If Lego Ninjago is representative of a typical playtime fantasy we have some serious issues on our hands. Why? It’s that old chestnut – erasure of women.
The film starts with a live action scene that feels like an homage to Karate Kid. A young boy being bullied seeks solace in a wise local Chinese man. We then move into Lego world and meet Lloyd and the other ninjas. Through adventure and battling their evil nemesis they find their inner strengths.
Fantasy playtime that doesn’t include women and girls
After meeting the two males in the opening scene we meet more in the Lego world.
There are six teenage ninjas, only one of whom is female.
The only other notable woman is Lloyd’s mother Koko. She does motherly things like make him food and worry about him. She does have an interesting back story which is referenced later but she doesn’t influence the narrative in any way.
Where does that leave us?
Male wise uncle
Male arch baddie
5 male ninjas
1 female ninja
This is a totally normal ratio coming from Hollywood, so it’s frustrating but not surprising. The reason why it worries me is this is supposed to be the inner child in all of us playing in our toy world. So why no more women?
If the film is aimed only at boys do they not weave women into their play? Do they not deserve to see strong inventive skilled women? What are girls watching this film supposed to think about themselves?
Only men can throw things
A key part of the plotline is that Lloyd famously can’t catch or throw because his he didn’t have a father to teach him. But his mother could have taught him. She was more than qualified since she’s a secret ninja warrior. But apparently only men can throw things.
Yes it’s a common trope, men playing catch with their sons. But this film makes SUCH a big deal out of it it just highlights the massive sexist plot hole.
Some parts were amusing enough. I liked the live action cat destroying the city. But for a children’s film to not only fail the Bechdel test but to exclude women from the narrative to such a degree it really let itself down.
The female characters weren’t represented poorly, they were skilled badass ninjas after all. There were just so few of them and they didn’t get to drive any of the story.
Hollywood just had its worst summer in decades. Box office takings are dramatically down and studio execs are pissed.
If you haven’t seen, their complaint is that bad Rotten Tomatoes reviews are keeping people away.
As someone who goes to the cinema most weeks with a film club I was instantly suspicious.
Not their terrible films? Not their endless remakes? Not their insistence that men (straight white men at that) dominate the vast majority of characters, writers, directors etc and stories about women and minorities don’t get told?
No. It’s the review site itself.
Their argument is that the definition of ‘critic’ is too wide so that too many people can call themselves critics and give poor reviews. Well wouldn’t they also be able to give good reviews just as easily?
They’re also angry that films made for mass audience appeal are getting poor reviews from artsy fartsy critics who are holding it to too high a standard.
So they’re hitting back. Trying to hack Rotten Tomatoes with things like targeted early screenings to people they are sure will like the film. Or offering no advanced screenings at all to try to get pre-bookings first.
During the fall-out a few counter theories have been posed.
Tickets cost the earth
With tickets costing around £12 these days of course people are going to be careful with their money. And that’s before you’ve thought about popcorn and drink prices.
Who’s going to drop £12 on the gamble that a film will be worth it?
Too many remakes
It seems the golden age for film was 20-30 years ago and studios want to recreate that. Can we have some new stories please? Something fresh, something new and exciting? Something that doesn’t lean so heavily on tried and tested themes we’ve seen a hundred times.
I’m sick of seeing films about straight white men
Of the 20 films I’ve seen at the cinema so far this year only 5 have had female protagonists. And only 8 have passed the Bechdel test.
Don’t say I should just choose different films. There aren’t more films with women we can choose from.
Why should I spend my hard-earned money watching something that doesn’t even bother to have two named women speak to each other about anything in the world other than a man? They don’t respect me enough to represent me.
I’m sick of seeing films about men. Over and over I see men’s stories told by men.
When was the last time you saw a film where no men spoke to each other? I can think of only a couple. When was the last time you saw men on TV outnumbered 4 to 1. Or even 10 to 1. Yet we see this Every. Single. Day. for women.
The insistence on religiously sticking to the historical time period or source text is often at the expense of women. Why, when every filmmaking and storytelling tool is at your disposal, is the invisibility of women the thing that is non negotiable?
See Valerian for a prime example of this. Hundreds of years in the future and women are outnumbered by men by about 20:1.
Hollywood is blaming everything but themselves
The conversation about diversity often ends in excuses. ‘Women choose lower paying jobs by themselves’ or ‘black people commit more crime though’. No! Stop pointing the finger at everything else and refusing to see what needs to change.
It’s about time studios commissioned a serious number of films about women, non-white people, the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities.
It’s about time they trusted more women and minority directors, scriptwriters and producers.
You can’t point the finger at a review site while doing nothing to make better quality, more diverse stories on film.
I was apprehensive about seeing The Dark Tower this week. The trailer showed lots of men, violence and gun worship. And the critics had given it a dismal 16% on Rotten Tomatoes.
But the film itself wasn’t that bad. It had a story, it wasn’t offensive, it had some peril and adventure. So far so good.
The film is based on a series of books by Stephen King. All of the main characters (in the film at least) are male and only one female character contributed to the story in a meaningful way. Her role was to interpret the protagonist Jake’s visions and teach him something about his ‘shine’ or gifts. She got killed soon after.
Unlike Valerian it didn’t do terribly with showing women on screen. There were a few passing shots with female characters doing things and each people-group had one or two women.
But as with so many films any number of characters could have been made into women and it would have made for a richer and more diverse story.
A female gunslinger?
A female homeless ex-shine-child?
A female gun shop owner?
A female villain?
