Please Stop Saying that Thanos was Right

The snapture was objectively ridiculous.

 

Spoilers ahoy for Kingsman: The Secret Service, and Avengers: Infinity Wars

When the current fad for redeeming or exploring villains started, I was pretty ecstatic. This is because I am a Villain Sympathy hipster; I was doing it before I was cool. Likely because I was pretty badly bullied for most of my youth, and because for various reasons I’ve been made to feel monstrous at different points in my life, I always instinctively looked to the villains, and thought about their circumstances. Why exactly was Ursula banished from the kingdom, and would she have been so evil if she hadn’t been forced to live in a creepy cave? Why was she the only one to take Ariel’s desires seriously? And if God was omnipotent and had personally created all of the angels, didn’t that mean that Lucifer was basically destined to rebel? Was he the ultimate fall guy? Of course this sympathy hit limits—Claude Frollo is a creepy asshole, and probably my first exposure to someone giving off some “rapey” vibes. Hitler and Nazis are just always bad, no matter what Fox News and YouTube tell you.

So I was excited when we first started to dip our toes into the antihero/villain pool. Dexter, Wicked, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Maleficent… all of these started an interesting trend of making villains more complex, of making heroes more villainous, and making media more varied. But then it kind of didn’t… stop. The media, and the public, never got to that point where sympathy hit its limit. Fans started to hate Skyler White for the crime of being a woman who told her murderous, drug-dealing husband that he should stop being a murderous drug dealer. We wound up with oodles and oodles of Hannibal fanfiction. Don Draper has an entire redemption arc before showing that he’s going to go right into bad patterns in the finale, and we’re supposed to think of this as a happy ending. And then we just went in for it wholesale, and started saying things like “Thanos was right!” and I was like, “Holy shit, what have we done?”

Now, I’m not claiming to not have any problematic faves of my own. I’m pretty much always going to be a fangirl of Spike from Buffy and Loki from the Thor movies. But I am also not going to claim that either one was “right” in their villainy. Spike almost rapes Buffy, a narrative move that I still think was clumsily done by the writers, but one that definitely exists in canon. Plus there’s, you know, the centuries of being a murderous vampire. Not a good look. And while Loki has plenty of emotional damage, and Daddy issues out the wazoo, he also genocided a planet. And even though his actions are actually a good example of the end result of a warrior culture that insists on the monstrosity of an enemy, he still genocided a planet. I’m not going to be standing on any soapboxes proclaiming that he was “right” to do so.

Before we get to Thanos, I’m actually going to backtrack a little bit to the first Kingsman movie, because I think the Thanos Problem actually has a lot in common with the villain from the first Kingsman, Richmond Valentine. Because it’s not just about fan response (though we’ll get to that); it’s also about movies and media forgetting to show that their villains are wrong. Oh sure, they’ll show that their villains are evil, and that they pursue their goals in socially unacceptable ways, but they won’t necessarily take the time to show that the goal itself is a terrible goal.

Richmond Valentine actually has a very similar outlook to Thanos: he thinks that there are too many motherfucking people on his motherfucking planet. (Sorry, I had to.) In the film he ascribes to something called “Gaia Theory,” a misreading of an actual theory called the Gaia Hypothesis. In the film, the Gaia Theory essentially says that the Earth is a body, and people are a virus, and global warming is the fever response to our “infecting” of the planet. Because there are too many people doing vague Bad Things to the environment, we are going to either cause the “fever” of global warming to kill all people (the virus) or we are going to manage to kill the Earth (the body). He has a couple throwaway lines about how he has tried other methods of environmentalism to no effect, so now he’s decided on his supervillain plan: give out free phone cards that will cause a signal to go off that incites listeners into intense violence, while keeping an inner cabal of important political, business, and cultural figures safe in various bunkers. (These people, for some reason, include Iggy Azalea. I can’t explain that.) So the violence inducing wave will cause people to kill each other for X amount of time, and at the end the population will be greatly reduced, and all the Best People can re-emerge into a drastically less populated world.

