Action movies. My loves. My dearest cinematic joys on this earth. The lingua franca of many of my relationships and friendships, my stock in trade. Recently, I can’t stop noticing how women are treated in them even in movies lauded for treating women better than other movies treated women recently. Something inside me snapped. I no longer want to see them any more with the same kind of excitement I used to feel. Good job, Hollywood! It only took fifteen years for you to break me. There are still many reasons for me to go to the movies, I still love going, I’m thinking about starting an actual movie reviews bit soon. But there are things I don’t want to watch any more.
I don’t want to see the one woman who speaks belittled. I don’t want to see her hurt. I don’t want to see her pressed up against a villain with a knife to her throat as he makes pronouncements or threatens her to get to Our Hero. I don’t want to see her smacked around or thrown into a wall or murdered for having sex with someone. (As direct cause/effect in the narrative, or as moral judgment of the meta-narrative, or even just because whatever the hell, there was a woman, and we need to show something about this dude, so… he hits her? Yeah? Good. Men who hit women are Bad Mans. Except when the good guy hits women, that’s because he needed her to shut up or needed to look tough or you know, just, whatever. Don’t be so sensitive. It’s just a movie.)
I saw Mission Impossible: The One With The Giant Plane Stunt a couple of weeks ago, and spent the whole movie waiting for Rebecca Ferguson’s character to be sexually assaulted. The entire two hours-plus of movie, and all I could think was “Does it happen now? Is it going to happen now? The pace has gotten a little slow here, are they going to put her in peril now? Maybe now?” It’s not a particularly nice place to be, guys.
Tried to rewatch the first two Transporter movies the other night. Couldn’t get through either of them. These are movies I loved, these are movies I referenced as being of quality. I have the same reaction thinking about many of the action movies I’ve seen over the years. I have devoted precious brain space to thinking about how action stars are created and their careers and arcs maintained over multiple movies even when they aren’t in the same series. I have nursed crushes on the men who star in them. I’m not ashamed of this, exactly. It’s like the end of a mediocre relationship. I’m upset that I wasted so much time on something that didn’t deserve me.
The price of admission to an action movie is understanding that I’m going to be scared in a way my cis male movie-going companions are not going to be scared. I’m going to be anxious the whole time. The price of admission is knowing that I have to laugh when women are the visual butt (or bust) of the joke. That I have to go in with a hard heart and clenched jaw, because I know what’s coming for me.
Women in these movies are portrayed as either blocks of ice who know how to punch, and are punished accordingly, or as useless wads of dryer lint there to be stared at and laughed at if they try to do anything. Especially when it’s something that, if you squint, looks a lot like something the male protagonist would be applauded for doing. Sometimes they’re actually helpful and good for the plot and are made sympathetic. I worry the most for these women. Kate Mara’s character in Shooter, for example. She was great, and she was raped and tortured at the hands of the film’s villain. Unnecessarily. Gratuitously. The movie had already established him as beyond redemption. They just wanted to show a woman shaking and traumatized at the hands of her attacker. I think she maybe gets to shoot him in the chest? Maybe that’s how he dies? I don’t remember exactly, that movie in particular upset the hell out of me.
And, for all that, I love these movies. I’m a biased observer for them. I’m an apologist. When I see the latest Jurassic Park movie, yanking feminism and gender relationships back to a particularly poorly conceived Spencer Tracey/Katherine Hepburn movie, I want it not to be true. I want to think that I’m watching something subversive, that I’m in on the joke with the film’s creators, but I’m not. I’m on the outside, and I am meant to be on the outside. I’m going to be kept there with sexual assault and sexist jokes, with cinematography that highlights these meaningless secondary sexual characteristics on my chest (I’m looking at you, Joss Whedon) instead of my face.
Three movies, all put out in the last three years, have delighted me. I could watch them over and over again and never watch any others. Pacific Rim, Jupiter Ascending, and Mad Max: Fury Road. Those movies understood my presence in the theater, though two of them were not explicitly catering to it. They welcomed me, in fact. They gave me respect. Me. Not “women.” Not “feminism.” Not a generalization or an abstract socio-political construct or movement.
Me. My self.
All three are speculative. The levels of personal agency, narrative importance, and actual exploration of some facet of womanhood reached in the very occasional sci-fi movie are pretty much unheard-of in straight action movies. I can think of one that can squeak in on the very barest suggestion of a technicality, but really, if we still have to go back to Demi Moore shaving her hair off in a military drama from 1997 (in a film where the presupposed foregone conclusion of her brutal rape is used as a lesson for her teammates rather than herself) I’m comfortable calling misogynistic bullshit when I see it. Which is often.
There is some room for apologists like me to wiggle. MI:PLANE STUNT OMG DID YOU SEE WHAT HE DID is a case in point. The woman does not become Ethan Hunt’s sex prize du jour, she drives off into the sunset and what one assumes is an extremely lucrative retirement. There have been a few others lately that surprised me pleasantly with how much not-rape they contained. Most are still as trope-y as ever, woo the Crazy!Uterine!Killers clubmembers and the Mostly!Useless!But!Still!Fuckable girls and the Bitch-Who-Will-See-The-Error-Of-Her-Bitchy-Ways-And-Get-On-Board-With-Smooching-The-Minimally-Adequate-Hero bitches and the Why-Is-She-Even-Here-Oh-Right-We-Live-But-To-Die-So-That-Your-Rage-Might-Flourish ladies. You all know exactly who I’m talking about with all of these. I bet a rolodex of characters is spinning in your heads for each of those types.
So, sure, I’ll keep going. I’m interested in a couple of franchises and in the development of the genre as it careens here and there trying figure out what the hell it’s doing. I’ll be more critical of it more loudly, and if you don’t like it, blow it out your ear. There are still things I like, car chases and explosions and gorgeous locales. But I’m not going to pretend, even for a minute, that these movies don’t have problems. Huge problems, and I don’t mean how that particular gun doesn’t fire bullets that do that particular thing. (The laws of physics, as you might surmise, are not my greatest concern at the present time.)
There’s a higher price for admission to every piece of media, when you’re not a white straight cis man. The price is not seeing yourself. The price is having to watch hackneyed, vicious portrayals of yourself and then having to defend why you didn’t absolutely love everything about said portrayal. If you can’t really accept that, we can’t really have a conversation. I’m not annoyed at you in particular for it, and I don’t need you to defend it to me. I already enjoy these movies. But that isn’t a band-aid over critical engagement, and I’m not going to slap it on there any more.