Friday, December 23, 2011

I have not seen the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Today, I'm going to continue a theme from my last post, Complaining About Media I Have Not Actually Experienced. Last time it was Mass Effect 3, a game I have not played, and this time it's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (the Fincher version), a movie I have not seen.

In my defense, I'm really going to complain about the Swedish film based on The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (which Fincher's movie reportedly resembles). I liked certain things about that movie, and was disappointed with it in other ways. Part of the reason I'm not thrilled for the new version is that I find it unlikely the Fincher film fixes the particular thing that bothered me most about its predecessor.

That thing, to come to the point, is the treatment of Mikael Blomkvist. Obviously the book was titled "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" (in English, anyway), and Lisbeth Salander is the most iconic character. She's fascinating in her own right, and the Swedish film does, I thought, a pretty fair job with her. But to me, Blomkvist is vitally important in making the story - and the character of Salander - really sing. The original Swedish title, of the book and movie, translates as "Men who hate women." Mikael Blomkvist is our principal masculine beacon in the book's dark world, the one man in the story who just loves women. I mean that both snidely and seriously: yes, Blomkvist is a lover and a Casanova, but he also seems to just really like women as people. He has a soulmate in Erika Berger, a great friendship that transcends sex and even romance (and boy does that important and unusual connection get short shrift in the movie, but I get it, they can't do everything). He sees past Salander's brutal exterior and can't resist what he finds there - and he's willing to put forth the incredible gentleness and patience necessary to get even a little close to her. While he's comfortable dealing with men, none of his male relationships has anything like the same level of intimacy or intensity. The guy just really likes women.

Michael Nyqvist as Mikael Blomkvist - I know, right?
At the same time, there's a lot of ambiguity to him, because he can also be very selfish. He gets into an affair with Cecilia knowing full well that it will end with her getting hurt. He's upfront with her about what he can and can't be to her from the start, but it's still a serious failure of compassion. His sexuality morality is complex and imperfect, especially compared with his flawless professional ethics and journalistic devotion to justice and fairness.

Blomkvist in the novel is also important as Salander's ideal working partner. Their skills and temperments complement beautifully as they work the case together. They are equals, but they aren't the same, and they both need each other. Salander is a brilliant analyst, Blomkvist is a brilliant communicator. Salander is a woman of decisive action, Blomkvist is a man of patience and subtlety. Salander, with her varied skillset and ruthless outlook, makes things happen in the shadows; Blomkvist, with his raw charisma and straightforward reputation, shines in the spotlight. They work incredibly well together, and the respect that grows out of this working relationship is very important in building the difficult intimate relationship that's really the point of the whole exercise.

I found that the Swedish film seemed to abandon this beautiful balance. Blomkvist became a much more typical macho hero like you've seen in countless thrillers, emotionally distant, blandly moral, and somewhat plodding. Against this lesser foil, Salander becomes less a traumatized person working through terrible pain, and more a sort of magical girlfriend, capable of (and in fact, usually necessary to) solving all of Blomkvist's problems but not always available due to seemingly irrational hangups - almost a nastier, more violent "I Dream of Jeannie."

No scene captures the difference as much as Blomkvist and Salander's first meeting. This is an incredible sequence in the novel. Blomkvist has tracked down Salander, the hacker who secretly investigated him early in the story, and in doing so he realizes that she's very good and he could use her on his side. He shows up at her door early in the morning; she gets out of bed to answer his knock, and she's sullen and irritated. But Blomkvist barges in and merrily starts cleaning the kitchen, talking a mile a minute about how much he admires her work and could use her help. He offers her a bagel for breakfast. As it happens, this is exactly the right way to approach Salander; she's use to cruelty, selfishness and abuse, and she knows how to handle those things. She's caught utterly off guard - for the first time, in the reader's experience - by this bubbly ray of sunshine. She listens to him instead of kicking him out on his ass, and their awkward, halting, intense relationship is off with that first slightly lowered boundary.