Now, obviously, the good guys are like “hey, wait… don’t kill all those people.” But at no point in the film does anyone stop and say, “Hey wait, literally all of the things about this are wrong.” His premise, that climate change is the result of overpopulation and individuals being awful, is taken at face value. His plan is objected to for its violence, not its… well, object. But we know that 100 companies are responsible for a staggering 71% of emissions. While individuals are certainly contributing to global problems, we are not even close to that number. So ostensibly, after half of the population kills the other half, these 100 companies would look around, say, “Oooh, 50% fewer environmental protesters. Sweet!” and then merrily continue polluting. Even if the individual CEOs of the companies died in the purge (though let’s be real, they’re probably all chilling in Valentine’s bunker) that would only be a temporary stopgap. And Valentine is shown in the film to have what can actually stop climate change: money and political capital. He manages to convince various heads of state, including Obama and the British royal family, to buy into his argument and agree to a plan that violently kills a large portion of their citizens. I would think if he is that powerful and convincing, it would be a cakewalk to get legislation passed that caps emissions, forces investment into alternative energy, etc.

On top of that, his plan has the potential to lead to horrific environmental consequences. The violence signal that his phones emit are completely non-discriminatory—anyone who hears it goes into a rage. So what happens if there is a tech at a nuclear plant who is playing Candy Crush? What happens if one of the 50 people on a plane who didn’t actually listen to the flight attendant and put their phone in airplane mode is sitting in the front, near the pilot? What if a mechanic who is working on an oil pipe is blasting Spotify? Not to mention the environmental crisis of just having 4 billion dead bodies lying around. That would be… ick.

Thanos has a surprisingly similar outlook. He thinks that there are just too many beings in the universe. He thinks the universe will get full. Just… think about that for a second. And because he once genocided half a planet, and then the planet recovered and thrived, he thinks that all planets are overcrowded, and that he has to kill half of all living beings in the entire universe. Which is obviously horrific, and there were many heart-string tugging moments of favorite characters turning into dust. But again—no one addresses his main point. At least when it comes to Earth, we already know that a lot of problems that are ascribed to overpopulation are actually problems of inequitable over-consumption, poor distribution, and capitalist impulses that mean that grocery stores would rather destroy food than go through the effort of donating it. Most discussions of overpopulation are fairly… eugenics-y. (Peter Coffin has a good video on it if you’re interested.) And no one in the film really bothers going, “Hey… not only is this a ridiculous plan, but also if you have gems of infinite power that can seemingly break the laws of physics, why don’t you just… create more resources for people?” If you have gems of infinite power and a desire to fix problems with resources and overpopulation, your first response isn’t gonna be genocide unless you already wanted to do some genocide.

And like Valentine’s plan, the very thing that Thanos explains as a feature is actually a bug. Thanos thinks his plan is “fair” because it is indiscriminate—the 50% of beings who die are randomly chosen. (It’s not clear if this is 50% per planet, or 50% of the universe, total. So one planet might hit the lottery and have everyone survive, but another planet is fucked). But these deaths could cause a chain reaction that not only leads to more deaths but also destroys planets beyond the ability for people to live on them. On Earth, the same points about nuclear attendants, pilots, and oil workers applies. The 50% of people could take with them the person who was just at that moment directing a drone strike that instead takes out a major city, leading to rioting, and… you get the picture. Or even the scientist that was about to cure AIDS or cancer, leading to more inadvertent deaths down the line. Not to mention, Thanos himself has already kind of gone beyond the point of his quest. He’s killed basically every Asgardian except for Thor and Valkyrie, and from his own statements completely wiped out Xandar. How does that fit into his little equation?

Yet despite these obvious flaws, I still logged onto the internet the day after I saw the film and saw a ton of “THANOS WAS RIGHT” and “THANOS IS A HOT GRAPE DADDY” posts. The latter is disturbing, but the first one is worse. Because while the film itself doesn’t do a good job of proving Thanos wrong, that doesn’t mean that viewers entirely lose their sense of logic. Every viewer could go through the same thought process I just walked us through. But instead of thinking through that process, everyone is just stanning him instead.

