Fargo Film Festival 2014: Thursday afternoon Favorite Picks

Another afternoon of all-access to the Fargo Film Festival brought on yet another round of short films. There was a great mixture to be had, from a relationship seen from the view of a computer screen (Noah) to a story about robots being replaced by humans (Shelved).

Here’s the ones I liked the most and the least.

My favorite: A Good Wife

A Good Wife is a short documentary about the struggles of rural Indian women in the Sundarban islands who live in a conservative, patriarchal society. In interviews with the women and their families, womens’ marginalized role in arranged marriages is revealed, where dowries are demanded and domestic violence is a reality. How can these women fulfill their own lives and still be “a good wife?”

There is no clear answer.

As I’ve stated in other blog posts, feminist issues interest me immensely. Looking at an entirely different patriarchal culture was incredibly interesting.

Second favorite: Noah

Told entirely from the perspective of one teenage boy’s computer screen, “Noah” follows a breakup through the lens of Facebook, Skype and Chatroulette.

A little crude (definitely NSFW during the Chatroulette part), but an accurate portrayal of how modern teenagers forge, maintain, and end relationships. I was surprisingly invested. (“Don’t click that link, Noah!”)

Moral of the story: Don’t go on Chatroulette.

Get used to this, people. This is basically the whole movie.

My least favorite: Postface

Admittedly, this one was on my list of shorts I definitely wanted to catch at the festival. The synopsis was enough to pull me in:

“In a celebrity-obsessed culture, filmmakers often exploit the downfall of a star to amplify the emotional undertones of the fictional films in which they perform. POSTFACE takes a look back at the filmography of Montgomery Clift whose private life and career spiral downward after a 1956 car crash that left his face scarred and partially paralyzed.
Like an actor without a face, the video is an exploration of obsolescence, produced by means of analog tape manipulations.”

Instead of being an “exploration of obsolescece,” this felt more like an exploration of intentionally shaky editing and the emotion of confusion. I’m not quite sure what the message was. The audience I was with clapped perplexedly at the end of Postface…maybe no one wanted to admit that they didn’t know what had just happened. Check it out for yourself:

Perhaps I’m not cultured enough to appreciate a short film good enough to make it into the festival. I think what really threw me off was the editing: pixelation and jumpiness on every frame, never a clear picture, never an explanation of who Montgomery Clift was or what he looked like after his car accident. It felt like watching my Youtube video buffer with a faulty internet connection for seven minutes.

Fargo Film Festival 2014: Bending Steel

This year’s Fargo Film Festival kicked off tonight with a documentary called Bending Steel. And all I can say is that I might never complain about doing something difficult again.

The documentary focuses on Chris “Wonder” Schoeck, a New Yorker who struggles to find his place in the world or connections with people. He also harbors a fascination with the legend of the Coney Island Strongman, men who could bend steel with just their hands, body, and strong wills. Chris sets out to join the ranks of the living legends currently in the field and to bring the Coney Island Strongman act back!

Check out the trailer!

Without giving the whole documentary away, it was truly inspiring. Surprising so. In addition to watching him bend thick steel bars, horseshoes, and a quarter (in his teeth!), it was a privilege to see Chris grow as a person over the two years the film took place. He begins as a man afraid of connecting and afraid of failing, but gradually becomes more open, funnier, and much more eloquent while still remaining himself and setting his eyes on his goal.

Chris bends a metal bar of steel between his legs

Many in the audience I viewed the film with related with Chris’ journey, because although the average person might not be able to twist metal into the shape of their choosing, Chris’ desire for acceptance is incredibly relatable.

Chris “Wonder” Schoeck answered Fargo theatergoers questions after the documentary showed. I actually got to hold and test one of the rods he would bend only a few seconds later. I think I was pretty desensitized to how hard bending steel actually is after seeing a bunch of strong guys do it during the course of the documentary, but actually examining that steel with my own two eyes and feeling its heavy weight in my hands reminded me what a feat it really is.

When asked about a quote he had said in the documentary about how he wanted to send the message to the world, Chris replied that his message would be: “Don’t quit five seconds before the miracle. And if it still doesn’t happen, it’s not the end of the world.”

Then he twisted a steel rod into a curly “Q” with his bare hands. If that doesn’t get you inspired, especially after watching his emotional journey, there’s something wrong with you.

 

I am planning to cover the 2014 Fargo Film Festival, so expect more updates on the films showing this week!

The Women of BBC Sherlock

[Spoilers for Sherlock season 3 throughout]

Hello, my name is Kayley and I’m addicted to Sherlock Holmes.

It began when I was about 7, when my mom gave me a children’s adaptation of his most famous cases, which I reread numerous times. My first experience with an onscreen Sherlock Holmes came when I was around six years old, when my father and I caught a bit of the Adventures of Young Sherlock Holmes on TV. It genuinely frightened me, in part because my father refused to explain what was happening in the scene below until I was older.

