4.08.2007

Imperiled



I went to see Grindhouse last night. It was an awesomely over-the-top experience. I laughed, I cried, I got grossed out, I left satisfied. If you want pulp, this is pulp.

Partway through the second movie, I started to get a little impatient with the image of the Woman Imperiled driving the experience so hard. There's this narrative trope of the Woman Imperiled that's been around probably as long as men have been telling stories-- in movies anyway you could find it as far back as, appropriately, the Perils of Pauline, the innocent young woman tied to the railroad tracks as the villain looks on, twisting his mustache. There's a lot of that going on in Grindhouse, whether it's young women being imperiled by zombies, sadistic husbands, mutated rapists, or a psychopath with a deadly car. The only two possible outcomes of this situation are the villain being driven away or killed, or the young woman getting shredded to bits. Either way, it's not necessarily the outcome that's important as the source of the tension itself--young, vulnerable women being placed in great bodily peril by men for the viewer's entertainment.

Is it a domination fantasy on the part of the writer or director? Is the orchestrator of this kind of story subconsciously putting himself in a position of power over women? Is it a way of lashing out, excising all his psychological frustrations with women by focusing them onto a single fictional object of his own misogyny, under his complete control? I say 'his' because I can't imagine this trope being much employed by a female storyteller. Do women get off on seeing other young vulnerable women on the verge of rape or mutilation? Maybe it's telling, or maybe not, but Tarantino himself takes on the role of the mutated rapist in Planet Terror. Yes he gets his comeuppance, but is this part of the psychological play--the flipside of the aggression towards women, the need to be perpetually rebuffed--or a narrative concession? Lord knows not all the women in the films are as lucky as the ones in this particular scene. In the end, it is the retribution against the misogynist characters that drives the films and makes them satisfying, especially so for Death Proof. But something about the Woman Imperiled as a device for exciting the audience doesn't sit right with me. It feels so cheap.

The Woman Imperiled is an important part of video game history, from Super Mario Brothers to Double Dragon, Rolling Thunder, Ico, to Resident Evil 4. In games, the player takes on the role of the one saving the young woman, as opposed to that of either an impartial observer as per film or of the villain. So, doesn't this reinforce video games as a vehicle for young male power fantasies? Power over women, the ability to save them from harm as they can't save themselves. Does this dichotomy appeal to women? Can it? The nice thing about video games is that, as I've stated so many times, the gameplay mechanics themselves are more often than not completely detached from the narrative frame. Women can enjoy Super Mario Brothers for the jumping, stomping, and fireball-shooting without even acknowledging the narrative frame, but is that fair to the female player? A female player can enjoy Double Dragon for the fighting itself, but what of when they reach the conclusion, and are rewarded with a kiss from Marion, or alternately must fight their brother for her hand? Is that any kind of pay-off? Do women benefit from the sensation of male power associated with saving Yorda or Ashley Graham from peril? To necessarily detach oneself from half the game, especially in this day and age where story elements in games, if not more integrated with the gameplay, are still much more difficult to avoid while playing, cheats the female player out of the full experience.

The whole Woman Imperiled thing is human nature put on screen, the male/female conflict telling itself through fiction, but I wonder-- does this trope do anything more than reinforce the story, or the medium itself, as 'By Men, For Men?' If there's one thing that video games as a medium need, it's to be more inclusive, not less.

1 comment:

Kingsley said...

You know, I think that in the case of Grindhouse at least the woman imperiled motif is used as a kitsch device consciously adopted from the genre of bad that the movies aspire towards, and it is ultimately the women themselves that raise and overcome and destroy the antagonists, maybe breaking the standard formula of needing to be rescued.

I came to a similar lukewarm realization recently while watching old Disney movies: All the strong female characters are jealous antagonists and the female protagonists are helpless and feeble and utterly characterless.

And this weird relationship to women in fiction goes back god knows how far back, what with Eve fucking it all up for Adam and mankind and Pandora doing much the same thing. And then you also had Virgin Mary, the deification of blandness, and Penelope, the patient, perfect wifey. For a long time, always somehow scapegoated or on the margins, women have been binary, either virgins or whores.

I see this as a manner of infantile misogyny... although it could be some sort of artificial, society-created nonsense, as there seems to be a startling number of women eager to fall into the stereotypes.

I am not sure I am even going anywhere with this line of thought. It is definitely a bit undercooked.