Posted by Galatea
Following on the heels of Annalytica's post on the messages that we take in, consciously and unconsciously, from popular culture... I'm pleased to report a minor episode of mainstream Hollywood film gender-win, just in time for anyone who feels like taking in a film over the holidays!
I went to see the new 'Puss in Boots' film expecting not-a-great-deal in the way of positive political messages. As a pop culture and folklore/fairytale geek, I usually find films from the Shrek franchise juuuust clever and entertaining enough for me to put up with their fail -- but the fail is definitely there. The exploitation of stereotypes in the Shrek world is occasionally playful and parodic, but I find that it often steers too close to uncritical parroting of sexist, racist and fatphobic traits for me to be entirely comfortable with it (and I'll deliver my full critique of the politics of Shrek another day, boys and girls and everyone else).
The trailer, which focuses heavily on the figure of Puss himself and the action scenes, can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55gmAtakjJ4 -- and again, it doesn't promise much in the way of departure from what we've seen in previous Shrek outings. So while I like Puss, and enjoy listening to Antonio Banderas go 'Meow!' as much as the next gentleman-fancying person, I really wasn't expecting great things from this film. But what I got was...
Kitty Softpaws. Leaving aside the rather icky name (gratuitous pun on equally ickily-named James Bond character for the lose), what we have here is a mainstream Hollywood heroine who does the ass-kicking-female bit we've all seen from a hundred tedious action films... but takes it a bit further in some quite pleasing and interesting ways.
[SPOILERS BELOW THE JUMP]
The story begins boringly enough -- when young Puss (the film is set before the beginning of the Shrek films) attempts to steal some magic beans, he meets a masked cat who he chases back to hir secret hideout, then engages in combat with hir*. The combatant is unmasked to reveal a beautiful female (cat), the hero falls in drooling, drivelling lust with her -- so far, so cliched. No reason I'd add this to the (frighteningly short) list of Mainstream Hollywood Films That Galatea's Entirely Hypothetical Children Will Be Allowed To Watch Unsupervised**.
* Well, in this case, 'combat' does take the form of a flamenco dance battle that culminates in one party being hit over the head with a guitar...
** Hint: it mostly consists of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Disney's Mulan and some of the less faily bits of Lord of The Rings.
But then the reasons started to kick in...
1. After Puss and Kitty become partners in crime (together with Puss's one-time friend, the criminal mastermind Humpty Dumpty), at no point in the film does Kitty quote-unquote 'twist her ankle', become trapped in a stupid or embarrassing situation, or act against her own best interests out of devotion for Puss. There is a suggestion in one scene that she is falling for his 'animal magnetism', but this is played more as a moment of lust than one of sentiment, IMO. The person on the team who consistently fulfils the 'ze-just-tripped-and-fell' role is in fact Humpty, and the two cats take turns to save one another when being chased by a beast known as 'The Great Terror' during the attempted heist on the giants' castle. When Puss is wrongly trapped in prison, Kitty is the one who rescues him. There are swordfighting scenes galore in which Kitty is at all times shown to be Puss's physical equal, and a rather adorable chase through the clouds in the land of the giants in which they both enjoy running, jumping and play-fighting. If I were a kid who'd just been taken to see this film, I would be playing at being Kitty so hard right now that I'd probably have broken an entire shelf of china ornaments with my pretend sword...
2. This is also a film in which both the hero and the heroine are Latin@... and so are all the other good characters. Puss's adoptive mother, the village constabulary, random bystanders, guests in cantinas, etc., all speak in the hybrid Spanish-Mexican register that director Chris Miller seems to be going for in the set and costume design (the setting is at one point explicitly identified as Spain, yet the landscape is reminiscent of the Chihuahuan Desert, and the phrase 'spaghetti Western' is thrown around a lot in the publicity material). The only Anglo voices you'll hear in the film are villains Jack and Jill, the morally ambiguous Humpty Alexander Dumpty, and the mean kids at the orphanage who bully Puss and Humpty as children. The accents are also, and I think this is important, drawing on identities that both Salma Hayek (born in Mexico) and Antonio Banderas (born in Spain) actually have a legitimate claim to -- as opposed to, say, Mike Myers' spurious Scottish accent in the Shrek films.
(This is not, BTW, to say that there aren't a shedload of problems with Puss in Boots. And one of the biggest is the giving of what voice actor Amy Sedaris calls 'a generic Southern accent' to Jack and Jill [TW: triggers for fatphobic and classist comments on that link]. Because yeah, people from the southern states of the US have certainly never had to put up with any obnoxious stereotyping of their speech patterns and cultures...)
3. It's also possible to read Kitty as a character with a disability. She tells Puss that she got her name because she is able to steal anything without being detected (and indeed, a running gag in the film is her nicking his hat and boots without him realising). However, in a scene where Puss shouts at her for using a lockpick rather than tumbling a lock with her claws, she confesses angrily that she can't pick locks that way, because she doesn't have claws -- her one-time human owners had her declawed before she ran away from them. This is a really interesting scene on multiple levels -- we see that Kitty's loss of her claws has made her unable to do some things that cats who have claws can do, but that she still manages to achieve what she needs in her own way. In some ways, her physical difference may be an advantage, and it's definitely part of her identity -- she doesn't magically grow her claws back by the end of the film. I think this might be a really interesting jumping-off point for discussing disability and physical difference with kids.
4. The age factor. Just... when was the last time you saw a 45-year-old female Hollywood actor being allowed to play the knock-them-dead-sexy love interest in a mainstream film? For that matter, when was the last time you saw a 50-year-old male Hollywood actor paired with someone roughly his own age, rather than a woman in her twenties? Admittedly, the playing field changes when it's a voice-acted animated piece but... I'm still so glad that Hayek was cast in the role, and think she did an absolutely amazing job.
5. Finally, I'm thrilled to pieces about the fact that Puss and Kitty do not get married, declare undying love for one another, or produce cute kittens at the end of the film ('Harry Potter' epilogue, I'm looking at you!). The story ends with a long tracking shot of Puss riding off into the sunset, talking about how this first adventure set him up for the career as a lover, a fighter and an all-around swashbucker that was to follow... so far, so male-centred, but I found it equally easy to imagine Kitty riding off in the opposite direction, giving a similar voiceover monologue of her own. The hero and heroine have had an enjoyable adventure together, there have presumably (if the timbre of their flirting throughout the film is any inclination) been some exciting sexytime antics off-camera... and now they've said an amicable goodbye and are able to ride off into their separate futures with nothing but good memories of one another. 'Happy' does not necessarily have to go together with 'ever after'.
That's another kind of fairy-tale, and one that I'm very glad to see being told.