19 June 2012

(Soap)Box Office Feminism

Pixar's Brave is coming out this weekend and we are super excited to see it.  Princesses, action, adventure and cartoons all rolled into one.  My girls love a good princess tale, with Tangled being their first major introduction to the genre, and Liz is just about ready for her movie theater debut.  Full hypocritical disclaimer here: despite my reservations about the whole premise that this is a strong-female-centered movie, we are definitely going to see this one and I bet we will love it. 

However, the back story of the directorship leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  I was first introduced to the fact that Pixar fired Brenda Chapman, writer and to date director, by this TIME article: Pixar's Girl Story.  I found the exploration of the male-centered dynamic in children's movies to be fascinating (though not surprising) and was interested in the whole undertone that maybe Chapman was terminated due to an unwillingness to "boy-up" the film.  I soon fell down the rabbit hole and found tons of articles about the proposed sexism in her firing and what it means for women in the industry in general. (This article by Women and Hollywood links to many more great resources for this discussion.)  While none of us can say for sure that she was fired due to gender related artistic differences, that feeling lingers there, just under the surface, and somewhat taints the whole "woohooo, girl movie for girls who kick ass" bravado.

I am not saying that men can't generate valuable content about women and/or female characters ( Richard Russo and John Updike never fail to write about women in a way that makes me say "yes! all this!"), Mark Andrews' specific breed of male-centered direction seems highly counter-intuitive to what Chapman may have been proposing. You only ever hear about Andrews in the context of how he acts like a 12 year old freshly off his Ritalin released into a weapons locker.  If I have to hear one more time about how groovy he is with his utilikilt* and his in depth knowledge of all forms of medieval warfare, I will gag.  He is portrayed, at least by the media though this may be for effect given the movie's proposed content, as exactly the kind of guy who takes a great movie about real issues and bravery and mucks it up with "more arrows, more knives and more action."  Such a sharp contrast is painted between how Chapman approached the creative process and how Andrews is revising the movie that you can't help but feel like Pixar is just twisting the film to appeal more to its cash cow demographic: boys who only like boy things.  A great business decision, but a lousy way to create diversity in the kinds of movies they make. 

The real icing on the cake is that everyone is gaga over the idea that this is a real "girl power" movie.  Geek Mom, a collective that I love specifically because they help to challenge what we all think we know about being girls, and geeks, and raising girls who may be geeks, is all giddy about the strong female lead while ignoring two important points:
  1. This strong female tale is no longer being made for women by women, it is being altered to appeal to a "larger demographic" spoken "men and all thing normalized by the male view."
  2. This lead, like many so-called "strong women" may only be an idealized view of what our male dominated culture would identify as being strong...basically girls acting like boys.  This is the subtle difference between Hilary Clinton and Lara Croft as female role models.  One is actually a smart, strong, successful woman the other is a man's idealized version of a tough girl and by "tough" we mean "large breasted and wielding a bazooka."
I am not saying that this film won't be great.  I am not saying that Andrews, by mere fact of being male, will ruin the woman-centered feel of this film**.  I am just saying that when we hold up Merida as a strong female role model, we need to look at the back story and make sure that we are defining her power, and the suggestive power of this film, by something other than the male-centered norm.  Given the clandestine circumstances of this directorial switcheroo, and the possible undertones of these "creative differences" I may be viewing this film with a heavy dose of perspective. 

*Don't even get me cranked on utilikilts.  Never has the culturally-white-middle-class-male made a more desperate grab for attention.  As the gender for whom clothing has always been, and may always be, a tool for oppression, you will have to excuse me if I think you look like a jerk-off touting the ergonomic benefits of the skirt.

**It would be equally sexist of me to assume that the only reason Chapman was terminated was due to gender bias or to assume that Andrews is unable to continue in the spirit of the film just because he is a man.  It is hard to not go there given the circumstances, but to draw the conclusion that Andrews is not capable of doing the same quality work on this film as a woman would be very contradictory to the larger point of gender equality we are trying to discuss.  Andrews is not the "bad guy" here, though he has become representative of Pixar's general preference for all things male.