impressive cleavage, and her hair and makeup are always perfect, even after big fights.) She’s handed off to some guy as a prize at the end of the movie.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon includes a stunning NONE of those traits! Let’s go through them one at a time:

1. There’s only one. Bzzt! So very fail! We have three action heroes with XX chromosomes this time around, and they even talk to each other!

2. She’s super-awesome at everything but not awesome enough to actually do anything plot-important. Okay, so they’re all awesome– walking-on-water awesome– but not in the Mary-Sue-ish “supermodel who also happens to be a top scientist with a knack for marksmanship” way that actually makes women weaker characters (check out the link), but in a “trained my whole life at this particular skill” way that is central to their motivations. And boy do they ever affect the plot! The whole movie revolves around Jiao’ ability to keep running and keep defeating excellent fighters, and Yu and Jade Fox both accomplish some vital goals with their skills. In other words, they’re awesome because they’re action heroes, not because they’re fanboy fantasies.

3. She doesn’t fight men. Hahaha! Haha. Ha. Oh, my. This movie is full of mixed-gender fights! I think most movies avoid these pairings because culturally, it’s not fun to watch a woman get beaten up, and, I guess, it’s too embarrassing for the Action Hero to get beaten up by a GURL. This movie neatly sidesteps these issues by making the women into action heroes too, and making them more than strong enough to hold their own, so even when a man is winning, it doesn’t feel like he’s beating up on those poor women; he’s just winning. And even then, only Li is able to hold his own– Jiao had the most fantastic action sequence in which she cleared a restaurant of burly men. She just wiped the floors with them! Or, I should say, destroyed the floors…the restaurant didn’t fare too well in the fight either.

4. She doesn’t fight the Big Bad. Usually the problem here is that the Big Bad is male, and, of course, women can’t fight men. This movie doesn’t quite have a Big Bad– from Li’s point of view, it’s Jade Fox, who is indeed fought by a man, but from Yu’s point of view it could very well be Jiao, and Yu has a great fight with Jiao. Yu even won, except that she didn’t follow through by killing Jiao, and so the girl escaped. And Jade Fox isn’t really a villain to anybody but Li…even if, technically, the big fight scene wasn’t Female Hero vs. Villain, I’m going to give it the point, since it was a sufficiently complex movie to avoid stuffing anybody into a Villain box, and that’s cool in it’s own right.

5. We don’t pay any attention to her life goals, only her cleavage. Oh ho ho. This is another one that just sounds ridiculous when you try to apply it to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. None of these women are subjected to scenes intended to titillate– not even when Jiao’s bathing; instead of sensuous shots of water droplets rolling down her back, we see her splashing water into her exhausted face, and then move on. Moreover, the whole plot is driven by three women’s desires and choices (and one man’s). Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon wins this one, hands down.

6. She has some pretty impressive cleavage, and her hair and makeup are always perfect, even after big fights. Nope! Again, these women are refreshingly un-objectified (although they do look very pretty sometimes, when the situation demands it.) And they get downright messy when they fight– hair falling everywhere, sweat on their faces, even exhaustion if they’ve been stressed for a while– and they don’t restrict themselves to pretty facial expressions, either. The focus is on the fight, not on their beauty. Awesome.

7. She’s handed off to some guy as a prize at the end of the movie. Again, no. I think this movie could have pulled off having one of the female heroes decide to run off with a man of her choice, but instead Yu, Jiao, and Jade Fox are single, dead, and dead, respectively. Jiao even goes to see her loverboy, and then chooses to die instead of settling down.

All in all, amazing, and highly recommended. Why can’t more movies get it this right?


More on pregnant heroes

August 23, 2008

The Order of the Stick, one of my favourite webcomics, has a fantastic installment today that’s all about the concept of pregnant heros:

Rich Burlew is a great writer, and does a really good job of handling gender in general. Here’s the first comic— check it out!

More Xena; also, thoughts on pregnant heroes

August 9, 2008

I stumbled across this 2005 article about Xena and it’s definitely worth a look: What We Owe Xena.

I’ve also been reading a few articles about Fable 2, in which it will finally be possible to play a female character, and in which “the woman you impregnate might be yourself” (according to Mighty Ponygirl.)

So, it started me thinking to see the following in the talk about Xena:

Yet while she pushed the limits of how much like a male hero a heroine could be, Xena was the first and probably is still the only action heroine who was also a mother — not counting warrior moms who fought only to protect their young, like Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in “Terminator 2.” She was, safe to say, the only one who gave birth and breast-fed onscreen.

I haven’t made it nearly this far in the show yet, but I can’t wait to see how it’s done. It’s always bothered me the way that adventure shows, movies, and games have acted like motherhood is completely incompatible with heroism.

Harvest Moon 3 (a farming game for the Gameboy Color from my childhood) gave you the choice of a male or female character, with the other gender as your partner and eventual spouse, but if you chose the female, your game would end as soon as the two of you got married. If you chose the male, you could get married and have a child, and keep playing for years, but somehow this was impossible for the female. Now, there may have been technical limitations for the game– it was really old– but as far as I know the later incarnations have the same problems, even though the male and female characters each have their own games.

This also makes me think of the Pirates of the Caribbean, where, at the very end (spoilers?), we see Elizabeth in a boring dress, waiting for Will with their son. The way they’re dressed, and the way they behave, they look like they’ve been sitting around in town the whole ten years! Elizabeth was a pirate king for goodness’ sake!

And her adventure just has to end because she gets pregnant? (And seriously, why does she have to get pregnant after the very first time she has sex? It’s possible, but kind of unlikely.)

It seems to me that there’s a pattern, wherein female stories end with marriage and children, but male stories can continue on even with those elements.

I suppose it’s an old fairy-tale narrative– girl has adventures, grows up, and gets married, The End; then, at the start of the next story, the mother dies tragically. After marriage, the stories stop. Certainly by the time there’s a child, the stories stop. We’ve been doing this for a long time, but it only gets more annoying.

Look, children aren’t the end of stories! They are beginnings. And they certainly don’t nail a woman’s (bare) feet to the (kitchen) floor for the rest of her life. Yes, pregnancy can be an awkward condition, and yes, children require care, but it doesn’t kill the mother any more than it kills the father.

In Harvest Moon: why not show the character getting larger over the appropriate number of seasons, give us the little cutscene we always get about the baby being born, and then hand the kid over to the father. He can stay in the house repeating the same three pre-scripted observation that the wives in HM always do. If that’s too “unmotherly” you can make it so the baby needs to be “fed” twice a day or some such (have her turn her back to us and breastfeed, or just get a bottle) and let the female character get on with her life– a life which now includes, but is not defined by, a child.

In Pirates of the Caribbean: there’s nothing wrong with dressing up to meet your husband for the first time. If you absolutely have to have her show up with his kid, start by showing them on her ship, returning from a successful journey, hurrying to look “presentable” before Will gets back. It could easily be a funny, lively, sweet scene– have them still cleaning up spots of blood or hiding tattoos or removing tell-tale jewelry up until the last second– and it would let us get to know the son better. More importantly, it would tell us what Elizabeth’s been doing for the last ten years! Motherhood is important but it doesn’t actually consume all of a woman’s time.

A female hero’s story doesn’t end when she gets married– the person doesn’t end when she gets married– and even though this is something that our current story-tellers are still unable to grasp, it doesn’t surprise me one bit that Xena has already gotten it right and proven them all wrong.

I can’t wait to see.

(for more posts on Xena, look here!)