Friday, February 7, 2014

Immediate Thoughts on The Lego Movie... Gender

Today I'm going to basically do the same thing I did for Frozen except this time I took notes and it's a few hours after I saw the movie. Warning: Major spoilers ahead for The Lego Movie. Do not read this unless you've already seen the film or you don't care about spoilers.

1) Gender: I will go into the female characters one by one but let's start by just talking about gender in general. Lego has a well-documented issue with gender representation and the way they market toys to boys and girls. There are many other blogs that cover the issue of gender segregation of toys and the way the properties that Lego licenses already have a lack of female characters. Overall, I thought the movie was aware of the gender issues but it didn't really go far enough to solve them. I kept track of all the female characters in the movies. But my notes are slightly illegible scribbles so feel free to correct me if I make any mistakes. Aside from the female characters I'm going to specifically call out, there were also a lot of women in the background who didn't speak and women on billboards and written materials (instructions) in the film.

One of the first female characters we see is Emmett's neighbor who fits a "crazy cat lady" stereotype. She has a big sweater, a fanny pack, glasses, and an abnormal number of cats.

The main character, Emmett, works at a construction site. There are a handful of women in this scene, though they're still in the minority. The filmmakers made a point to have one named female character called Gail. I felt like they were trying to make us very aware of her presence (because of the concerns about representing female characters) because they repeated her name an unusual amount of times like "Look, there's a girl!" Gail said something in the footage where Emmett's "friends" were interviewed about him and another character described her as "perky."

In the Old West set all of the female characters are in corsets. The women we see are on stage or moving around the saloon apparently as waitresses. Not that this doesn't represent something of a reality in the Old West (especially in popular imagination) but there were other roles women played at that time (though maybe not in a saloon). However, exiting the saloon, you never see other kinds of female characters. None of the cowboys are women. When the characters pass by a pig pen you do not see a female character tending to the livestock.

When we see characters from the Star Wars set, Princess Leia is absent. To be fair, Luke is also absent but he's not one of the few female characters in that franchise.

2) Wyldstyle: In talking about Wyldstyle it's impossible to not talk about the prophecy at the same time. Let's start with the prophecy. One of the biggest flaws with the movie is that it very well could have had a female hero. The prophecy states that the "special" can be a "lass or fellow." This had me excited because there could have always been a third act turn where a female character ends up being the hero. But no, in spite of her abilities, she was still just the love interest. During the film, Wyldstyle gets to show off her skills at fighting and also building with Lego materials but it doesn't come out of nowhere (as with other Minority Feisty characters) as she trained with Vitruvius thinking that she would become "the special". And the film doesn't really give a good reason for why she couldn't have been "the special." Before Vitruvius realizes that Emmett was the one who found the "piece of resistance" he gives her the speech about how she is "the special." I almost felt like the film was taunting me. Later Wyldstyle tells Emmett "I wanted it to be me. I wanted to be the special. [...] I was right there in that construction site and then it turned out to be you." Again, I kept imagining a film where we might have had a female heroine. But the thing that really cements my frustration is that the prophecy is a lie. Vitruvius eventually reveals that he "made it up. It's not true." Which means the whole time I was watching a movie where I was told Emmett had to be the hero instead of Wyldstyle because he was the one who discovered the piece of resistance, she could have been the hero the whole time!!!

I have an issue with the way Wyldstyle is introduced. I understand what they were trying to do. We were seeing her from Emmett's perspective as the protagonist. But when you frame a character's introduction that way, you align the audience's perspective with the protagonist's perspective so what you see when you look at Wyldstyle is "potential love interest." In her first scene after showing off her building skills when she first takes off her hood you get the same old slow moment hair tossing scene. Later, we again see Wyldstyle through Emmett's eyes. He ignores what she is saying as she explains the situation with President Business and instead hears "I'm so pretty. I like you. But I'm angry with you for some reason." Now, as a savvy viewer you recognize this as something bad. You're on the side of the writers who are acknowledging that Emmett should not be ignoring Wyldstyle or trivializing her and reducing her to a love interest. But this move still forces you to see through Emmett's eyes. Whether or not you want to, you are also forced to ignore what Wyldstyle is saying.

