Monday, September 29, 2014

Grappling with Gender issues, the Reel Deal, part 2

Bold sections by Lord Covington

In a recent post, we discussed how certain tv programs may have negatively affected Toddleworth's views on gender. Now, we are discussing the movies that he watches. We started here with Frozen. Here is the continuation:

Your wife is so fat she...... died and animated a house?
You'll notice a theme soon; Toddles is still a fan of horror and we started trying to find children's animated horror movies for him pretty early. The first was Monster House. We took it to Houston with us in February and he watched it several times while we were hanging sheet rock at Lord Covington's mother's house.

Monster House is a mixed bag for me. Two boys, DJ and Chowder, witness what they think is the death of their crotchety old neighbor, Nebbercracker, and they soon realize the house next door is alive. They assume it is haunted by his ghost, but realize it is haunted by the ghost of Nebbercracker's wife.

Agency: There are three main female characters in the film.
       The first is 'Zee,' DJ's babysitter. She likes to use traditional "sweet and pink" as active camouflage if DJ's parents are around. When they are gone, she ditches the 'nice female' camouflage for a shirtless black band shirt, and pulls her hair loose to reveal a punky asymmetrical cut. She sends DJ to his room so she can hang out with her (jerk of a) boyfriend. Soon afterwards, she kicks the boyfriend out, proclaiming "You have no respect for women!"
       The second is Jenny, who we meet while she is cleverly going door to door trying to sell candy to procrastinators. In their exchange, first they barter over buying candy with the babysitter 'emergency fund' in a way that will net them both money. Zee gives Jenny advice along the lines of "If you see a boy you like, give him his burger, not your phone number." Jenny, while sucked into their nerdy pre-pubescent boy world of video games and peeing in bottles, not only adapts well, but ends up heroically saving them both with her wits and understanding of anatomy.  Once her more well grounded logical mind accepts that there is, in fact, a Monster House, she begins applying her knowledge to the house, reasoning that  net-bag of lights in the foyer is most likely a uvula.  Later, when the House has captured DJ and Chowder, Jenny's quick wits save all of the major characters.  While the boys are hanging by a ledge about to fall into the mouth, Jenny dodges the house's tongue and leaps on the "uvula," gambling successfully that the house will have to spit them out.  While the critique below takes issue with Jenny not being the one to destroy the Monster House single handed at the climax of the movie, I think it's fair to say the House absolutely would have had two tween snacks that night if not for her courage under fire.
        The third female character is the house itself, animated by the ghost of Nebbercracker's wife. It turns out Constance Nebbercracker was once a giantess (fat woman) at a circus side show, before being liberated by Nebbercracker. she died in an accident while rabidly trying to fend off young vandals during the houses construction.
I don't know how I feel about this caricature of a woman being used as the monster.  Here is a strongly worded critique I found.  I'm not sure I would be quite so harsh, but I certainly don't think her villainous portrayal in this movie does fat women, or women in general, any favors.
    While I acknowledge the above critique as valid in this case, my initial and lingering reaction to Constance is that she is a tragic character.  In the real world, several usually traumatic events put a person where she was when we first see her: morbidly obese, locked in a cage, and tormented by strangers.  The way she reacts to the children who throw eggs at her while she was still alive was at that point, largely an unavoidable automatic response.  My reaction was not "she's fat," but "she's injured."  I would take larger issue if she were the only woman depicted in the film

Backstory/Goals: We learn that Zee was kicked out of the prep school that Jenny goes to. Zee doesn't seem to have any plans for the future other than having a cool boyfriend.
        We don't learn anything about Jenny's background, or future, from what I remember of the film. She obviously has plans, and is willing to follow through with them, as her candy selling scheme shows. Unfortunately, Jenny ultimately is only advancing DJ's goals in this story.  She doesn't get any extensions of her own subplot ( presumably clever candy scamming), she just works toward DJs.  I feel this is possibly the most negative message of the movie, and one I feel Toddlesworth and I must have a conversation about.
          We see Constance's backstory and the actions that led to her death. As a human, her goal was to protect her house, which I could believe was the first thing that had ever been hers. As the monster, her goals basically consist of consuming anyone that might be a threat to her house, and taking whatever belongings cross her property line. When the children trespass and truly wake her up, she even uproots herself from her foundation and chases them off the property.

Traditional Gender Roles: Zee is in the traditional role of teenage caretaker, but she flips it on its head in a bad way by pretty much being awful. She has rather stereotypically fallen for the bad boy. Though she kicks him out, by the end of the film there is an interaction that leads me to believe she will go running back to him.
      When Jenny next tries to approach the 'Monster House,' the two boys who have been watching the house must run to rescue her. The boys tend to compete for her attention. She is generally shown as more savvy and knowledgeable than the boys, and I assumed she was older, though she is listed as being younger. I do feel that she is basically used as inspiration to keep the guys going. DJ comes up with the plan to use cough syrup to put the house to sleep. Chowder says  "I don't want to steal drugs from my father, I don't want to go inside a monster, and I don't want to die!" Jenny says "This seems worth a shot..." And chowder immediately switches his stance to "Yes, I agree, lets do it."
      Constance/Monster House was rescued by Nebbercracker. She is violent and angry and overprotective of her household. The critique I linked above mentions how she is the embodiment of the 'woman as household' trope.
That same link above critiques that Jenny becomes a cheerleader rather than being the one to end the monster once and for all. I am not sure I agree with that completely. I do detest that she kisses him as part of her encouragement. I don't feel the need for her to take over and do it for him... it is DJ's movie... DJ is obviously the main character, The Monster House is the house across from his house, not Jenny's. All the same, I would like to see more movies where that particular critique is not needed because it is a female main character and hero.

       I think many of us have been Zee at one time or another. Being a strong, progressive woman, doesn't mean you won't go stupid over a boy. She's a relatively minor character in the film, but I liked her.
       I really liked the initial appearance of Jenny. She was decisive, intelligent, and quick witted. I don't think she gets to show those attributes off consistently later in the film.
      Constance: I feel like this character is treated more like a rabid dog than a person. As a human, she is shown first basically as a caged animal. She is excited to be freed and to have a place of her own, and then she shows anger. Anger is shown to be her only emotion as the monster house. At one point Nebbercracker talks her down, and even says 'Good girl!" and I just really got the feeling that his is how you would treat a housepet gone bad, not your dead wife. I am not sure the film wouldn't have been better by not making the house a 'character' at all. If there were some other reason the house animated, there wouldn't be a need for  a backstory of a character who just basically falls flat.

        In conclusion, I think with a more critical view of movies as messages, there often comes the complaint of "ruining my childhood."  While we are taking a feminist perspective on our media, specifically in the context of Toddlesworth's viewing, we are not immune to the feeling either.  It is frustrating to think about shows I loved as a child, wanting to share them with Toddlesworth (He Man is basically out, for example), and having ethical qualms about it.  However, I suppose while I am sacrificing some childhood memories, the childhood I am saving from the ruination of bad default paradigms is his.  If that's the tradeoff, I will make it with a confident smile.

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