Saturday, November 21, 2009

Bella is a terrible role model, but would we care if she weren't a girl? Five terrible male role models in guy-centric blockbusters.

As I've written before, whenever any movie not primarily involving white males and/or geek-friendly genres becomes a big hit, the moralizers come out in full force about how dangerous or unhealthy said movie is for the target demo in question. Sex and the City: The Movie presents adult women in a terribly materialistic light so it's just unhealthy. And Precious isn't just about one person in a singular situation. Oh no, Precious is about each and every person who happens to be black, poor, female, or overweight, so it's obviously perpetuating one stereotype or another. And we can't have movies starring black people (Obsessed) that are just as sleazy, trashy, and stupid as the kind of thing that white people take for granted, because we can't present black characters, especially black women, in such an unfashionable light.

Needless to say, this is the kind of thing that the Twilight series has had to deal with. Because the lead of the books (and movies) is a teenage girl, she's been held up or brought down on her ability to be a positive role model for girls everywhere. And since she doesn't always make the healthiest choices possible, she's been condemned as a dangerous role model for young girls, which has been used as a weapon to condemn the series beyond the normal realm of 'are the movies any good?'. Well, I wholeheartedly agree with the naysayers. Bella (played by Kristen Stewart in the films) is a terrible role model for young girls. She constantly needs to be rescued, while being told that she is a danger to herself and others. She falls head over heels with a cold and aloof stranger who keeps her at a distance and constantly warns her that her feminine whiles could cause him to hurt her. She is willing to sacrifice her safety and her family's safety to be with him. Then, when he breaks up with her, she basically becomes suicidal and goes through a physical reaction resembling heroin withdrawal. So yes, Bella is a crappy role model. But, let's take a minute to run down some lead characters in male-driven franchises that also fit the bill. After all, if we're so upset that girls are being represented in a bad light, then should we not be as concerned about the boys? And can I, as a responsible citizen, enjoy these male-dominated blockbusters even though the lead character is a poor example to set for young men everywhere? Oh dear, the conflict!

Tony Stark (Iron Man)
Played by Robert Downey Jr, Tony Stark starts the movie as a greedy, ammoral, self-centered arms dealer who cares not one wit about the destruction and death that his product causes. He uses his friends and co-workers, keeps everyone at a distance, and profits off global strife. After creating a perpetually-rechargeable energy source that basically keeps his own heart beating, what does he do? Does he mass-produce this device and revolutionize the entire energy structure of the planet, causing an end to oil-based wars, planet-wide strife, and climate catastrophe? Nope, he uses it as the main energy source for his own personal play suit, which he builds with the intent to... well, he's not really sure. Sure, he eventually uses this 'iron man' suit to avenge his own kidnapping (which, to be fair, saves countless lives) and take down the corrupt leadership of his own company. But before those circumstances force his hand, Stark doesn't seem to want to use his world-changing technology for anything other than his own selfish whims. What a tool...

Sam Witwicky (Transformers)
While Sam, played by Shia LeBeouf, is generally a decent if obnoxious motor-mouthed teen, he does get one moment of shining douchebaggery. After spending the first 2/3 of the film attempting to win the heart (or other part) of his high-school crush, Sam is shocked... SHOCKED to learn that blue-collar Mikaela (Megan Fox) has a troubled past, mainly that her father is doing time for auto theft. Despite the fact that Sam knew nothing about this girl other than that she was hot, and despite the fact that it was her father and not her who was the primary guilty party, he is furious with her and rudely blows her off for several scenes afterward, until SHE has to apologize to HIM for her father's criminal history. She deserves better and should have dumped his nerdy butt on the spot.

James T. Kirk (Star Trek)
Played by Chris Pine in the JJ Abrams revamp, the legendary starship captain is rebooted as a selfish, obnoxious, entitled prick of a man who feels that he should get whatever he wants because he has daddy issues and comes from famous lineage (sound familiar?). He cheats purely out of spite, uses and harasses his female colleagues, and takes command of the starship from his more logical, intelligent, and principled superior via a virtual coup d'état. (wait a minute...) Sure he saves the day in the end, but it's mainly because the future version of his would-be rival shows up and tells him what to do every step of the way. This new James T Kirk is a schmuck. Jean-Luc never would have tolerated this arrogant little mouth-breather playing captain on his ship.

