Stranger Things: Does having a boyfriend mean the death of female friendships?

When Nancy Wheeler takes off her top at the end of Stranger Things‘ second episode, she sheds a skin. That skin is adolescence. It’s being the good girl; it’s being the virgin. It’s being a dutiful student and a reliable daughter and a sweet friend. The new skin she absorbs is Steve Harrington – the cutest, most popular boy at school. As she takes him inside her, the girl she was starts to dissolve.

Stranger Things is distilled nostalgia: a throwback science-fiction show about alien dimensions and altered landscapes. At its heart, however, it’s about friendship – the pure, everlasting kind usually found between children. While the focus of the show is fixed on Mike and his gang of lovable misfits, the teenage characters waver in the background, their own worlds coming together and pulling apart in the mini-cosmos of high school life.

Nancy and Barb are quintessential teen-movie best friends. As tradition dictates, Nancy is the pretty one – slim and sparkly-eyed, the portrait of an 80s’ Brooke Shields fairytale princess. In contrast, Barb is shy and homely. She isn’t slim or conventionally pretty because that would make her a rival. Instead, she’s safe and boring. When compared with Nancy’s waiflike Snow White, Barb looks like a towering giant. Devoid of any backstory or real personality, her entire identity is structured around making Nancy more attractive.

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The holy trinity: Steve, Nancy and Barb

When Nancy starts seeing Steve, an unspoken rivalry bubbles up between him and Barb: a classic feud between the masculine foil and best friend. After being dragged to his party in episode two, Barb couldn’t be more awkward. She obviously doesn’t want to be there, but has to be as an intrinsic part of Nancy’s transformation. Issues of consent abound in this episode, as she’s wheedled and teased into doing things she isn’t comfortable with.

Things only get worse for Barb. As she gets ready to leave and waits for Nancy by the front door, Nancy dismisses her and tells her to go home. From her higher vantage point on the stairs, Nancy literally and figuratively looks down on her best friend, like a piece of the past to be transcended.

“This isn’t you,” Barb beseeches.

“Go home, Barb,” Nancy says definitively.

That night Barb cuts her hand on a beer can. Following Nancy’s dismissal, she sits alone in Steve’s garden and watches her blood drip into his pool. There is a vital mirroring here: the blood that seals Nancy’s death, luring the Demogorgon to her, is the same blood she shed for Nancy. The girls’ friendship is wounded; their bond is ruptured. Yet Barb is the only one who’s left bleeding.

It can’t be coincidence that Barb dies immediately after this scene. As Nancy spends the evening with Steve, her friend is butchered and harvested.

Barb is forgotten about her death. Although Nancy’s arc is defined by her search, Barb is ultimately a plot device to get Nancy from A to B. And our attentions are diverted, as one rivalry bleeds into another. For the rest of the season, Nancy is caught between two males, Steve and Jonathan. The audience wonders, ‘Which one will she end up with?’ Because this is what is expected of girls. This is how we are defined in the eyes of others. Not by who our female friends are, but by the boys we choose to date.

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Nancy looks down at her best friend

Does having a boyfriend signal the death of female friendships? It’s no secret than women choose men over each other, and that hatred brews through romantic jealousy. Classic teen films are full of this dynamic: friends are immediately dropped if it means going out with a cute boy, and girls fight pettily over a stupid boy with floppy hair.

A lot of these films were released in the era Stranger Things is set. In Heathers, Winona Ryder goes on a killing spree with a psychotic boy-babe; in Pretty in Pink, Molly Ringwald is caught between two boys; in The Breakfast Club, the defining relationships are romantic ones and not between the two girls. Even in horror films, romantic tension and sex usually mean more than women’s friendships. Through the medium of film, girls are taught that boyfriends are more important than friends, and Stranger Things is no different.

Here is how we stand: by choosing Steve, Nancy rejects Barb. By rejecting Barb and their friendship, she effectively kills her. In that moment on the stairs, Nancy might as well have said, “This is me. This is who I am now, and you aren’t a part of it.” There are three things lost that night: Nancy’s virginity, Barb’s life, and the sacred bond between two girls.

As Stranger Things takes place in dual dimensions, perhaps there’s one where Barb lived. Perhaps there’s one where Nancy says, “You’re right, this isn’t who I am.” Maybe she leaves that party with Barb, and maybe it’s Steve who’s left out by the pool. As it is, female bonds are tossed out to make room for romantic sizzle and sexual tension. Friendships are ephemeral; they’re fragile girlhood trinkets to be outgrown. What truly matters are our relationships with men, because what can a woman ever hope to be without one?

