The latest superhero series on Netflix, Iron Fist, is the latest story under attack for whitewashing. Aloha was condemned a couple of years ago, and last year it was Gods of Egypt. The Oscars in 2016 were oh-so-white, while this year they gave an award to a man accused of assault while nominating a noted anti-Semite.
That is all to say, it’s the slow boring of hard boards to get through to producers and storytellers when it comes to choosing who is celebrated, promoted, and depicted.
Surely it’s a joint problem: as much as we chastise Hollywood for being too white, too masculine, too ignorant, audiences put money forth for such stories.
Pretending that Emma Stone is Asian or that Gerard Butler and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau are Middle Eastern is laughably bad. We call those missteps with ease. However, we must also draw attention to those stories that normalize toxic behaviour — those that more casually and subtly undermine decency, respect, and healthy attitudes towards minorities and other subgroups. Films may not have characters wearing blackface, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t making jokes that are decades old and racist.
Here are some major studio films and movies that raked in a good deal of cash while also mainstreaming offensive behavior, making jokes and telling stories on the backs of harmful and reductive ideas.
Why Him? — This unfunny, egregiously bad film was quickly forgotten and rightly so, but it’s staggering that this film, billed as a comedy, was made in the first place. James Franco, Bryan Cranston, and Megan Mullally were in it, too! Don’t be fooled: some people saw this, and some people liked it, and there were filmmakers involved who thought it was a good idea. And guess what? It’ll be made again with a different title and different characters and an altered plot, with the same tired jokes about bodily functions and awkward sexual encounters.
What’s worse is the premise: a boyfriend and a father compete for a woman they hold dear, acting and speaking on her behalf, fighting for ownership. Why Him? and others of its ilk pretend to cherish women while promoting negative stereotypes about them, depicting them as subjects of men, in need of relationships and without agency.
Age of Adeline — While there was initial promise in this whimsical drama about a woman (Blake Lively) who does not age, it gets bogged down in melodrama and typical romantic tropes. Having already established the heroine Adaline as resourceful, independent, and comfortable in her lifestyle, the filmmakers introduce a doting man who doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. And they think it’s sweet.
Unfortunately what happens next is all too common. He takes an interest, she declines, and he persists. His actions include following her to a taxi and holding on to the door, showing up at her place of work, blackmailing her into a date by withholding funds to her charitable endeavor, betting with her for another date, and then getting upset when she brushes him off when he stands outside her apartment. Never mind that her daughter just died. Seriously, never mind that fact, what was he doing? And why was she forced to apologize to him?
It’s a disgusting commonality, as he was portrayed as a heartbroken victim instead of the creepy, entitled stalker that he is. And Adaline was forced to atone and reflect on her cold behavior. Shut up.
Split — This latest from M. Night Shyamalan led fans to praise his renewed filmmaking vigor and critics to all trot out the ‘return to form’ line. Split would be chilling yes, were it not completely undermined by its gross trafficking in horrible stereotypes and sexualization.
Yes, there are two major faults of this PG-13 thriller about three teenage girls held captive by a man suffering from dissociative identity disorder. The first problem is of course the representation of mental illness. James McAvoy plays a man with 24 distinct personalities, several of which are dangerous, though his therapist thinks his DID may be a boon. Split is all seriousness and never the least bit self aware or silly, poorly handling its subject matter. It stigmatizes mental illness and reduces this disorder in particular, portraying those traumatized and afflicted as violent and aggressive.
The second part has less to do with mental illness, but it’s worth mentioning. Split sexaulizes the girls while going out of its way to convince the audience it’s not. One of the personalities mentions he enjoys watching young girls dance, and our captives are even stripped down to their underwear, but then that character is admonished while the filmmakers can still enjoy the scantily clad teenagers, as if their state of undress is beyond their control. Abhorrently, there is also an entirely superfluous side story about sexual assault that only exists for perverse titillation.
