When sexism is bad storytelling: the case of Tauriel

evangeline_lilly_as_tauriel_in_hobbit-wide
Evageline Lily as Tauriel in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

One of the best things that happened in 2014 was that The Hobbit “trilogy” finally juddered to a halt, meaning those of us who feel obliged to see the films out of residual Lord of the Rings loyalty can get on with our lives in peace, at least until Peter Jackson finds his copy of The Silmarillion.

We meet lady elf warrior Tauriel in the second installment of The Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug. If it feels like she was shoehorned in, it’s because she was shoehorned in. The book of The Hobbit is an unrepentant Victorian boys’ club. So, this is positive right? Actively altering the source material to be more inclusive! One whole new female character in nine hours of rambling and unnecessarily drawn-out plot? You’re welcome, feminists!

As a rabid Tolkien nerd and a card-carrying feminist, I desperately wanted to be positive about this new female character, created for my presumed benefit. Sadly, Tauriel is a case study in how not to write and insert a new female character into a pre-existing world or story. The first and most obviously problem is that she’s suffering from a lethal case of Strong Female Character syndrome.

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frozen: a tale of two sisters

Frozen fan manip. source: could not find one apart from Pinterest, help me out if you know!
Frozen fan manip. source: I could not find out who made this. Let me know if you know

Redundant spoiler alert: ALL THE SPOILERS.

Prior to the release of Disney’s Frozen, I highlighted the fact that it was getting some pretty bad pre-release press from fellow feminist pop culture bloggers. The Feminist Fangirl wrote a post about how the original female-centric epic-quest fairytale appeared to have been gutted in favour of yet more bland princess fare. Then, the lead animator put his foot in it by making some poorly thought-out comments about how it’s really difficult to animate female characters, because they have to show emotion but they also have to be pretty, so sometimes they just end up all looking the same. Nightmare, am I right?

When Frozen was released, I deliberately resisted reading any reviews until I’d seen it for myself, although the general background buzz on the feminist blogosphere indicated that it was a lot better than expected. And having eventually seen it, I have to agree. Frozen is a feminist movie.

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adventures with genderists

josswhedonJoss Whedon spoke about feminism at a benefit event for an organisation called Equality Now. More accurately, Joss Whedon spoke about the word “feminist”, because this incoherent self-satisfied trainwreck of a speech completely and utterly failed to engage with the substance of feminism for most of its fourteen minute duration.

Quite a few people sent me this video. Most of them were like, “Look! Yay! A famous nerdy dude said some stuff about feminism!” Sorry friends, but that literally could not have been further from my reaction. Jezebel called it perfect  (lol and also facepalm). Lots of feminist organisations I follow on Facebook posted it with approving commentary. (Including The Y Factor, who appear to have deleted it since I left a mild comment suggesting it was a crock of shit. Bad form, Y Factor. If you thought it was good, own it and explain why.)

It’s possible that I would have been more on board with Whedon’s speech if I could actually follow it. He starts off describing – in indulgent syllable-by-syllable detail – how “feminist” as a word just does not do it for him personally. Then he changes track and for a while seems to be equating the word “feminist” to the word “racist”, even though those words have nothing in common besides the dreaded “-ist” at the end. After that, he abandons “feminist” altogether and suggests that we need an equivalent word to “racist” for when we’re talking about gender discrimination. Those words already exist, I hear you cry? Sexist? Misogynist? Nah, those words don’t do it for Whedon either because some people are resistant to them, but mainly because he’s too busy trying to introduce his new word which he came up with ALL BY HIMSELF, GUYS. Guess what it is? Wait until you hear this genius stroke! Genderist! People who discriminate based on gender can be called “genderist”! Inspired! And this will achieve… what exactly? I have no clue, and neither does Whedon by the sounds of things, but he really wants everyone to start using it right away.

This post is long, so if you’d prefer, you can just look at the accompanying diagram, which is probably the most succinct transmission of my thoughts on any subject ever to date. But if you want more, there is more.

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world war disappointed

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War is one of my favourite books ever. I have read it three times and it scared the crap out of me. Good job, World War Z. Unfortunately, Hollywood got its hands on it and stripped it of everything that made it unique and terrifying and profoundly human, because why have any of those things, when you can give Brad Pitt a gun and a vague UN job and throw him up against a big writhing pile of CGI zombies? Don’t worry though, we’re supposed to give a shit about his character because he has a Generic Family with two adorable little girls and he says things like “It’s going to be okay, honey!” and “Tell them I’m coming back!” a lot.

I am not exaggerating:

so the topic of why fast zombies are stupid – both in terms of plausibility and symbolic efficacy – has been well covered. No one puts it better than Simon Pegg:

I know it is absurd to debate the rules of a reality that does not exist, but this genuinely irks me. You cannot kill a vampire with an MDF stake; werewolves can’t fly; zombies do not run. […]The speedy zombie seems implausible to me, even within the fantastic realm it inhabits. A biological agent, I’ll buy. Some sort of super-virus? Sure, why not. But death? Death is a disability, not a superpower. It’s hard to run with a cold, let alone the most debilitating malady of them all.

More significantly, the fast zombie is bereft of poetic subtlety.[…] [T]he zombie trumps all by personifying our deepest fear: death. Zombies are our destiny writ large. Slow and steady in their approach, weak, clumsy, often absurd, the zombie relentlessly closes in, unstoppable, intractable.

However (and herein lies the sublime artfulness of the slow zombie), their ineptitude actually makes them avoidable, at least for a while. If you’re careful, if you keep your wits about you, you can stave them off, even outstrip them – much as we strive to outstrip death. Drink less, cut out red meat, exercise, practice safe sex; these are our shotguns, our cricket bats, our farmhouses, our shopping malls. However, none of these things fully insulates us from the creeping dread that something so witless, so elemental may yet catch us unawares – the drunk driver, the cancer sleeping in the double helix, the legless ghoul dragging itself through the darkness towards our ankles.

Don’t get me wrong, the idea of crazy rabid people who want to tear you apart and eat you is pretty horrifying, especially when the infection seems to disproportionately effect world-class sprinters. BUT, as Red Lemonade points out, they are not zombies. This is not what zombie means. I’m not saying fast zombies don’t work and should never exist. I believe they have their place in the monster canon. But the slow zombie – the inevitable shuffling mass of death – that zombie is KEY to World War Z.

According to visual effects supervisor John Nelson, the reasoning behind having zombies who look like super-speedy heroin addicts is to make them more predatory because “everyone has seen everything in this genre.” Yes. Yes they have. Including fast zombies. If originality was really a concern here, a good place to start would be NOT making YET ANOTHER MOVIE about Kickass Government Operative Guy Saving The World. The book is not compelling because it has super-special original zombies. It is compelling because it is structured as an oral history that takes on the concept of zombies on an unprecedented scale.

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