Friday, September 23, 2011

'Brave' trailer sparks debate on portrayal of women in movies

A few months ago the teaser trailer for “Brave,” Pixar Animation's summer 2012 release, made its debut online. It marks the first Pixar film to star a female protagonist. Millions are excited to see it and it will undoubtedly be a hit, but one popular comment on the official YouTube posting of the trailer was disconcerting. 

“I got uninterested as soon as the hood was pulledoff,” the since removed comment said in reference to the reveal of the character's gender. The internet is full of idiotic comments, but what was troubling about this one was, before it was removed, it received more than 2,000 likes.

I found this startling and posted a video on YouTube asking what the popularity of this comment meant. Is it a reflection of a society that is still uncomfortable about the idea of strong female protagonists? Surely that couldn't be the case as there have been numerous butt kicking women in both film and television.

The responses were interesting, surprisingly polite and well reasoned. Not something you see too often in the world of YouTube comments. 

A user named GhostOrchid said: “I tend to think it's a mix of two things. One: there is an odd dislike in society of strong female characters. I think it's threatening to some people to see a female character that does not conform to stereotype. And two: female lead characters tend to be writtenvery, very poorly. I enjoy seeing a female lead, but all too often they're written in a way that makes me feel as though they're simply a man in drag. They're too busy being tough to be a real character.”

Unfortunately, that statement seems to be true in most cases. Hollywood writers don't  seem to know what to do with female characters in the action genre. Superhero movies have been big money makers, but women haven't been given their due. This could be because the two female superhero properties that have made it to the big screen, “Electra” and “Catwoman,” were box office flops. This was largely due to poor writing and clumsy directing. Hollywood execs are quick to learn, but they learned the wrong lesson. They decided that female superheroes were box office poison. 

As for GhostOrchid's “man in drag” observation, the only idea writers have come up with to give female action heroes their femininity back is to give them maternal instincts. The best examples of this are Linda Hamilton's Sarah Conner in “The Terminator” movies, Sirgorney Weaver's Ellen Ripley in the “Alien” movies and Uma Thurman's Bride in the “Kill Bill” movies. 

A user named autumnwindflower wrote: “Women can somehow relate fine with either a male or female lead. However, men seem to have a much more difficult time relating with a female lead. That's why they almost always are hot and scantily clad — men can enjoy the eye candy without sacrificing their masculinity.”

This also seems to be an accurate assessment.  I'm sure for many men that is the case, but I know that I can easily relate to female characters if their experiences are similar to my own. I remember seeing the Natalie Portman movie “Anywhere But Here” at 16 and found that I related to the main character quite a bit as we were about the same age. There were things that her character goes through that are gender specific, but other things applied to teenagers at large and I responded to that. 

Other users commented that perhaps people were responding negatively not to the fact that Merida, the main character in “Brave,” is female, but rather she doesn't match the standards of beauty we've come to expect. A user named dummeeule wrote “People expect the females to look like 'hot babes' or whatever society brainwashes them with.” 

This is true. We are bombarded with images of skinny woman who have been primped, pulled, painted and photoshopped into perfection. Merida is animated and therefore shouldn't fall under the same often  misguided modern qualifications of beauty and yet she still is.

It could be that I am, as a user named Teleisawesome suggested, “overreacting,” but, even if that is the case, this is a complex issue worth discussing and one I will continue to explore in the future.

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