FILM REVIEW: And Then I Was French (Claire Leona Apps, 2016)

Jump into And Then I Was French without knowing what it’s about and in places you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a coming-of-age romance. It has all the characteristics of one: the fortuitous meeting between a hunky guy and shy girl, the awkward conversations and the cloistered daydreams.

The delightful thing about French is realising it isn’t that predictable to decipher, as the filmmakers evade the usual rules of genre and stitch a narrative from elements of Gothic romance, 80s body horror and kitchen-sink drama.

The result feels a little like Frankenstein’s Monster, but this approach is often why young filmmakers are so thrilling to watch. French may only be Dog Eared Films’ first feature film, but it’s already been nominated for a National Film Award and selected to premiere at the East End Film Festival.

It’s easy to see why. One of the most startling British films to emerge this side of 2016, French evokes pre-Hollywood Andrea Arnold, and is shrouded in the same creeping, female-centric dread that fuelled Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.

Our protagonist is Cara, a hospitality management student with a mousy demeanour and shy Scottish lilt. Played by quicksilver young actress Joanna Vanderham, Cara represents the ordinary girl on every street corner, girls too insecure to talk to boys they like and whose default state is to fade into the background. Her quiet little world is punctured by the arrival of American heartthrob Jay (a suitably dreamy Lewis Rainer) whose soulful eyes and frenetic personality fans longing in every corner of Cara’s university campus.

He’s a Hollywood siren in a land of lambs.

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Written and directed by Claire Leona Apps, the film’s finest moments flirt with the common thriller trope of the double. Take the first, beautifully juxtaposed scenes. Cara’s classroom is presented as a sterile bubble of precision and order, where she dutifully folds towels and arranges vials of massage oil.

This scene melts into a party later that night, where a floating Chinese lantern slyly mimics Cara’s awakened desire. As her eyes meet Jay’s across the green, she is transfixed and cast afloat. Anyone who has fallen in love will recognise this moment; it’s as sudden and swift as an icy river or sharp blade.

Like her heroine, Apps’ narrative cuts deep. The model of starry-eyed love, Cara is romantic and naive, basking in the patch of sunlight that Jay vacates and giggling after he kisses her on the hand. It’s romance in its purest guise.

But the difference between genders always startles and Apps isn’t afraid to examine men and women’s contrasting outlooks on romance. While Cara tells a friend that she loved Jay from the moment she saw him, Jay’s brother brags about sucking on the area between a ‘woman’s pussy and asshole’. Such comparisons feel brutal, but necessary. As Cara’s identity begins to splinter and fragment, the film experiences a similar breakdown, its fairy tale set-up falling apart and filling with darker, serpentine shadows.

While intoxicating, the film’s various layers can feel mismatched, and the multiple shifts in tone may alienate. Matt’s brother, played with aplomb by  Tom Forbes, is ridiculous: a hypermasculine model that terrorises prostitutes in a drug-induced fever and broods in his apartment with a pack of hellish fighting dogs. It’s a delicious dissection of the urban male, but its depravity will turn many viewers into unwitting participants. The film’s last ten minutes are similarly excessive, veering into Gaspar Noé levels of sexual violence.

Yet there are big questions here, if you care to look beyond the instant gratification of bodily gore. As Cara changes herself into a girl Jay will like, every quirk and individual trait falls away, leaving her sultry but vacant. During this transformation, Apps nudges us into thinking about love and beauty. What does beauty mean in an age where a woman’s appearance is edited, filtered and modified? In a pivotal scene, Cara says we only love people’s veneers. If this is true, do we look for soulmates or just people who match our own aesthetics and ideals? And does entering a union mean losing our own self?

French will be overshadowed by recent and much glossier films on female identity, such as Queen of Earth and The Neon Demon, but it’s a fierce debut from a talented group of filmmakers. Desire may fuel the most romantic films, but it’s frightening to see the flipside, where desire sledgehammers and opens the door to obsession, hysteria and self-hatred. French is a similar punch to the gut. Whether this is positive or not is up to you.

*Originally published in music & culture magazine The 405

 

FILM REVIEW: Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015)

The debut film from Deniz Gamze Ergüven is so much more than a Turkish retelling of The Virgin Suicides – it’s an enchanting and often fiery love letter to childhood and the bond between sisters

In the Middle Ages, a girl’s virginity was considered sacred. Unsullied and sexually pure, daughters were a treasure to be guarded, their chastity a commodity that could be bought and sold. Girls were passed from father to husband like paper dolls, and women who tried to rupture this patriarchal daisy chain were frequently branded witches, whores and heretics.

