Sunday, September 7, 2008

River Tam: Sad Attempt At Feminism? had an article about Hollywood's 5 Saddest Attempts at Feminim, and although I agreed with 4 out of the 5 entries (or at least, the ground reasoning for those entries -like Elizabeth Swan), #3 really makes me scratch my head in wonderment. And actually, also #2, because I'm really not sure if Catwoman was supposed to be such an empowering female figure. I mean, sure, Catwoman is cool and all, but I didn't really get a "Hey! We're totally trying to create a character women will see and go 'Hooray for Feminism!'" feeling from her in any of her reincarnations. Maybe I'm wrong about that, but I don't really think I am. After all, comic books and comic book films haven't exactly been known as the bastion of feminist thought. Look at the most recent Batman for an example, or even Iron Man. Pepper Potts is cool, but she's still kind of one-note and not much of an entity. Same thing with Rachel Dawes. She was a cooler character in Batman Begins, because she was actually given something to do and had an agency and story separate from Batman himself. She was a crusader in her own right. And though the switch from Katie Holmes to Maggie Gyllenhaal made for a more compelling portrayal of the character, Rachel herself was downgraded significantly in The Dark Knight. Hell, she didn't even try to save herself when she was in danger. Harvey Dent did; but Rachel just sat there passively waiting to be rescued. That's not so kick-ass, but it is par for the course. And so Catwoman is just one in a long line of comic book women who is created more on the individual level than as a beacon of empowerment for women. She is created as a notable and interesting and complex adversary for Batman, and really little else. Her story, like Harvey Dent's story and the Joker's story, is meant to mirror Batman's own tale. Which is a cool literary device and allows a deeper introspection about Batman and Bruce Wayne; but does little to create a moral agent of entirely independent thought, because it all comes back to the Batman.

But let's get back to the #3 on that list. The third spot is occupied by one River Tam, Joss Whedon creation and one of the main characters on the prematurely cancelled Firefly and follow-up film Serenity. The problem Cracked highlights?
"Despite River's inherent ass-kicking abilities, she rarely uses them to the benefit of the crew. The character has been driven insane by her experiences, and therefore she spends most of her time saying crazy things and throwing up on her brother's bed. In fact, protecting River forms the backbone of no less than five out of thirteen episodes, plus the theatrical movie. That is a lot of rescuing for a feminist hero."
And as backup for this critique, they pulled out a crazy woman who claims that Joss Whedon is a rapist. Because all men are rapists, didn't you know? Le sigh. Well, let's take a look at this argument from Cracked, because it isn't all its cracked up to be.

First and foremost, River Tam was not driven insane by her experiences. She was made insane because the government stripped her amygdala. This wasn't just some "weak woman overcome" thing. This was purposefully and medically done to her. It removed her agency, and it was part of the government's plan of turning River Tam into an object and not a subject. And although this is a small nitpick, the throwing up on her brother Simon's bed wasn't because of the insanity so much as it was based on her reaction to the drugs Simon gave her to try to conteract her insanity. So it isn't like Whedon created a crazy female character who went throwing up everywhere willy nilly. Secondly, protecting River and Simon from the government is a main theme, not because they are weak and need protecting but because they are fugitives from the law. That is a lot different than a Rachel Dawes situation. Thirdly, I don't know where they get that five episode count. From where I'm standing, protecting River was just one storyline in the pilot episode; Bushwhacked had a different backbone of introducing Reavers and the Alliance stupidity full on, with keeping Simon and River away from the government playing an adjacent role to the primary theme. Ariel is about gathering more information about River's condition and pulling off a daring heist. Objects in Space is about River being smart enough and able enough to take control of a dangerous situation and utilize her talents to protect not only herself but her newfound family and home. Safe is really the only episode that is about protecting River. Fourth, and this may be a bit of a nitpick as well, a lot of River's talents aren't strictly inherent. She had the ability to become an ass-kicker, but she had to be trained by the government. She isn't Buffy. She is a girl who was used.

Fifthly, this criticism put forth by Cracked may be a valid critique if not for two caveats, one being that River Tam is hardly the only kick ass feminist heroine on the ship (Zoe comes immediately to mind as another); and the second caveat being that this is actually kind of a traditional feminist narrative. Think A Doll's House. Think The Awakening. Think The Yellow Wallpaper. Hell, think Wide Sargasso Sea. All, with varying levels of success on the part of the female protagonist, start off as an examination of the female as the object, as something to be controlled and possessed. Nora escapes; Edna swims out to sea; the protagonist in The Yellow Wallpaper goes insane and then begins to crawl; Antoinette goes insane and decides to take her own life. River Tam is among these narratives, with Zoe Washburne representing another narrative.