This is where we get back to my point about the over-identification with villains. We have gone a full loop from “sympathy for villains” to “identification with villains,” to the point that we’re now blaming heroes with bad plans for the actions of villains. Poe Dameron gets a lot of flack for his (admittedly stupid and toxic-masculinity-fueled) plan in The Last Jedi, but he isn’t the First Order. The First Order killed people, not Dameron’s plan. In the same way, Peter Quill gets blamed for Thanos’ actions—if he hadn’t gotten over-emotional over Gamora’s death, the logic goes, Thanos could have been stopped. But again, Thanos is the one killing everyone. Failing to stop something bad does not have the same moral culpability as doing something bad. And somehow yelling at a doofus with barely concealed emotional trauma and abandonment issues seems more fitting to vast swathes of the movie-going public than yelling at the genocidal monster.

Now, under a lot of circumstances I could let this over-identification with villains go. Stans are gonna stan. But we are living in an era where actual villains are getting too much sympathy, and I can’t help but draw a connection between what is happening in fiction and what is happening in reality. Our president says that there are good people on “both sides” of a debate where one side is fascists, and one side is anti-fascist. Also the fascist side rammed a car into a crowd and killed and maimed people. Journalists are getting imprisoned and murdered, and we’re still gushing over the leaders that harmed them. Supposedly objective or even supposedly liberal media publications are writing rosy pieces about Neo-Nazis and how they like to go grocery shopping, too. (Neo-Nazis—they’re just like us!) Sexual abusers are embarking on comeback tours barely a year after they were exposed as sexual abusers. And just like in the media, the people who are ineffectual at stopping the bad stuff are often given more blame and responsibility than the people doing the bad stuff. Women should have come forward with their abuse sooner. People of color should stop… breathing? Doing whatever it is they supposedly do that pisses off police enough to shoot them. Children should learn how to do active shooter drills. Democrats lost the election because we didn’t sympathize enough with racists. We’re in a topsy-turvy world that seems to exist on the age-old playground principle of “Stop hitting yourself.”

I think it is helpful, and even good, to show villains as being complex and interesting. We don’t live a world where evil is simple, and our fiction shouldn’t have such worlds, either. But there is a difference between making a villain complex and purposefully or accidentally presenting the villain as “right.”

Signed: Feminist Fury

***

Featured image is a meme depicting Thanos looking confused with math symbols flashing in front of his face.

Let’s Talk About Robin Hood (2018)

Because I’m a medievalist and I need to understand what’s going on here.

 

This is about a new movie that’s coming out soon. The movie, starring Jamie Foxx and someone named Taron Egerton, is called “Robin Hood.” It’s a new take on a story you might be familiar with, about a lord returning home from the crusades to medieval England only to find that King John has taxed everyone into oblivion and is ruling like a tyrant. Stealing from the rich and giving to the poor ensues.

But I have so, so many questions about this take.

Here’s the trailer.

Actually, I have only one question, and the rest of them stem from it:

WHEN DOES THIS MOVIE TAKE PLACE?

Let’s take a look at some stills.

Okay, in this first shot, you see the city in which this all takes place. Look at those beefy as all get-out walls. Look at the truly massive foundations. Are those tile roofs on all the buildings inside? And what’s going on with the footings of the industrial-revolution-style bridge off to the left? Are those concrete footings in the water? Well, okay, none of this is at first glance totally impossible in a medieval setting, but it’s pretty outlandish.

Okay things are getting weird here. Is that an industrial steel sculpture? And look at those textiles. The fashion is of course modern, but look at the leather of that suit jacket, and the fine texture of the vest beneath. I guess it wouldn’t be totally, completely, absolutely impossible to imagine—

—okay stop right there. That bottle. That’s a machine-made bottle. There’s no way around that. It looks like a Heineken bottle for chrissakes. There’s no doubt about it: that’s post-Industrial Revolution materials science.

Which I guess explains the riveted steel construction of this… armored troop carrier? Tank? Out of place premodern submarine? Thing?