Years later, after I randomly stumbled on the movie, I realized it is because he had no clue what was happening either.

And The Great Mouse Detective, a Disney film based on the concept of Sherlock Holmes, was one of my favorite Disney movies. I absolutely adored Basil of Baker Street. For a while, I wanted to be a detective when I grew up—I thought all detectives got to go around being snarky and clever all day.

But my long history of fascination with the world’s only consulting detective pales in comparison to my obsession with BBC’s Sherlock.

The show follows the titular character and his devoted sidekick, Watson, in modern-day London. Watson is a soldier recently back from Afghanistan and Sherlock is a razor-sharp consulting detective with the London police. Together they form the perfect crimefighting duo.

A summary of the show as told by John Watson:

The mystery storylines themselves put a new twist or spin on the old Conan Doyle stories, devoting sly references to the original stories.

For instance, here’s a reference one of my favorite stories, The Speckled Band:

The newly released third season of the show was a great addition to the previous episodes. There’s some great character development to be had from our two lead characters and there’s a perfectly horrendous new bad guy in town, but I want to talk about the female characters in particular.

Irene Adler – “The Woman”

The first Holmes story was published in 1887, which only served to detract from the female presence in the Holmes canon. The only story that really featured a woman was of course The Woman, Irene Adler–the only woman who ever outsmarted Sherlock Holmes. Although I looked forward to the addition of an updated Irene Adler in the BBC series, it sadly felt as though the writers dropped the ball with the character. In the original, Irene is an opera singer and previous courtesan who outwits Sherlock using her intelligence and beats him at his game, for which Holmes respects her.

We always seem to catch her on laundry day.

How did the writers choose to make this Irene dynamic in a modern version? By making her a dominatrix who gets all of her blackmailing information by sleeping with people. And she does “beat” Sherlock…with her S&M gear.

In the end of the BBC version, Sherlock outsmarts Adler, who it turns out was just acting under orders from bad guy Moriarty because she wouldn’t have known what to do with the information she had collected otherwise.

And that’s not subtext; she literally says that.

Of all the female characters, I have the most problems with how Irene is portrayed. And not just BBC’s Irene…all the recent adaptations of Irene have made her a supersexy love interest for the main character. This just feels like a lazy way to force a romantic subplot in the movies/tv shows. In these adaptions, Irene’s affection for the main character ultimately leads to her downfall, either leading her to her death or the destruction of the plan she was involved in.

Mrs. Hudson

Mrs. Hudson, Sherlock’s landlady (not housekeeper!), often seems like she’s a few cards short of a full deck. Both John and Sherlock view her as a mother-figure, especially since a majority of Mrs. Hudson’s time is spent bringing them tea and food.

Mrs. Hudson is eventually shown as more intelligent than she lets on when she successfully hides a priceless camera phone from some American mercenaries, even after they interrogate her.

While she appears to be just a dottery old woman, Mrs. Hudson has a very checkered past, as she was previously married to a leader of a drug cartel, is a former exotic dancer, and frequently uses marijuana (Or as she refers to it, her “herbal soothers”). For me, these additions to her character seem to be there more for the shock value of an elderly woman being associated with those things, rather than actually advancing her character. However, Mrs. Hudson is actually pretty realistic as a mother/grandmother figure for the main characters.

Molly Hooper

For those of you who have read the Conan Doyle books, this name probably does not look familiar. Molly Hooper is the only regular character on the show not taken from the Sherlock Holmes books. While the writers originally wrote her character into only one episode for the show, they liked actress Louise Brealey’s performance so much that they decided to keep her with the regular cast.

I’ve loved Molly from the very first episode, but was frustrated with her portrayal as a mere lovestruck schoolgirl. There seemed like there was more to her than that: she was intelligent enough to be a pathologist, assertive enough to ask clueless Sherlock on a date, and kind enough to help Sherlock with his cases during her time off on Christmas Day.

The depiction of Molly as starstruck doormat starts to change in the episode The Reichenbach Fall, in which supervillain Moriarty plots to destroy Sherlock’s reputation and force him to commit suicide by threatening his friends. As Sherlock worries about his upcoming showdown with Moriarty, we get some more growth of the Molly character when she is Sherlock’s only friend who sees past his supposedly cool exterior.

The third series gives us additional growth for both of these characters when Sherlock begins acknowledging his feelings for his friends, Molly included.

Molly’s actions always center around Sherlock, but then again ALL of the characters in the show center around him, so it makes sense that Molly’s character would do the same. There’s a certain level of trust and appreciation between the two now that wasn’t there in the first couple seasons.