Mustang, the directorial debut from Turkish-French filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven, isn’t set in the Middle Ages, but it does explore what it means to be a girl whose life is governed by men, and where the fierce dichotomy of holy virginity and whoredom defines her every move.

The film opens like a fairy tale in the height of summer. Five young sisters, with hair as long as mermaid tails, run away to play on the beach with a group of schoolboys. They spend the afternoon exploring the foothills by their uncle’s house and falling down in a tangle of limbs, drunk on laughter and apples and their own shimmering childhoods.

Like a lot of fairy tales, the day soon fizzles into nightmare. Childish fun is corrupted, and innocent games are twisted into “depraved” and “obscene” acts. The sisters’ only crime is becoming attractive young women, but it’s enough to set their sleepy Turkish village ablaze.

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Mustang is a film that feels light, its lens frothy and sun-dappled, but still packs a punch. Like the ethereal youngsters in The Virgin Suicides, the girls are locked away, forbidden to leave the house or make contact with the opposite sex. The youngest sister, Lale, describes their home as a wife factory, where the sisters are moulded into perfect little women that can cook and clean. Paraded before a wreath of potential suitors, the wistful romanticism of girlhood is scraped raw. We are shown that it’s not attraction or budding love that makes a good union, but the twin prongs of wealth and social status.

Despite her lack of experience, Ergüven imbues her debut with the quiet confidence of a maestro. Mustang may be a small film, but it’s not afraid to tackle large subjects, such as society’s perpetuation of virginity and its vilification of sexual prowess. If a woman is not a virgin, then she must be sexually voracious; if she’s a feminist, then she must reject being a wife and mother. Mustang is very aware of this ridiculous outlook. The girls are adored for being beautiful, young and female yet they aren’t trusted. Every laugh is rebellion, and each lingering gaze carries a promise of sin.

“I’ve slept with the entire world,” one of the older sisters says when asked if her virginity is intact. Her response may be deadpan and humorous, but the context is saddening. Here is a teenage girl who’s learnt that she cannot be validated unless she bleeds on her wedding night, that her torn hymen is the most valuable thing she can offer. Youth and beauty are ephemeral qualities, and it’s hard not to compare the film with our own male-controlled, selfie-obsessed culture, where women are told to be eternally young, or risk being replaced by another set of momentarily precious girls.

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Ultimately the film is a testament to sisterhood and the restorative love between women. Although they each have a distinct personality, the girls often appear as a single entity with five heads and ten arms, like a mythical creature or fairy ring. As each sister is married off, a little of this magic is slain. It can’t be accidental that the girls’ veils look like funeral shrouds, or that one wedding is interrupted by a gunshot. Like the most striking scenes in Mustang, these moments are ripe with symbolism. Perhaps the virginity lost isn’t just a bodily one, but one of the self. The sisters may gain husbands, but they also lose their names, their bonds and any identity to call their own.

Mustang isn’t devoid of hope, as Ergüven evokes the unbridled magic and resilience of childhood. Lale becomes the mustang of the film, a spirited, headstrong girl who refuses vulnerability or to become an extension of her future husband. Where the other girls begin to fade, becoming self-destructive or resigned, she fights – spitting in guests’ coffee, stealing money and plotting a prison break. Her creation is on par with cinema’s pluckiest young heroines, like Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird or Mattie Ross from True Grit, and her actions summon memories from our own hardy, half-wild childhoods.

In another pair of hands, Mustang could have felt sanctimonious and clumsy. Instead, Ergüven has crafted a subtle masterpiece celebrating the fleeting pleasures of girlhood. The greatest tragedy is realising that these girls will never truly escape their prison of high walls and barred windows. Even upon release, they must learn to navigate a world dictated by the sharply defined categories of virgin or whore, of daughter or wife, of young and beautiful or old and decrepit.

Through each of her achingly fragile protagonists, Ergüven vows to fight these societal chains, and encourages us to do the same.

*Also published in music & culture magazine The 405

Hey, Kristen Stewart, don’t call Dylan Farrow’s abuse allegations “shit”

Let’s get this straight: I like Kristen Stewart. I do.

She comes across as pretty real compared to a lot of people in Hollywood, and surprisingly laid-back considering how famous she’s been from a young age. I like that she wears flat shoes to Cannes premieres and refuses to label her sexuality. I like how prickly, grungy and quick-witted she is. And I like that she’s slipped from the teen-mush trappings of Twilight into more challenging films like Clouds of Sils Maria and Certain Women.