I haven't decided how I feel about Wyldstyle's physical appearance yet. She wears her hair in a ponytail. She has blue and pink streaks in her hair. She is dressed in all black and wears a hoodie for most of the film though she wears a dress with a corset in the Old West scene. Her eyelashes are prominent and she is wearing lipstick. There are a lot of ways you can interpret her look and I'm not sure where I fall just yet. Is she a manic pixie dream girl? Is she a positive character because she has "masculine" attributes? Is she a positive character because she lacks certain "feminine" attributes? Is she a positive character because she has certain "masculine" attributes but also wears makeup? The movie also explains her name by having Vitruvius say a throwaway line about her being one of his students who was so insecure that she kept changing her name. Like Flynn Rider's character in Tangled who is revealed to be a Eugene, Wyldstyle is eventually revealed to be Lucy. By setting her name up as a point of insecurity, it seems less like a strong personal choice that she makes as an individual. Characters also make fun of her name and ask if she's a DJ.

In the film, Wyldstyle is dating Batman. This further reduces her to the role of love interest and mocks her personality. She has a line that sticks out to me. In describing the song that Batman wrote for her she says "This is real music, Emmett. Batman is a true artist, dark, brooding." There is the idea that she's not really a tough character or that this isn't her personality. You could take it a step further and imagine that she's merely tried to adopt Batman's "darkness" though that's just conjecture. But the idea that the personality that might make her an interesting female character isn't her true self is reinforced later when she knows the lyrics to Everything is Awesome and Emmett teases her by reminding her that she said she didn't know the song and telling her that he doesn't think that she's as tough as she acts. (I'm paraphrasing.) She has relationship issues with Batman to make way for her relationship with Emmett. It also means a lot of her screentime is spent on relationship drama. He is unsupportive and is seen trying to "bail on them" and she tells him "I need you to have a better attitude."

In case you were in doubt about Wyldstyle primarily being a love interest in spite of how capable she might be (following in a long line of female characters) Batman confirms it by letting her be with Emmett because  "He's the hero you deserve." Yes, I know it's a Batman reference but it also confirms that the hero gets the girl as a prize.

3) Master Builders: Let's take a closer look at the Master Builders who are female characters. The Master Builders are important because they represent all the of the characters who are capable of changing the world around them (at least through part of the movie. More on that once we've finished with gender.) I've already talked about Wyldstyle. The film also includes Princess Uni-Kitty, Cleopatra, Wonder Woman, the Statue of Liberty, a mermaid character, and one other female character I couldn't identify. (There was also another female character in Metalbeard's flashback. When he talked about it though he specifically talked about the loss of "one hundred of our fallen master builder brothers".) Of these characters, Wyldstyle, Princess Uni-Kitty, Wonder Woman, and the mermaid character are the only ones who speak. Now, this might not seem so bad but Wyldstyle is the love interest, Uni-Kitty is another member of the core group and I was able to write down everything else the other female characters said (that's how few lines they had).

The mermaid characters says "What's that on his ankle?" calling attention to the tracking device on Emmett's leg.

Wonder Woman gets one joke "To the invisible jet! Dang it!" She also says "Oh, no."

In the sequence with the NBA Lego characters, Cleopatra is a cheerleader. She still doesn't talk.

4) Uni-Kitty: Uni-Kitty is a primarily pink cat with a unicorn horn and horse's tail. She is voiced by Alison Brie and she is absolutely adorable. She is also another Minority Feisty. She does get her moments in the film. Basically she is a very cheerful character who tries to repress anything that makes her sad or angry. Nothing new there. The first time we see her break is when she mourns the loss of her home (a giant puppy shape structure). The second time she breaks is when she finally gives into her anger at the end of the movie and goes on a rampage. Her role in the big plan is to distract President Business with Bruce Wayne as two business people. She goes in with glasses drawn on her face and adorably just says "business, business, business" and other gibberish but it kind of reinforces this childish, incompetent character as cute as the joke is. So we still have one love interest and one childish, "feminine" character. When she gives in to her anger at the end of the movie, she turns red and has sharp teeth and is very aggressive. Basically, less "feminine." Basically, problematic.

5) Sister: The ending of the film is very interesting. I wish I'd been able to get the entire quote down but this is far as I got. Finn's father (Will Ferrell's live action character) says "Now that I'm letting you come down here and play guess who else [...] your sister." And the film ends with the Lego characters that Finn's sister controls entering the Lego world. Which is great. I'm glad that the film ended inviting girls in the real world to also play with legos. But why did it take so long? Other than the fact that it continued the long tradition of father son films (this movie gave me Jumanji vibes) why did Finn have to be a boy? Why couldn't we see a Lego Movie created by a girl? Or by a brother and sister? Imagine not seeing Emmett as the hero because the framing device was that a girl had created the story. Imagine the tropes we would have avoided. Imagine this world from a female perspective.

I realized this post was getting very long so I decided to write a separate thoughts with my general thoughts on the movie (the voice work, animation, messages, etc).

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