Not to mention the huge quantities of steel everywhere and… whatever this lock-and-load crossbow-slash-grenade-launcher thing might be.

Okay, so this is, um. I know, it’s a post-apocalyptic society! Yeah, that’s it!

…except then why are they talking about returning from the crusades? At 1:30 in the trailer, a voiceover (probably Foxx) says:

“You were a crusader. Now you have to be a warrior.”

Okay that’s weird. And not just because crusaders were warriors, in no uncertain terms.

So it takes place after some kind of apocalypse, but not too bad an apocalypse because we still have modern materials science and industrial-scale metal production, but the crusades are still a thing, so… maybe there were other crusades?

Yeah, that’s it. There’s no internet anymore, and the islamophobes won (causing the ruination of society in some kind of war that pushed us back to industrial revolution technology), and now there’s some kind of persistent and/or permanent front in an ongoing war, so if you want to be a dick to Muslims you have to actually get up and go fight them in person. Okay wow, that’s bleak, but it’d explain the whole “crusades” thing except—

Wait. Why is everyone using crossbows? And what’s this?

Are those catapults?!

If you can make perfect glass bottles, and truly vast quantities of riveted steel, and beautifully uniform textiles and leather jackets… where’s the GUNPOWDER?

Where are the guns? Where are the cannons? Where are the bombs? If you’re in a state of constant war, and you’ve got enough wealth and manpower for huge numbers of metal-clad, lock-action crossbow-wielding civil defense soldiers at home, why doesn’t anyone have a gun? Why are you using catapults to throw stones over the walls instead of using gunpowder to blow holes through them?

Is there not enough nitrogen? Did we lose the Haber-Bosch process? Is that what caused the apocalypse? Did half the world starve because we somehow lost all ability to artificially produce nitrate? I AM SO CONFUSED.

Look, I know the answer, the real answer, is because someone thought “hey wouldn’t it be cool if it looked like this?” But it just makes me twitchy when you see such sloppy worldbuilding without the writers even hanging a lantern on it or anything. It’s the kind of thing that turns this:

into this:

and that just makes me feel like this:

Signed: The Remixologist.

***

Featured image is of a dude about to throw a molotof cocktail in the Heineken bottle in a medieval-ish film, from the Robin Hood trailer.

Loving Pop Culture When Pop Culture Doesn’t Love You Back

A deep dive into Ready Player One and the ways we cater to specifically male nostalgia.

As a woman and a feminist, my relationship with pop culture is inherently going to be a love/hate one. Partly because pop culture keeps screwing its representations of women, gender relations, sex, etc., but primarily because for most of my life (and still for a lot of the current period) pop culture wasn’t created for me. Pop culture was largely created by and for men, and if women happened to also like it, great, bonus viewers without trying! Or small subsets of pop culture would be created for girls and women, but rarely with the care and attention that was given to content created for men and boys, and our relationship with pop culture was not granted the same respect.

I’ve been thinking about this uneven relationship a lot lately. In part this is because of the way that the box office and critical reception for Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time have essentially been pitted against each other: as if the fact that they were both created by black directors with primarily or largely black characters overwhelms the fact that they were created on different budgets for different audiences. It’s also in part because of the upcoming release of the film version of Ready Player One, and because of a recent video essay about that film by Lindsay Ellis.

I’m going to use the latter to dive deeper into what it says about catering to men’s versus women’s nostalgia, because a critical discussion of the comparison between Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time is just going to give me a headache right now. Go see both movies. Yes, A Wrinkle in Time is supposedly not good and isn’t faithful to the book, but you know damn well that five years from now, “movies based on books that aren’t faithful to the book do poorly” is not going to be the narrative around its failure any more than the narrative around Catwoman’s failure was “movies with shitty scripts do poorly.” The narrative will be “major movies entrusted to black lady directors with ladies of color in the cast do poorly.” So go see the damn movie so we don’t have to have that exhausting and incorrect conversation.

