feminist1Let’s start off this article with a disclaimer: I’m a feminist. No big surprise there if you’ve been reading my blog, or if you speak to me for anything longer than five minutes. Yet recently being labeled a feminist has meant a great lot of discussion about just what a feminist wants out of their media. Specifically: how do we judge female characters in media and whether or not they should be considered ‘feminist’. Putting aside the difficulty of labeling any work feminist, let’s look at the question at hand without whatever stigma might come with the label feminist. That set? Good, let’s do this.

Articles have been popping up questioning the Bechdel Test as a standard for judging female interactions in a piece of media (be it a book or movie or whatnot). For those that are unfamiliar, the Bechdel Test is a test you can apply to any piece of fiction. To pass the Bedchel Test, a piece of fiction must have:

  1. At least two female characters in it
  2. Who talk to one another…
  3. About something other than men.

Now if this sounds like the bare minimum for acceptable representation of women in fiction – you’re right! Yet so many pieces of fiction, especially blockbusters in film, fail the Bechdel test on a regular basis. Check out this list of 10 Famous Movies that fail spectacularly if you don’t believe me. However now, articles are discussing whether or not the Bechdel Test is honestly enough. One article in question on the Daily Dot counter-supposed that, instead of using the Bechdel Test, we should consider something that has been dubbed the Mako Mori Test, after the character from Pacific Rim. This test states that a film passes the Mako Mori test when:

  1. mako_mori___pacific_rim_by_rhezm-d6eaxhqThe film has at least one female character
  2. Who gets her own narrative arc
  3. That is not about supporting a man’s story.

Now, while I like the idea of this test’s idea, I will counter-point that I believe the character of Mako has her own problems as a female character that are outside of the above test parameters. Fact is, Mako does have her own arc BUT the character is utterly gate-kept in the story by male characters. She plays out the typical patriarchal storyarch with her father figure Pentecost and then is allowed to advance only by the will of the male characters. That is a problem all its own, forgetting the failure of the Bechdel. Still, the above example of this new Mako Mori Test shows that people are looking desperately for a way to expand the discussion about what women have to do in films and how they’re represented.

Enter an article over at The New Statesmen entitled I Hate Strong Female Characters. In it, the author discusses the fact that while male characters are discussed as multi-faceted (using plenty of descriptive adjectives), women are only considered acceptable these days if they can be labeled with the term ‘strong’. Now while its a term I’ve used a lot of times in talking about female characters, I think this article points out a glaring problem: female character portrayals have gone from one kind of flat to another. They’ve gone from being flat damsels who are placed in fiction to perpetuate the male narrative to ‘strong’ women who are flat because they’re not allowed to be anything except strong. I think this argument has its own generalizations, of course – I think a lot of those self-same ‘strong’ characters referenced (Buffy for example, in the top of the article) had their own complexities which are often glossed over by the very audience that proclaims them as flat. However I think it points to the heart of an issue we’re having in feminist discourse: what makes a fictional female acceptable?

I’ve got one word as an answer: agency.

Or, to be more direct: CHOICE.

At the very core of discussions about empowerment for women, we speak about equality, sure. But we also speak about the right to choose. Women want the right to choose their own destinies, to make meaningful choices that are not qualified by the actions of men around them or by the expectations put upon them by society. But inherent to that argument is the notion that women have the right to choose to be whatever they want to be, whether that is classified as what modern society would consider a ‘strong woman’ or not.

This conversation is one I’ve heard echoed in the talks about whether a woman should go out and seek employment over being a full-time mother. Or whether or not women who wear provocative clothing are just perpetuating the stereotype of women as sexual objects for the male gaze. Yet at the heart of these discussions is the fact that women have been fighting for years for the right to make their own choices – so when did it become okay to say that other women could regulate those choices, even if they might be considered by some the ‘wrong’ ones?

