Monday, September 3, 2012

No girls allowed? On the value of *not* arbitrarily inserting token love interests into male-centric genre films.

Let us for a moment highlight two of the many would-be Oscar bait pictures rolling out in the next couple months. Ben Affleck's Argo, which opens today, has instantly shot up to the upper-levels of many filmgoers' 'must see' list for the Fall.  Also pretty high on the list for film buffs is Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly.  Aside from the strong reviews that both films have already racked up prior to even being screened for most critics (ah, the festival circuit!), the one thing that sticks out about both films is the near absence of females in major roles.  The trailer for Killing Them Softly was notable for its complete absence of females.  Argo has few women in its trailer and seemingly only has female characters where they would make sense, be they among the Americans caught in Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis or people in the government who just happen to be female (the most notable seems to be Adrienne Barbeau).  Point being, having now seen both films, both are very very good and neither of these films felt the need to shoe-horn in female characters in otherwise all-male stories, and both films are better for it.  

In a perfect film industry, writers would be able and willing to craft stories that featured women and were either about those women or gave actresses the kind of meaty roles that male character actors take for granted.  But what occurs instead is often the worst of all possibilities.  Instead of telling stories about females and/or making some attempt at a mixed-gender cast, mainstream films all-too-often craft a male-centric story and then pointedly toss in a pretty girl purely for the sake of a manufactured romantic subplot.  This is something I've touched on before, but frankly in light of several recent offenders it bares repeating.  By arbitrarily inserting token love interests into movies that neither require them nor benefit from them, you not only insult the actresses involved but harm your own movie in the process.  The Killer Elite has many problems, among them ugly cinematography, incomprehensibly choppy action editing, and an occasionally confusing and unfocused narrative.  But the most obvious and glaring problem is the pointless insertion off a random hot girl for Jason Statham to romance.  Yvonne Strahovski may have kicked all kinds of ass as a co-lead on NBC's Chuck, but she was wasted as the girl stuck at home waiting for Mr. Statham to return from his murderous assignment, a subplot that dragged an otherwise lean-and-mean 90-minute action drama near the two-hour mark.  Be it because they want a cute girl to put on the poster or show off in the trailer (usually in the act of disrobing), we've long seen actresses who damn-sure deserve better roles being inserted as prurient scenery by filmmakers who then act *shocked* that audiences are not invested in the 'love story'.

Emily Blunt seems to be the most common victim of this phenomena, forced to play the 'token love interest' in either dull romantic subplots that take up valuable screen-time (The Wolfman, The Great Buck Howard) or the 'prize to be won' in films that are seemingly about the core romance but merely tell their story explicitly from the male's point of view (The Adjustment Bureau, Wild Target).  Without going into spoilers, her role in Looper is a step in the right direction.  The most recent offender is Lawless, a drab and often lifeless crime drama that nonetheless is made even worse by the needless insertion of two (2!) token love interests.  Adding insult to injury is that both undefined female "leads" are played by actresses (Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska) who deserve far better than being 'the babe who gets courted to show off the male's 'virility'.  Did anyone care one whit about whether Vera Farmiga ended up with Leonardo DiCaprio or Matt Damon in The Departed?  As basically the only female in an all-male ensemble, she had no role to play except as a prize to be battled over. Was there any reason Ryan Reynolds needed a girlfriend to romance and then 'tragically' abandon in Safe House?  The answer is arguably that there exists the idea that a male action hero isn't relatable or sympathetic unless he has a pretty girl on his arm or waiting in his bed.   

Obviously I don't want to too-harshly judge an unreleased film, but it appears that Emma Stone will be playing the same 'insert tits and ass here' in The Gangster Squad, playing a symbol of Sean Penn's power and a prize to be stolen away by Ryan Gosling (trailer). And, if I may digress for a paragraph, no matter how charming Stone was during her brief screen-time in this summer's The Amazing Spider-Man, Gwen Stacey served no role in the story other than to be romanced by Peter Parker and (being vague here) react to the actions of her cop father (Dennis Leary).  The Amazing Spider-Man actually represents the second 'reboot', following The Incredible Hulk, where the female lead's role was slimmed and dumbed down in an attempt to appeal to 'mass audiences' (god forbid we have a repeat of Kristen Dunst's Mary Jane who had the gall to be a flawed human being with her own story in all three Sam Raimi Spider-Man films).  I'm also no fan of the transformation of Rachel Dawes (from full-blown supporting character to romantic prize/woman-in-refrigerator) in the first two Chris Nolan Batman films.  In all three examples of comic book cinema, the female lead went from full-blown supporting character (or in the case of Jennifer Connelly's Betty Ross in Hulk, co-lead) to 'the girl to be won' with no outside life or goals of her own save for ending up with the male lead in some capacity.  