Anyway, I first read Ready Player One at the request of a friend. He’d said he really liked the novel, but that something had felt off about it, and he wanted my opinion on it. I read it over the course of a plane ride, and texted him when I had landed. I don’t remember what exactly I said, but it was something to the effect of feeling as if the book was supposed to have been written for me, but that something had gone wrong in the process. The uncertainty was akin to feeling the whoosh of a metaphorical arrow as it went past my shoulder—I was close to the target audience of Ready Player One, but not quite there.

I pondered those feelings for a while, and to be honest I’m still untangling them. But the end result was this: the book wasn’t written for me. It wasn’t really written with a female audience in mind, period. It was written by a well-meaning man (I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Ernest Cline in person and can confirm that he is a very nice, very (ha) earnest geek) who included women and people of color as an afterthought, or as an intended bonus that he didn’t really think through. Ready Player One is, in its purest form, the distillation of the white, straight, cisgender male geek experience. The fact that my own life experiences have overlapped with that experience enough for me to also enjoy the book is an unintended bonus.

Better people than me have written on the problems with the characters of Art3mis and Aech, including Beth Elderkin and Lindsey Weedston.  But I will summarize.

The main character, Wade, is the Nice Guy in his truest form. (Don’t take my word for it, he even calls himself “a really nice guy” in the book.) He’s the poor, unpopular kid who everyone overlooked until it turned out he was super awesome, and that his very particular skillset, which would win him no prizes in the real world, is actually way important in the virtual world. He is the geek made good. He is literally the White Knight—his username in the OASIS is Parzival, one of the Knights of the Round Table.

And like most nice guys and white knights, his shine comes off the more you get to know him. He cyber-stalks Art3mis before ever meeting her. He objectifies Art3mis at the same time he idolizes her for “not being like other girls.” When Art3mis turns down his affections, he moves on to actual stalking, including having his avatar hold a boombox up to her window. When he finally finds out her big secret (*spoiler*) that she has a birthmark on her face, he is manly enough to “overcome” her disfigurement and love her anyways. And then I threw up a little in my mouth.

Art3mis, meanwhile, comes so, so close to being something besides a quest object, only to fail, hard. She starts off as a fully realized character—a fellow searcher who has her own active social media life, and at the start of the book, she is actually better at questing than Wade is. However, all of this character development quickly falls apart. Wade soon shows her up at questing, firmly slots her in the role of love object and supporting character, and makes her a trophy just as much as the keys and eggs of the OASIS. At the end of the story I find myself really wishing that Art3mis had the powers of the actual Artemis’ (you know, the virginal goddess of the hunt) and could turn Wade into a deer that got ripped to pieces by dogs. Come on, it’s a little violent, but no one would have seen that ending coming.

And honestly, Art3mis gets a boat load of character development compared to Aech, Wade’s best friend who we find out (way, way late in the book, spoilers again) is not actually the Caucasian male that Aech presented as in the OASIS, but is actually an overweight, black, lesbian woman. (I honestly don’t know if the lesbian part was added to be part of the tokenization trifecta, or so that we could have a super awkward exchange where Wade realizes that he’s been talking to Aech for a long time about how much he likes certain girls, but it’s totally okay because Aech also likes girls.) We get a brief moment of a really, really interesting idea with Aech—she reveals to Wade that she presents as a white male because she is more likely to get respected that way, even in the supposed equalizing utopia of the OASIS. For every female gamer who has ever created a male character in an MMORPG in order to avoid getting sexually harassed, this is a familiar concept with huge implications for the world of Ready Player One. What does it mean for the promise of technology if technology only replicates oppression instead of solving it? How might the perceived perfection of virtual reality lead to more internalized misogyny, homophobia, racism, and fatphobia?  Is there a way for a virtual world to truly be “better” than the real world? How could we use virtual reality to help us gain empath—oh, we’re only 50 pages from the end of the book? And we’re literally never going to address any of these topics, and we’re only going to vaguely continue addressing the fact that Aech is an overweight black lesbian? Oh, ok. Cool. Never mind.