Their friendship feels very real and heartfelt as the seasons pass, a different sort of friendship than Sherlock has with anyone else, John included. Numerous times throughout the series, it is revealed through little bits of dialogue that Molly and Sherlock often confide in each other about their worries. Molly is also one of the only people who seems to be able to hold Sherlock accountable for his actions. Check out this great clip from the newest season, when Molly discovers Sherlock recently took drugs:

Mary

The amazing Amanda Abbington

Despite my love for Molly, the women on the show really take a backseat to all the adventuring the boys do. This is why I think Mary is the best addition of the new direction the third season takes. In the first two episodes, she is definitely likeable; she’s funny, kind, insightful, and clever. But the third episode really drops a bombshell that no one saw coming: Mary’s a former assassin trying to live a normal life and escape her past. Besides that, we don’t know much. Talk about deviation from the books, where her defining characteristic was “wife of Dr. John Watson.”

My favorite part about the Mary character is how well she fits into this already-established world and her potential for growth as a character. The way I see it, she and Sherlock are two sides of the same coin. John “chose” them both because he is addicted to danger and sensed that quality in both of them. Both Mary and Sherlock are incredibly intelligent and rate John’s safety and opinion above anything else. However, Sherlock is better at understanding facts, whereas Mary understands human nature. This should prove for an interesting dynamic between these main characters in the future.

Who is your favorite Sherlock character? What are your thoughts on the way women are portrayed in the show?

Disney’s Frozen: Progressive Princesshood

By Kayley Erlandson

Click here to read more from my Females in the Movies blog series.

My siblings and I grew up with a steady diet of animated Disney movies. We absolutely loved them. Even today, my now 20-something siblings and I are always up for watching one of our old VHS tapes or streaming the old Disney films on Netflix (Thanks Netflix!)

It’s safe to say that those movies shaped me as a person. My obsession with The Lion King as a five-year-old reached near-fanatical levels, the high point of which involved me refusing to answer to anything other than “Simba.” And I’ve already written a blog entry about the influence of one my first female media role models, Mulan.

Although I still love watching Disney movies, my adult eyes are much more critical of the content than I was as a child. Some things that never bothered me as a kid REALLY bother me as an adult. For instance, when I was a kid, The Little Mermaid was just a fun tale about true love, singing crabs, and an evil seawitch. Now that I’ve become much more aware of the way women are portrayed in media, I see some major flaws with The Little Mermaid’s formula. The main character, Ariel starts the movie out with aspirations of exploring new places and having adventures. But she literally gives up her voice, personhood (mermaid-hood?), and family in order to attain Prince Eric. Kind of a terrible underlying message for girls.

In recent years, there have been some baby steps in children’s animation, in terms of portrayals of women. Brave, one of my favorite animated films, focuses on a mother/daughter dynamic and features a fiery lass named Merida who attempts to find the balance between rejecting the “princess” role forced upon her by her mother and taking responsibility for her kingdom.

It’s an important question; one that the film manages to address without being overly sappy. Both Merida and her mother, Elinor, are great additions to the world of inspirational children’s characters.

But normally, Disney has always been pretty consistent with the way its female characters are portrayed. If the women are main characters, they are passive, thin, wide-eyed, and above all, beautiful. And most of them are princesses.

They also like to twirl their dresses and pose with flowers.

Early Disney princesses (Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora from Sleeping Beauty) were all Caucasian.  While movies in the 90s featured non-white women in main roles, these women still adhered to the Western standard of beauty, rather than their own cultures.

Where does Pocahontas buy her lipstick?

So where does Frozen lie on this spectrum of female stereotypes? Well, it’s not a perfect film, but it comes pretty close and has some of the best female characters I’ve seen lately.

Frozen tells the tale of two princesses in a fictional Scandinavian kingdom called Arendelle. The eldest sibling, Elsa, was born with the power to create snow and ice from her fingertips. Her powers grow uncontrollable when she experiences a strong emotion, such as fear or anger. When Elsa accidentally injures Anna with her powers, she keeps her little sister at arm’s length. Their parents shut the doors to the castle and tell Elsa she must keep her powers hidden at all costs.

Elsa practices using her powers

When their sovereign parents die, Elsa is set to take over the throne. She is crowned queen, but accidentally reveals her powers in front of the townsfolk, who immediately reject her. She runs away into the mountains to live a life of seclusion. With Elsa’s emotions running awry, Arendelle is cursed to suffer an eternal winter. Anna sets out to bring her sister back and bring summer back.

Frozen parallels similar story choices like The Little Mermaid’s. Both movies were adapted from fairy tales written by Hans Christian Andersen, are children’s animated musicals, have whimsical side characters, are allegedly the beginning of a Disney “Renaissance” (period where quality movies are produced by the company), and have comparable female characters). However, these adaptations are vastly different and can show some of the recent positive steps children’s animation is taking in terms of portraying femininity in a positive way. The concepts of true love and villainy in Frozen are turned on their heads, and by doing so, reveal Frozen to be a more positive model for children in terms of gender portrayal.

