Stuff that I think about. Mostly books.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Looper's Woman Problem

Warning: Massive Looper spoilers below. If you have not seen the movie, and you plan to, don’t read any further! Of course, this whole post won’t really make sense if you haven’t seen the movie. So go see it and then come back.

Let me start by saying that Looper is excessively fun to watch. It’s brainy, at least for a blockbuster, but it’s not shy about gory bloody killy shooty action sequences. It’s disturbing and it’s clever and it’s suspenseful, but mostly it’s just really entertaining.

It also has a woman problem. Like, a major woman problem. Like, of all the blockbusters I’ve seen recently, it probably has the biggest woman problem.

First of all, it has a quantitative woman problem. Only four women in the cast are credited. Of these, only three speak and have names. Here are their roles: Sara (Emily Blunt) is a mother and reformed party girl. Suzie (Piper Perabo) is a prostitute and mother. Beatrix (Tracie Thoms) is a waitress who speaks about four sentences. Old Joe’s Wife (Summer Qing) is, as her title credit would suggest, Old Joe’s Wife. And a mother. Obviously.

None of the loopers (hired killers) who appear onscreen are women. None of the hired goons who appear onscreen are women. Director Rian Johnson, supposed visionary, can’t seem to imagine a future in which women participate in criminal activities. Maybe this doesn’t seem so bad; after all, all the women in the film are good, or at least neutral. But this is insulting. It assumes that women aren’t complex enough to turn to evil, or really to anything other than prostitution, when our lives go wrong (and prostitution always means that our lives have gone wrong, of course). It’s lazy filmmaking that goes unnoticed because we’re so used to it. If Rian Johnson did think of including a few women among his unnamed criminals, he probably dismissed the idea as being too distracting.

So, in a movie loaded with characters, Looper could only spare four lady parts. And what of these lady parts?

Let’s start with Old Joe’s Wife. Mrs. Joe goes unnamed throughout the movie and we never hear her speak, but she’s fundamental to the plot. When the Rainmaker’s henchmen come to claim Old Joe (Bruce Willis) and send him to die by his own hand - just one of many complicated time travel things, don’t worry, you’ll get it - Mrs. Joe is accidentally killed in the crossfire, prompting Old Joe to go off book and set out on a mission to find and kill the Rainmaker’s past self. (The Rainmaker is the incredibly powerful and fearful cause of all this drama and strife, for reasons that become clear later.)

When Old Joe and Mrs. Joe meet, his life is a mess. He’s a drug addict and criminal. Mrs. Joe, Old Joe explains to Young Joe (see how much easier this would be if Mrs. Joe had an actual name?), saved him from this life. “Why?” Old Joe asks Young Joe. “Ask yourself why someone would sacrifice their life for you.”

Well, exactly.

What is Mrs. Joe getting out of this relationship? We’re never told. We see some tender moments between them in flashbacks, but we’re never told that Joe is a terrific lover or a really nice guy or great at making French toast. It’d be one thing if the filmmakers let us assume that Joe provides something in this relationship, other than his need for salvation, but they don’t even do that. They assume we won’t care. Women aren’t supposed to expect anything in return for our salvation. We’re just supposed to bestow it. Does Mrs. Joe know about Joe’s past as a looper? Does she know that he’s doomed to die violently, and that he knows exactly when that will happen? Would she want Joe to risk his life and kill massive amounts of people to save hers? Who knows. Who cares? She’s Old Joe’s Wife; that’s all she is, and all we need to know about her.

Then there’s Sara. The only female character with any amount of depth to her, Sara is an Independent Woman raising her son, Cid, on a farm outside the city. She grows cane! She says “fuck” a lot! She almost masturbates! She has a shotgun! But rest assured, her main role is as Cid’s - the Rainmaker’s - mother, and thus the maker of the Rainmaker, both literally and metaphorically. She alone, we are told, controls Cid’s destiny. If she stays in his life, he’ll grow up good. If she doesn’t, he’ll grow up bad. And bad, for Cid, is really, really bad. People explode. It’s a thing.

Of course, this narrative parallels Joe’s. Joe’s mother sold him for drug money when he was a child, and this led him to a life of crime and ultimately to becoming a looper. No mention is made of his, or Cid’s, father. No mention is made of the truly crummy dystopia in which the film is set, and the societal and governmental forces that have made poverty and crime so rampant. Joe and Cid are entirely products of their mothers, and their every deed, both good and bad, can be directly traced back to their mothers’ influence.

No pressure or anything.

Looper exemplifies the problem laid out in the now-infamous Bechdel test: Women in movies exist only as props for men. We are their mothers, their wives, their prostitutes. We bring them steak and eggs, we save their lives. We shape their destinies, without getting to have destinies of our own.