So this isn’t about looking for an excuse to slam Stewart or pick apart every little thing she’s said. I’d hate if everyone was doing that to me.

But her recent comments on the Woody Allen abuse allegations expose a shocking amount of ignorance and gullibility. This is an actress who frequently defends women and crushes the brutal standards we’re expected to meet; who’s played characters exploited and used by men, and has spent the last few years ignoring archetypal film roles for women.

In a recent interview, Stewart was asked about her decision to star in Allen’s new film, Café Society, considering the open letter his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow wrote in 2014. Profoundly disturbing, it describes a childhood of sexual abuse spent hiding in bathrooms and being led into musty attics, and juxtaposes a man winning Lifetime Achievement awards and Oscars with a young woman battling PTSD, eating disorders and self-harm.

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Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart and Woody Allen on the set of Cafe Society

Instead of thinking about the question, Stewart peddled into denial mode and immediately hopped on the defensive.

She said, “We don’t know any of these people involved. I can personalize situations, which would be very wrong. At the end of the day, Jesse [Eisenberg] and I talked about this. If we were persecuted for the amount of shit that’s been said about us that’s not true, our lives would be over. The experience of making the movie was so outside of that.”

There are so many things wrong with this answer that I have to break it down before I implode. Let me direct this to Stewart as if she were here.

“We don’t know any of these people involved.”

What difference does knowing them or not knowing them make? Does this mean you only feel sympathy for people you know personally? So, when you see or hear about people being hurt, you feel absolutely nothing? When women talk about being abused and raped, you immediately doubt them?

I thought the foundation of being an actor was the ability to empathize? To imagine yourself as someone you’ve never met and completely transform into that person. If that’s true, why should it matter if you know Farrow or not?

Just stop for a moment and consider this: Violence against women will take place and most of the time you will never know the people involved. That doesn’t make these experiences any less valid, or any less harrowing.

This is just stupid.

“If we were persecuted for the amount of shit that’s been said about us that’s not true, our lives would be over.”

First of all, you have just generalized abuse, trauma and suffering as shit. Do you understand how completely irresponsible that is?

The things Farrow has said about Allen are not shit. Losing your house keys is shit. Being late to work because you got stuck in traffic is shit. Being charged too much at the supermarket is shit. This is not shit. This is a nightmare, and a young woman who feels broken. What you’re saying is shit.

Secondly, you have just come out and said you don’t think the allegations are true. Have you read about this case, like, at all? I get you don’t want to openly criticize the director you’ve just made a film with, but you’re willing to do that at this woman’s expense? You don’t even consider the possibility that what Farrow is saying is true or think about the harm Allen has caused.

And another thing – no, your life would not be over. Arguably the worst thing that has happened to you in your career is being caught cheating on your boyfriend with a married man. This has to be mortifying, and the things you were called must have stung. I won’t belittle that. But that is nothing compared to being accused of sexually abusing your child. It’s nowhere close.

Seriously, grow up.

Opening Night Arrivals Of "Gypsy" On Broadway
Dylan Farrow and her mother Mia Farrow in 2003 (Bruce Glikas/Getty Images)

“The experience of making this movie was so outside of that.”

This is the part I have the biggest problem with. How was making this film somehow detached from these allegations? Because the man who was directing you wasn’t the same man Farrow said assaulted her as a little girl?

Reality check: He is. You can’t separate a person into parts or compartmentalize the sections that aren’t as palatable as his quirky films. This man as a whole has to be taken into consideration. You have to understand that a man can be an artist, beloved and endearing in all his neurotic, whimsical charm, and still be perverse and be a predator. They’re two halves of a whole.

In an interview in 2010, Stewart said, “If you looked at a girl wrong now, I would fly across the room and kill you. I feel so, so, so protective of this certain thing that women have.” Last year she also made a Funny or Die comedy sketch mocking how women are treated in the media compared to men.

If you feel so protective of women, what happened this time? Is it so easy to gloss over your former proclamations of feminism when it means working with a director you’re particularly passionate about? Another reality check: Being a convenient feminist isn’t the same as actually being a feminist.

While we’re at it, let’s talk about sexism. It’s not just about being in interviews where people constantly ask about your bra size and who you’re dating. The kind of sexism you’re picking apart is Sexism 101.

Sexism is also silencing and discrediting women who are brave enough to come forward and talk about abuse at the hands of men. Sexism is protecting the culprits, especially ones who are respected and well known, and vilifying the victim, who is twisted into a temptress and false oracle. That’s the kind of sexism that cuts the deepest. That’s the kind of sexism that kills.