Like Ariel, Anna also becomes enamored with a prince after one meeting and accepts his proposal during their love ballad. However, her sister Elsa raises an eyebrow when Anna asks for her blessing on the engagement and calmly explains that her sister cannot marry someone she just met. Kristoff, a mountain man who helps Anna later in the movie, explicitly points out the absurdity of marrying someone she met that same day.

Prince Hans and Anna meet

By movie’s end, both Anna and the audience agree that it is a wise idea to get to know someone before agreeing to marry them. Although Ariel and Anna both want to get married during the beginning of their movies, Anna puts blood first and takes responsibility for her part in Elsa’s retreat into the mountains. When Elsa runs away, Anna immediately calls for her horse and goes on a quest bring her sister back safely, leaving her love interest behind.

Spoilers below.

The concept of “true love’s kiss” is turned on its head by movie’s end. When Anna is accidentally struck in the heart with Elsa’s ice powers, only an act of true love can save her from turning into ice. At first, she believes Prince Hans can break the spell with true love’s kiss, but it is revealed that Prince Hans does not love her and purposely preyed on Anna’s need for affection in order to steal her kingdom. Then, Anna runs after Kristoff, who she believes truly cares for her.

Anna, Olaf the Snowman, and Kristoff

Anna forsakes her moment to experience true love’s kiss with Kristoff and chance of stopping the curse so that she can save Elsa’s life. However, this action to save her sister was the act of true love that broke the spell and did not revolve around either of the two men who Anna had only met in the last couple of days. In The Little Mermaid, Ariel is trying to win Eric’s love in three days or she will revert back to her undesirable state as a mermaid (and also, unbeknownst to her, become Ursula’s captive).

In Frozen’s world, true love is not instant or selfish, but the opposite: carefully cultivated and selfless.  Contrary to being saved by others, Anna saves herself. Anna even stops Kristoff from confronting Hans when he is revealed to be evil, as she wants to handle him herself. Anna tells the villain off, subdues him, and has him incarcerated without any assistance from her new beau. Throughout the climax of the movie Frozen redefines what true love actually entails.

Elsa from Frozen and Ursula the Sea Witch from The Little Mermaid have several similarities. Both were born with magical powers and were exiled from their kingdom because of their powers. Both serve as the main source of conflict in the movie and neither has a love interest. Besides having these same foundational characteristics, Frozen’s take on villainy is refreshing. Whereas Ursula is portrayed as a manipulative villain who uses her powers to try to take King Triton’s throne, Elsa’s tale is far more layered. Elsa is never truly painted as evil, but rather a young woman whose powers overflow after a lifetime of being told to “conceal, don’t feel” the powers that make her special.

Unlike most antagonists in children’s films, Elsa does not desire power; she already has the power that Disney villains often seek when she is crowned queen in the beginning of the movie. Instead, Elsa desires control over her own abilities and her emotions, a desire instilled in her by her parents. Before their deaths, the king and queen close the windows and doors to the castle and ask Elsa wear gloves at all times to further control her powers. It is a commentary on the society’s tendency to try to control women’s levels of power and punishing women who do not conform to standards of femininity. During the musical number “The First Time in Forever,” Elsa worries about keeping control of her powers during her upcoming coronation.

Elsa

She coaches herself: “Don’t let them in, don’t let them see. Be the good girl you always have to be…put on a show. Make one wrong move and everyone will know.” Then she comforts herself with the afterthought, “But it’s only for today.” Instead of merely performing the female gender, Elsa must perform a different type of “normativity” based on what other people expect from her behavior.

Elsa separates herself from this fear by literally escaping into the mountains. Whereas in Arendelle, she dressed more conservatively in order to hinder her powers from accidentally surfacing, Elsa tosses her gloves into the wind and throws her crown away as a symbol of rejecting the pressures her society puts on her while exclaiming: “Let it go, can’t hold it back anymore…The fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all.”

However, at this point in the movie, Elsa has yet to find the balance between accepting her powers and simultaneously accepting connection and responsibility to other people in her life as evidenced by some of her statements: “Turn away and slam the door…I don’t care what they’re going to say…no right, no wrong, no rules for me. I’m free.” By the end of the movie, Elsa finally accepts both her throne at Arendelle and her powers over ice and snow. She also chooses to revive her relationship with her sister.

Frozen may be my new favorite Disney movie. The story is funny and touching, and all the characters, both female and male, are great. It’s definitely a step forward for animated female characters.

 

Ender’s Game Review

By Kayley Erlandson

In the not-too-distant future, the people of Earth suffered a nearly cataclysmic attack from marauding alien insects called the Formics. Since this attack nearly 50 years prior, Earth has been hand-selecting talented children to train in their universal Battle School, where the seeds of potential military greatness are sown.

Colonel Graff watches Ender enter the Battle Room.

Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) oversees the training of these child soldiers and chooses a lanky, intuitive 12-year-old named Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) to groom for command of the entire human fleet. Ender shows enough intelligence, instinct, and tactical prowess to become a leader for the humans in their impending war with the Formics.

Ender isn’t quite a hardened general yet. He feels empathy for the enemies that threaten him, be they school-yard bullies or space bugs.

Ender plays a game.

In order to prepare Ender for actual battle and to “toughen him up,” Colonel Graff constantly provides challenges for the boy in the form of military “games” that the child soldiers all participate in. But can Ender win the biggest game of all: the game for Earth’s survival?

When I was still a teenager, my cousin gave me his tattered copy of Ender’s Game, promising me that I would love it. Although I was skeptical, that same tattered book is now proudly sitting on my bookshelf and is a story I enjoy revisiting again and again. The characters are richly developed, the action is descriptive and engaging, and for a 1985 book, it was visionary in the content and plot devices it chose to use to advance the narrative (for instance, Ender plays a complex simulated video game that explores his psyche).

Ender looks out the window.

The film’s biggest weakness is its attempt to condense the book into a two-hour movie. In the book, Ender begins battle school at age six and ends as a 12-year-old, whereas the movie spans approximately one year. This difference in itself was not a weakness, but just showcases how compressed the book was compared to the film. This lack of time to spend on the relationships between the characters or characterization in general was sorely lacking in the movie.

The urgency and complexity of the humans’ situation also isn’t as apparent in the movie, and some of the thought-provoking undertones and nuances were lost in translation. The scope of the book felt much grander, and the twist ending was much more obvious when viewing it on the big screen.

In the Battle Room

That said, I was not disappointed with the movie. Seeing the Battle Room scenes brought to life was breathtaking and all of the child actors hold their own against some stellar adult performances. Asa Butterfield does a marvelous job as Ender and as a Han Solo fan, it’s always nice to see Harrison Ford reprise his role as “gruff man in space.”

Ender

While some of the complex issues from the book didn’t translate to the big screen completely or fully realized, I found it amazing that some of these issues and situations author Orson Scott Card wrote about in 1985 are still present in today’s society: the use of simulations to train soldiers for war, the morality of child soldiers, and preemptive strikes.

In what feels like a potentially grand, sweeping space saga, it felt like the movie, much like Ender, just wasn’t given enough time to grow into its spacesuit.

Have you read the book Ender’s Game? What were your thoughts on it compared to the movie version?

Don Jon Review

“My body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, my porn,” New Jersey boy Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) mechanically recites his list of favorite things during his inner monologue. Although he lists porn last, in Jon’s life it reigns supreme and consumes his thoughts. Jon watches it every day and sees real women as objects to be use, abuse, and lose. His friends reverently nickname him “Don” because of the hordes of women his good looks and swagger manage to attract at the clubs.

Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) is a beautiful blonde looking for everlasting love. She was raised on syrupy sweet romantic comedies and longs for her own handsome Prince Charming to whisk her away, provide for her, and eventually start a family with her.

Barbara and Jon meet.

One night, Jon and Barbara’s paths cross at the club. Jon’s friends point the “dime” (incredibly good-looking woman) hanging out at the bar and the slick Jersey boy sidles up to pursue her.

Their eyes meet. Their gaze lingers. The beat drops. They fall in “love.”

And expectations clash.

Jon reluctantly watches a romantic comedy with Barbara

The two lovers fail to realize they are living in two completely different movies, and Don Jon shows the eerie parallels between pornography and romantic comedies. The plot suddenly gets a Harold and Maude vibe once Esther (Julianne Moore) arrives, wielding a more “grown-up” view of relationships that she shares with Jon, who in turn starts to foster feelings for her.

Rather than being just a cautionary tale against the evils of porn, Don Jon instead condemns the power that unrealistic expectations set by media have over us…and the loneliness, alienation, and selfishness that inevitably follow.

Barbara and Jon go shopping

For an R-rated comedy, there are a lot of deep ideas at play: how has our culture and the media we consume trained us to behave and think in certain ways when it comes to our own “real” relationships? What do we expect from others as a result of the media’s portrayals of relationships and sex?

How do we know what is real and what is fake?

One particular scene shows the blurred lines between reality and fantasy: Jon and Barbara are eating dinner during a date when clips of a pornographic video Jon watched earlier start to appear in small flashes as they talk, showing us what is popping up in Jon’s mind as he and his date discuss their regular lives. Barbara, in turn, hears heartfelt music whenever something happens that is stereotypical of a romantic comedy.

Jon’s father (Tony Danza) and Jon argue.

Gordon-Levitt and Johansson churn out strong acting performances and nobody in the cast feels out of place. These characters could easily be one-dimensional, but there’s a lot more to them than meets the eye. Tony Danza is pitch perfect as Jon’s boorish father. While his screentime is minimal, it’s enough to know where Jon picked up some of his worldviews.