And again, don’t get me wrong—I still do like a lot of the book. It is fun for me as a geek to indulge in this nostalgia-fest. But that is because, like Art3mis in the novel, I have grown up to enjoy pop culture that is filtered through a male lens. Beth Elderkin explains,

Ready Player One suggests that nostalgia is universal, how similar interests can bring strangers together, but all of that nostalgia is filtered through a distinctly male lens—and not just because Cline insert a lot of his personal fandom into the story. In the book’s world, OASIS co-creator James Halliday created the contest that the entire world is obsessed with, so everyone’s nostalgia is filtered directly through him. (“The only thing Anorak’s Almanac seemed to indicate was that a familiarity with Halliday’s various obsessions would be essential to finding the egg. This led to a global fascination with 1980s pop culture.”)

This framing leaves little room for women to desire anything that doesn’t also reflect what men want. Just like the game, Art3mis is a character created around male interests; she can’t be anything other than a trophy because there’s no room in the story for her own interests (you won’t find her watching Sailor Moon or Jem and the Holograms, but she sure as hell likes John Hughes). If your entire world is centered around the obsessions of one man—first James Halliday, followed by his protégé Wade Watts—what purpose do you serve that doesn’t also serve his needs?

I enjoy the book because I enjoy a lot of the things that the book’s male author, and his male protagonists, enjoy. I genuinely enjoy Monty Python, old-school arcade games, Star Trek, Japanese robot anime, etc. But that isn’t all that I enjoy, and it’s not all the nostalgia for the 1980s that is possible. It’s just the specifically male nostalgia. And again, trying to give all possible credit to Ernest Cline, I don’t think that he wrote this book with the specific intention of discounting women or female nostalgia. I think in his own mind, he really wrote a book about “universal” nostalgia. But in the same way that medical practices are androcentric, making the male body the norm, popular culture and popular nostalgia is androcentric too, making make interests and desires the norm. If a male author doesn’t question this androcentrism, it feels totally normal and reasonable for that author’s experiences to seem universal, even when they aren’t.

This hit home when another friend showed me a satirical Youtube video, “Ready Player One for Girls” by Jenny Nicholson. Nicholson explains that since she’s not a man in her mid to late thirties, “all of these super obscure 80s references” went over her head. Luckily, she was able to get the Ready Player One girl translation (complete with sparkly pink cover) with nostalgic pop-culture references that she could understand. She reads a few “passages,” essentially recreating the text of Ready Player One but with girl-centered references instead of guy-centered ones. Gail Carson Levine, Stephanie Meyer, Teen Witch, Legally Blonde, Gary Marshall movies, and Lady Lovely Locks all get shout outs. (Also, I may have exclaimed out loud in joy because someone besides me remembers Lady Lovely Locks.) As do Rainbow Brite, Sailor Moon, My Little Pony, and Neopets. Nicholson hits on one of the core attributes of Ready Player One when she exclaims “reading lists of things I recognize is pretty fun.” Later, the main character hits a virtual reality nightclub on a steed that combines She-Ra, Jem and the Holograms, hit clips, friendship bracelets, and Lisa Frank.

When I first started to watch the video, one of my instinctive thoughts was “this is so ridiculous.” And then I examined that thought. Because it is only as ridiculous as Ready Player One. It is the exact same concept, only filtered through female nostalgia instead of male nostalgia. But even as a woman, I have been taught that the properties women are nostalgic for, or even women’s inclusion in nostalgia, is ridiculous. And when this nostalgia does happen, it is rarely accepted or successful.

The female-centered Ghostbusters film, despite being a pretty decent flick, broke the internet and enraged the fanboys. My Little Pony succeeded on a massive scale, but a large part of that is due to its unexpected male audience. Nostalgia revivals like Gilmore Girls and Fuller House have had to flee to Netflix, whose algorithms are seemingly a bit gentler regarding female viewers than the strict Nielsen ratings. The Jem remake resembled its original so little and was so obviously broken that it was yanked from the theaters within a couple of weeks. The Powerpuff Girls reboot was a half-assed dumpster fire that didn’t seem to understand why the original worked. And the upcoming Heathers reboot looks like it’s going to be what happens when you take one of the least nuanced storylines of recent South Park memory (sometimes people who care about being PC can become oppressive themselves!) and then make a show about it where we’re supposed to root for the poor cisgender white people who are afraid of all the mean homosexuals, genderqueer people, and women of color.