Think about these things the next time you’re asked a question about women. And don’t turn someone else’s experiences, which you will never fully understand, into what you so eloquently describe as “shit”. Whether you like it or not, millions of young people look up to you and are guided by the things you say. Don’t enable a society that blames the victim or portrays vulnerable women as liars. You should know better.

Jupiter Jones was my dream sci-fi heroine until she wasn’t

When it comes to cinema, people are split into two camps: just as passionate, but ultimately discordant. There are those who love the Wachowskis, and those who don’t. There’s no room for ambivalence, there’s only a fiery enthusiasm or an equally zealous dismissal. I am firmly and unabashedly in the former group: I love the Matrix films, I love Speed Racer, I love Cloud Atlas, I love Sense8.

At the same time, these films inspire just as much frustration as enchantment. I find myself gnashing my teeth and rolling my eyes, annoyed by the waste of potential. These are sumptuous films with gorgeous special effects and dizzying, multi-layered storylines, but they have a tendency to trip over their own grandeur, sacrificing storytelling for artifice.

I felt this this sense of loss with Jupiter Ascending more than any of the Wachowskis’ previous films. Because Jupiter Jones has the potential to be a glorious sci-fi heroine – she’s an ordinary girl fighting to save her planet from a dynasty of aliens infatuated with youth and beauty. It’s a brilliant, lofty concept. But instead of being given the film she deserves, Jupiter is miscast, displaced, ultimately let down. And so are we.

When the film begins, Jupiter Jones is a modern-day Cinderella, a girl wasting her life as a maid, cleaning rich people’s toilets and being around their wealth, but never being a part of it. It should be hard-hitting, or we should at least feel a little sorry for her. She’s an illegal immigrant, without a father or a true home, who keeps meeting the wrong men and who seemingly has no friends. Instead, her entire life comes across as a thinly-plotted fairy tale.

It’s not that beautiful girls don’t have problems because that would be stupid. But the fact is, Mila Kunis is gorgeous, even in a plaid shirt and jeans, with no make-up. She looks amazing. The film would be much more believable if Jupiter was a girl who doesn’t look like a model, who has bad skin, or who struggles with her weight, or who doesn’t have a symmetrical face.

This is where the film fails to connect because from the outset nothing about Jupiter is believable. The set-up feels fabricated and every scene feels like it’s been scripted. The Wachowskis had a chance to show what it’s really like for working class women, who make a living scrubbing people’s toilets, cleaning their clothes and and making their beds. What it’s like to be looked down upon by people who are wealthier and more fortunate than you, to be taken for granted and never feel like you fit in.These are the characters we sympathize with and learn to love, because they’re like us.

Jupiter is supped to be a disillusioned dreamer, lonely and adrift. She is apparently mistreated by men, but we never see the loneliness or heartbreak. She has a burgeoning interest in space, but we’re only given one scene where she looks at a telescope on eBay. She feels so helpless she has to sell her eggs to make some money, but we never see her making any effort to improve her situation, whether it’s trying to get a better job or educate herself.

Instead, we’re given a beautiful woman who gazes vacantly into the distance and spends the film’s running time looking beautifully confused.We never feel her desperation or her longing for a new life because she’s hollow.

There are things about Jupiter Ascending I like. At its best moments, it shows how the female body is defined, moulded and abused by men. Jupiter’s creepazoid cousin pressures her into selling her eggs, not once offering to sell his sperm. Her uncle tells her that men don’t like smart women, and he criticizes her for being materialistic yet another male manipulates her into marriage so he can steal her inheritance. At the clinic, she tells the doctors she’s changed her mind and (apart from them being murderous aliens), they ignore her struggles. She’s a typically hysterical woman, just sedate her.

So Jupiter can sell a part of her body, but it’s okay because her cousin gets a big TV and lots of gadgets. She can be toyed with, lied to and murdered because she has something others want, whether it’s money, land or her DNA. These are moments that can easily be overlooked, lost among the copious CGI and dazzling fight sequences, but they speak to women and highlight the ingrained inequality women have to tackle on a daily basis.

Despite all of its potential, the film is bludgeoned by the arrival of the heroic male: Channing Tatum. Caine is the half-breed alien, another character who is rejected and ostracized, and who doesn’t have a home. But he’s still strong and gorgeous, heroic and brave. He still saves Jupiter at least three times during the film’s running time, always there at the last minute to literally sweep her off her feet. Maybe it would have been better without him. Maybe it would be easier to sympathize with Jupiter if we were given the chance to see how vulnerable she is, to see her bleed and fall down and cry, with no one to rescue her.

