Saturday, June 23, 2012

Brave Princesses, Avatars in Refrigerators, and the Trouble with Tomboys

So, I watched Brave last night, and the season finale of The Legend of Korra this morning. Both were pretty good (Korra was better), but both made me a little uncomfortable when I thought about them from a feminist perspective.

Here's the problem. The kyriarchy tells us that there are two gendered sets of virtues, and that masculine virtues are better than feminine virtues. For example:
  • Masculine: Strength, Courage, Honor, Determination, Combat Skills
  • Feminine: Compassion, Prudence, Negotiation, Calm, Emotional Intelligence, Domestic Skills
The kyriarchy wants us to believe that men are more inclined to have the masculine virtues, and that the more masculine virtue you have, the better a man you are, while women are more inclined to have the feminine virtues, and the more feminine virtue you have, the better a woman you are. This is a lie; virtue is virtue, variation within a gender is greater than the differences between genders, and there aren't two and only two genders, anyway.

The plot of Brave is, in large part, about exposing and rejecting this lie (within a nice safe distant-past-foreign-country-fantasy-world, so that we can pretend it's not a lie our culture tells, too). Merida has the "masculine" virtues in great measure--she's pretty much your classic generic-issue Spunky Tomboy Princess Cliche--while her mother Elinor is a font of "feminine" virtues. Of course Elinor is trying to stamp out Merida's tomboyishness and teach her feminine virtues, and Merida rebels, and so she runs to the Sea Bear Witch and makes an ill-advised bargain and yeah we've seen this movie before. But it's pretty!

And yeah, okay, kudos for exposing that half of the lie, but... ultimately, Merida very slightly for one moment adopts a couple of "feminine" virtues to resolve the main subplot, but the climax of the movie entails Elinor needing to take on and learn to appreciate "masculine" virtues in herself and her daughter, and the ending shows Elinor embracing and joining in Merida's wilderness romps. Which is fine and all, but it's still saying that the "masculine" virtues are better than the feminine virtues. It's not saying "Be yourself," it's saying "Be yourself as long as you display traditionally masculine virtues; if you have traditionally feminine virtues, change."

But the movie has a much bigger example of genderfail: Every single male character, without exception, is a violent, idiotic slob, and it is always up to women to reign them in. It's Sitcom Sexism, right down to the fat unkempt slob of a husband with the slim, perfectly groomed, conventionally beautiful wife. By Sitcom Sexism, I mean misogyny disguised as misandry--look at pretty much anything by Stephen Moffat or Seth MacFarlane for some great examples. Men are depicted as buffoons with no control over their lives and no capacity for self-consideration, either barbarians or henpecked wimps, while women are depicted as controlled and controlling, civilizing influences that bring order to masculine chaos through their negotiation skills, emotional intelligence, and outright manipulation. On the surface it seems to depict women as superior to men, but note what it adds up to: Men can do whatever they want, without consequences, because no one expects anything better of them, while women do all the work of maintaining relationships, homes, and in this case kingdoms, and get nothing for it, because they're expected to do it.


And then there's Korra. Korra has not lived up to the depth of characterization of its predecessor, because it has a lot less room to do so--twelve episodes to tell a complete story with a large cast, instead of the 60-plus of Avatar the Last Airbender. Korra herself is the only character who's had any real development, and she's... well, she's strong, courageous, moderately honorable, and an incredible fighter, and admittedly fairly compassionate toward allies and bystanders (but most definitely not enemies), but she clearly doesn't possess much in the way of "feminine" virtues. Her lack of emotional intelligence is even a major element in the two biggest subplots, the love triangle and her struggle to master airbending and the spiritual side of being the Avatar.

But there's two major differences from Brave in Korra's tomboyishness: First, no one ever presents her with a gendered notion of virtue. No one ever says, as they do to Merida, "Your behavior is acceptable for a boy, but you're a girl." Some people are trying to teach her the "feminine" virtues, but not because she's a girl; they are depicted as things everyone needs to learn. The second is that, because "masculine" and "feminine" virtues are not presented as opposites (because they're not--you can be both courageous and prudent, determined and capable of negotiation, and so on), she does not have to choose one set over the other and one set is not depicted as superior to the other. Instead, there aren't two sets--just a bunch of different virtues she needs to acquire.

The bigger problem in Korra is the Women in Refrigerators issue. For those unfamiliar, Women in Refrigerators is a term coined by comic-book writer Gail Simone to refer to the frequency with which female characters in superhero books are killed, maimed, or depowered. Among other things, Avatar and Korra are superhero stories; Korra is a legacy character, the Silver Age Flash to his Golden Age Flash (or perhaps more appropriately, the Renee Montoya to his Charlie Sage).

And what happens when we switch from a male hero to a female hero? The old villain's goal was world domination through genocide; the new villain's goal is stripping everyone of their superpowers.  And surprise surprise, Korra gets depowered. And then a man saves her. And then another man kills him. And then a third man gives her her powers back.



I'm inclined to be charitable to Korra. Yeah, the depowering thing is pretty fail-y, especially given that the skill used to depower her is also a specialty of the woman who fails to heal her, but because she didn't yet have one of her powers he wasn't able to take it. Reaching rock bottom enables her to tap her spiritual side and airbend, and then later it enables her to summon Aang to restore her bending.

More to the point, these are people who gave us Toph. And Katara, and even Azula in her own way. They've earned it.

Brave, on the other hand? It would take a lot of charity to get the taste of Sitcom Sexism out of my mouth, and frankly, Pixar hasn't earned it. Try again, guys.