Captain Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean 1, 2, and 3)
Sure, he's a delightfully funny cad, played with charm and off-the-wall whimsy by Johnny Depp. But, at the end of the day, he's a pirate. Pirates steal stuff. Pirates rape women and girls. Pirates kill people. Besides, even if we buy that he was a less-evil pirate, his actions in the second and third film belay a nonstop odyssey of treachery, betrayal, and selfish cruelty to the very people who helped win his freedom at the conclusion of the first film. He may not be the worst of the pirates (although even the villainous Barbossa is a 'good guy' in the third film), but he's still a dirty, rotten little scoundrel.

The Jedi (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith)
As a staunch defender of the prequels, I must admit that the Jedi are all complete and total imbeciles. The biggest shock of the new prequels was that the legendary Jedi turned out to be a group of pompous, pretentious, self-defeating, useless idiots who couldn't smell a galaxy-threatening conspiracy that was hatching right underneath their noses. They are also mean and petty. Yoda initially refuses to teach Anakin Skywalker because young Skywalker has the gall to miss his mother. Thirteen-years later, when Anakin tries to confide in Yoda that he fears for the life of his wife and unborn child, Yoda's advice is basically 'people die, shit happens, be one with the Force'. Oh, and Anakin himself? Mitigating circumstances aside, he's still a hotheaded, irrational nutcase who actually has at least one genocidal mass murder under his belt before he even turns to the Dark Side. I repeat, Anakin Skywalker, pre-Dark Side, is already a mass murderer.

Obi-Wan resents having to train this young boy who he doesn't entirely trust, and treats him with condescending scorn during his initial apprenticeship. He also cock-blocks Anakin's pursuit of Padme at every opportunity. Even in the final months before the Jedi are wiped out, he can clearly see that his friend and colleague is in pain and torment. Does he ask him to talk about it? Does he put his arm around Anakin and offer to grab a drink to discuss the somewhat disturbing machinations of both the Jedi Council and Chancellor Palpatine? Does he seek insight from Padme, the woman that he probably knows is secretly married to his close friend? Nope, he just sits back while Anikan gets corrupted by Palpatine and abused by Mace Windu. Oh right, Mace Windu. Aside from bullying and constantly second-guessing every step in Anikan's journey, he also is singlehandedly responsible for Anikan turning to the Dark Side. Well, even after all the abuse and lack of trust thrust upon Skywalker, Anikan still turns to Mace Windu when he discovers that Palpantine is one of them Sith lords. So Windu repays the favor by putting Anikan in the position of having to either stand back as Windu executes a defeated and (apparently) incapacitated subject, or raise arms against his fellow Jedi. Whatever Anikan's reasons for saving the would-be Emperor, he was absolutely in the moral and legal right to stop Windu from slaughtering his surrendered prisoner. Point being, if Yoda, Windu, or any of the Jedi council hadn't acted like rigid, emotionless fundamentalists and hadn't treated Anikan like a contagious disease from his first day at Jedi school, if Obi-Wan had made even the slightest effort to reach out to his troubled friend, then Anikan would have remained merely a Jedi with a murder rap, rather than the key instrument in a plot to overthrow the Republic. Let's be honest. Jedi are losers and terrible role models for our nation's youth.

So let's lay off poor, madly-in-love Bella for the moment. She may be a terrible role model, but she's hardly alone in the world of blockbusters. Compared to a selfish arms-dealer turned selfish energy-hog and monk warriors who have a habit of slaughtering innocents, a naive, romantic teenage girl looks pretty upstanding. Besides, she's a bra-burning feminist compared to the princess in Enchanted, but that's for another day. What is worth noting is that all of the above male characters are basically users and abusers of their friends, family, and lovers. Yet Bella is being attacked in various circles because she basically allows herself to be abused and used. So the question we really ought to be asking ourselves is why we're so intolerant of female characters who get abused, while so gleefully accepting of male characters who do the abusing?