The truth is, there won’t always be a beautiful, heroic guy to save us. Critics liked the film because it fulfilled girlhood fantasies, of finding out we’re special and of meeting our very own Prince Charming. But girls need more than the fantasy. We need characters that can inspire us, that boost our self-confidence and show us we don’t need a man to feel fulfilled.

I’m not looking for Jupiter to be the ultimate strong woman or to be infallible. I’m looking for her to be realistic and complex. Jupiter can feel scared and she can make wrong decisions; this is what it means to be human. And yes, she can be saved sometimes because there are times when we all have to be, but maybe she could save herself as well, to know that she can rely on herself.

There are moments when Jupiter is brave – she stands up to Balem during the wedding ceremony, telling him she doesn’t consent, and she’s willing to sacrifice herself and the people she loves if it means the world can be saved. Here is an inner strength that doesn’t involve combat of any kind.

And Jupiter has glimpses of agency: making the decision to sell her eggs and take charge of her own body isn’t something we usually see in Hollywood films. But it’s not enough, and it doesn’t make up for all the times she is rescued mid-explosion or swept through the air in the arms of her muscular beau.

Strange: Jupiter Jones is a character I love in a film I don’t particularly enjoy. The film tackles ambitious themes – capitalism, greed, how the rich continuously exploit the poor and how the human body has become a commodity. But Jupiter Ascending should be about a girl who learns to love herself, who finally realizes she doesn’t have to be ‘special’, have lots of money or be with a man to be happy. But this doesn’t happen. The film disintegrates into an interplanetary Romeo and Juliet, and everything interesting about Jupiter melts away. Ultimately, Jupiter doesn’t ascend, she falls.

How to survive being a teenage weirdo

“There are certain emotions in your body that not even your best friend can sympathize with, but you will find the right film or the right book, and it will understand you.”  – Bjork

Being a teenager sucks. Or, at least, it does when you’re plump, acne-ridden, into stuff that’s considered weird, and you can’t connect with the people around you. Other kids are cruel, adults are out of touch and the only thing that makes you feel better is the album or film you just discovered.

As a 14-year-old I started compiling survival kits – music, film and art I enjoyed, with characters who felt just as freakish and out of place as me. These were usually stories about young people in the midst of transformation, narratives where characters felt ‘other’, or not fully human. My favourite characters were girls who became witches, werewolves, demons and beasts. Women who were called murderers and jezebels, harlots and evil queens.

The arts always resonate with me, but I have a soft spot for characters that don’t belong, and for stories where people try to engage in a world that feels alien.

Be a clumsy girl by day and an interplanetary warrior by night

Trying to fit in used to agonize me. Meeting new people and asking myself, “How can I be like everyone else? How can I get them to like me?” I can try to look like other girls; I can wear the blouses and Mary Jane shoes, but my canines are still too sharp, my eyebrows too thick, my fingernails razed.

It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve come to revel in this wild blood. You waste so much time on the opinions of bullies and hypocrites, that you forget how refreshing it is to be different. Maybe you’re not like a lot of other people – you’re too intense, too raw, too weird and vulnerable – but that’s ok. Refuse to be moulded by other people, and refuse to feel bad if they don’t like you. Care about the opinions of people who are kind, daring, artistic and true.

Over the next few months, I’ll be sharing the survival kits I created as a young woman and writing about the artists who inspire me to stay true. These are people who have suffered for being themselves – who have been called oddballs and miscreants, outcasts and viragos – and whose works sing to me whenever I’ve had a terrible day or feel so lonely my bones ache.

SUPER GIRL DOSSIER #1 Mako Mori from Pacific Rim

Let me climb to the highest rooftop in the country and shout the following mantra to the stars: I love Mako Mori!

Maybe it’s a personal thing. I’ve always liked unassuming girls who kick ass (re: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Jessica Jones) or maybe it’s because Pacific Rim is one of the only big action films in recent memory where women aren’t used to sex-up the story or sit around passively like dismantled doll parts.

Why do I love Mako Mori? For starters, she’s an Asian woman in a western film who isn’t fetishized. She isn’t presented as a porcelain ballerina or delicate flower, and she doesn’t act like a bubbly anime girl. Popular culture is saturated with two Asian stereotypes: the ditzy, pixie-like girl and the warrior woman trained in martial arts. What doesn’t help this limited spectrum are the dreamy girls with circle lenses and luminous skin flooding social media or the drooling dudes who describe young Asian women as goddesses.

Thanks to Guillermo del Toro, Mako is none of these things. She’s a flesh-and-blood woman with layers to her personality and a drive that catapults her above the role of girlfriend or a mere support structure for the male protagonists.