By regular Hollywood standards, Don Jon feels like it skips from genre to genre with nary a worry or care, but that’s the point. It’s not because Don Jon doesn’t know what it wants to be, but because it knows what different members of the audience expect and thus highlights how these fantasies and expectations collide in our real-life relationships and often hinder our growth as human beings. Don Jon may be about porn and sexualization in media, but it shows these images for a reason and doesn’t glamorize them. What we’re left with is a smart comedy that discusses gender roles, media effects, and still manages to elicit laughs with its upfront take on heavy subjects.

Females in the Movies Part 3: Princess Leia and the Smurfette Principle

Princess Leia

Click here to read more of my Females in the Movies blog series.

Another female role model in media from my childhood was none other than a side-bun wearing, gun-toting space princess: Leia.

Yes, she got captured and remained so for a majority of the first movie (a stereotypical damsel in distress by definition). But anyone who can verbally slap Han Solo with a much needed reality check, confront Darth Vader whilst in handcuffs and surrounded by Stormtroopers, and throw out the term “nerf herder” during a squabble like it’s no one’s business is someone worth looking up to. She may not have been the most skilled physical fighter, but she certainly wouldn’t go down without a fight. She lived for something larger than herself, serving as a figurehead and diplomat for the Rebellion. Leia’s a terrific character who asserts her identity, but sadly takes a backseat to Luke and Han throughout the series.

Yet another reason to aspire to be Leia.

In recent years, I’ve questioned why I looked up to Princess Leia when I was a kid. Sure, she’s cool, but did I have underlying motives for idolizing her besides her character’s merit alone? After all, she was the only female in the Star Wars universe. Lando Calrissian might have been the “last black man in the galaxy”, but for all we know, Princess Leia could have been the last person carrying two X-chromosomes, too. Did I look up to her due to the mere fact that she was a female in an all-male universe or was I actually drawn to her character?

This question underlines one of media’s chronic conditions: The Smurfette Principle, a concept that feminist essayist Katha Pollitt constructed in 1991, named for the popular 80’s cartoon featuring a village of male Smurfs and their lone female, creatively named Smurfette.

The Smurfette Principle is the tendency for movies, TV shows, or books to have exactly one female amongst an ensemble of male characters. This is blatant in all forms of media, not only with female characters, but with black characters, gay characters, or basically any other minority groups. This is also known as having a “token” character in the ensemble, such as “the token black character.”

I want you to go through this brief thought process with me.

  1. What was the last movie or television show you watched?

     A.  The World’s End. (Click here for my review)

Sam (Rosamund Pike) and her brother, Oliver (Martin Freeman)

2. How many main female characters were there? Supporting female characters? What was her/their relationship to other men in the movie/show?

A. One supporting female character — the sister of one of the main male characters, past lover of two main male characters.

Did your movie fall prey to the Smurfette Principle? Mine did, and chances are, yours did, too. And in my movie, The World’s End, the female character was only introduced into the story because of her relationship with her brother (main character) and kept in the storyline because of her romantic past with two of the other main male characters.

Smurfette Principle: The Black Widow (second from right), the only female on The Avengers

There are exceptions to this principle, but that’s what they are: exceptions. And if you did think of an exception, was it a movie aimed specifically at females? The underlying belief of The Smurfette Principle seems to be that movies featuring (white, heterosexual) men will be popular with all ages, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and gender. The flip side of this mindset: “who wants to watch (white, heterosexual) women onscreen?”

The answer: only females, and only occasionally.

It appears as though Hollywood writers have a female gender quota of “one” to fill and don’t feel the need to stretch themselves, leaving minority groups underrepresented.

Smurfette Principle: Penny (second from right, female), Raj (far right, Indian) and the guys

Therein lies the major issue. If media reflects life, and media consists of masculine, white, heterosexual males, then this narrow group of demographics is defining our society’s “reality,” both for their own group and the underrepresented groups.

Male is the default. Females are sexy decorations.

This brings me back to Princess Leia and the Star Wars original trilogy, the epitome of the Smurfette Principle.

Perhaps to some extent I looked up to Leia because she was a female. But I don’t think I would have admired her if had she been a timid, passive princess who was content to let the men do all the work.

Maya (Jessica Chastain) from Zero Dark Thirty

Some of the responses I received about female role models in movies cited powerful heroines such as Maya from Zero Dark Thirty, Helen Mirren from Prime Suspect, and Angelina Jolie from Tomb Raider. I think it’s easy for girls and women to look up to these headstrong female action (or “active”) heroes. We like them because they are powerful women among powerful men. They are thriving in a man’s world. They may not share any of our personal characteristics, but is easier to imagine ourselves in their shoes than it is to imagine being a male action hero. And when they give the villain sass, we can envision ourselves doing the same thing under the right circumstances.

