Wednesday, October 6, 2010

James Cameron's Feminist Trilogy

Before I get this one started, let me just talk for a bit about feminism and my views thereon. Unfortunately feminism is not an uncomplicated word and carries with it all kinds of differing, and sometimes contradictory, implications. On the one hand, you could be talking about a movement to break down social barriers for women created by centuries of patriarchy, which aims to establish equality between the sexes; on the other hand you could be talking about a loosely-defined "movement" with goals which seem to primarily revolve around A) complaining about men because of personal unhappiness in their individual lives, and/or B) asserting women as a more dominant force in the world than men, in the hopes of reversing the hold of the patriarchy; generally these two viewpoints are pretty distinguishable, though when the two attitudes start mixing you start to get moral messiness I'm not going to discuss here. Anyway, I, naturally, dislike the latter brand of feminism and uphold the former. The former is the feminism of the works of Joss Whedon and Brooke Burgess, the feminism which understands that equality requires breaking all double-standards (even those that favor women or hurt men), and the feminism which I personally subscribe to. On that note, let's move on to what I'm talking about when I use the word 'feminism' in the rest of this article: I'm talking about my own personal views, as they pertain to art--that is, my own desire to see women portrayed more often and more comprehensively in fiction, to create the depiction of gender equality in the media in order to aide the ideals of gender quality in the real world.

And now for James Cameron...

I'm sure certain members of you, my wonderful gaggle of readers, took one look at the title of this post and went "Whaaaaat?", but hear me out for a second. Yes, this train of thought does start exactly where you thought it would: Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Both films are, famously, kick-ass sci-fi/action films written and directed by James Cameron which happen to have tough female protagonists--Lt. Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor, respectively--who go toe-to-toe with some nasty baddies and emerge triumphant, while also developing as maternal creatures, making them both the codifiers of the modern Action Mom. This connection between them is not foremost in the present mind mostly because Schwarzenegger got top billing for all the Terminator movies, but it's still noted.

Interestingly, the parallel extends back to the first film in each series, even though Cameron didn't write the first Alien film. In the first film of both series', our heroines are relatively non-descript; that is to say, there is nothing we see or hear from or about them initially that would let us know they were to become the badasses they do. Sarah is a teenage waitress, Ripley a capable crew-member aboard a ship of capable crew-members. Then a big, nigh-unstoppable baddie (alien or killing machine from the future, as it were) emerges and starts killing people, only to be eventually destroyed by our heroine. The strongest contrasts between the two from a feminist perspective are that A) Ripley starts off a badass, whereas Sarah is a damsel in distress slowly learning how to defend herself, and B) Ripley is an initially genderless role whereas Sarah needs to be female because she is destined to give birth to the future leader of mankind. But we're talking about Cameron films, which doesn't include Alien, so I'm gonna move on to my main point.

So yes, James Cameron has developed a reputation for writing female leads (esp. mothers) who kick a lot of ass and whose only worthy opponents are not men, but non-humans. This trend reached a mildly ridiculous apex with his latest film, Avatar, which has three tough-as-nails, morally unambiguous woman warriors. This itself can get a bit counter-productive from a feminist perspective, as making every female character a super-capable hardcore ass-kicker is hardly better than making every female character a wilting flower who must be rescued by the hero and in turn redeem him with her purity. Or, y'know, whatever, insert stereotype there. You get the idea. Anyway, the point is it's understandable to doubt Cameron's cred as a feminist filmmaker; I certainly have been leaning in that direction of late.

Now we get to why I have changed my mind.

I was watching Titanic the other day--yes of my own volition; save your jokes and go read my 100 Weeks, 100 Movies post about the movie--and suddenly it hit me. This movie is the feminist successor to the legacy of Aliens and T2. What do I mean, you (hopefully) ask? Well, I'll tell you:

The main story of Titanic is centered around a young woman aboard the RMS Titanic named Rose DeWitt-Bukater, who comes from a very wealthy family and feels trapped by the expectations of that class of society. She meets a free-spirited, dirt-poor young man named Jack Dawson, and falls in love. From there, it's pretty much just the original freakin' Terminator movie. I kid you not. In both cases, the heroine is swept off her feet in some capacity by a dashing young man from what seems like another world (be it because of class or time-travel), just as a horrible disaster is looming. She falls in love with him, and he opens her up, teaches her, and helps her to grow into the strong, independent woman she always could be, just in time for that strength to become necessary to her survival. Though he does not survive the ordeal, the strength he has given her allows her to go on and live a meaningful, fulfilled life. Note the key distinction that separates female-impairment and female-empowerment in such a writing scenario--it's not that she is weak without him; rather that her brief time with him has helped enable her to be strong on her own, and once he is gone she is able to get on perfectly fine without him, tougher and more capable. He enriches her life.
This exact emotional arc, or one very like it, is much more ubiquitous with a male protagonist. After all, a number of films in which the dashing hero saves the damsel focus on the concept that it is her spirit/purity/love that strengthens/redeems/inspires him, allowing him to become a greater man because of it. Even in something more down-to-earth like a contemporary drama or rom-com, when the protagonist is male and the plot centers around him falling in love with a lovely lady, the conventions of storytelling dictate that there is something wrong in his life--that although we should like him at least a little, we must also see that he is weak in some way--which is remedied by the beautiful, charming, vivacious female lead and his love for her.

Rose's arc is not dissimilar. She is not a stock female character, but a romantic protagonist drawn as fully in the same way a male character in such a role would be. Yet another thing to note though is that Rose never becomes a straight-up badass, at least not in the sense that Sarah and Ripley do. Which of course makes perfect sense given the kind of movie Titanic is--naturally Rose isn't gonna start toting guns and kicking the asses of non-human baddies in a historical romance. However she doesn't even become quite what you'd call a badass in a more realistic way either: her journey really takes it her from having great potential for strength and independence to utilizing some of that potential. We see from early on in the film that Rose, though a bit stuffy due to her upbringing, is strong-willed and can have quite a pointed tongue on her at times. She is clearly dissatisfied with her restrictive high society life, and what it's done to her as a person, but she doesn't know how to break free and become the person she wants to be. She is neither perfect nor idealized, but merely a very realistic and relatable young woman. Rose is more than your average female character in cinema who is either, as David Mamet so wonderfully put it, "crying or bravely not crying". Yes, she does a bit of that, but then in the context of this tragic story she wouldn't be a very relatable hero if she didn't. Your average video game writer seems to think that "strong, independent woman" means "frigid sociopathic bitch who cares nothing for anyone but herself... and especially not men" (see: Tomb Raider, Wet), an idea which isn't quite as prominent in film but still sometimes kicks in a bit when screenwriters think tough women can't cry either. That isn't Rose either. She is often strong, resourceful, clever, independent, and yet she can also be frightened, weak, submissive, stuffy--because a person can be all of these things, and therefore so can a good character. Ultimately we like characters because despite their good traits they have weaknesses, which makes them relatable and sympathetic. And of course, in Rose's case, she's also played by Kate Winslet, which is a huge part of why she's such a likable character. Methinks maybe that is why so many people like the film/can stand to watch all three-and-one-quarter hours of it at once.

Hell, even if you think Cameron is a pretentious artiste-businessman whose goal with Titanic was to make THE GREATEST, BIGGEST, MOST EXPENSIVE, MOST EPIC MOTION PICTURE EVERRR, then it is interesting to note that he chose for the protagonist of this huge, potent behemoth of a film (about a huge, potent behemoth of a ship... d'you think Cameron was aware of the irony when he wrote Rose's quip to Ismay about the Freudian nature of ol' "unsinkable"?) not a man but a woman. Just putting it out there.

So, am I saying Titanic is a feminist movie? ...Eh sure, why not. You wanna argue with me, hey, fine. Honestly, the point I'm most focused on is the idea that if James Cameron is a feminist (or indeed the theoretical 'writer' is a feminist), it's not because he writes badass women who can wipe the floor with men, like Sarah or Ripley; it's because he writes those characters and also more down-to-earth female characters who are strong and likable and flawed and in these ways as rounded and real as any male hero without needing to throw down. Thus, Aliens, Terminator 2, and Titanic form a great trilogy, as it were--three films that, together, provide a terrific, varied display of feminism in screenwriting.


  1. Holy crap... your parallels drawn between "Terminator" and "Titanic" are uncanny.

    Still, though... Jimmy Cameron has been married five times. Just sayin'.

  2. True, but the good character of certain people I know in similar situations convinces me that's not necessarily a bad sign. Eh well, maybe he isn't a feminist at all, but if he isn't I still like to think he's made feminist films.