For the female lead in a summer blockbuster, casting Rinko Kikuchi wasn’t an obvious choice. This is a non-American, non-white actress best known for indie films and her Oscar-nominated role as a deaf, touch-starved teenager in Babel. Kikuchi loses the unhinged presence of that part but none of its melancholy. When we first meet Mako, she appears cool and collected, a tightly coiled enigma, but in segments she reveals a bruised, grief-stricken core.

In other words, Mako has too many emotions, and too much baggage, rippling beneath the surface to waste time casting sultry looks at Charlie Hunnam.

And, okay, cliché alert, Mako is set up as a potential love interest for brooding golden boy Raleigh, but that doesn’t take up the main focus of the story. Outside of their heated sparring sessions, Mako and Raleigh’s chemistry is sweet, almost gentle. They bubble together like best friends and the crux of their relationship hinges on their compatible mindset rather than what happens when they fall into bed together. Instead of the famed end of film kiss we’ve all come to expect, Raleigh and Mako touch foreheads, a sign of shared intellect and intimacy that surpasses any fleeting gratification of lust.

mako   mori

Omit her relationship with Raleigh, and Mako still has a presence. Sure, her character arc has been used before, driven by vengeance and a desire to save the world, but she’s still the most interesting character in del Toro’s oddball ensemble. Sometimes, in their quest to create the ultimate “strong woman”, filmmakers go too far and instead make ones who resemble automatons. Mako isn’t so predictable. She’s strong, yes, but also vulnerable, not afraid to let herself cry or dwell in the past. At the same time, she’s pragmatic. She loves her surrogate father, Stacker Pentecost, but there are no syrupy declarations, and she fights alongside men without expecting them to protect her.

And not once does Mako stumble into the pitfalls of damsel. Apart from a flashback scene where she’s rescued as a child, she helps in the fight against the kaiju just as much as Raleigh. Reversing the age-old stereotype, she becomes the one who rescues him, giving him new purpose after years of drifting and allowing him to forge a meaningful relationship after the death of his brother. She also kicks some gnarly kaiju butt, revelling in the fight just as much as her comrades and refusing to give up even when Raleigh does.

Unfortunately, Pacific Rim isn’t perfect. Mako is the only main female character, and her pivotal relationships are with men who are essentially cast in the roles of father and boyfriend. But I love Mako because she doesn’t exist for these men. Not once does she allow her existence to be defined by them or be crippled by her feelings for them. Even if these characters were removed from the storyline, her agency would still be intact. She would still find a way to fight for what she believes in and to pick herself up when she falls.

In a way, it’s a shame Mako never has the opportunity to strike out on her own because her story is arguably more interesting than Raleigh’s: the little girl orphaned by the kaiju who grows up to be one of its greatest nemeses.

Issues with plot aside, I wish there were more women like Mako in mainstream cinema. She’s a character that doesn’t have to be the sassy wise-ass, flirtatious kitten or frigid bitch; roles so many women are forced into. She becomes the heart of the film, and she carries it with grace, inner confidence and a fire that cannot be quelled, no matter how many loved ones die or how many men tell her she’ll never be enough. This is the type of character women need.

  • The Super Girl Dossier is a monthly feature celebrating amazing women in film, television, music and art

The art of American Sniper, or, how to kill female characters at long range

It’s no surprise that big Hollywood productions lack strong female characters. Ones that are complex and interesting, and that, like a lot of real women, refuse to be shoved into categories designed by men. But sometimes a film comes along that feels particularly damaging. Case in point: American Sniper, the Oscar-nominated drama from veteran director Clint Eastwood.

American Sniper is riddled with faults. It’s a shallow biopic, as cold-eyed as its protagonist and as repetitive as paint-by-numbers. It boils down the Iraqi community into its most basic, savage stereotype and is never brave enough to challenge Chris Kyle’s reputation as a modern hero. But it’s the casual misogyny that really stuns, carving into the film like a silent slash to the jugular.

Let’s be frank: there are no women in American Sniper. In their place, feminine cut-out shapes are scattered, each adorned with long hair, slender limbs and kissable lips. Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall have a vague notion of how everyday women look and act, but no real awareness of who women are. The worst crime is their lack of desire to find out.

Defenders will argue that American Sniper isn’t about women, it’s about a man who fought to protect his country from tyranny. But for a film that tries so hard to juxtapose brutal war scenes in Iraq with Kyle’s apple pie American home, you’d think the filmmakers could at least flesh out his wife into someone worth remembering. Unfortunately, Taya Kyle is little more than a cute counterpart to her superhero husband and other women don’t fare any better.