It is that fundamental choice that is inherent to the feminist dialogue that is what sets apart a female character from both the two-dimensional ‘strong only’ modern heroines that the above article complains about and the damsels in distress of the past. A female character with choice is fundamentally the inheritor of her own narrative arc because she makes the choices (or is made to choose by her creator). She is empowered to make both good and bad choices and therefore carries her own story. Now whether that story is tied to a male character or not, at least the character is choosing to act towards the male’s interests, as opposed to being just an accessory. If that choice is explicit in the fiction, that is a woman given the opportunity to act and impact, and that sets her apart from the two-dimensionality of the previous examples. That is, in my opinion, a female character I can be proud of.

pacific-rim-movie-banner-striker-eureka-jaeger-vs-kaiju Everyone’s still talking about Pacific Rim. The movie has been out for a couple of weeks and the geek world is still buzzing about the kaiju-versus-mech nerdfest that has everyone going stomp-happy into theaters. Sure the movie might not have made as much money as people had hoped, but all together the summer blockbuster fulfilled every geeky childhood whim to see Godzilla-style giant monsters kick around giant action figures. But another conversation that’s come out around the film centers around the film’s not-so-secret protagonist, Mako Mori. Specifically, fans have been questioning Mako as a ‘feminist’ hero. In a time when geek culture is being super critical about its women icons, the debate has been fast and furious about Mako’s feminist cred.

(Warning: There are spoilers herein.)

Mako is at first glance a typical movie heroine. She’s pretty, she can kick the male lead’s butt and still be emotional and vulnerable when needed. She’s top of her class, the adopted daughter of the heroic general. She even has the most tragic of backstories you can imagine, right down to getting her very own flashback as a crying little girl with a tiny red shoe. She hits all the right notes to be an inoffensive movie heroine too. She’s demure when she needs to be, tough when called upon, brilliant otherwise, and self-doubting in a way that makes her seem humanized and reachable. She is written to be pitch perfect in nearly all directions. This is the movie heroine at its finest, right?

Well actually, yes. She is.

PACIFIC-RIM-Rinko-Kikuchi-As-Mako-Mori

Mako embodies a lot of the factors that would point to her being a strong female character in a film. First, she isn’t simply in the film to be the emotional crutch for the main character. If anything, her co-pilot Raleigh is the emotional pivotal point as he guides her forward on her heroic journey. And Mako does have a hero’s journey straight out of Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces, following the arch of the reluctant initiate who seeks out adventure and triumphs in the face of adversity to return home the victor. That role of the young adventure seeker in films is usually reserved for the male protagonist, like Luke Skywalker, and we could almost have imagined Raleigh being written that way. But no, Pacific Rim gave us Mako. And as opposed to transforming that female heroine into a sexualized male fantasy trope, a tight-costumed bit of camera bait to be oggled, Mako is treated as a person as opposed to a sexual fantasy on screen, a woman with brains and will and actual clothing. Considering what we’ve seen for a lot of heroines in movies, these are big steps forward.

Yet and still, some fans are not pleased with Mako’s characterization. Lets unpack why.

The fact that the film flunks the Bedchel test is no question. There would have to be another woman in the film for Mako to have a conversation with for it to actually be possible to pass the Bedchel test. Oh wait, there’s the female Russian pilot of Cherno Alpha, but to have her and Mako have a conversation that isn’t about men or relationships they would have had to give the Russian pilot LINES FIRST. (Ahem, a pet peeve – I loved Cherno Alpha and the Russians, for all we saw of them). That said, this is a legitimate problem with the movie in that its single female character has no other women to talk to. That is a problem with the movie in general and not with Mako’s character, so we can move on. (Pro tip on this one: next time one of the scientists could have been a woman? Or the staff? Or something?) But on to the issues with Mako.

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Kaiju ate your family! You’d cry too!

First there’s the charge that Mako is too emotional. She does spend a great deal of the film appealing to folks with wide eyes brimming with tears, caught up in the memories of her vengeance or frustration over being kept back because of her inexperience. This accusation of too much emotion in a female character is a double-edged sword because it implies that to be a strong female protagonist, one has to be emotionless. Worse yet, it equates that emotion with weakness, a fact that has been perpetuated by patriarchal society and media tropes forever. By leveling the idea that emotions are a sign of a weak character at Mako, we are supporting the notion that having feelings and showing them in a movie are bad. Why, because the male characters don’t do it?

The second issue is that Mako feeds into typical female movie tropes by being demure and self-effacing about her capabilities to the men around her. She seems almost intent on filling the humble woman role perfectly, stumbling at times to keep her head down. But is that because she’s a woman or because her character is written as a naive recruit, kept in an overprotective relationship by her mentor/father figure Stacker Pentecost? This self-consciousness in the face of her own success is an uncomfortable line to walk with a female character, as it can seem apologetic. Is Mako portrayed this way because she is showing a character flaw she can overcome throughout the movie in her character evolution, or feeding into the trope of the ‘don’t make waves’ woman? The portrayal straddles the line at times in ways that make it difficult to know the intent. Still, that kind of self-doubt in a young hero (ala Luke Skywalker) would not, I believe, be questioned as intently in a male protagonist. It is expected that a young hero would be unsure, but because she’s a woman we doubt the motivation behind the narrative choice.