In the Swedish film, Blomkvist shows up at Salander's door threatening her because her investigation was illegal. He uses this as leverage to get her to listen to him as he asks for her help on the case, and suggests that she owes him something. She  decides to help him. Frankly, it's a terribly out-of-character scene for Salander. The movie has very effectively demonstrated her big hang-up at this point: if you hurt Salander or threaten to hurt her, she has to hurt you worse. It's a kneejerk response, she really has very little choice, no matter how stupid hitting back is in the given circumstance. Blomkvist implying he could get her in legal trouble should have resulted in her inviting him inside so she could get a metal bat and strike him repeatedly in the head with it. Instead she's cowed by it, because, I guess, the plot has to keep moving. Later they have some sex.

I'm sure that Fincher's movie is a great thriller - the Swedish film certainly is. But by sacrificing Blomkvist on the altar of the Generic Male Hero Guy, the Swedish film lost a great foil for its famous protagonist and a lot of the book's most compelling thematic elements. I'm guessing that Fincher's movie still won't let me see that part of the story realized on screen, and that moves it out of "must see now" territory for me.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Ashley Williams

Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 both have a spot on my list of the top ten games of all time. In all honesty, they might both have a spot on my list of the top five games of all time. I love Mass Effect for the depth of its characterization and the consistency of its world-building; Mass Effect 2 falters a little on those axes, but makes up for it with incredible gameplay and epic cinematic payoff. One edge that the first game has over its sequel is much more screen time for one of my all time favorite video game characters: Ashley Williams.

I could yammer on for a while about how great Ashley is and how she keeps surprising you throughout the whole first game by quoting Tennyson or revealing a spiritual side or telling you an awesome story about her sister beat up her pushy boyfriend. I could tell you how emotional I found her appearance - however brief - in ME 2, and how awesome it was to find this today. That's probably not especially interesting, though, so let's talk about what people on the internet like to hear: something that makes me angry.

So in the first game, Ash is (I think) a pretty hot lady. Here she is talking to her favorite commander.

That's Ash in the Alliance Navy uniform she wears around the ship (she wears non-uniform high-tech armor on missions). I know you can't see the front especially well, but please note that a high-neckline, appropriate (as I believe) to a military uniform, is visible.

This is Ash's new look from ME3:

So a few things different here. She's got sexy new hair. You know what? Great. Seriously. Hair cuts are a great way to express that a character has changed. In ME1, Ash is a grunt, a low-ranked front-line soldier with (so she thinks) a career full of bad assignments ahead of her. She wears her hair in a severe (presumably regulation) bun. In ME3, we've been told a little about Ash and we can guess a bit more. She's an officer now, a lieutenant. Beyond that, she's a Spectre, meaning that she has the full backing of the Council, the most powerful political body in the galaxy, as their trusted agent. We know from ME2 that Ash is now a special forces veteran, and we can guess that she's a renowned hero for her role in ME1. A striking hairstyle is a great way to communicate the character's new role, how much prestige she's gained and how it might make her feel.

But why is she wearing her uniform like that? Is it a useful visual shorthand to communicate something about Ashley to the player, like the hair? Based on the little we know about the plot of ME3... No. It doesn't communicate confidence and prestige in the same way. In visual media, skin and breasts doesn't communicate "powerful professional woman" in the same way that great hair does. Sex and power can be connected, obviously, but as a professional soldier with political connections, that's a little outside of Ash's storytelling archetype.

Let's look at how one very powerful political woman in the real world chooses to present herself:

Hmm. Not so low-neckline. Actually she seems to be making an effort not to appear sexual - almost as if being sexualized might make it harder to take her seriously as a leader. Well, it's only one example.

Well, none of those women are in the military. Maybe female soldiers dress differently.

Wow, they actually look a lot like Ash in the first game.

