So, we finally got around to watching JJ Abrams' Super 8 a few nights ago, and it was really fun! I enjoyed it more than I expected. Jared enjoyed it more than he expected. It fell into that particularly robust niche of (arguably peculiarly American) storytelling: a boy reconnects with his estranged father. Their story opens with them as far from each other as they can be; by the end of it, they’re playing catch.
There’s a second, interrelated story being told, too: The kid is weird, man: awkward, geeky, likes monster movies and comic books. You know the type. And the father? You know his type, too: distant, damaged, normalized; doesn’t really know how to connect with his kid. In Super 8, the kid’s a model-making weirdo and his dad is deputy sheriff.
The story ends the same way, though: they still wind up playing catch. No matter how different they are as people, the can come together as normal fathers and sons do.
(‘Playing catch,’ I don’t need to point out, is a metaphor. Though often a literal one! In Field of Dreams, they play catch. Literally! Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? They ride off into the sunset together. Literally! You get the picture. Fathers and sons, finally seeing eye to eye.)
I’m an American. I grew up with these stories. They’re everywhere. They mean a lot to me. They resonate.
I’m also a geek. I grew up with those stories, too – how weird kids connect with their ‘normal’ authority figure parent-types. (Or normal kids and their weird parents, but that’s a slightly different kind of story.) Everyone comes to understand each other a little better. Ties are bound. These stories also mean a lot to me. They also resonate, y'know?
But you know what else I am?
And you know what I’m really goddamned tired of? These fathers/normal & sons/geek stories. Like Super 8. Like Real Steel. Like Last Crusade (and I love Last Crusade I really do). Like Field of Dreams. Iron Man 2. Batman whatever. Superman whatever. Like all of them.
Because over and over, these stories are not about women. Indeed, they specifically exclude women from participating in the action: Super 8, for example, has a really interesting, strong female character who (spoiler!) gets kidnapped by the alien, the act which thus motivates the father and son to come together and understand each other and improve their relationship and also rescue her.
And, over and over, I find myself wondering: why? Why are these stories so specifically about men? Why is that there aren’t action movies about mothers and daughters fighting the Nazis, or aliens*, or even building baseball fields together?
Okay. Here’s the part where I’ve cut out a 3000-word rant about the depiction of women in popular culture to get to my point: Super 8 and the Big But.
The Big But is this: but why are they all men? Why are the geeky, movie-making kids in Super 8 boys? (Elle Fanning’s character is invited to participate because the inviter has a crush on her; she's not an integral part of the group.) ‘Oh, that’s realistic,’ you might say. ‘Thirteen-year-old boys don’t have female friends.’ But they do. Seriously, every single one of you reading this right now: think back to when you were 13. Did you have a friend of the opposite sex?
Me too. Quite a few, in fact.
‘Oh, but it would change the story; they’d just be obsessed with each other or something.’ But they already were. Two of the main (male) characters had a crush on the female character. Add a female character into the geeky boy mix and what do you get? Nothing more or less than what was already written into the story.
How about, ‘oh, but boys and girls can’t be friends. Not really.’ But they can. I mean, I don’t really have to make an argument about that, do I?
Maybe we’ll get to the root of the matter with this objection: ‘this isn’t a story about girls.’ And, if that’s what you think, here is where there’s nothing I can say or do to convince you that, actually, it is. This can be a story about girls. It can be a story about boys. It is a story about parents and children. It is a story about people. (And monsters.)
No story is inherently gendered; it’s the storyteller who makes it about something, and not about other somethings. I can give you some anecdotal evidence, for example: I was a geeky kid, raised by a very (to my eyes) normal single parent who loved me but who was distant and very intimidating. Sound familiar?
‘Oh, but it’s different; you’re a girl and she was your mother, so you spent all your time talking about makeup and boys and your periods.’
What a boring relationship we must have had.
For the record (hi, Mom!), we didn’t. We had a great, complicated, difficult, meaningful, awesome relationship. We still do. And, you know what? She’d be fantastic to fight the Nazis alongside of. (Seriously, they stand no chance.)
My point is: it isn’t different. There is no reason for these stories, these films to be about men and their relationships with other men. There is nothing inherently masculine about them. There is no reason for girls to be depicted only as the terrifying, desirable other that they are. As victims. As objects.
While we’re on the topic, JJ, I really enjoyed the rebooted Star Trek, but why are all the main characters still men? Why, in Star Trek Into Darkness, are the only two female characters defined solely by their status? Uhuru is a girlfriend, and a waspish, weepy one at that. Thanks, JJ. Thanks for that.
And Marcus? She’s important because she’s someone’s daughter. That’s it. That’s her point. That’s the entire reason why she’s in the film. (Oh, except maybe also the underwear shot. She was also in the film so we could see her body. Yay!)
So, back to the Big But. The older I get, the less patience I have with geeky films. Too often now, I’m walking out of theatres thinking to myself, ‘gosh, that was fun. But why are they all men?'
And I find there is no satisfactory answer.
*With the enormous and must-be-made-more-often exception of Aliens. I have my problems with James Cameron, but he’s awfully good at strong female characters.