The Price of Admission

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. I don’t look forward to them, these days.Something inside me snapped. Good job, Hollywood! It only took fifteen years for you to break me. I still love going to the movies, 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.)

Of course we buy their love story. He's condescending, she's impatient. Match: made.

Of course we buy their love story. He’s condescending, she’s impatient. Match: made.

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. I was shocked when she walked off unraped. That’s where we are.

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 defended on the basis of their 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.

Spoiler alert: they fuck.

Spoiler alert: they fuck.

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.

This is necessary. Instead of fridged, she's dishwashed. And by dishwashed, I mean raped.

This definitely seems necessary. Instead of fridged, she’s dishwashered. And by dishwashered, I mean raped.

And, for all that, I love these movies. I’m a biased observer for them. I’m an apologist. When the latest Jurassic Park movie yanks 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 RimJupiter Ascending, and Mad Max: Fury Road. Those movies understood my presence in the theater, two of them explicitly catering to it. They welcomed me. They gave me respect. Me. Not “women.” Not “feminism.” Not a generalization or an abstract socio-political construct or movement.

Me. My self.

Saving the world. Fully dressed. It could only happen in science fiction. (And yet, so rarely does.)

Saving the world. Fully dressed. It could only happen in science fiction. (And yet, so rarely does.)

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.

But at least I die horribly, right? (The image title

But at least I die horribly, right?
(The image title, “one crazy woman,” was what this still from Transporter 2 downloaded as. I left it alone for reference and interest.)

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 set pieces I like, car chases and explosions and gorgeous locales. But I’m not going to keep pretending, even for a minute, that these movies don’t have problems. Huge problems, and I don’t mean the laws of physics.

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 you 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 enough to keep watching. But being entertained, even while I’m erased, isn’t a band-aid over the way they hurt me, and I’m not going to slap it on any more.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Mech

I loved Pacific Rim. Let’s just be clear about this. I loved it. When the end credits started, I was disappointed. That’s a feeling I only get at the movies very rarely. The last time I was so inspired by a movie, so drawn into the world presented onscreen, was by Lord of the Rings.

There are some parallels. Pacific Rim, like Lord of the Rings, posits a visually coherent world, with internally consistent assumptions and rules. Every frame of the movie does something to further the action. Every shot, far more than every line of dialogue, tells the story. I could have watched the movie with the sound turned off and still been able to tell you exactly what was going on. This is why we go to the movies, yes? To see things we otherwise wouldn’t be able to see?

A couple of people I talked to about Pacific Rim mentioned how “fanservice-y” it is. This property is pretty much brand spankin’ new. It had fans to service? This movie isn’t “fanservice-y,” it’s entertaining. Have we become so jaded by the semi-passable dreck masquerading as the movies that we are actually inured to having a good time while watching one? This movie has everything! There are gigantic robots! Huge monsters! Strong women! Beautiful men! (If you think those two should be reversed, I don’t want to hear about it.) The score is like eating how your favorite flavor of ice cream sounds! Every character is well-drawn. All the acting is good. The visual effects are utterly believable* and very exciting.

*I say “believable” in the sense that if you’re going to have giant bipedal robots fighting huge sea-going monsters, this looks like how they’d fight. There is nothing believable about the physics of this movie. I’m not sure Pacific Rim has heard of physics. Except gravity. Maybe. Context is everything, where physics is concerned, is how I believe Pacific Rim feels about the whole thing.

But back to my more salient point about entertainment and the movies. We’ve been overwhelmed by underwhelming translations of worn out IPs. Movie after movie in the same franchises lower our expectations because we have the memories of better films to sustain us through the dark times. When liking something becomes a commitment instead of a diversion, it’s easy to sink into your squeaky seat and just let the movie wash over you. You know exactly what you’re going to get. I haven’t been excited or scared or surprised by, say, any of the Marvel movies in ages. (Unless you count how shocked and horrified I was by the emasculation of Wolverine in his latest outing, but that’s a blog for another day.) They just keep coming, and we just keep going.

Pacific Rim reminded me why I go to the movies in the first place. For the delight of finding something immersive, beautiful and a little scary, that I can imagine myself into. I both hope there’s a sequel and hope there isn’t.