Scott Mendelson

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well, I think of all the characters you mentioned, Tony Stark is the closest to Bella for comparison.

For the others, at least they're all likeable in one aspect or another...and that's the difference.

There's nothing remotely likeable about this character. I mean, what has she really done to earn this infatuation from Jacob and Edward. She does nothing for others. She's completely selfish. Hell, she doesn't really have an opinion or stance on anything other that what her story arc requires.

With Anakin and Kirk, you at least see the good in the characters. Not perfect, but they do things from a place of good...especially Anakin.

And yet, I kind admire Bella in this one aspect of this odd character; She knows exactly what she wants. I don't agree with how she goes about getting what she wants but at least, in the deepest parts of her soul, she is completely confident in what she wants in life. Everything else are obstacles in the way of obtaining her true desires.

It's odd how Mrs. Meyers is constructing this character but it does keep me interested.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to give a throwback honorary mention to 'Maverick' from Top Gun

-Brandon

Scott Mendelson said...

I kinda liked Bella in the first film. I haven't seen the second yet so I can't comment directly. But whether or not we like a character is a valid critical question, distinguishable from the whole 'role model' situation. I 'like' any number of famous screen villains and I certainly 'like' James Bond, but that doesn't mean they aren't positive examples for manhood. The difference is that no one ever calls on these white, male characters to set positive examples for their gender and race.

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

I hate Bella. She's such a weak, pathetic girl who bases her existence on boys. Growing up, that's the kind of girl I always hated and would often mock in front of their faces.

Anyway, Tony Stark? Whoa. But I always knew there was a reason I hated his character (although I love Robert Downey Jr). I can't stand him, either.

Anonymous said...

Tony Stark is ammoral?

opticsdoug said...

Sir, you miss the point. Conservative voices are so eager for a chaste poster-girl that they have ended up celebrating a disturbingly abusive relationship.

That's why we care, and that's why there's a backlash.

Ana Brígida Gómez said...

I've been saying that for a while now. Boys would be boys and can get away with having hottie's ass on their screen and having sexist behaviour everywhere on dumb franchises, and no one thinks they are so weak minded that this movies they keep watching are going to damage their ideals on relationships. But we poor girls after decades of feminism only need a set of books teaching us the wrong lessons to become battered wives/girlfriends...Really that is even more sexist than anything that the books say.

Anonymous said...

Your mention of Kirk getting rid of a more logical captain and then following future-Spock's instructions to keep everyone safe are backwards. Future-Spock tells him that he needs to be the one captaining the ship and so must make current-Spock emotionally unfit, but then goes on to mention that he can't tell him what to do from there since he has changed the events of time by going to the past.

melistress said...

Good post! Bella is a crappy role model and her counterpart is taking the heat for it.

The problem is that the people who hate this series seem to be coming from a place where they feel that women and teens don't know the difference between fantasy and reality and can't be trusted to make solid decisions when exposed to stories like Twilight. This in itself opresses women far more than the book does.

Scott K. said...

Agreed on most of your points here. I'm a defender of the Star Wars movies too, but you have to be realistic about it: the Jedi kinda deserved to be wiped out a little and start over again. Shame it had to end up in an Order 66 fashion, but still. ;)

However, in "defending" Bella (or at least drawing our attention away from her at the moment) you failed to mention the bad male role models in Twilight. Bella isn't the only one that isn't likable. The male characters in those books/films/trash aren't really setting good examples for the young male populace either. But hey, society says objectification is okay, so let's go with it, right?

Belle Gunness said...

Awww. Teh menz r so oppressed.

moonspinner said...

As I've said elsewhere, the billion-dollar comic book industry that perpetuates some of the misogynistic stereotypes in modern media into the minds of little boys long before they can actually read...

...is nothing compared to the dangers of exposing young, impressionable, females - oops, sorry I meant teenage women to Twilight.

Anonymous said...

