Saturday, December 26, 2015

Is Mad Max Feminist?

I realized it's been a while since I wrote any pop culture posts so I think I'm well over-due on my meanderings in film and book reviewing. So I'll lead myself back into this with an area I could discuss for the rest of my life: Hollywood and feminism.

After all the hype it got this summer, I finally watched Mad Max: Fury Road over Christmas. Online, everyone seemed to be celebrating how important it was to have an action film that primarily focused on women (especially as the film made heaps of money and did well across the traditional action film audience, proving that, yes, you can put women in important roles in films and men will still watch them) and that it dealt with feminist subject matter. So I gleefully approached this film, hoping it would fill my little feminist heart with hopes and dreams of a better tomorrow for Hollywood.

Except that it didn't really. I was utterly underwhelmed and not very impressed. There was very little dialogue throughout the film and (as a writer) I was pretty disappointed by this. Limited backstory is not always a drawback but for a film that throws you into a bizarre, apocalyptic world, I wanted more than I got. When special effects take up more time than storytelling, I am also disappointed and Mad Max certainly did this.

At the end of the film, I wondered: Was it feminist? It wasn't not feminist - it certainly spoke out against degrading women and treating them as objects, but it never put men in a very strong place of supporting women. Max and Nux certainly aid Furiosa and the "wives" but more for their own survival than because they see the women as equals (although they seem to come around by the end). The women other than Furiosa didn't seem to have names (if they do, I never caught them) and they have little in the way of individual identities - but it is the apocalypse. It's not like we're learning great details about anyone here. Still, I struggled to identify them by anything more than physical characteristics and thought this was pretty lack-luster if we're going for feminist action film. If you're going to star women, then give us women, not facades.

What leads to the great escape road trip is Furiosa's aiding these women - the "wives" as I've decided to call them since breeders (the name given to them in their society) makes me break out in hives - to escape the fate of forever bearing sons to the war-mongering Immortan Joe, tyrant and creepy misogynist. "We are not things" they say and paint on the walls of their escaped prison. But does the film ever really give them the opportunity to act as more than things? The one "wife" who begins this rebellion (and here there be major spoilers) is killed while the others struggle to continue on without her and most hover in the background while Furiosa, Max, and Nux retaliate. So much of this film is focused on car wrecks and disastrous crashes, amping up the exact violent environment the war-mongers we're meant to be pitted against thrive on, which sends a bit of a mixed message. These guys want to die violently and go to Valhalla - which is exactly what they get at the hands of Max and Furiosa, while the mothers' society women who join them seem to be there only in order to die. The "wives" do want their freedom, but they seem to hover more in the background like damsels in distress than empowered people. Yes, I know they've been imprisoned for their whole lives, but that doesn't mean they aren't motivated to do something. Maybe it's their clothing - the flowing rather scanty white attire that makes them look so damsel-like. I can't help but think that their attire is entirely meant for the male gaze and less of a representation of what they are leaving behind (especially with the first look we get at them from Max's point of view, rinsing off in their revealing white like some kind of male fantasy. Maybe the fantasy as this moment for Max is the rare and treasured water, but that is not what the camera shows us). This immediately puts them on a different ground than Furiosa, who from the moment we see her is a tough tour-de-force, a rig-driving disabled badass who is not afraid to commit treason to help those in need. But even Furiosa is a bit disappointing - there's so much more that could have been given to her as a character and she's played by Charlize Theron, who's an incredible actor, but isn't given much beyond her shooting and driving abilities - and while there clearly is something more there in terms of her past, we're not granted that in this film and apparently have to wait to find out in a sequel. This film did make a killing in the box office, but if this is the best we can do in terms of feminist action films, we still have a long way to go.

Of course, this is all my opinion. The issue in critique films is that they can be read in so many different ways - there's how the director wants you to see it, the studio, the actors, the screenwriter, and then the audience themselves. I didn't see it as all that feminist - maybe because I was expecting so much more after the hype. Fighting back against men who are violent and warring isn't all that interesting to me - it's been done before. Let's do something new. However, it does get men to watch mainstream movies that teach feminist concepts. And maybe that's a bigger deal than I allow it to be (I think back to the ads for the new Fast and Furious film and how women are only allowed bikini-clad torso shots that surmise that they are pretty objects to be ogled and fondled, not allowed part of the action. In that respect, Mad Max does blow them out of the water).

