Thursday, October 9, 2014

Politics and Religion Go to See the Movies

Teenaged me was walking out of the movie theatre, happy. I'd just seen Disney's Hercules with one of my two families, and I'd had a darn good time.

"Great movie," I said. My stepmother shot me a scowl.

"You liked that?"


As a kid, you know that look, that tone of voice. It's a flashing neon sign complete with braying klaxon: WRONG! YOU SAID A WRONG THING! BACKPEDAL NOW OR SUFFER A PARENT BEING MAD AT/DISAPPOINTED IN YOU!

As a parent, I use that sign all the time. Say we're all having a good time, and then one of my kids goes, "Ha ha, yeah! Like [inappropriate comment or subject]." I flash the backpedal sign, they say, "uh, I was just kidding," and then I say no, you weren't kidding, so let's have a conversation about why that was inappropriate and how crossing the line was a fun-ender.

Part of coming of age is seeing that big flashing warning sign and going right on ahead. You're a teenager, ergo Fuck Tha Police.

I Raged Against The Machine and elucidated why I liked this particular Disney movie so much: A male hero who achieves success (or all the usual trappings), then forsakes it. A super-cool female love interest with a checkered past, mixed motives, and so much agency she actually physically saves the hero. As a result, the love story involving characters falling in love with each other as people, instead of just being good-looking in mutually close proximity. Plenty of really funny topical references that would later be hilariously dated. Everything a Disney movie usually lacked; a few things no Disney movie would ever have again.

[For the record: I was not anywhere near this thorough, enlightened, or self-aware in my real explanation. I hit a few of the high points and I think there was an "I liked the songs" in there, too.]

My stepmother hated it, for a reason I that totally flummoxed me: The story contradicted evangelical Christianity.

The Bible tells us there is only one God, yet this movie contained many so-called gods. This movie taught that eternal life is attainable through means other than faith in Jesus Christ. This movie contained gross and icky things, like violence and monsters and a spiritual underworld that is not Hell. It directly contradicted her entire worldview, and was targeted at children! Her children! The movie even had the gall to assert that it is The Gospel Truth:

I used to think this was a uniquely Christian problem.

As a child and young adult, I was often told by Christian adults that assertion is tantamount to truth. The Bible says it's true, therefore it must be. Jesus asserted he was God, so he must be "liar, lunatic, or Lord" (and it can't be either of the first two, because, c'mon, he's totally Lord). Unlike all the other religions, with their half-baked prophets and gurus, Jesus said he was God incarnate. He bellied up to the bar, and was brutally persecuted for it. He put up, and he was shut up. THAT's how you know he was right.

But when you read other books, consume other stories, and they assert that they are true, and they contradict the Bible, then what? You can read (or watch) Gone With the Wind, no problem. Even The Wizard of Oz puts us back in Kansas with plausible deniability. If you watch Hercules, though, you get cognitive dissonance. What's the historical Christian reaction to that icky feeling? Denial. Ban the movie. Burn the book.

When you believe so fervently in one specific worldview, you reach a point where you can't see anything at all outside of that lens. Everything is either by and for Christians, or it is worldly (and sinful and probably bad). You must carefully curate everything you consume so that nothing pops that bubble.

Which brings me to Lindy West's review of Gone Girl at GQ. Check out the first paragraph:

Sometimes I wish I could just watch movies like a fun person, a Cool Girl who's not too uptight, the kind of someone who paradoxically believes that culture doesn't influence culture. I mean, I don't really wish that--my inability to watch movies without grinding my teeth over oppressive subtexts is a foundational part of everything I hold most dear and couldn't be excised from my identity as a human being without removing my entire brain and replacing it with a can of Mountain Dew--but it'd be bomb to just Spicoli my way through some blockbusters now and then. Alas, I am too much myself.

Disclaimers out of the way, she goes on to give the movie every ounce of credit it deserves, both from a filmmaking and storytelling perspective—before unpacking exactly why it's problematic. She then acknowledges this isn't the fault of the (female) author, who wrote both the movie and the book it's based on, nor the director (who also shot every MRA's favorite movie, Fight Club). She correctly blames patriarchal society, and all of the casually awful films and books and stories that have gone before.

"I don't want Flynn to change a hair of Gone Girl," West wrote, "as it's hardly her responsibility to rearrange her narrative choices because some internet babies are too scared of girls to remember the difference between fiction and reality. I just wish that the film could exist, as it is, without being inevitably weaponized by a toxic culture."

That is brilliant and awesome, as Ms. West always is.

Contrast that stance to this passage from her review of Maleficent at Jezebel:

So I'll just skip to the very end, when the lights came up and my friend said, "I hated that movie more than any other movie I've ever seen."

