Monday, October 24, 2011

I Want Better Myths

It's so easy to make feminist critiques of Disney heroines that they're almost straw men (if you pardon the expression).
But it bears pointing out that these misogynist depictions are bad models for males as well:
This is something right at the heart of Third-Wave feminism: that screwing women screws men in the process. A system of inequality may temporarily benefit a certain portion of the population, but when it comes to gender issues like it comes to race, being a bigot is just shooting yourself in the foot.

It may seem like I'm digressing, but bear with me here. This isn't one of those rants about how contemporary media unrealistic portrays women. It does, but I'm not here to rant about it. I'm here to address one of the primary objections I run into when I talk about the study of popular media:
"It's just a movie."
Insert "TV show," "song," "comic," etc. for "movie." These words are just stand-ins for "piece of popular culture," which decades of Ivory-Tower, canon-protecting, Dickens-Tolstoy-and-Hugo fellating white men have told you isn't worth serious study. To boot, so have decades of money-grubbing, shareholder-protecting Dow-Jones-and-Hollywood boot-licking white men have done the same.

They're wrong. These things are worth very close examination because they make up our culture - our daily lives and the attitudes we carry around to both view and shape them - much more than "High Art." (There really isn't such a thing.) Art is art, and you can use the same set of tools to take apart a poem Robert Frost as you can, say, a film from Disney Studios. Mind you, the former is often a lot more rewarding, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't put Walt's work and legacy just as much under the microscope. In fact, considering how many people could quote a Disney film faster than a Frost poem, I'd say it's more important to do so.

And plenty of people have done so. These are the myths that we use to build our society. Myths are very important, and even if today we call them "TV Shows" and "Rock Stars" and "Movies" this doesn't change either their social importance or the basic tools of narrative that we can use to talk about them. And let's face it, a lot of myths we keep telling ourselves are messed up. I'm not talking about such banal things as physical violence (which Disney movies, even early ones, have in droves) or drug-use (anyone seen Dumbo?), but rather sexual and political violence (Cinderella prostitutes herself, make no mistake; and Hercules is a political pawn, you know) and the opiates that mainstream movies have become with their sugary endings, simple formula and harmful gender depictions. These myths are poisonous to our psyche, yet we have been conditioned to accept them as not only natural, but ideal.

I want better myths. I want myths like Nausicaä.
Not that Nausicaä. (Well, Homer's character is pretty interesting, but let's file that away for a future discussion.) I want to talk about Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds:
This is the kind of myth I want to see more. And here's why: Nausicaä is a third-wave feminist. She's courageous and wise, active but deliberate, a leader and a listener. She sees people as people first, regardless of their upbringing or gender or nationality. She understands about process and balance, how nature works to equalize itself, and that humans unbalance their relationships both with each other and the environment at their own peril.

She also has pychic powers, the world's coolest sidekick and she gets to fly on a jet-powered ultralight.
Nausicaä is a synthesist with a curious mind. She doesn't see the world as a set of fixed categories, but rather understands that meaning comes from our actively labeling of things. At the same time, she's not relativist. She has a strong sense of moral propriety: the absolute value of life, but the need for death to define that life. She strives for truth, but the understands that silence or even misdirection can be necessary in the service of a greater good. Her first instinct is kindness but she does not flinch from action. She forgives but does not forget.

Nausicaä's journey is so also much more identifiable to us mere mortals. (How many princesses do you know?) She's coming into adulthood, learning about the consequences of her actions, striving to do what is right in the face of adversity, and especially whatever is "right" is often not so easy to discern. While Disney characters like Belle and Ariel might have been touchstone for an entire generation, their stories are ultimately still about caging those women, about taking away their dreams of freedom and replacing them with domestic stability. And at the same time, this delimiting is cast as both natural and desirable.

Nausiccaä shows the way out of the Disney trap: a fully realized character that, yes, happens to be female, but whose gender is secondary to her journey as a character, whose ideals are both complex and clear.

So, whether you are a filmmaker, a songwriter, a poet or any manner of artist: make better myths, myths as unique and powerful and refreshing as Nausiccaä.

P.S. Miyazaki's films are chock-full of great heroines, and here's a really great overview:
"Disney, Miyazaki, and Feminism: Why Western girls need Japanese animation" Christine Hoff Kraemer


Paul R. Potts said...

Don't get me wrong; I love Nausicaa. The heroine is a great, brave, heroic figure. But let's not pretend that outfit is practical. There are plenty of shots like this one. I believe that's called "fan service." And it shows us just how far we haven't come.

noah mclaughlin said...

Fair enough, though if you're looking for shots of Miyazaki heroine underwear, no one beats Kiki and her bloomers.

Off-hand, I feel like these two are somewhat exceptions to the rule in Miyazaki films (well, we might be able to include Ponyo... but that starts to border on the pedophilic, then, which is not, something I would ever use to describe him.) I think it might have to do with more than the "Male Gaze," but rather with Japanese cultural norms. If these are sexualized representations, they exist in a great deal of tension with a much more fully realized characterization.

Long story short (too late!): it bears further rumination. Thanks for a future post idea!

Dave Leigh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave Leigh said...

(edited for spelling)

It's also possible to go overboard, Paul. A shot like that, fully clothed, in pants, is hardly fan service. It just happens to be what a woman looks like in pants, and there's nothing wrong with that. Honestly, I think you have to be actively looking really, REALLY hard to count that as fan service.

Miyazaki could have put her in asexual stormtrooper armor. But think about it... if the heroine is indistinguishable from a man, what's the point of claiming her as a heroine at all? Should that be the message...? You have to be a man to be a strong woman...?

I think not.