Get Hard –– Two appealing and often funny actors (Kevin Hart, Will Ferrell) headline this train wreck of a film, one that is awkward when it’s not downright offensive. A black man is tasked with preparing a rich, white businessman for prison, and with that comes a lot of so-called jokes about homosexuality. It’s the ‘gay panic’ trope, where characters fear not only an environment where gay men exist, but the enjoyment of potential gay encounters. CHIPs, from Dax Shepard, is getting similar condemnation for the same ploy. It’s mean-spirited, harmful, and lazy.
Passengers — Maligned for not being particularly good overall, this recent star vehicle featuring the world’s most beautiful and funny people (Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt) also was attacked for something troubling in its main storyline. That is, after waking early on a lengthy spaceship voyage, Pratt’s character, doomed to die alone, wakes up a girl he wants to sleep with (and pretends he didn’t), thereby dooming her to an early death as well. And because they are the only two left, and he lies, he succeeds in getting in her pants. But apparently it’s all okay because he really ‘loves’ her.
Maleficent — Disney snuck in a rape scene in their live action prequel to Sleeping Beauty, where the innocent, enamoured fairy Maleficent is drugged by a boy, waking up to find her wings—her freedom—cut off and stolen. That Disney wants to show this event on screen isn’t the problem; in fact, it would be impressive that the company wants to tackle this issue head on and without hesitation.
The problem is that because this is a prequel, the filmmakers were looking for a reason to make Maleficent evil; they decided the reason she hates one man in particular and everyone in general is because she was raped. It’s a very harmful and disturbing depiction of sexual assault and its consequences. In their view, Maleficent is raped, and thus she loses her womanhood, which includes her compassion and perspective, and in turn she focuses on evil and vengeance. We are to assume that all women are feminine before rape, and lose that femininity afterwards.
What’s more, she is ‘reformed’ by the end of the movie because she sees a kid frolicking and having fun. She regains her womanhood because apparently all women love children and would be happy having their own. Thanks, Disney.
The Avengers — For all the fun comic book action and the impressively manufactured universe Marvel has created (in all its triumphant mediocrity), the films have never done well by women. By most counts, we’ve had two female superheroes across fourteen films. Maybe three, if you want to include Gamora, one of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Even so, the others are Scarlet Witch, who has made two appearances always in supporting roles, and Black Widow, who, though she has had more frequent appearances, is greatly problematic.
That’s because the filmmakers give her various love stories and regularly sexualize her character. It also is unfortunate that her ‘superpower’ is basically being a female James Bond; she doesn’t really get to fly around or anything.
Then there are those prominent women who aren’t allowed to fight, but have to be love interests. The characters assumed by Gwyneth Paltrow, Rachel McAdams, and Natalie Portman may be strong, smart, and independent, but they are still objects of affection and in need of coupling up, apparently.
Then there is Evangeline Lilly, who fits in that category but will eventually become a superhero down the line, taking up the role of Wasp alongside Ant-Man (read: not starring). Brie Larson is also on her way as Captain Marvel, which will be the first female-led Marvel superhero film. Those films will be the twentieth and twenty-first in the Marvel Comic universe, coming ten years after the first movie in the series.
Jurassic World — It goes beyond just the high heels in Jurassic World, though having Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) run through the park in them is pretty ridiculous. If she’s going to be the leader of the park, I’m pretty sure she is savvy enough to know how to pack for an excursion.
The film had subtler problems, too. There are only a handful of female characters, and one was a nanny that no one liked, so she quickly met a horrific demise. Another was Claire’s sister, a character created pretty much only to cause problems and grief for her. Not only does she leave her kids with Claire, who presumably has a major job to do running this elaborate park, but then she proceeds to guilt Claire for not having kids of her own. Because this is a movie and no woman can be truly happy without a man and some fodder! Obviously running Jurassic World isn’t that big of an accomplishment.
To paraphrase the words of a brilliant paleontologist, kids are noisy, messy, expensive, and they smell. Much in the same way that normalizing offensive behaviour on film is noisy, messy, expensive…and it stinks.