Still, I can't help but compare it to Sucker Punch, a film that didn't gross as much but I think does a better job of putting women in an action role. The issue is this film can be read as sexist - the way the women are sexualized throughout the film, how seduction and assault become part of the narrative. However, I think this is actually really feminist and, like Mad Max, can trick men into watching a feminist piece. Women are scantily clad, but they choose their outfits in this fantasy-escapism where they fight their own tormentors in their mind and in actuality. Emily Browning leads the brigade but each character is allowed a fully-formed fleshed-out role - and when you lose one of them, you lose a full character. It questions the male gaze throughout by showing these women dressed somewhat provocatively while they fight against men who see them that way - the men who imprison them and torment them. It's almost a metaphor for women fighting to gain control in fantasy/sci-fi genre itself - how to we retain our own personal definitions of femininity without being seen as catering to men; how we strive to tell our stories while those claim men aren't interested because it's about women. It's directed and partially written by Zach Snyder, who did 300 (a pretty good film) and Watchman (a movie I will never see because everyone I know has told me it's awful). So it may not be the best made film or intentionally feminist. But the line, "You have all the weapons you need. Now fight" - speaks to me. It's all about finding strength within and that you as a woman are strong enough. And what's a more feminist message than that?

I think what really disappoints me about Mad Max is just that I gave into the hype and expected more than I got. And that I wanted so much more from the script - I thrive on dialogue and there wasn't much to be had in this film. For me, it doesn't say enough - or maybe it doesn't say it in the right ways for me.

Regardless, I hope to see more films like Mad Max and Sucker Punch, because it's about damn time that people realize women can hold their own - both in film and in real life. Directors like Quentin Tarantino (a favorite of mine, though not free from my critique) has said Mad Max was the best film he saw in 2015. Which coming from the creator of Kill Bill is an awesome compliment. However, (and this is getting back to my parenthetical comment about Tarantino not being free from my relentless critique), while I really want to champion him as someone who can write really powerful women, I'm not convinced that his characters are free from misogyny either (I'm thinking of this review from the New York Times I recently read about The Hateful Eight and now I'm really going to have to see it and see if I agree with the review or not). But are any of us entirely free of sexist comments or thoughts? I'm not perfect - I certainly have slipped up in the past and probably continue to do so. How am I failing in how I see my own world? And down this path lies the realm of cultural studies crisis where nothing can be truly feminist and we're all doomed. So I'm going to stop that before I begin because that took up way too much of my college career.

Ahh, this is why I stopped writing about pop culture. Because it's impossible to resolve anything. It feels good to be back.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Asking Why

Note: So this draft has been sitting in my "to post" pile for a bit and is a little behind where I'm at. So I'm getting it posted now before I get any further behind and try to use the next post to catch up. Enjoy.

For the most part, I'm not a mystical person. Horoscopes tarot, dream interpretation are all fascinating and use bits of pop psychology to seem relevant to our lives and personalities, but aren't logical or legitimate. However, things have been weird and illogical as of late, especially in the realm of my dreams. Yes, yes, I know other people's dreams are boring, though I've never found them so (who said that? Was it Oscar Wilde? It seems like a sort of Oscar Wilde thing to say), but just bear with me here. I dreamt that a friend of mine was angry with me only to have the feeling that dream gave me actually occur during a conversation with them. I had this sort of half-awake dream that a former coworker of mine was engaged and found out that she recently had become so. And for some reason, I'm being asked again and again why I do what I do (in dreams and in my waking hours). Overall, my dreams have been making me question myself which has made the last few weeks rather interesting.

This isn't a post on mysticism or dreams or anything of that nature - I can't explain that and who knows if it's just coincidence or something more. What I'm intrigued by is the sudden onslaught of the question "why" and how fundamentally important it is in what I'm doing right now.
I've always been the person who was too curious for their own good - badgering my parents with questions, talking to professors - well, professors who made me ask "why" - during their office hours, over-analyzing everything and wondering what makes us do things certain. But when it comes to my writing, I haven't always asked myself "why" in the same terms. I know why I do dramaturgy - because I love collaboration and theater and research and history and, to steal a line from "Hamilton" I want to be in the room where it happens - the rehearsal room, in this case. Writing, however, I've been doing a lot longer. Since I was eight or nine. The first thing I remember writing was a retelling of Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," in a sort of fan-fiction thing. Writing is something I just started doing because, to use my child logic, I had a lot of words in my head and I needed to do something with them. I started asking, "What if?" with stories and ran with it. It was something I enjoyed and a way to do make-believe on paper and find a way to entertain myself being an only child in a neighborhood of older adults with no young children.

I'm far different person than I was all of those years ago. But writing has remained. It's taken on a whole new meaning for me, one I haven't given much thought in recent years. I write because I write, simple as that. Except it's not.