I came here to chew bubble gum and spout feminism. And I’m all out of bubble gum.

I want to know:

What other movies or TV shows have you recently watched that fall prey to The Smurfette Principle?

What exceptions to The Smurfette Principle can you think of (a movie with more than one female or other kinds of “token” characters? Is it a movie aimed at women, men, or toward the general population?

Click here to read more of my Females in the Movies blog series.

The World’s End Review

All good things must come to an end. The World’s End, that is.

The third and final flavor in the Cornetto Trilogy (named for the popular English ice cream treat that makes a cameo in each film) follows the tradition of picking apart movie genres and adding in comedic elements. 2004’s Shaun of the Dead started the zombie/comedy trend and Hot Fuzz tackled the buddy-cop and fish-out-of-water formulas. The World’s End examines the otherworldly by incorporating elements from 1960s sci-fi movies (Invasion of the Body Snatchers).

Stuck in a state of perpetual adolescence and a destructive cycle of drug use, middle-aged Gary King (Simon Pegg) reminisces of the “good old days” when he was a teenager. Life never was as good as it was on a fateful summer night in 1990, when Gary and his five best friends attempted an epic pub crawl to 12 establishments in their hometown of Newton Haven.

Gary and friends drink a pint during the Golden Mile

Alas, this “Golden Mile,” strewn with foaming pints and the carefree abandon of youth, was never completed. Gary still believes that if he could somehow finish the crawl and reach the 12th pub, The World’s End, he could find self-actualization. Unwilling to do the pub crawl solo, Gary convinces his high school friends—Real-estate agent, Oliver (Martin Freeman), timid car salesman, Peter (Eddie Marsan), old rival, Steven (Paddy Considine), and former-best friend, Andy (Nick Frost)—to join him in a return trip to their childhood town, down 12 pints, and gain the infamy they always wanted.

The Blanks reveal themselves

The first few drinks prove uneventful, but soon the friends realize that the people in the quiet English town are behaving strangely. They don’t remember Gary’s gang, they sometimes stare creepily as the friends walk on the sidewalk, and their limbs prove removable, revealing a blue, ink-like substance. The townspeople have been replaced by robots (dubbed Blanks by the main characters), but Gary insists that if they finish the Golden Mile like nothing is wrong, they can avoid detection and sidestep getting turned into Blanks themselves. Only eight pints to go…

(l-r) Peter, Steven, Andy, and Gary listen to a story at one of the pubs.

The writers of The World’s End took a chance when they wrote Gary King as a main character—he’s a thoroughly selfish, unlikable man who is equal parts annoying, smarmy, and charismatic. Simon Pegg pulls off the role marvelously, giving one of his most nuanced performances to date. Gary’s character is tolerable only because he plays off his ensemble flawlessly. The entire cast cranks out wonderful performances with just the right balance between gratuitously over-the-top and subtle. Although the ensemble is quite large, the characters’ reactions, interactions, and relationships with one another elevate this movie above merely being a “spoof” film.

Peter and Gary have the Blank’s “blood” (blue ink) on their hands.

If I had to pick something I dislike about the movie, it would be the fight sequences between the humans and the Blanks, which exhibited a frantic energy but dragged out just a little too long for my taste. The World’s End can work as a standalone film, but I thought that my experience would have been diminished if I had not seen the first two movies in the very loosely tied Cornetto Trilogy. It is a trilogy in a sense that each film builds on the experience instead of extending a specific storyline. The humor in The World’s End is not for everyone and some of the ways the filmmakers choose to execute the story may seem strange or off-putting to those uninitiated to director Edgar Wright’s style.

Gary looks out at Newton Haven

As with the previous Cornetto movies, The World’s End does something Hollywood finds difficulty in: it offers an original script with interesting characters that had me in stitches throughout. It’s a consistently funny film with sharp, quickly spouted dialogue. For fans of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, this wonderfully weird finale is a must-see.

Kick-Ass 2 Review

By Kayley Erlandson

Mild-mannered teenager Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) does not have superpowers per se, but after an accident a few years prior, his nerve endings were badly damaged. This mini-power deadens most physical pain and allows him to take a beating like nothing else. Despite his lack of hard-core powers or training, Dave used to moonlight as a superhero he dubbed Kick-Ass.

Hit Girl

Since Dave retired his Kick-Ass costume, others have been inspired to follow suit, so to speak. Encouraged by this new wave of do-gooders, Dave asks his former superhero partner Mindy (Chloe Grace-Moretz) to dust off her Hit Girl costume and train him in the ways of martial arts so that they can get back on the streets. But due to a promise to her guardian Marcus, Mindy begrudgingly turns Dave down, instead attempting (and failing) to fit in to the superficial world of high-school girls.

