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.


  1. Yes, to this. I'm not sure I agree with you about the fridging, since I believe that it has to happen to somebody other than the protagonist for it to count, but it's mostly semantics, since the issue you mention is still there.

    As for Brave, yes, totally: I'm organizing my thoughts on the matter for a blog post of my own, but for a movie that soooo wanted to get feminist cookies, seeing them not get it made me sad.

  2. ::Raises hand::

    What part of Seth MacFarlane's misogyny is "disguised" exactly? Is that when there aren't women onscreen being beaten and abused, there's a presumption that offscreen, nearby, women are being beaten and abused?

    Are the offscreen women being beaten with a laugh track? Because that's all that's missing, really, and you know he'd prefer to use one.

    1. You're right. I was mostly thinking of Moffat, but then I thought, who's a well known perpetrator of the competent-wife-slob-husband on American TV? But you're right, MacFarlane is overtly misogynistic as well as practicing the Sitcom Sexism I was talking about.

  3. the skill used to depower her is also a specialty of the woman who fails to heal her

    Wait, what? Since when does Katara make a specialty of bloodbending?

  4. Hmm, I could have worded that better, perhaps. Bloodbending is a specialty--it's something not all waterbenders can do--and Katara possesses that specialty--she can bloodbend if she chooses to.

    1. I still think it's a weak argument. In the original series Katara seemed to use bloodbending only as a last resort. It's basically the Avatar-verse equivalent of the Imperius Curse, and generally regarded as an inherently evil thing to do, to the point that Republic City instituted a blanket ban on the practice. Doesn't seem likely Katara would have had either the desire or the opportunity to become an expert on the effects of bloodbending on human anatomy, and she certainly hasn't had any prior opportunity to study the effects of the bloodbending technique used to depower benders, since it's apparently a new invention unlike anything anyone's ever heard of before.

  5. 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.

    I think you're seriously being unfair to Moffatt here based on the only work of his I've followed - Dr. Who. I can see how, based on a superficial reading, you could get to that point. But seriously, the only point of simmilarity to your description there is that Rory is socially awkward. The one who puts the serious work into maintaining the relationship isn't the one who runs off with a man she's met twice before on her wedding night - it's the one who guards the Pandorica for 1900 years, and the one who makes his way through the flagship of the Twelfth Cyberlegion almost single handed while the Doctor is busy blowing the rest of it up. And right from the 11th hour, and recognising the coma patients walking around, Rory has been portrayed as competent and diligent unless tripping over his own tongue. (If anything I'd say on a superficial reading Amy has most of the masculine virtues and Rory, the nurse, has most of the feminine ones).

    This isn't to say that Moffatt's Dr Who is unproblematic. Or that there isn't a whole heap of genderfail in Moffatt's other writing. Merely that Moffatt's best known show isn't an example of what you describe. And that's even before we bring The Doctor in. A.k.a. the best negotiator anywhere or anywhen.

    Moffatt's second best known series, on the other hand, barely has female parts. I can, off the top of my head, name Mrs Hudson, Molly Hooper, Irene Adler, "Anthea", and Sidekick Detective (whatever her name is). And a villainous scientist in Baskerville (and I'll pretend The Blind Baker doesn't exist). Between them I don't think they get the screen time of any of Holmes, Watson, Lestrade, Mark Gatiss (OK, Mycroft Holmes), or Moriarty. Which ... is true to the books, but is still its own pile of genderfail. (And feels more Gatiss than Moffat to me).

    1. This is very (very very) late, but I think that one really needs to bring Coupling in, if we're going to talk about Moffatt--it's the series that put him on the map, the one that arguably bears his heaviest footprint, the one where his ideas on the issue are most clear--the series is all about the idea that men and women are fundamentally different, and that it's men's role to be self-absorbed prats, and women's to forgive them for it. Plus, it inspired this particular comment.


      “There’s this issue you’re not allowed to discuss: that women are needy. Men can go for longer, more happily, without women. That’s the truth. We don’t, as little boys, play at being married - we try to avoid it for as long as possible. Meanwhile women are out there hunting for husbands. The world is vastly counted in favour of men at every level - except if you live in a civilised country and you’re sort of educated and middle-class, because then you’re almost certainly junior in your relationship and in a state of permanent, crippled apology. Your preferences are routinely mocked. There’s a huge, unfortunate lack of respect for anything male.”

    2. Yes, it was primarily Coupling I was thinking of--hence the "Sitcom" part of the reference. Watching his Doctor Who *after* watching Coupling, it's really obvious that he's still writing the same way, but he's gotten a lot subtler about it. Well, except for the 2011 Christmas Special, that was near Coupling levels of blatant misogyny.