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 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.

The Rape of Kindness

Without ascribing any motivations to the speaker, without even dipping one’s toes into the seething, acrid morass that is the politics of gender and sexuality in the geek community, I wish to state beyond the shadow of a doubt that it is, at best, discourteous to make rape jokes. More than that, it is unkind. Unkind because people do get raped, every day, and in circumstances that run the gamut from horrific to horrifically mundane. To turn it into a punchline or a t-shirt is terribly unkind to the large number of people who have to live with it.

The #diversityinsff tag was very interesting to watch yesterday, both on its own merits and in tandem with the very loud Penny Arcade clash of wills over what is and is not appropriate conduct. What I’m taking away from those conversations is that there are a tremendous number of people who want to raise the level of debate about and the quality of our literature and society. And, regrettably, there is perhaps an even greater majority that does not.

In this geek culture to which I in some ways belong, the white, straight male has for some years been ascendant. Like violence? Video games get gorier every year. Like tits? Female characters are noticeably more naked than they used to be. The Geek was marginalized in high school, but no more! No, now he lives in a bubble where he can judge everyone with comradely good fellowship. Women who want to join in this “inclusive” culture by exercising their talents as authors or–god forbid–cosplay artists are mocked if they aren’t thin enough, or if the Higher Geek Authority doesn’t approve of the ways they bend character design in their outfits or in their stories.

Even worse, this Higher Geek Authority seems to feel they have the right to bring up things that are deeply painful to others and toss them around for a laugh! Mike Krahulik actually wants to walk around wearing a shirt that says, essentially, “Team Rapist,” and thinks that’s an okay thing to do, as a member of the human race. What’s he going to do next, sport a baseball cap that says “Team Cancer?”

That seems willfully unkind, at best. It goes directly against the basic humanity of the person viewing the shirt, as well as the person WEARING it.

So I ask you, men of geekdom–yes, you there, with the passion for your community and your media–is this who you want speaking for you? You really want to support the unkindness, the discourtesy, the striking lack of concern for your fellow beings inherent in how this society is operating? (I am leaving out terms like “power,” “oppressive,” “rape culture,” “misogyny,” “racism,” “transphobic,” and “asshole” on purpose. Just in case you were wondering.)

Furthermore, some of your heroes, your idols, the bearers of your torches are going out of your way to belittle and attack the people and the media who in trying to make it better for themselves, will make the debates richer and the books better and the games more interesting for YOU, as they already have. Why would you let that stand? There is no genitals check when you buy a book or a game or a movie, guys. The way I know that is because you’ve been reading books about women for years. Pern? Kushiel? The Honorverse? Any of these best-selling worlds ringing a bell, darlings?

Perhaps some compassion is in order. Some stepping outside one’s own box. Walking in someone else’s shoes, and realizing that four-inch heels are uncomfortable and dangerous to wear as well as thrilling to look at. They can be both, but they are both, and knowing that is important before you go drooling all over the place. (Or criticizing when someone hasn’t made themselves goddess-like to your specifications.) Doesn’t it make the world more interesting, to consider all these layers? Or are you going to listen to the men who tell you all you want is some more rampant titty to stare at while you shovel the traditionally male-oriented, self-aggrandizing pablum that is much of mainstream SF/F down your gullets? Surprise me. I’ll wait.

I’m not going to ask the question “Why aren’t we all better to each other?” because I’m plenty good to you. I listen to you, I take you seriously, I want you to like me, because hey, we all love the same stuff, right? We all like having friends.

What have I done, except love what you love and make it my own, as you have always made it your own. What am I asking for, except respect, a place at the table, and maybe some affection, as I hold on with all my might to my shreds of respect and affection for you. All it would mean is that there would be more to read, and watch, and see, and think about.

With that in mind, I am going to ask this as kindly as I possibly can.

Why aren’t you better to me?

The Wired article “Why I’m Never Going Back to Penny Arcade” and Seanan McGuire’s Twitter feed (@seananmcguire) inspired much of today’s post.