Captain Stars and Stripes talks with Kick-Ass as dog Eisenhower looks on

 

 

Dave joins up with a group of new superheroes, including team leader Captain Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey), a former gangster, born-again Christian with a blood-thirsty canine at his side. Their crew begins righting wrongs throughout the city, but soon meet their match: a rich superhero formerly known as Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who blames Kick-Ass for the death of his crime lord father and wants to try his hand at the whole super-villain gig.

The supervillain formerly known as Red Mist

Despite the hype surrounding Kick-Ass 2, I purposely did not read any reviews before going to see it. I wanted to have an open mind about the characters and the story. I left the theater with mixed emotions, as conflicted as Peter Parker first discovering his spider abilities. There were some elements of Kick-Ass 2 that worked. Some moments were funny and others were surprisingly heart-rending. Main characters Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl get to grow both as singular characters and in their relationship with one another. The moments of them training together, empathizing with each other, and interacting together were my favorite parts of the movie. Captain Stars and Stripes was by far the best new addition to the cast of characters as a sociopathic Captain America imitation, but he gets disappointingly little screen time.

Kick-Ass and his nemesis face off

But there were some moments that either came up short or just went too far, and Kick-Ass 2 has trouble finding its footing in the middle ground. Although Kick-Ass is known for purposely pushing the envelope as a way to bring ultra-violence in superhero movies under scrutiny, some explicit visual toilet humor and the scene of attempted rape topped off with an inappropriate joke about erectile dysfunction was a bit too much for me to forgive. Moments like these are devoid of fun, which is the major flaw of this sequel.

“Try to have a little fun. Otherwise, what’s the point?” Captain Stars and Stripes smirks as his gang prepares to raid a criminal lair.

If so, there is hardly any point to this movie at all. Kick-Ass 2 tries to juggle comedy, sentiment, satire, and dark themes simultaneously (something the first movie did well) but it drops the ball. Hit-Girl’s subplot concerning her initiation into the treacherous waters of public high school has her searching for answers for “who she is” sans cape and mask. This movie suffers from a similar identity crisis, but unlike Hit-Girl, it never reaches an answer.

Females in the Movies Part 2: My First Hero

Click here to read more of my Females in the Movies blog series.

Up to a certain point in my life, I only wanted to be like guys in movies. I did not make a conscious effort to do so, I just had no interest in Barbies or princesses, and most of the females in children’s films fit into very decidedly feminine, passive roles that I did not connect with. I gravitated towards the men because they were active. They propelled the action forward. They knew what they wanted, they made mistakes, and they saved the day.

I never disliked the females in movies, but to me, the ladies were never relatable. As a little brunette girl with tomboyish tendencies, I could not envision myself as a beautiful blonde princess waiting for a handsome prince to bring her love’s first kiss.

The first time I distinctly remember looking up to and wanting to be a female in a movie was Mulan. Looking back, I think it is telling that my first female role model spent a majority of her film cross-dressing and pretending to be a man in order to drive the plot.

Mulan and Captain Shane

Disney’s Mulan tells the story of a Chinese girl who chooses to join the army in her injured father’s place by pretending to be his fictitious son. She cuts her hair, binds her chest, and dons a uniform. While Mulan has never fit in as a woman in her society, she doesn’t exactly fit in as a man, either. She has to relearn all of her behaviors to become more man-like: swift as a coursing river with all the force of a great typhoon, all the strength of a raging fire, and mysterious as the dark side of the moon.

Mulan is not a perfect film about gender by any means, but for the first time, the main female character went through struggles that spoke to me on some level.

As a little girl, I grappled with body image issues. I was bespectacled, overweight, and had an odd personality. In all fairness, I would have struggled with loving my body despite this, thanks to culture’s emphasis on beauty. In our society, a woman’s worth is tied to her physical appearance, and I subconsciously associated my worth as a human being with my lack of physical beauty.

And then Mulan belted out the song “Reflection” about her inability to fit into society’s expectations of her as a woman after a confrontation with her usually accepting father. I now realize that the song can speak to a common, unmet need most people feel, but at the time, I took the lyrics literally.

Who is that girl I see staring straight back at me? When will my reflection show who I am inside?

Wow, Mulan understands me, I remember thinking. I didn’t like who I saw in the mirror either, yet I felt like I was a beautiful (i.e. worthwhile) person inside. Why couldn’t the mirror reflect that?

How I entered any body of water in 1998.

In the movie, Mulan’s biological sex is finally revealed to the other male characters, who initially reject and abandon her. Mulan still saves China using her intelligence and displaying bravery in the face of adversity. I knew I wanted to be just like her. She did get the guy (Captain Shane) at the end of the movie, but I always felt more like he was attracted to her plucky personality than her physical looks.

Who was your first female role model in a movie or television show?

Next time: Princess Leia, female action heroes, and the Smurfette Principle.

So tell me…who is your favorite female action hero (animated or live action) and why?

Click here to read more of my Females in the Movies blog series.