Posted in Current events, Movies, Politics, Pop Culture

The Princess Defense: A Kickass Statistical Analysis

The release and box office success of Wonder Woman has feminist debate on the lips of Geek Nation once again. I haven’t seen it yet, but count me among the fans. I love the idea of a kickass female leading the charge in a summer superhero flick, even if she has to have perfect hair and a one-piece maillot with boots and tiara ensemble to do it.

But here within the happy ranks celebrating the movie, a rallying cry has emerged that is starting to get on my nerves. “My princesses are now generals! Huzzah!” writes one blogger who gets shared around the web. “Princess Buttercup is finally redeemed as an Amazon!” writes another. (I’m paraphrasing the thesis of both, of course; they’re easy to find and very nicely written.) The idea seems to be that these princesses, Leia and Buttercup and by extension every other princess in every other movie prior to the Great Climbing from the Trench was a misogynistic embarrassment to feminists—or at least no more than the sloppy seconds we clung to because popular art, particularly science fiction and fantasy, offered us no one else.

When I called poppycock on this notion yesterday, I got a short course on representation in response—we have plenty of princesses and domestic goddesses, this woman explained, but we need more kickass warrior women. When I suggested that I had noticed a lot more women kicking people in the face in popular art lately than I had non-desperate housewives, intellectual professionals, or princesses who ruled by something other than the sword or dragon, she wrote back that she was specifically referencing blockbuster movies. She’s obviously smart and made her point well, so I decided to cast an analytical eye over the top 5 movies of 2017 so far by box office, the best definition I know of “blockbuster.” (This list came out at the end of last week, just before Wonder Woman’s big weekend, and FYI, even just from presales and previews and such, she came in at Number 11.) I asked the same series of questions about each, and here’s what I found:

  1. Beauty and the Beast

Most prominent female character(s): Belle, the central protagonist. It’s her story.

And she is? A scholarly dreamer and inventor who becomes a princess.

Is she kickass? Well, no, not really. She’s willing to rip up her iconic pretty princess dress to ride to the rescue of her Beast, and she picks up a stick and whacks a wolf or two. But I’d call her more brave and practical than I would kick-ass; she’s a lover and a reader, not a fighter, and she doesn’t seem to have any kind of psychological or identity crisis about being rescued.

Does she have sex? Not on screen, but a growl and a giggle at the end suggest that if not yet then really soon.

  1. Guardians of the Galaxy 2:

Most prominent female character: Gamora, one of the hero’s team of sidekicks and his love interest

And she is? A green-skinned alien hottie in a sexy leather outfit who flies spaceships and shoots people in the face.

Is she kickass? Oh hell yeah

Does she have sex? Oh hell no. In fact, the notion that she might is one of the big running jokes of the plot.

  1. Logan

Most prominent female character: Laura, a MacGuffin

And she is? Another in the long tradition of super special damaged daughter substitutes for heroes in contemporary science fiction, fantasy and horror (see also: Firefly, The Last of Us)

Is she kickass? It is the entirety of her character.

Does she have sex? What’s the matter with you, you sicko! Of course she doesn’t!

  1. The Fate of the Furious

Most prominent female character: Michelle Rodriguez is back as the kickass love interest, but most prominent is Cipher, the villainess

And she is? The Ball Buster

Is she kickass? Oh hell yeah

Does she have sex? She tries to seduce the hero ‘cause that’s what these girls do, but he ain’t having it.

  1. Lego Batman

Most prominent female character: There’s a Batgirl.

And she is? A second string sidekick

Is she kickass? As much as a Lego figure can be, yes.

Does she have sex? No. Did I mention she’s a Lego figure?

So of the five most popular movies of 2017 prior to the release of Wonder Woman, only one has a female as lead protagonist, but all of these women but one are, in fact, kickass. (We’ll get back to that sex thing and why it’s important in a minute.) But this probably isn’t a fair sample; it’s only the first week of the summer blockbuster season. So let’s look back at 2016:

  1. Rogue One

Most prominent female character: Jyn, the protagonist

And she is? A pilot and mercenary with family connections that make her the best and most motivated choice for what turns out to be a suicide mission for the Rebellion.

Is she kickass? Absolutely. She hesitates to get involved with the Rebellion, but she’s been living by her wits and her laser pistol her whole life.

Does she have sex? There’s just no time. There’s a slight suggestion that there might have someday been a romantic connection to her partner in the mission if they had survived, but they die as friends.