I was surprised. I think of myself as having a pretty consistently perceptive and sensitive Good Feminist™ barometer, and—the groaningly cheap and clumsy rape allegory aside (as far as you can set such a thing aside)—I'd enjoyed Maleficent mostly without pause. I really did enjoy it. The dialogue is blessedly free of mummified 2009 pop culture references, Angelina Jolie's screen presence is like if a magnet had sex with a magnet and pooped out a baby magnet with a smaller magnet on top (magnet hat), and the lush fantasy landscapes hit all my dorked-out aesthetic buttons. There were a couple red flags, but I'm a feminist who lives in the world and regularly consumes pop culture. I'm used to red flags.

In both reviews, she's able to extricate her consumption of the film as a viewer from her assessment of its engagement with gender and society. Her nameless friend, it seems, was not.

Because I am a young(ish) dad of young(ish) kids, I know I'll never go see Gone Girl—but I did see Maleficent. Full disclosure: These thoughts have been rattling around in my mind ever since, but y'know, young dad of young kids and all that. Her Gone Girl review not only reminded me of these thoughts, but gave me a window of topicality to blog them out without dragging up months-old junk for absolutely no reason.

So here's what I don't get about Lindy West's friend: Maleficent is starkly, powerfully feminist.

The main character is a strong woman, the main villain a man bent on destroying her precisely because he fears that strength. The villain's greed and ambition not only drives him to "take" Maleficent's "wings," this act literally seats him on the throne of a excruciatingly patriarchal society. Maleficent's job in the story is to take this guy down, dismantle that society, and free everyone—including the men oppressed in his service—from his terrible reign.

In the process, we see a host of lessons and metaphors that (if not entirely feminist) undermine cornerstones of patriarchy: Equality is good, ambition is bad. Peace is good, war is bad. Trees good, iron bad.

We don't see "woman good, man bad," though; Maleficent goes pretty far down a dark path in response to her anger and hurt. Of course, that's completely understandable, if not entirely justifiable—and as Ms. West sarcastically notes, she ends up finding fulfillment in motherhood.

It's that motherhood, though, that most powerfully reverses the tropes of the original tale. "I know," West wrote, "that if ye e'er ingeste a spoilere ye shall surelye dye," but one of the privileges of Busy/Lazy Dad Culture Blogging is you aren't timely or relevant enough to spoil anything! Yay.

Not only is an adorkable meet-cute between Aurora and her young prince explicitly rejected as "true love," [SEE ALSO: why I liked Hercules' love story] the honor goes to Maleficent's adoptive motherhood of Aurora. Then, Aurora's choice to reject her father and the society he built gives Maleficent back her wings. Wings with which she flies off into the sunset with her manservant, discreetly implying some sort of happy ending for the two that isn't as gauche as her actually falling in love with a dude.

West begs off on critiquing Maleficent too deeply, or checking the calibration on her Good Feminist™ barometer to see if hers or her friend's was the one out of whack. Instead, she acknowledges she gave the movie "a pass" because she has a soft spot for fantasy and fairy tales, which are often fundamentally flawed. She then challenges The Movies to make cool original stories that don't use centuries-old misogynist tropes as inspiration.

But that's the whole point: Sleeping Beauty is the most problematic of all fairy tales, from a feminist perspective. The title character is a unwitting, unwilling pawn of every other character, and is literally unconscious for her half of the "love" story. She has absolutely no desires, motivation, agency or characterization whatsoever, except everyone thinks she's pretty [SEE ALSO: why I liked Hercules' love story].

If the title of the movie were "Maleficent: A Feminist Inversion of Sleeping Beauty," it wouldn't be false advertising.

This is why fantasy fiction is so great: It allows creators to escape the world we're stuck in, and build one of our choosing (often, or even especially, to illuminate something about the real world left behind). It also allows consumers to escape the world they're stuck in, and engage with the world that's been created. We're uplifted or enlightened by what resonates with us, and we forget about the clunky bits. That's why no two people ever see exactly the same movie, or read exactly the same book.

My closing point I make with apologies to my stepmother, who is a brilliant and strong woman (not to mention a great mom), and Ms. West's friend, whom I don't know at all but must be pretty cool if she's going to the movies with Lindy West.

When your worldview is so narrow that you cannot engage with or enjoy anything unless it says "Certified Safe for Your Worldview!" right on the box, your worldview is too narrow for reality to fit through.

As Christians, if our conception of God (or God's love, or salvation) isn't wide enough to fit all of reality—all of humanity—inside, then it's too narrow, too.

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