The Problem with Passengers is Everything, but Mostly its Lack of Lesbians

Yesterday I willingly yielded an hour of my life to watch everything I dreaded about the film Passengers come true; I wished desperately for these tropes and clichés to be put back to sleep in pods, and lie dormant for another 90 years. But alas, just like the perfect white people in the film, these tired narratives were doomed to live once again on the screen.

Thankfully, it at least proved a lens through which to tropes about male entitlement, hero narratives, feminine objectification, and the heterosexual nuclear family unit. Passengers is a story about a white man taking a woman’s future and bodily autonomy away because she’s pretty, and subsequently gaslighting her by traumatic circumstance into completely and unequivocally forgiving him and rewarding him for his violations.

Even though the movie allows her to get some shots in on him, her pain specifically gives him the opportunity to risk his life and act heroically. It’s disgusting: guilt-ridden lovesick Chris Pratt dramatically tells JLaw that he has to die in order to save the ship, thus presenting her with the possibility of ultimate hell – being non-consensually been woken up from hibernation only to have to spend the next 80 years in solitary confinement, waiting for death to alleviate her agony, never to hear another person’s voice or be touched by a living being again.

Through this device, JLaw is forced to consider living with him a viable alternative to going back to sleep. Their subsequent rekindled romance, and her rejection of his offer to put her back to sleep, amount to nothing less than Stockholm Syndrome. This, coupled with her repeated refrain of “took you long enough to ask”, form a sinister message: women are just waiting for you to ask! Just because she’s in cryogenic hibernation doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the plunge!

And it’s extremely salient that JLaw and Chris P are both white – they get to be “everman” and his beautiful prize, free from foolish concerns like the rendition of human difference. Chris Pratt becomes generalized masculine desire, and Jennifer Lawrence becomes the abstract “female” object of his consumption and gaze.

If you make Chris Pratt’s burly mechanic into a woman, change approximately 2 lines, and tell the actress to not repeatedly stand in front of her costar or make self-centred heroic faces into the distance to emphasize her moral virtue, the story becomes about actual people. Exploring the relationship between two women (or two men, or people of colour, or literally anything other than tropes personified) who come to love one another under conditions of extreme stress and loneliness, and of their brave forgiveness following deep betrayal, would be a story about actual people. Passengers certainly wasn’t.

If anything, Passengers highlights something very important about heterosexuality – that it takes an incredible amount of narrative contortion to make possible a relationship predicated on fantasies about objectification, gaslighting, and coercion. PUAs take note.

And the film only uses Laurence Fishburne as scaffolding to patch up the monstrous relationship between the two white characters. If that’s not criminal, I don’t know what is.

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Ghostbusters and the fight to watch women get shit done

The Ghostbusters movie came out with all the fanfare and crapola you could expect from a movie with more than one woman in a post-GamerGate digital landscape. Literally: the troll supreme and hateful asshat who principally mobilized GamerGaters (surprisingly) received a penalty for encouraging the twitter harassment of Leslie Jones, one of the film’s stars (and the film’s only nonwhite cast member). It’s been an organized campaign of hatred designed to bring down a film seen as revisionist for featuring a cast of women at best, and a bad film because of its female characters at worst.

So is the film good, or is it bad? If the film is actually good, then the online outcry is motivated by misogyny and reactionary bigotry, rendering criticisms baseless. If the film is actually bad, then everyone excited by it is motivated by an overzealous feminist agenda and the film’s sheer existence can be chocked up to affirmative-action-type policies.

So what happens when a movie is just so-so, as seems to be the case with Ghostbusters? Reviews are mixed, and it is difficult to sort out the bigoted trolls from the earnest, honest reviewers. It’s interesting to not that on Rotten Tomatoes, the film  Eileen Jones of Jacobin has some choice words. To her, Ghostbusters is ugly, tacky, boring, and unfunny. Fair. She also decries the insidious capitalism of using “puling fanboy misogyny” to market their films to righteously indignant feminist audiences. She outlined this by making reference to the controversy surrounding Feig’s earlier film, Bridesmaids:

According to the Bridesmaids ballyhoo, if we didn’t all go see it as an act of feminist solidarity, no Hollywood movie would ever again feature several women in lead roles. Women would virtually disappear from our screens, and soon every American film would be a reprehensible sausage fest, nothing but remakes of The Lusty Men, The Lost Boys, Young Guns, The Expendables, and The Dirty Dozen.

Jones may be right about the film at hand, and is definitely onto something about the convenient capitalism of marketing a mainstream film with feminism. But she’s dead wrong to claim that there is nothing urgent–or feminist–about getting behind an all-woman, mainstream blockbuster. The fact is that without very vocal outcry from consumers, mediocre films featuring the stories and characters of women are actually used as justification for not putting stories about women on the screen.

Superhero films are a good illustration of this point. Like action movies, superhero films have historically been the home of masculine characters, narratives, and consumers. And when there have been superhero films made about women, their failures have been ascribed to the gender of their protagonist and been used to justify further exclusion of female characters.

But when films headlined by men are shitty, suddenly executives don’t mind. Jones can joke about the explodey man movies that would proliferate if we didn’t do our feminist job and genuflect to any movie containing women, but it’s hypocritical as fuck. Man of Steel, the foundation for their new franchise, was garbagey. Its successor, Batman v. Superman, was somehow even garbagier. They built their franchise layering critical failures and box-office flops, with no one laying blame on the generic hyper-masculine narratives themselves. In fact, these awful films continue to be produced. But a shitty movie with female characters? That’s eagerly taken as grounds to bury this feminine shingbingle for good.

It’s also important to look at what women characters DO in the movie itself, and not just count their numbers. How many action or superhero films feature more than one woman character who isn’t an eye candy sex object, much less a full team? How often are women permitted to JUST GET SHIT DONE ALREADY on-screen without having to justify their presence with sex appeal or romance for the consumption of men? In a mainstream media landscape where women have very little chance to see themselves move the plot with brains and brawn, it is inextricably political for a film to fly in the face of narrative gendered norms for the action and comedic genres. The last actiony film to do this was Mad Max: Fury Road, and look how that turned out. Funny how this happens with every film where women are just trying to do their awesome jobs, and don’t actually outline a specific feminist ideology.

Feminists shouldn’t have to give a shit about a mediocre action-movie whose first joke is about a queef. But we, along with the makers and marketers of Ghostbusters, find ourselves in an environment where trigger-happy executives look for any excuse not to make a movie about women, and the work of proving we need movies about and for us rests disproportionately on the shoulders of twitter hashtags, bloggers, and online petitions. That’s definitely not to say that supporting the film is a feminist obligation. I probably won’t like this movie. I won’t be lauding it just for the bare fact of containing 4 women, and I think it’s deplorable that one of the only ways to gain representation is constructing feminism as a new and enticing crop of consumers ripe for the picking.

But I’m glad that somebody is doing that, since it might mean a slightly higher chance of getting to enjoy the same levels of cinematic mediocrity enjoyed by men everywhere, everyday.