There are three female characters in American Sniper, each of which revolves around Kyle: his mother, ex-girlfriend and wife. The mother hardly counts, pictured quivering beside her husband at the dinner table during Kyle’s childhood. She’s as quiet and as easily forgotten as a silhouette.

Likewise, Kyle’s first girlfriend has less than five minutes’ screen time. In the one scene she’s in, Kyle comes home to find her her half-naked with another man. After he throws the guy out in a well-greased show of macho aggression, the girlfriend attacks Kyle in her crop-top and daisy dukes. Her only excuse is that she was sleeping around for attention. So, not because she was feeling lonely or invalidated. Of course not. She mentions that she has no friends or family in Texas, but the filmmakers never give her the chance to elaborate.

Maybe she did feel genuinely sidelined, maybe Kyle really was a neglectful ass. But by shoving this character into a single scene where she acts petulant and promiscuous, the audience is quick to reject her. What a bitch, we think, screwing around on the good-looking Kyle, a man who, we know, is destined to become a bonafide American prince. Her loss, right?

Kyle decides to dump her like old take-out and in retaliation she tells him that he was a shitty lay. Right. Because all girls care about is how well they’re being dicked. This comes directly after Kyle and a friend talk about a “slutty” girl who likes to “suck a lot”. This brings us to a common trope: the Slut, usually signified by women who sleep around and dress provocatively. It’s as tacky and artificial as a neon light and about as nuanced as an air horn.

The next character comes in the form of a slinky Sienna Miller, who plays Kyle’s future bride and the ‘love of his life’. In Taya’s first scene with Kyle, she’s flirty and fun, downing shots with him in a redneck bar and coyly telling him she’d never date a soldier. Two scenes later, she wears skimpy lingerie and takes him to bed, all slim muscle and smooth, milky skin.

She changes as Kyle does. When Kyle wants to settle down, she makes a swift transition from playful girlfriend to model wife, donning a white gown like a second skin and buying a home with him. She’s constantly pretty and constantly pregnant, dutifully having his babies and rearing new life while he’s in another country killing women and children. Like a cookie-cutter woman, Taya is delicately plucked and molded from Kyle’s desires. She has phone sex with him when he’s in Iraq, kneads his crotch under the kitchen table and organises family barbeques in cute summer dresses.

taya
Sienna Miller is still crying over this atrocious script

Here’s another trope we’re familiar with: the Wife and Mother, the Madonna to Kyle’s ex-girlfriend, the Whore. These are the usual sub-headings female characters are permitted to fall under in American mainstream cinema, and not once does Taya wander from the roles Kyle dresses her in. The only time she’s allowed to be imperfect is when she’s crying about how damaged he is, in which she sniffles prettily and paws at Kyle like a disgruntled kitten.

Outside of Kyle’s orbit, we never get any indication of who this woman actually is. We never find out about her family or what her life was like before she met Kyle. We never find out if she’s educated or where she works. We never find out if she has hopes and ambitions or her own, if she has any fears that don’t involve her husband. We only find out that she has a habit of dating the wrong men, another element of her existence defined by the opposite sex.

Without Kyle, Taya becomes an ember. We forget about her in the scenes she’s not in because she never has a presence. She exists for her husband and him alone. When he goes away, it’s like she folds herself up in a box and waits for his return. This this isn’t a woman, it’s an extension. She’s the string that pulls Kyle home, an image promising intimacy and warmth, but she isn’t a person. She’s as real as the pin-up girl posters army boys tack on their walls or have tattooed on their arms. Gorgeous, sure, but ultimately faded around the edges.

There are no women in American Sniper, only the names men call us, and the categories they force us into. The damage this film inflicts isn’t just on the Muslim community, but on women, who are kept at a distance and annihilated before they get a chance to exist. Kyle displays a chilling, surgical approach to killing and this soon spills into his interactions with his family.

In a ‘playful’ scene towards the end of the film, Kyle points a gun at Taya and tells her to take off her panties. It’s supposed to be cute and light-hearted, because y’know, they’re still that fun-lovin’ pair who shared shots all those years ago. Instead it’s a perfect representation of patriarchal, oppressive masculinity. By pulling a gun on her, he denies her existence. This picture says, be the perfect wife and mother, and nothing else. Be mine. Be here for me.

The real victim in American Sniper isn’t Kyle. It’s his wife, who’s left to shiver in the cold, lacking an identity or any sense of self whenever he leaves her side.