The recent hiatus on this blog is due to having a complete writer’s block re proper blogging of medieval papers/seminars. To try and get round this, the next few posts will be short and unimportant and trying to get me back into the groove of writing this. Don’t feel obliged to read them if you’ve got more useful things to do.
I went to see X-Men First Class on the recommendations of my friends (some more guarded than others, and some probably influenced mainly by it containing Michael Fassbender). There are bits of a decent film in there, but not much of one, and the reactionary treatment of female characters is fairly depressing. (I don’t know how much of this is due to the constraints of the source material and how much was deliberately chosen).
There are three female mutants, as against nine male ones, and their superpowers are shown as inferior to those of the male mutants. Raven/Mystique can change her appearance (very feminine, somehow) and Angel is basically an angry fairy. The most powerful of the women is, of course, a baddie: Emma Frost, a telepath who can turn her body into diamond. She is conveniently captured in time to be absent from the final great confrontation between good and bad mutants, in which she might otherwise even up the fight a bit.
The section of the film I want to focus on is where the hero, Charles Xavier, who has collected together a gang to fight the baddies, takes them back to his mansion to train them. Most of the training sequence itself is quite enjoyable, but it was only afterwards that I realised that while we see Charles training all the male mutants, we don’t see Raven (the one female left on the goodies’ team) training. Now you can argue there’s a reason for this – she’s been raised with Charles as his sister, so she’s already trained, but she doesn’t get to help doing the training either. What that means, in practice, is that all we see her do during this segment of the film is sitting around being angsty and/or romantic. And this got me thinking about a) the role of depictions of women working in films and b) whether having female characters as part of a ‘gang’ does in itself help produce more interesting female characters.
On the first point, one of the main ways in which women now define themselves is by their work (if you include study and being the primary carer of babies and small children as work, which I would). Any piece of art which doesn’t make work look an important part of a woman’s life now seems odd to me. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it either has to be a good job, or that she has to be good at it: I wouldn’t have minded seeing a sequence in which Raven repeatedly tried and failed to take on a particular appearance. Or films/TV shows where the heroine is stuck in a crappy job and aware of it. But if they’re not shown doing any kind of work, then they’re basically ornamental.
This is particularly the case because, judging by this film at least, good mutants don’t do much all day, anyhow, but sit around, unless there’s a mission on. (Bad mutants, in contrast, are constantly plotting and so much busier). And that’s a more general problem with the ‘gang’ style of TV/film, where the story’s focus is on a gang who have adventures. From the viewer’s viewpoint, the gang’s adventures must be more exciting than anything else they do, or why isn’t that on display instead? So Raven can’t be sneaking off having more exciting adventures, because she needs to be on hand to be part of the gang.
In contrast, we don’t know what Angel or Emma Frost are doing for most of the time, and that I would suggest, makes it easier to imagine that they are doing daring and independent things. I’ve become very interested in the last year in fandom and fanfic and the way that women, in particular, can use it to transform works of art to their own purposes. I’m starting to wonder whether, given the unimaginative way in which supposedly central female characters often get written, whether in many shows it isn’t the more marginal female figures who actually offer the more interesting imaginative potential.
Note: if anyone has read this AND wants to comment, please bear in mind that I’ve spend the last decade mainly not watching either films or TV, so make the pop culture parallels sufficiently plain for an ignoramus.