Even when girls are present in properties that run on nostalgia, they are often sidelined either in the property itself or in the marketing. Paul Dini has acknowledge that networks frequently dismiss or actively avoid girl-centered storylines in superhero properties. While shows like Stranger Things have female characters that are actually well-written and complex, they’re still effectively sidelined for male storytelling. Hell, even when the nostalgia-fest is about them they don’t get any due. One of the most nostalgia-friendly, ‘member berries downing movies of the last decade, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has a female protagonist. That’s not just my opinion, that is literally how the movie works. But Rey was frequently sidelined in merchandising, to the point that she wasn’t even included as a figure in the branded version of Monopoly that they released.

We can even see this in one-to-one comparisons of similar properties. The Xena reboot that promised to feature an explicitly queer relationship between Xena and Gabrielle died before it could live, even though we got two goddamn Hercules movies in the same year. We had at least four dudes play Batman before we got a Wonder Woman movie.* People who were born when the first X-Men movie started to kick off the superhero renaissance will be old enough to vote before we get our first female-led, solo Marvel movie.

All of this emphasizes the idea that mainstream pop culture is not really meant for or aimed at women, but two of these in particular, the Ghostbusters film and the studio execs actively fleeing female audiences, point to something else that is equally insidious: things are considered worse when girls and women like them.

Marykate Jasper had an interesting article comparing Ready Player One to Jupiter Ascending. Jasper does not defend Jupiter Ascending for being a good movie (it’s not) but her argument was that it was just as trashy and wish-fulfilment-y as Ready Player One, but that it was taken way less seriously and given much less credit because it fulfills the escapist fantasies of girls instead of boys. Back on our old site, our guest writer Amelie was making that point before it was cool: 

These outrageous action sequences are not unusual for American cinema, but it is unusual for them to occur in a movie written for a predominantly female audience. Generally, the blockbuster-level special effects are saved for “gender-neutral” movies containing approximately one female character (let’s call her “Princess Leia”) who is routinely subjected to the male gaze through costumes and camera angles.

But the multi-million dollar special effects budget of Jupiter Ascending was spent on women. Watching it, I experienced flashbacks to my teenage years lurking on internet forums like DeviantArt, Gaia Online, Quizilla, and fanfiction.net, where creatively-inclined teenaged girls congregated to experiment with writing and wish-fulfillment. Jupiter Ascending does not differ extensively from what I saw posted on these sites. There was the everygirl self-insert character who was propelled from a humdrum existence to extraordinary circumstances. There was the love triangle, where the protagonist had to choose between two archetypes—the awkward but heroic spacedog Caine, and a dangerously smooth Space Prince played by Douglas Booth. The dialogue contorted itself to reveal a tragic backstory for nearly every named character. Plot developments followed one another with the awkward and incongruous charm of a teenager experimenting with the basic mechanics of storytelling. And while Caine reigned supreme over most of the action sequences, all of this was to make him a more desirable love interest; the actual plot mechanics revolved around Jupiter’s decisions.

Ultimately, this is what I found the most impressive about Jupiter Ascending. The outcome is decided by protagonist Jupiter Jones—and no one else. Jupiter decides the fate of the earth, and at a stereotypical moment of dialogue (something along the lines of “You can’t! It’s too dangerous!”) tells her love interest “This is my decision.” From the moment she comes to grips with her new identity as Space Queen, Jupiter exercises her agency. She actively pursues a romantic relationship with Caine. She brokers her own (disastrous and unfulfilled) marriage contract. She negotiates with the lead villain, Balem Abrasax, for the release of her family. She demands, repeatedly, to be taken home to earth. And near the movie’s end Jupiter grows into her role as action hero, scaling a burning building and repeatedly whacking Balem Abrasax (played by Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne, whose bizarre performance deserves its own review) with a metal rod. The script of Jupiter Ascending has many flaws, but it never doubts Jupiter’s desires or her agency. Jupiter Jones wants to save the earth—and then she wants to go home and be with her family.