The end result is usually the same.  Films that have no real place for female presence end up inserting a token romance in the mix purely to justify casting a babe or two (surely the makers of The Bourne Legacy could have found something better for Rachel Weisz to do than be the 'tag-along girl').  Or worse, this idea stems from the notion that audiences won't relate to a male character unless he has a hot love interest on his arm or waiting for him at home.  This process results in a subplot that serves no real function and merely adds an extra reel or so to a film that affects the entire pacing for the worse.  It generally makes great films merely very good while making bad films worse.  The best case scenario would be a Hollywood that told stories from all points of views and successfully wrote vibrant female characters even in stories that were inherently male-centric.  But until that day comes, better to not have any female characters in otherwise all-male ensembles than to arbitrarily insert a token love interest to no good end.  Come what may, I admire the   honesty shown in Argo (review) and Killing Them Softly (review coming next month).  They are male-centric stories that don't arbitrarily insert romance based on the insulting idea that women only like movies with mushy stuff in them.  After all, why pretend?

Scott Mendelson                          


Sean said...

I was 100% on board with your argument until you started mentioning comic book films. At least with your assessment of The Dark Knight and the Amazing Spider-Man, I could not disagree more. Yes, it's true that Rachael Dawes and Gwen Stacy are not exactly "leads" in those stories, but they are both pretty well fleshed out, particularly with Gwen Stacy. I thought the romance in the Amazing Spider-Man was the best romance in a comic book movie that I had ever seen and I think there is more to it than just Emma Stone being charming. I thought she was very well written.

Do these movies pass the Bechdel test? No, not really. You're right, they are not female-centric and certainly the romance angle is being played to some degree to appeal to the female audience. But there have to be scores of better examples of shoehorned-in love interests.

Diana B. said...

I felt the same way about this, and wrote a post about why I thought Pepper Potts was the exception to that rule.

This was written before TDKR. I would argue that Nolan can't write women (with the exception of Carrie Anne Moss in Memento). Rachel Dawes is a shrew, who exists solely to scold Bruce. You can imagine my surprise when I ended up LOVING Selina Kyle in TDKR. She has own thing going on, her own agenda, opinions,and her own inner world. Her rage at the unfairness of Gotham's power structure is palpable, and she is content to leave Batman to Bane if it means saving her own neck. Then she undergoes her own arc and transformation. I think Pfeiffer's Catwoman also had that (an arc and inner world) in BR.

Anyhoo, as a woman, I agree. I'd rather NOT see women onscreen than see badly written women onscreen. I also know I'm about to say something very unpopular, but here it goes: I hated Black Widow in the Avengers (how she was framed, how she was written, how she was portrayed by SJ).

Scott Mendelson said...

I strongly disagree with you about Rachel Dawes in Batman Begins. She may have been harsh on Bruce, but (as the film points out) she said exactly what he needed to hear when he needed to hear it. She didn't treat him with kid-gloves, and her speeches about compassion and justice form the moral cornerstone of the whole Nolan Bat-verse. Again, I tend to think of her as a younger Leslie Thompkins, so her lectures feel completely appropriate. As for Black Widow, I liked her 'no big deal' appeal in The Avengers as opposed to her 'look at that ass!' characterization in Iron Man 2. I wrote about this back in May -, so feel free to tell me how I'm wrong. :-) I will read your Pepper Potts piece later today, but I'm guessing I'll agree with you, as I like that they make her a true supporting character in the Iron Man/Marvel universe rather than just 'the girl'.

Diana B. said...

Oh, the issue isn't that I think Rachel is wrong in what's she's saying. I happen to agree with almost everything she says. The problem is that while other positive characters in Bruce's life mix the medicine with humor, Rachel doesn't. She just lectures...and lectures... and lectures. She also exists in the first film to scold, and in the second film to scold and be friged. She doesn't have a characterization because she's the voice of integrity, and not a person (Nolan did the same thing with Ariadne in Inception: she's Cobb's babysitter).

RE: Black Widow. No character in the Avengers said: "Look! It's a woman!" But the way she was framed in each of her shots accentuated her womanly bits. The dress she was wearing when introduced didn't help, nor did the fact she was bound. When she was with Loki, she used her gender ("girls cry!") to get information out of him. You can level these accusations against Nolan's Selina, but perhaps Hathaway's talent elevated that character by giving her layers of fear and rage I didn't get from ScarJo. Agent Hill, on the other hand, suffered from none of these problems. She came in, she shot up whom she needed to shoot, she followed orders and carried on the mission. She didn't bat her eyes or pout. Nor was she framed in the way that BW was framed.


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