And it’s frustrating, because it didn’t have to be like that. Several of the male parts could easily have been played by women without affecting the plot one bit. Think of Sigourney Weaver or Tilda Swinton in the part occupied by Jeff Daniels; how totally badass would that be? Think of a creepy little girl as the Rainmaker (though I will concede that Pierce Gagnon was extremely well cast as Cid). Throw in a few women as extras, for God’s sake. It’s telling that when Old Joe goes hunting for the potential Rainmakers, of the three children he looks for, all are boys - even though it’s explicitly stated that no one knows who the Rainmaker is and that the title could belong to either a man or a woman. At the very least, you could throw a few women onto the pile of bodies that Old Joe leaves in his wake.

And really, why not take it even further? Why can’t Joe be a woman? What would happen? I’ll tell you: the movie would go from being a blockbuster with universal appeal and a 93% rating on RottenTomatoes to a girl power movie. There’s no way to verify this, but I’m willing to bet that if only that detail were changed - if everything else in the movie were exactly the same, except that Young Joe and Old Joe were played by Rose Byrne and Glenn Close (dare to dream) - the movie wouldn’t be nearly as well received. It would be silly and fluffy and not “believable.”

So if you’re ever wondering what patriarchy is, this is it. It’s the fact that even in the imaginary future, women can shape the destinies of the criminals, supervillains, and heroes of the world; we can raise them, marry them, service their sexual needs, and take their drink orders; but we can never, ever be them.  

Friday, July 13, 2012

Four Songs That Had a Profound Influence on Me from the Ages of 15 to 22

1. Frou Frou, "Let Go"

Remember Garden State? It's actually a pretty problematic movie - Natalie Portman's character is not the first to be described as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but she's still the quintessential example of the harmlessly quirky sprite of a woman who teaches a mopey white hipster dude how to live and love again. Still, I don't know anyone close to my age who wasn't affected by Garden State in some way. I saw the movie with my first ever boyfriend, a month before I was moving away for university across the country. One of us cried in the car afterwards. After all, whether we were mopey white hipster dudes or not, we were all exploring our own infinite abysses - 17-year-olds arguably more so than others.

And the soundtrack! Garden State introduced an entire generation to The Shins. I haven't actually heard that much about The Shins lately, but I just Googled them and I guess they're still recording and touring, so that's cool. But anyway, the soundtrack! Pretty much every song on it is amazing, and perfectly encapsulates the themes of the movie (which are basically: home is important; don't get addicted to prescription mood-enhancing drugs; love is nice). This particular anthem to living life to the fullest and not being afraid to make mistakes was constantly playing in my first-year residence hall, which made me think of the movie, which made me think of my then-boyfriend, with whom I was attempting an ultimately unsuccessful long-distance relationship at the time. There was, indeed, beauty in the breakdown.

2. Damien Rice, "The Blower's Daughter"

But not so much beauty that I actually appreciated it at the time. If Garden State takes as its central theme that love is nice, then Closer makes a compelling argument that love is a horrifying exercise in futility that will rip your heart out of your chest, mail it to London, and give it a fake name, and even though you know that before you start, you start dating that guy who lives with a girl called Ruth anyway, because you're an idiot.

I saw Closer for the first time with my parents, which was uncomfortable. I also saw it several dozens of times after my ultimately unsuccessful long-distance relationship ended, obviously seeing myself in the Natalie Portman character (her again!). Not in the sense that I'm a stripper who wears a blue wig, just in the sense of being really, really hurt and fucked up, or so I imagined. I spent a lot of days on my dorm room bed in the dark listening to this song. Some days I ate nothing but one carrot muffin from Tim Hortons; some days I ate three full meals as well as an entire bag of nacho Doritos. It was a weird time.

3. Ani DiFranco, "Out of Habit"

It's probably pretty much impossible to talk about the self-actualization of a young woman through music without at least one Ani song, so I chose the one where she says "cunt."

I started listening to Ani DiFranco when I was about 13 because my dad had the album "Dilate" and my friend Sebastian, who I had a crush on, who it turns out was gay, recommended her to me. "Dilate" is an album about a bad breakup, which is great if you've ever been through one; at the time I had not, so it didn't really impress upon me until later. I rediscovered Ani at 15 (I still hadn't been through a breakup, but the beauty of Ani DiFranco is that if you're just old enough you have no choice but to relate to her songs) and promptly plowed through all her albums. When I first heard this one, I remember being really delighted at the line about her cunt. In high school I shaved my head, covered all of my binders with gay pride stickers, and owned every single Ani DiFranco album. It didn't occur to me until very recently that everyone thought I was a lesbian, and that might have something to do with why none of the boys I liked ever liked me back. I still listen to Ani's 1990s stuff a lot and I think any girl who hasn't by age 16 or so is in for a rough coming-of-age.

4. Justin Timberlake, "Like I Love You"

"Here, baby, put on my jacket. And then..." And then what?!