The difference between these, is what young boy will actually ever be put in a situation where he can go be a pirate? They aren't good role-models, but they're not accessible to reality, either. Bella is telling a whole generation of young girls that it's OK to be in a domestically abusive relationship, and that if a guy follows you, tries to control you, manipulate you, tell you what to do, break into your house to be near you, that these are not dangerous signs of a crazy and abusive stalker, but just because he really loves you. It's the accessibility of Bella that makes her story dangerous. Edward doesn't have to be a vampire, most of his traits are not out of fantasy at all, they're from the National Domestic Violence Hotline's check list. It's a lot shorter jump for a lot of young girls to end up in abusive relationships than for a bunch of young boys to become corrupt titans of industry exploiting their position and power.

Sachi said...

There's a lot of things I could say, but there's really only one that I will. Bella is female, and a female role model. Our society is still largely patriarchal, and let's face it, people tend to think that females--especially young girls, Twilight's target audience--are more likely to be taken in by a fiction then males of all ages. Even though this is false, it explains why we don't care when there are bad male role models but get so hyped up about someone like Bella.

Sachi said...

There's a lot of things I could say, but there's really only one that I will. Bella is female, and a female role model. Our society is still largely patriarchal, and let's face it, people tend to think that females--especially young girls, Twilight's target audience--are more likely to be taken in by a fiction then males of all ages. Even though this is false, it explains why we don't care when there are bad male role models but get so hyped up about someone like Bella.

Scott K. said...

Agreed on most of your points here. I'm a defender of the Star Wars movies too, but you have to be realistic about it: the Jedi kinda deserved to be wiped out a little and start over again. Shame it had to end up in an Order 66 fashion, but still. ;)

However, in "defending" Bella (or at least drawing our attention away from her at the moment) you failed to mention the bad male role models in Twilight. Bella isn't the only one that isn't likable. The male characters in those books/films/trash aren't really setting good examples for the young male populace either. But hey, society says objectification is okay, so let's go with it, right?

melistress said...

Good post! Bella is a crappy role model and her counterpart is taking the heat for it.

The problem is that the people who hate this series seem to be coming from a place where they feel that women and teens don't know the difference between fantasy and reality and can't be trusted to make solid decisions when exposed to stories like Twilight. This in itself opresses women far more than the book does.

Ana Brígida Gómez said...

I've been saying that for a while now. Boys would be boys and can get away with having hottie's ass on their screen and having sexist behaviour everywhere on dumb franchises, and no one thinks they are so weak minded that this movies they keep watching are going to damage their ideals on relationships. But we poor girls after decades of feminism only need a set of books teaching us the wrong lessons to become battered wives/girlfriends...Really that is even more sexist than anything that the books say.

Anonymous said...

Tony Stark is ammoral?

Tackesml15 said...

If you ask me, she`s more upstanding than any of the stupid vampires.

Luth said...

I agree with the majority of this. However, the Iron Man characterisation is wrong, simply because Tony Stark, after his imprisonment, does exactly what you say he doesn't do. He shuts down arms development and instead attempts to use his (now working) reactor technology to improve the world.
The character of Tony Stark certainly does have negative qualities that could be used to pin him as a bad role model, but what he does with his technology, is not one of them.
As to the Star Wars prequels - yes, some of the Jedi are in some ways bad role models - but that is exactly the point. The prequel movies are specifically showing that the Jedi and Jedi Council has become too powerful, arrogant and brought imbalance to the Force.

But yes, your over all point still stands. There are bad male role models in the movies, too and they should be looked down upon just as much as Bella, in Twilight.

Jerika said...

No, we wouldn't care. Because boys of access to plenty of other male role models, who are good. These guys are the exception. Whereas girls are supposed to be happy that we get Bella, even though she's a crap role model, just because she's a girl. In fact, if boys want a good role model, for the most part, all they have to do is look at other major male characters in these films/series. Don't want to look up to Iron Man? Look up to Captain America in the Avengers! Or most any other member of Starfleet in Star Trek. Or Obi-Wan in Star Wars. Boys are not struggling to find themselves represented in film, girls are - that's why it's so important that it be recognized that Bella is not a healthy role model for anybody.

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