  1. Finding Dory

Most prominent female character: Dory, the protagonist

And she is: A sweet, goofy single gal fish with short term memory loss

Is she kickass? Not at all; it’s very much not that kind of movie

Does she spawn? No – she’s more of a spinster auntie

  1. Captain America: Civil War

Most prominent female characters: Black Widow and/or Scarlet Witch, two secondary plotlines with equal time in the background

And they are? Superheroes in sexy leather outfits, one for each side of the central, dude-centric conflict

Are they kickass? Again, that’s all they came for.

Do they have sex? Just a little mostly unspoken emo yearning. Black Widow trades longing looks and oblique dialogue with a sensitive guy who turns into a big green monster, and the red rubber consciousness that looks like Paul Bettany casts a lot of shy glances at the Scarlet Witch—but she’s also got that super special substitute daughter thing going on, so maybe that’s what his deal is. (Only a superhero movie would cast Paul Bettany as a character with no discernible penis.)

  1. The Secret Life of Pets

It’s a kid’s movie, and every character except the background mommy figure and a couple of plot devices in passing is male.

  1. The Jungle Book

It’s a kid’s movie, and every character except the background mommy figure and a couple of plot devices in passing is male.

So again, of the ones that bother to have female characters of any substance at all, only one isn’t kickass. Methinks we might be mis-defining the problem and losing sight of what makes Wonder Woman such a milestone. Wonder Woman isn’t awesome because she’s kickass in the battle sequences; you can’t swing a dead henchman without finding a woman who’s kickass in battle sequences in these movies. She’s awesome because it’s HER FREAKIN’ MOVIE. After making her do her time as the Amazon ex machina in Batman vs. Superman, DC has put her front and center in her own origin story, committing to the project enough to have a great script and great actors and the budget to carry it off. (We’ll leave the debate about how much or little they promoted it for another blog post.) And yes, that is amazing and groundbreaking, and I can’t wait to see it, and I’m so glad it’s doing so well.

But let’s circle back to Leia and Buttercup and sex. In their original incarnations as princesses, they’re pretty kickass. Buttercup isn’t riding off to battle, but she is strong-willed, loyal, staunch in her convictions, and more than willing to face off shrieking eels, shove her kidnapper down a cliff, and go nose to nose with the royal asshole forcing her into marriage—when the confrontation comes, he’s the one who blinks first. And Leia might still be wearing a grotesquely impractical white gown and going by the title “princess” in Episodes IV-VI, but she’s a senator/spy who can stand up under torture, outshoot any storm trooper, and, oh yeah, lead a rebellion against the most powerful empire in the galaxy. So what’s the big evolutionary change in them that is inspiring all these tears of joy at their new empowerment? What was wrong with them before that’s right with them now? Sex—or rather, the elimination of sex. Princess Leia and Princess Buttercup are both objects of desire for men in their story, and each of them reciprocates this attraction when they find their soul mate. They fall in love. But once Buttercup becomes an Amazon general, it’s a pretty safe bet even for someone like me who hasn’t seen the movie  yet that she hasn’t got much time or patience for mawwiage or even twue love. And General Organa has given up romance to such an extent that she doesn’t even kiss Han Solo good-bye as she sends him to his death. I’ve done an informal poll, and pretty much every cis woman and gay man I know would have at least kissed Han Solo good-bye as they sent him to his death. But a nice, platonic hug is all General Organa will muster.

I love all these kickass women; I wouldn’t part with a one. And celibacy is a perfectly acceptable lifestyle choice. (This isn’t about boys, by the way; if some of these women had girlfriends, you’d never hear a peep of dissent out of me. Nor do I think all of these movies need that romantic element, far from it. But the fact that literally the only one that does is the Disney fairy tale movie gives me pause.) But choosing not to take a mate isn’t inherently better or more noble, and it doesn’t equate to empowerment, female or otherwise. Yet this is the message that so many of these popular movies with their celibate beauties seem to be sending, and this particular reaction to the Wonder Woman phenomenon shows that it’s not just Joss Whedon who’s infected. Since the beginning of time, there have been misogynistic jerks who think a woman is always supposed to look sexy but never supposed to have sex. If she doesn’t look sexy, she’s a hag. But if she has sex, she’s a slut. The patriarchy has been using shame to police women’s sexuality since Lilith and Eve, and the women who buy into that patriarchal model have always been their best agents on the street. But as feminists, aren’t we supposed to be better than that? Do we really want to embrace the message that any woman who takes a lover is surrendering, defining herself by that relationship and therefore lesser in our eyes? I don’t think that’s what Wonder Woman means to say; I don’t think that’s what we want for one another. Nobody has to be a princess or dream of being a princess if they don’t want to, or a housewife, or a space pilot, or an Amazon. But nobody has the right to make any of us feel less like a woman if we do.

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Author:

Writer of gothic and supernatural horror-romance novels.

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