For those of you just tuning in, I've gone through a huge change since last July. Along with the hurdles of other baggage I was going through, I found myself not wanting to write, not caring about writing, and, well, not caring about a lot of stuff in general. For the first time in really clear, powerful terms, I faced the belief that I was a crappy writer head on. Not from an outside critic, but from myself. This wasn't a new issue - all creators of any kind struggle with ideas that they aren't good enough or wasting their time or bad at what they do. But this was the first time, in regards to writing, that I no longer wanted to do it. I couldn't find a way to express what I was going through, to care about the characters I created. I believed that all my stories and all my characters were dry, boring clones of each other and that I was incapable of writing anything new or interesting or original. (There are certain trends - I tend to have an emotional-repressed females who think they're awkward struggling through something and care strongly about feminism. And often there's an otherworldly element). Worst of all, I felt that those around me didn't see me as a writer but as a silly person with lots of ideas but no where to take them that no one cared to read if I did ever get them down, likely in a sloppy, ill-formed way. For the first time, I wondered what it would be like if I stopped writing. Everything sounded so blasé and bland and boring and I believed that I couldn't write diversity and I couldn't write about anything interesting because a writer can only write what they know and I don't know anything and haven't done anything with my life.

This is a huge steaming pile of shitty lies, though it never sounds like it when I hear it from myself (as Andrew Solomon says, "The truth lies"). I wouldn't have blogged for so long and have people who read this blog if I was an utterly terrible writer. While there are certain trends in my writing that stay the same, my female characters are likely not all the same. And while things get all muddled when you're stuck with them in your head, that doesn't mean that my ideas are boring or uninteresting or not different.

So I've been working through that on my own, while also finally showing my writing to people in a playwriting class, a medium of writing I (sadly) hadn't much explored since high school. This boosted my creativity and got me writing again. And then, just a few weeks ago, I ran into a former coworker of mine on the light rail. I was talking about my writing (I think I'd mentioned my playwriting class) and she asked why I wrote. I was stumped for a moment - why did I write? Wasn't this the very question I'd been struggling with earlier? My coworker was wondering what the point was - if we're all going to die, why do we strive so hard to create something in the hopes that it might outlive us? Doesn't it all feel a bit pointless?

Yes, it does at times. I wonder about that often. But I took Emily Dickinson's quote, "If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain" very much to heart very young. I haven't succeeded in sparing broken hearts, I fear (especially my own) but I write in the hopes that if one person reads and learns something from my writing, or sees the world in a different way, then I've succeeded. Ideas pop into my head and I feel compelled to write about them because I think they're interesting or important or they just won't leave me alone until I've penned them down. I mainly hope to give voice to something different, to strive for diversity and work through issues, to better understand the world.

I also write to fight against problems I see in the world. Lin Manuel Miranda said this in a recent interview and, because he said it more brilliantly than I ever could, I'm going to quote him:
What I can tell you is that works of art are the only silver bullet we have against racism and sexism and hatred… Art engenders empathy in a way that politics doesn’t, and in a way that nothing else really does. Art creates change in people’s hearts. But it happens slowly. (x)
On top of that, writing is a bit like breathing for me - I don't really know how to not do it and live. There is a vaguely destructive and all-consuming edge to this, as writing is not breathing, but as long as I'm doing a little each week, things are generally okay.

Along with all of this pondering, during coffee with an actor/artistic director I'll be collaborating with next year, the importance of why was brought up again, this time in regards to Simon Sinek's book and TED talk about starting with why:

I might have posted this video. I know for a fact that I've seen it before - half-way through watching it, I realized I'd seen it during my ill-fated time at Globe University, thinking I wanted to become a paralegal in my post-undergrad soul-searching. Now that this video has come back to me in a completely different framework from a completely different person at a completely different time in my life, its ideas are even more important and I have a completely different reason to be asking why.

The actor I spoke with said to try and summarize why you do what you do in a short phrase or two words if possible. I've been thinking about this while waiting for phone traffic to pick up in the box office and realized what it is that I've been trying to do for so long. I'm interested in other people's stories, in hearing what they have to say, as well as finding a way to convey my own stories. In short, I want to give voice - especially to stories that don't always get told. I've been a fan of Studs Terkel since I was a college sophomore and when I heard about his gathering of stories for the book Working, I was mesmerized. I wanted to find my own way of doing that and I think I've finally found a way to make that happen.

Asking why is such an important question, beyond even what Simek describes in his video. As an artist, I have to ask myself why because people are always going to ask me. But I'm also going to ask myself. In the dismal days of last summer when I was wondering why I bothered doing anything, it would have made things easier if I had better ammunition to support myself with. When you doubt your own authenticity, it's important to have a strong foundation to pull from and prepares you for criticism from others. And, while I constantly search for acceptance and approval from others, I'm not often going to get that. More often than not, I have to provide it for myself, and give others a reason to care about why I do what I do. And it's time that I give myself what I need to make my why happen.