Point is, Ash's uniform doesn't communicate prestige and authority, and it doesn't communicate professionalism or a military background either It doesn't seem to communicate anything useful about the character, really. The Ash we get to know in ME1 is a consummate professional who is entirely devoted to her career in the Alliance military. Her uniform is an important and empowering symbol to her, and frankly, I don't think she would choose to wear her uniform in a non-regulation way. Especially not a sexy non-regulation way, as her military service is intimately bound up with her late beloved father in her mind. Basically, in this setting, on this woman, that outfit doesn't make any sense.

So, why is she wearing her uniform that way? I put the question the Casey Hudson, lead designer of Mass Effect 3, on twitter today. I have a lot of respect for Casey. He's incredible at making games - literally world class - and from everything I've heard him say he seems like a very cool, intelligent guy. That may help to explain why I went out of my way to avoid being antagonistic in the below tweets:

I don't expect Casey to respond, for a few reasons. One is that he is very visible and I am not, and why would he draw attention to a critical question that nobody else will ever see? I don't mean that cynically; his job is to make ME3 successful, and he's very good at his job, and that probably precludes publicly answering me.

The other reason is that it's a rhetorical question, and he knows that as well as I do. Because on some level  we know the answer, don't we? Somebody somewhere who had some kind of say in the art direction of ME3 thought one of two things:

  • Ash would totally be hotter if I could almost see her tits.
  • This game will sell more copies if men on the internet see a character with prominent breasts and a sexy costume in the screenshots.
I really can't think of anything else that makes sense. Certainly not one that could be fully explained in 140 characters over twitter. So ultimately, why ask the question?

Because I believe that thoughtful people know how lame any answer that avoids those two bullet points will sound, and that even if they can't or won't admit it, they get a little uncomfortable pondering the issue. And maybe that will, over time, lead people to avoid having to ponder the issue, by not sexualizing fictional women when sexualizing them is not in the interest of the story or the character. And maybe some day I can not have to feel a little embarrassed on behalf of my favorite games and characters, knowing that everybody knows how crass the decision-making on some of the small details about them really was.

Let me close by noting that I know I'm being very nitpicky and going after small details. I'm doing that because I like to lay my argument out there and try to unpack all of the baggage in it as much as possible. Furthermore, let me add that Bioware is a great developer, and while they are not without their sins in continuing the tradition of sexism in video game culture, they also have put forward a huge number of excellent female characters and woman-friendly games. It's honestly because I count them among the good guys that I'm thinking about this so much - because I think they can do even better, which is not something I believe about every company that makes games. I love Mass Effect, I'm totally excited for Mass Effect 3, and I look forward to kicking a whole lot of reaper butt with Ash backing me up.

I just wish I wouldn't have to think about all the sexist baggage attached to this particular costume while I'm doing it..

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

I used to wonder what friendship could be!

Alright, let's deal with it out in the open. I sure enjoy me some My Little Ponies: Friendship Is Magic. It's no Avatar: The Last Airbender, sure, but it's a bright, sweet, hopeful show with a varied cast of likeable female protagonists. I like the characters, the dumb jokes, the cute songs, and even the pleasant ritual of writing a letter to Celestia - i.e. delivering a moral - at the end of every episode.

The morals are the thing I want to talk about just at the moment. So morals at the end of the episode are the worst thing in Western animation, amirite? You know how every story is going to end a few minutes after it starts because the lesson is always obvious from the premise. Worse, moral lessons can be the death of humor and of human truth. Worst of all is what TV Tropes calls a "broken aesop," a moral that doesn't actually follow from the story you've just told - all too common, in my experience.

What MLP:FIM does very well is build the lesson into the story, and support it through out. Actually, sometimes the lesson is there, but the end-of-episode letter to Celestia misses it, or at least doesn't capture everything that happened in the episode. That's part of the genius, though: sometimes the real lesson is built into the very premise of the episode. In "Winter Wrap Up," for instance, the stated lesson is "Everypony has hidden talents." To me, though, that's hardly the main thing the episode teaches. The big lesson is right there in the musical number at the very start of the episode, before the characters have started learning anything.