River Tam had something taken from her, she was broken, and through that she became stronger and overcame and fully grew into a self-defined entity. And yet, even when she is broken by a government who wanted her as an object, as a weapon, we are told outright that she is "a person, actual and whole". Her journey is powerful because it doesn't come from a place of film-exploitation. We don't see the horrific things done to River in an attempt to titillate us; we don't see what has been done to River at all. Even her brief nudity in Serenity (the episode) is meant to emphasize her vulnerability and her odd openness to the world. And through it all, though she has been beaten and broken and used like a thing, she is someone who comes into her own; she becomes someone who is able to control her talents -talents that had made her object in a different situation- in order to fully set herself and her companions free. And that is the thing Cracked's list doesn't seem to recognize: River's journey in Firefly and Serenity is the journey toward empowerment. We don't meet her already empowered and powerful. We meet someone who has had horrible things done to her; we meet someone who has been sacrificed for the greater good. And through her journey, she becomes a feminist icon.


Aktief Kulture said...

Well said. :)

John said...

First of all, you knew you were off the rails when you were taking seriously, right? For crying out loud, they don't even have a printed publication anymore!

As for the argument itself, I think you're downplaying the river-in-distress element of the show. Dress it up however you like, the purpose of "Ariel" was to save her mind (or at least start the process thereof.) I'll agree that she shared a B-plot with Simon in Bushwhacked, and that Joss flipped the norm when he had River save everyone in Objects In Space, but the fact that the entire theatrical movie centered on protecting her (Simon wasn't in as much danger) from the Alliance is hard to ignore.

I agree that Rachel Dawes was somewhat sidelined in The Dark Knight, but so was Bruce Wayne/Batman to a large extent. That movie was about Harvey Dent versus The Joker, with Batman acting as a supporting character in what should have been his story.

As for Catwoman, you have to understand that the Halle Berry feature differed from any other depiction of Catwoman in several ways:

1)She was a superHERO, not villain, who was given superpowers by cat-gods in order to save the world from an evil cosmetics company that was making killer makeup(or something.)

2) She dressed like a cosplay stripper because she wanted to show people how self-confident she was (the trailer has a scene with a bunch of cops talking about how they're looking at someone with a very strong sense of self-confidence)

3)Her transformation from wimpy, unassuming cosmetics company artist to self-confident superhero is meant to inspire women everywhere to dress like cosplay strippers ... er, I mean fight corrupt cosmetics companies.

petpluto said...

Actually, I thought I was creating a different interpretation of the River-in-distress aspect of the show. River wasn't in distress because she was a weak little woman but because she was the object of desire (though in this case for use as a weapon rather than as a sexual creature) for the government. She wasn't being protected physically so much as squirrelled away from government retrieval, which is different than a usual "damsel in distress" story arc. Plus, they were also generally hiding Simon as well. And when they did decide to fight, it wasn't for River so much as to both bring the truth to light and weaken the Alliance.

As for Catwoman, actually the Catwoman they used as an example was Michelle Pfeiffer. And although I never watched the Halle Berry Catwoman project -because that looked absolutely terrible- I did actually know that!

And Rachel Dawes was completely sidelined in The Dark Knight, and was incredibly passive besides. Hell, she lost her prime position to Harvey Dent! I also thought that The Dark Knight was as much about Batman and Bruce as it was about The Joker and Harvey Dent; the two were shadow characters for Batman himself, and both of their philosophies were meant to represent not only the balance Batman managed to achieve but also the tenuousness of that position in Gotham.

John said...

well, that's what I get for not reading the article you linked to. My bad on the Catwoman thing.
Thank goodness she's such an awesome character in her actual comic (Especially during Ed Brubaker's run on the series.) The DCU is full of awesome female heroes (despite editorial's frequently maiming and/or killing them.)

You could almost argue that River Tam's story is more about ablism than feminism, since she suffers from severe mental disabilities while exhibiting near-superhuman physical abilities. She needed Simon to protect her because she was brain damaged, not because she was weaker than her brother.

As for the rest of the article, I don't much care for it. Eowyn was a much better character than they give her credit for (the reviewers admitted to not paying attention!)