To be totally honest, the plot of Jupiter Ascending is pretty much equal in wish fulfillment, bizarre plot, and special snowflake characters when compared to Ready Player One. And while Jupiter Ascending relies on aspects stolen from almost every sci fi story and fairy tale that has come before it, it at least has the decency to leave this in the realm of homage, instead of literally saying “hey, remember Power Rangers? Aren’t Power Rangers cool? I have Power Rangers in my movie.” But Jupiter Ascending is going to be remembered as an incredibly expensive flop, while the buildup around Ready Player One has already basically guaranteed that it will at least make its money back. And as Amelie pointed out, at least in the very expensive flop, the female protagonist had some damn agency.

This discussion of things being worse because girls like them is central to a recent video essay by Lindsay Ellis that reexamines Twilight. While I personally think that Ellis glosses over some of the more legitimate reasons to dislike the franchise (namely the way it romanticizes a deeply unhealthy and abusive relationship and emphasizes an abstinence-only message where the woman is mindlessly needy and the man has to be stoic and deny her desires) she makes some excellent points about the overwhelming hatred aimed at the book and its fans. (She also takes some swipes at Ready Player One. Look at me, pulling strings together. It’s like I know what I’m doing when I write things.) She points out that as a culture, we have extra disdain for teenage girls and basically anything that they like, and we actively encourage girls to distance themselves from one another in order to be respected.

I will admit to being one of the people that Ellis discusses, a young woman eager to distance herself from a cultural phenomenon that was unapologetically embraced by teenage girls. I’ve had to process a loooooot of internalized misogyny that stems from early experiences of being shunned and misunderstood by the “popular girls” and feeling as if I didn’t “fit in” as a girl. Now I can recognize this as early signs of rebellion against gender norms, but for a long time, it was “not-like-other-girls-itis” where I disliked what I couldn’t understand within my own gender. So while I do maintain that while a good portion of my disdain for the book series comes from a legitimate place (the writing is bad, the pacing is terrible, and again, the aforementioned serious, serious problems with the relationships it portrays) I can and do admit that I was likely more vicious towards it than I would have been towards male-centric books of equally poor quality. Both because I was trying to distance myself from other girls, and because I was fairly ashamed that of all the quasi-trashy supernatural romance novels that were aimed at young girls, it was the worst of them that exploded into popularity and became representative of What Girls Like. (There are so many better quasi-trashy supernatural romance novels. I have read them.)

So where does this leave us? Well, depending on who we are, it leaves us with a few tasks.

For audience members of all gender persuasions, it means we have to come to an agreement: we either have to universally raise our standards on pop culture and dismiss wish-fulfillment quasi-trash of all types, or we have to agree to be kinder to the work of that type that features and is aimed at girls and women. We have to be equal opportunity consumers of mindless entertainment. It also means we need to show up, and show demand, for things that cater to traditionally female interests. We also have to stop demeaning female fans, especially teen girls, for being passionate about things.

On the production side, it means that media organizations need to start cultivating female fans. Not just creating things that will only appeal to a narrow spectrum of girls, or things that will appeal to girls by default, but start actively courting a broad female audience in the same way that a broad range of men and boys are appealed to in various media creations.

Girls should have their Ready Player One. Girls should have their Transformers. They should be able to have debates over who was the “best” cinematic Wonder Woman, or the best incarnation of a female-led spy franchise. They should be able to quote the movies they watched as teens and have an entire room say the next line to them.

They should be able to love, and be loved by, pop culture.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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*For you nitpickers, four discounts West and Affleck because they were roughly contemporaneous with Carter’s and Gadot’s Wonder Women, respectively.

Featured image is a collage of 80s nostalgia figures Rainbow Brite, She-Ra, and Jem and the Holograms. All characters belong to their original rights holders.