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“But Daaaaad!”

If anything I believe its that relationship between Pentecost and Mako that leads to the most criticism leveled at the character. Scenes between the two, while touching, can rankle as the relationship seems less at times like a loving mentor/child and more like a stern father figure, limiting Mako’s growth from shy girl into capable woman. That patriarchal hand can feel a little dated for a strong female protagonist and can lead to the idea that Mako is passive for a great deal of the film, only allowed out to have her adventures when the men in her life help her get there. In fact, it isn’t until Raleigh steps up to vouch for her with Pentecost that her mentor even allows her to step into the pilot program. It isn’t her prowess that sets her apart, but Raleigh’s determination to give her a chance to save the world. And therein lies the problem – Mako can’t make a difference in the film unless Raleigh and Stacker allow her to do so. There is her lack of agency and the hand of male authority all over the character.

But does that take away from Mako as an interesting character? Does that remove the fact that she has a great heroic journey throughout the film? No. But it makes the way in which her journey happens a little uncomfortable. It makes one wonder if the overprotective father story would have landed on a father/son relationship if Mako had been written as a boy. In Hollywood, the more traditional struggle story for a woman’s heroic journey is to escape the house of her father. The fact that she doesn’t end up in the arms of a man to replace that father figure is where the traditional narrative deviates and helps set Mako apart. Still, there are all these classic tropes in place that bind Mako to a traditional Hollywood heroine’s narrative. If one looks at all of Pacific Rim, however, you can get an answer as to why that might be the case.

Pacific Rim as a film is cliche as HELL.

These are the main characters, folks! Not the people!
These are the main characters, folks! Not the people!

The movie is a ball of cliche wrapped in cliche with a bit of typical blockbuster summer film tossed in. Its a monster movie with giant robots and kaiju/lovecraftian horrors beating each other up in the ocean! There is little by way of expectation of depth in the plot, which is held together by the flimsiest of pseudo-science (though adequately explained) and flashy one-liners. The dialogue is so hammy it rings of old 1950’s sci-fi films like Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, but that’s entirely the point. The movie isn’t in the business of taking itself seriously and relies on typical Hollywood tropes to hold it together so the audience can enjoy some kaiju fun. It’s no surprise then that the characters are all regurgitations of two-dimensional archetypes. There is the reluctant male hero returning for his one last hurrah, the dying mentor who has to see the last battle through, the brash cocky asshole ala Han Solo out to prove his worth to his distant father figure. Let’s not even take apart the sidekicks because its just too damn easy. Each of these characters is textbook simple Hollywood trope o’clock, so why are we surprised that Mako is the same? Why are we picking her apart so much?

tumblr_mpv207VMon1qzpbd2o1_r1_500I think its because she’s the woman. And we’re looking for something to pick on. We want to find something exceptionally different in Mako and cannot be happy when there are sparks of independence in an otherwise two-dimensionally characterized film. We see the advancements – the lack of a love narrative to hamper the character for example- and we jump up to expect feminist wonders. Yet we’re holding the character to a standard that every other character in the film fails to meet – that of depth – and that is unfair to the character herself. Mako can’t be picked on for not standing as a paragon of feminist discourse, or else we need to pick apart every other aspect of the mindless action movie fun. If we do that, the entire film falls to pieces under the weight of its own cliche.

In the end, Pacific Rim isn’t out to make feminist statements. Its not even out to make statements about individual characters, or give us anything but Saturday Morning Cartoon versions of heroes to hold up its monster-battle narrative. So to expect more from the heroine of the film is almost unfair and certainly cherry-picking problems without considering context. To that end, I submit that perhaps we need to leave Mako alone on this one and celebrate what was done with her rather than pick her apart. Or else complain about all the characters as one whole because you can’t have it both ways.

((Note: this article was inspired by a conversation with the awesome Lillian Cohen-Moore and two articles online: “Mako and the Hero’s Journey” and “Is Pacific Rim’s Mako Mori a Feminist Hero?”  I would suggest checking them both out!)