Hiding the ladies

By Amanda Marcotte
Wednesday, April 21, 2010 13:15 EDT
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Once again, I feel like I have to write a second post on something I’ve written about before. This time the movie “Kick Ass”. Kjerstin Johnson at Bitch Blogs cannot understand why the movie wasn’t called “Hit Girl”, with that character at the center and Kick Ass’s storyline basically wiped out completely. Her arguments are: a) she steals the show b) she’s more interesting and c) Kick Ass is boring. My main objection to her post is the filmmakers did what you wanted.

“Kick Ass” is a movie about Hit Girl. What the filmmakers did was a classic bait and switch. They brought forth certain conventions of movies to lure you into thinking you’re watching one kind of movie (about a young man’s coming of age), and instead they gave you an entirely different story. That Hit Girl steals the show is the point.

I can see how it’s easy to be fooled. We’re so used to seeing these tedious signs that a character is the protagonist that it might be easy to miss the subversion. He’s the narrator. He’s the first character onscreen. We get this long digression about his love life. I suppose by most standards, he’s the protagonist. But he’s an unconventional protagonist, because he is indisputably Hit Girl’s sidekick. The story is one where a sidekick ascends to the #1 position and brings along the newbie as her new sidekick. If you have any doubts about it, think about who fills the most important role of an action film, that of the person who is an unstoppable killing machine. And who has the tragedy that compels her to action? It’s Hit Girl. If you have any doubts left, take into consideration Kate Harding’s point.

Hit Girl has to be bailed out by a man with a gun twice, but both times, only after she’s killed so many fucking people so efficiently she has more than earned an assist – just like male heroes almost always get saved by a sidekick once or twice, without anyone questioning whether they remain extraordinarily, even absurdly, capable fighters. (You have to put the hero in a bit of real danger and give the tagalongs something to do, after all.) She does take a brutal beating before one of those assists comes along, and it’s horrible to watch for a lot of reasons, but if we look at her as the hero of a SBUAALOPD movie – which, title notwithstanding, she basically is – this is also perfectly standard. The asskicker-in-chief inevitably ends up bloodied but unbowed.

Sidekick saves the day is such a standard device that it should be obvious that’s exactly what they were doing. And they were doing it knowingly. I’m always amazed when I see blog posts that assume so readily that the filmmakers have so little control over their own storytelling. I don’t think that it’s all just some crazy coincidence or the magnificent acting powers of Chloe Grace Moretz. Most filmmakers have control over their story, and you can write off stupid movies to bad taste. But even if that wasn’t true, this movie pulls the bait and switch off so perfectly that the safest bet is to assume that’s the intention.

What I find interesting is that this is the second movie I’ve seen in less than a year that pulled a similar bait and switch. “Inglorious Basterds”, while by far a deeper and more interesting and less popcorn-y movie, does the same thing for the same reasons. You buy a ticket to see the Basterds kick ass, and you get a story about a woman who gets her revenge. Tarantino is more obviously playing a game with his audience, because he can basically do whatever he wants and he’s proven he can make money selling female protagonists to his audience. With him, I trust that his intention was subversion of expectations for its own sake. With the producers of “Kick Ass”, however, there may have been other factors in play.

If you’ve never read this post by Jennifer Kesler about how screenwriters are strongly discouraged when it comes to creating fleshed-out female characters, please do. Kesler is writing about the Bechdel test specifically, which wouldn’t be in play in this movie from the beginning, but I think her larger point about sexism in Hollywood still stands.

When I started taking film classes at UCLA, I was quickly informed I had what it took to go all the way in film. I was a damn good writer, but more importantly (yeah, you didn’t think good writing was a main prerequisite in this industry, did you?) I understood the process of rewriting to cope with budget (and other) limitations. I didn’t hesitate to rip out my most beloved scenes when necessary. I also did a lot of research and taught myself how to write well-paced action/adventure films that would be remarkably cheap to film – that was pure gold.

There was just one little problem.

I had to understand that the audience only wanted white, straight, male leads. I was assured that as long as I made the white, straight men in my scripts prominent, I could still offer groundbreaking characters of other descriptions (fascinating, significant women, men of color, etc.) – as long as they didn’t distract the audience from the white men they really paid their money to see.

You could want to make a movie called “Hit Girl”, but good luck selling that to a studio willing to give you the budget to make the movie you envision. But you can totally sell a movie called “Kick Ass” with every touchstone that comforts the money people—that this will be about a teenage boy, that there will be a love story, that there will be lots and lots of stuff for the cherished male audience to relate to, and that it will be a male power fantasy. The experiment here was to see whether or not it mattered what the story was actually about, as long as you could sell it with the cliched tropes.

Because of this, I have to point out that the restraints put on Hollywood actually helped form the vision for this movie. Because they couldn’t make Hit Girl the marketing force or the sales pitch to the studio, they were able to do what moviemakers never get to do, which is make a movie that’s genuinely surprising. Unless you’ve read the comics, which I haven’t, the fact that Hit Girl is an unstoppable killing machine is a complete fucking surprise. And because it’s a surprise, it helps dredge up all the questions that are clearly in play, the number one being why it’s easy for audiences to accept a grown man (or teenage boy) performing impossible ass-kicking feats onscreen, but it blows our mind to see an 11-year-old girl do the same thing. After all, Hit Girl is no less implausible than Spider Man, the Terminator, or Neo. It caused me to think about the often-subtle ways that male dominance is reinforced in our society—the reason that we find grown men with super powers or impossible skill levels more acceptable than little girls is that we think of men as “strong” and girls as “weak”. But of course, grown men and little girls alike are vulnerable to injury or death from violence. Grown men and little girls alike cannot think that quickly on their feet, nor can they climb walls or withstand some of the violence routinely inflicted on heroes in these movies.

You can argue that you want to see movies that straight up sell female protagonists in these power fantasies. And let’s be clear: I’m not saying it’s somehow some great thing that a major ass-kicking female superhero that’s not a sex object has to stand behind a teenage boy in the ads and only step out when they get asses in seats. I do think it’s interesting that, given these kind of restraints, filmmakers are looking for ways to play with them creatively. Or, in Tarantino’s case, just send them up ruthlessly.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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