Perhaps it’s this strange rule a lot of directors seem to have that it’s ok to adapt source material but the gender of the characters is sacred and should not be touched.
(Yes I know some films do change character gender. Don’t start pointing them all out)
I did like the racial diversity though. A notable amount of both main actors and minor roles represented a variety of different ethnicities.
It bugged me that this ode to patriarchy was repeated about a thousand times;
“Remember the face of your father”
I was sick of this phrase about the third time I heard it. And it was repeated over and over and over.
It means to remember your ancestors, your lineage and your honour. Telling someone they’ve forgotten the face of their father is an insult.
To have ones father represent all honour, history and sense of self just got annoying.
Trailers: 7 trailers, all for films with male protagonists Bechdel Test: No. Although 10 women spoke, none met the parameters for passing the Bechdel test Group score: 6.4 Entirely unscientific women’s representation score: 3
It’s rare that I leave a film heart-pumpingly angry. But Valerian: City of a Thousand Planets was infuriating.
I go to the cinema most weeks with a group of friends. We all have quite different tastes which can lead to some interesting chats afterwards.
Each week I keep an eye out for representation of women, whether the films pass the Bechdel test and what trailers are shown beforehand.
On the surface Valerian is about a man and a woman saving a space city from doom. The posters and interviews with director Luc Besson lure you in to thinking you’ll see positive depictions of strong women.
That’s true to an extent but it also does women a huge disservice.
Why is it so bad? I’ll summarise into 3 main points.
1. It’s a sausage fest
The main character Laureline is ALMOST the only woman in the universe. Aside from one other female in the military whose job seems to be passing messages, all the government and military leaders are men.
The highest military leader and his henchmen are men
The second in command and his support are men
All soldiers are men
All general army staff and extras are men (save for the messenger)
You get the idea.
500+ years in the future and women have not progressed above the role of Sergeant and have zero authority.
What about the minor characters?
The next closest thing to a meaningful female character is Bubble, a shape shifting stripper played by Rhianna. We’re introduced to Bubble via a pole dance involving a variety of sexy outfits like ‘French Maid’ and lots of gyrating.
Amongst other smaller characters we had
Male submarine driver hunting a male sea creature
Male doctors and scientists
Male tour guide
Male gluttonous aliens (Boulin Bathor) ruled by a male leader who is catered for by a male chef (there was one female, she mostly held up dresses while geurning)
Male pearl alien leader
Three male oracle aliens, the Doghan-Deguis*
Male tourist exasperated at his wife’s shopping (Ooh! A woman with a couple of lines!)
* My friend “John” insisted that the Doghan-Deguis could have been any gender or none.
But the director went to the lengths of demarking other aliens as clearly feminine if they were female and didn’t do so with these.
They have low voices, flat chests and no clothes while all other female aliens had (some) clothes, softer features, higher voices and other traditional gender markers.
Interesting that John didn’t notice the lack of women in this film until it was pointed out. Could that be because it also contained aliens, making it look diverse? Are we trained to expect fewer women in sci-fi and fantasy?
Laureline’s name was even removed from the title of the original graphic novels the film was based on.
Ok the source material is from the 1950s but it’s an adaptation. It’s well within Luc Besson’s powers to ADAPT a few of the characters into clothed women.
2. Laureline gets overly sexual costumes
For the first 45 minutes Laureline wears a bikini with a sheer wispy top over it. The camera lingers on her body as she stretches. She’s apparently dressed as a tourist but nobody else is wearing similar clothes.
She then gets to change into her military uniform… which involves a mini skirt.
Her ‘badass’ armour has massively oversized boobs built in, raising eyebrows and frustration from many.
Boob armour is a quick way of enhancing a woman’s breasts while pretending like she’s doing something active and practical.
“What are you complaining about, she’s in armour and she has boobs so she needs boob armour” moan men who don’t know how breasts work.
Boob armour is impractical, always massively oversized and only serves to sexualise. A sports bra and a flatter shape would be much more practical and pain-free. But then what would the people gaze at.
Her final outfit is a pretty lacey dress with various parts cut out. Thankfully she finds a jacket to cover it up in the last 30 minutes of the film. But not before being a sexy potential meal for the Boulin Bathor glutton alien leader to simultaneously lust and salivate over.
3. Valerian is a sex pest
The message here is “No doesn’t mean no. She wants you to persist”.
As a Major Valerian is Laureline’s superior. He constantly tries to kiss her, professes his love for her and asks her to marry him. He has a string of ex lovers in a ‘playbook’, including photos, which apparently anyone can view.
Laureline’s rejection is clear and strong. Strong enough for me to think ‘wow she really can’t get any clearer, he is just sexually harassing her now’. But he doesn’t take no for an answer and persists.
In the end she relents and admits her love for him. To the inner scream of the women in the audience.
In too many film and TV shows women are pushed by men, even to the point of rape, until they relent and ‘enjoy’ it. See the Poldark rape scene as a prime example.
The message here is “No doesn’t mean no. She wants you to persist”. This narrative contributes to rape culture and men’s sense of entitlement to women’s bodies.
John and I didn’t see eye to eye on this either. He thought Laureline was just as equal in the budding relationship as Valerian. But Valerian was always the one to raise the issue and Laureline was constantly shutting him down.
Summary: I actively disliked almost every minute
Bechdel test: Fail I was looking out for this and it may have technically scraped through (if you think ‘thank you’ in alien speak that had to be translated by a man counts). But I don’t class this as ‘conversation’ and am going to say it didn’t pass. Entirely unscientific women’s representation score: 3/10 Group’s average score: 3.5/10