Any given time I walked out of the theater during this summer blockbuster season, I could be heard giving a variation on the following rant:
“They’ll make a superhero movie starring a freaking raccoon but we can’t have a Wonder Woman movie? They have an Ant Man movie in development but we don’t get Black Widow? ANT MAN. He’s as small as an ANT. Black Widow can strangle people with her thighs!”
My nerd cred might not include an encyclopedic knowledge of comics lore, but I am solidly in the comic camp. I’m in the action movies camp, too. In fact, I tend to really enjoy a variety of genres in the film world; comedies, drama, historical, elves running through forests. I’m into it. I’m also a lady, and a feminist at that, and herein lies the rub.
Back before I knew much about feminism, let’s say, in my high school days, I wasn’t as bothered by lack of female representation in movies. I might have mentioned that I’d like to see Galadriel & Arwen have a moment in LOTR, but it just wasn’t as big of an issue for me. Then came my feminist education (mostly from the Internet, thank god I was born in the information age), and my introduction to the Bechdel test, and intersectionality, and gradually I had this whole new scope with which to see the world. This slid over into analysis of the entertainment I watched and sought out.
Perhaps because so much of what I do is rooted in storytelling, criticism is intrinsically a part of my enjoyment when I’m watching movies and television. Perhaps because I aim to make feminist-friendly, female-empowering entertainment myself one day, I am more invested in the process and progress.
But this is no longer new for me, and in some of my more shameful moments, I wish I could turn to my feminist brain that’s whispering all through my viewing of "Guardians of the Galaxy" about how easy it would’ve been to give Gamora and Nebula a sister story-arc and yell “JUST BE QUIET FOR A MINUTE, okay? I’m trying to watch a movie here!”
I know how incredibly whiny, first-world privilege it sounds that I wish I could conveniently unlearn central feminist theories so that I could brainlessly enjoy a movie for two hours out of the summer heat. But there’s something comforting about sitting down in a theater and being transported to a different world for a few hours, and the persistent voice in my brain that whispers “No way would Gamora fall for that dude, this is just lazy writing,” snaps me right out of that world.
So yes, I’m ashamed of it, but I do sometimes wish I could revert back to my blissful state of ignorance that allowed me to enjoy whatever entertainment I sought out without minding if it was problematic or not. I miss the younger me who would’ve sobbed, heartbroken, at the ending of this summer’s latest "Spiderman" installment. Instead, I left frustrated at the idiocy of banking a franchise reboot on the likeability of Gwen Stacy only to fridge her, without any clear plans for the third movie, just to teach the main (white male) character some sort of ambiguous lesson (seriously, was the lesson that his vigilante life is dangerous? Was the lesson not to date smart ladies? Was it that he shouldn’t be depressed and should keep on swingin’ despite getting his girlfriend killed? I’m obviously not bitter about this in any way still).
Lately I’ve been pondering this idea that lots of my feminist friends have floated around, which is that we can enjoy problematic things while acknowledging their nature. If our enjoyment is not couched in ignorance, as long as we’re aware of some of the issues inherent in whatever it is we’re consuming, we can partake in it without perpetuating it.
I think my problem is that I don’t know how to balance how much I love these kinds of movies with how much I wish they represented women better, or even POC (I mean, c’mon, we have a movie that’s literally about aliens who guard the whole universe but they have to be led by a boring white dude because reasons). When I saw the latest "Star Trek" in theaters, my eyes lit up at the amount of different races in the background. But when they stayed in the background, my disappointment swelled. How do I reconcile that feeling with how much the rest of me loved that movie?
Maybe the answer is that I can’t compartmentalize, that I have to learn how to hold the tension of critiquing the entertainment that I gravitate to and enjoying it at the same time. That’s probably another slice of privilege, that I can afford to accept both at the same time. It doesn’t mean I’m going to stop advocating for better female representation in the genres I love.
I think I need to learn how to enjoy something while critiquing it, to learn how to see something as neither wholly good or bad but both. And in the meantime, I can rejoice in the signs of progress, like "The Hunger Games" becoming a massively successful, female-led franchise, or the subtle narrative arc in this summer’s "X-Men" chapter that showed Mystique torn between two manipulative males and choosing neither.
And maybe I can learn to stop ranting right after leaving the theater, because it’s starting to annoy my friends.