I had read that Monsters vs Aliens, the latest Dreamworks animated feature and homage to Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, is a feminist flick.
And so it is, in a way; the central storyline has a definite feminist bent to it, and it’s one of the very few recent big animated features with a female (non-princess) lead. (Can you name others?) The three producers are women, though both directors are men, as are four out of the five screenplay writers.
All the monster sidekicks and warring leaders are gendered male, however, so the Bechdel is a struggle. The film just barely passes in the closing moments, with a couple of lines exchanged between mother and daughter. I get that they’re mimicking mid-twentieth-century monster movies for fun, but do they have to just thoughtlessly reproduce the marginalisation of women and female characters in those films in the process? Aren’t there other options? The same goes for the whiteness of the human characters. And if adults aren’t going to be quite sure of the subtleties of the ‘ironic’ sexism, what are kids going to take away from it?
What hit me most during the film, however, was the casual sexism just thrown in here and there. I thought perhaps they were leading up to something, and that this would be dealt with more explicitly in the plot; however, it never was. It was just … gratuitous.
(Sorry about the dodgy sync in the clips.)
A significant proportion of the gendered-feminine characters in the film with more than one line do nothing but make coffee for the blokes and scream.
Note to filmmakers: I think that you can do retro without exploiting sexism for laughs, and without disappearing supporting female characters into the background. Please give it a shot, eh? Especially in movies for kids.
It’s not all bad, not by a long shot, especially given the low bar set by other animated features. The central storyline is pretty great, but I won’t give away too many spoilers on that one.
There’s also a rather fun little bit of genderflip here, in the parked-car makeout scene, complete with the requisite twisted ankle. This scene still draws on sexist motifs, but it acknowledges them and plays with them more consciously. How successful is this retro-satire attempt? Does the humour still rest on the fact that the guy is acting in a stereotypical and deprecated “feminine” manner, as the presidential-scream gag does? How far can the “it was just a joke” approach take us? What do you think?
[P.S. I wrote this whole thing before noticing that the blue blob monster, B.O.B., was voiced by Seth Fucking Rogen.]
Clip One comes after a win in a minor battle against the alien robots.
Ginormica: Did you see how strong I was? There probably isn’t a jar in this world I can’t open.
Dr Cockroach PhD: You were positively heroic, my dear. I especially loved how you saved all those people on the bridge. Nice touch. Wasn’t she amazing, Link?
Missing Link: [back turned, sounding despondent] Yeah, she was great. Really cool. Loved it.
Dr Cockroach PhD: Oh, poor Link! After all that tough talk, you were out-monstered by a GIRL.
Dr Cockroach PhD: No wonder you’re depressed.
Link: Hey! I’m not depressed.
Clip Two: The War Room. Officials are sitting around a large table. General W.R. Monger is clasping The President by the lapels, explaining his plan to defeat the Aliens.
President: Monsters, of course! It’s so simple! [walks away, turns] I – I’m not following you.
Monger: Over the last 50 years, I have captured monsters on the rampage, and locked them up in a secret prison facility. [turns slide projector on to a slide marked Monster File Footage.] So secret that the mere mention of its name is a federal offence.
One of the Joint Chiefs [at the table, behind his hand, to his colleague] Is he referring to Area Fif-
[The Chief is hit in the neck with a red dart. He clasps his neck and keels over.]
Monger: Mister President, say hello to Insectosaurus.
[Slide comes on with giant insect looking over a building. A woman holding a tray of coffee drops the tray, grabs her face, and screams loudly.]
Monger: Miss Ronson, please. Nucular radiation turned him from a small grub into a 350-foot-tall monster that attacked Tokyo. [New slide] Here we have the Missing Link.
[Miss Ronson drops another tray of coffee and again screams.]
Monger: [looks grumpy] A twenty-thousand-year-old frozen fish-man who was thawed out by scientists. He escaped, and went on a rampage at his old watering-hole. [New slide] This handsome feller is Dr Cockroach, PhD, the most brilliant man in the world. He invented a scientific machine that would give humans the cockroach’s ability to survive. Unfortunately, there was a side effect. [shows video of Dr turning into a cockroach-creature]
[Background: Loud screaming.]
Monger: [new video of blue blob eating a police car] Now, we call this thing B.O.B.
[Background: Sound of loud screaming and another tray dropping.]
Monger: WOULD SOMEONE GET HER OUT OF HERE?! [smashing noises and grunt in the background] THANK you. [back to video] A genetically altered tomato was combined with a chemically-altered ranch-flavored dessert topping at a snack food plant. The resulting goop gained consciousness and became an indestructible gelatinous mass. And our latest addition, Ginormica. [video of giant woman]
[Loud screaming in the background same as before. Cut to President in his chair, screaming and clutching his face. He looks embarrassed, clears his throat, and leans forward on his knee.]
President: General. Continue.
Clip Three shows Gallaxhar, the four-eyed alien chief, in his ship.
Gallaxhar: Computer! Set a course to Earth. I will retrieve the Quantonium myself, even if I need to rip it out of her body. One cell at a time!
[As he speaks, a coffee cup and pot float into his hands. He pours. He plucks a sugar cube from another floating dish, and a purple tentacle rises up from the bottom of the screen and stirs it. Gallaxhar pours the prepared coffee into a spot near his ear, then spits it violently forward toward the 'camera'. He waggles his tongue, looking bewildered.]
Disembodied stereotypically-feminine voice of Computer: Careful. It’s hot.
Clip Four: A car is parked in a rural area. Music is playing. Two late-adolescent humans, one boy and one girl, are in the front seat.
[The girl scootches over, does the fake yawn, and puts her arm around the boy. The boy pushes her away violently.]
Boy: Don’t rush me, Katie! I’m just … not ready.
Katie: [dismissively] OH, relax. I’ve heard it’s just like dancing. I’ll lead! [she pounces on him.]
[Cut to the car radio, which is making odd noises.]
Boy: Katie, I have a gymnastics meet tomorrow, so maybe – uh – uh – [top of car opens] did you open the top? Oh! [shields eyes from approaching light] Oh, thank goodness, it’s the police. We weren’t doing anything officer!
Katie [sarkily]: Yeah, nothing at all.
[A fireball flies low over their heads and lands nearby.]
Boy: Jiminy! I even let you talk me into this. [shrinks behind dashboard] Maybe we should get out of here.
Katie: Or maybe we should go check it out. [ jumps out of car and runs toward crash zone]
Boy: Katie, are you NUTS? Wait! Don’t leave me alone! [jumps out of car and follows her. Trips over part of a fence.]
Boy: Doh! Oh, my ankle! I think it’s broken! Katie?
Katie: This is the worst day ever.
[Katie carries the boy over a hill, toward the fiery, smoking pit.]
Boy [timorously]: Katie, I’m frightened.
[A giant eye snaps open in front of them. Boy, still in Katie's arms, screams.]