It's all there. "Winter Wrap Up" is one of the most heartfelt odes to work I personally have ever seen. Every pony has a job, something they do, that they excel at; every job is valuable, and every pony is proud of, even excited about, their job. Rainbow Dash loves to see the sun's "warmth and beauty... glow" after she chases all the clouds out of the sky. Fluttershy takes great satisfaction in waking up the animals "so quietly and nice." Applejack's pride in feeding the whole town is palpable. Twilight Sparkle desperately wants in on this work. "What does everypony do?" she asks pleadingly, earnestly pledging to "help with all of my heart" and to "do my best today." And yes, then there's a plot about her finding her unique skill that lets her make a really great contribution, but to me, the central lesson has already been taught: work is good. Work helps people, and doing good work feels good, and doing the right work for you makes you the person you want to be. That's the real lesson of the episode, and I think it's one we could all stand to take to heart, honestly.

I don't mean to give the impression that the show is a never-ending font of enduring wisdom. Some of the episodes and lessons are silly, or simple, typical children's tv fare. The episode where they realize they all saw the same rainbow (actually a rainboom, don't ask) as children is cute and all, but "Friends share a special connection, sometimes even before they meet" is more sentimental BS than a real lesson to carry close to your heart. My favorite episodes, though, are the ones where I think the show is going to veer off into that most horrible of sins, a broken aesop, and then surprises me by really committing to their lesson. Take a recent episode, "The Mysterious Mare Do Well."

In this episode, hot-blooded pegasus Rainbow Dash, widely regarded as the most awesome of the Mane Cast, makes a habit of using her incredible flying skills to help other ponies in Ponyville. After a few dramatic feats, she notices that she's getting cheers and a big fan club, and it goes to her head. She starts milking it, showing off and leading her own cheers. Her friends start to get frustrated with her showboating.

Enter Mare Do Well, a mysterious masked superhero who seems to come out of nowhere and manages to outdo Rainbow Dash in a few successive crises. Mare Do Well seems to be stronger, faster; she can fly just as well, and do unicorn magic on top of all of it. The town's adulation shifts to Mare Do Well, and Rainbow Dash makes it worse with her grandstanding for attention, which the other ponies find more and more annoying.

Mare Do Well's identity is, of course, a complete non-mystery, especially as she starts revealing more and more different skills: all of Rainbow Dash's friends are wearing the mask at different times, solving problems perfectly suited to their own particular skills. I started to doubt the episode at this point, for two reasons. First, Rainbow Dash is a really cool, strong character, and I hate to see her take it on the chin over and over. Second, I was dreading the inevitable reveal, where her friends take off their masks and totally humiliate Rainbow Dash in the name of "helping her learn," i.e. cutting her down to size.

I should have had more faith. There is a scene where the ponies gently hint to Rainbow that maybe there's something she can learn from Mare Do Well's anonymous heroism, but it's not carried too far. In the end, Rainbow learns their identities because she chases down Pinkie Pie and tears off her mask, not because the other ponies reveal themselves to teach her a lesson. Once she realizes that they are her rival, her friends do share a lesson with her, eventually summed up as "It's great to be good at something, but it's important to act with grace and humility." The difference is in motivation.

See, the ponies didn't plan for Rainbow Dash to learn who they were so that she'd learn she wasn't better than them; their only plan was to set a good example for her to follow, and to do some anonymous good deeds in the process. They get excited about their own personal contributions to the plan, but without asking for praise. As they explain their motivations to her, they affirm three separate times that she should be proud of her abilities ("Of course we want you to be a hero!" "It's natural to celebrate your accomplishments," and "It's great to be really good at something,"). They just wanted her to realize, from Mare Do Well's example, that she had gone a little bit overboard with her own hype. It's not a complicated lesson, but the sincerity with which it's delivered, with no meanness of judgement on any of the characters' part, really sells it in a way that I think is pretty unique to this iteration of My Little Ponies.

For the record: the pony I admire the most is Applejack, and the pony I find the most entertaining is Rarity, but my favorite pony is definitely Fluttershy.