Friday, September 23, 2011

Reposting my Facebook Rant That Was Then A OWL Rant and now a Blog Post.

I would like to highlight a problem I had with Bend It Like Beckham, specifically a false assumption in holds about character and sexuality. I have phrased my problem in the form of two rambling letters.

Dear Movies, 

Just because you have a gay character does not automatically mean I will care about them, their hopes and dreams, or even like them. There appears to be this harmful idea that “being gay” is a well-defined character trait. I can call a character "energetic", "zany", "sinister", all of those come with their own expressions of modality that are the hallmarks of any trope. But if the only thing I can say about a character is that they are "the gay one", that's Very Bad Writing, akin to a character being there to fulfil the role of “woman”- it's treating a noun as an adjective. 

To look at it another way, let's look a group most people are familiar with: the trio of Harry, Hermione and Ron from the ubiquitous Harry Potter series. Each character realizes a particular role in the films/books. Harry is the one who is “brave”, the hero and driver of the narrative. Hermione is there to be the “smart” one, to have the expeditionary/expository knowledge to help Harry be able to drive where he needs the story to go. Ron is there because every story needs a buffoon, and to keep Neville from being a main character and thus ending the series by the end of the first book by sheer bad-ass awesomeness. But what if we changed how we define a character? Harry: Brave, Ron: Supportive(I'll be nice), Hermione: Woman.

One of those things is not like the other. That kind of phrasing is not only a sweeping generalization of everything a woman could potentially be, it's sexist and disingenuous to boot. Tokenism in the worst way, and it spreads a harmful worldview that you can be completely defined by your gender. 

“But James, you snarky and slightly patronizing comment poster, you, what does this have to do Bend It Like Beckham, and why didn't Neville get his own spin-off?” I hear you cry. Well, the second question is far beyond the scope of this post, so I'll just stick with the first one. In the best Socratic tradition, I will answer this by posing another question, albeit one directed at the film as opposed to you, gentle reader, who patiently awaits enlightenment.

Dear Bend It Like Benton: 

You have a character who admits he is gay. Explain why, at any point in the movie, I ought to care about him. No one ever expects me to root for "the straight one" just because the character is straight. Since he is not the main character of the piece, having him come out to our protagonist must serve some sort of purpose in the story, right? Was it to prove that Jess wasn't prejudiced? It... might, but she seems like a pretty forward thinking young woman, I don't think that was ever called into question. That can't have been the function. So it had to be that it was important we know that Tony was gay for our understanding of Tony's character. It must be important to the story that we know who Tony is. 

Who is Tony?

He is friends with the main character. He has a crush on David Beckham. He likes soccer. He thinks the coach is cute.



That's it, really. I looked it up on IMDB, Tony doesn't have a last name. He's just Tony, “the gay one”. Huh.

Why don't we play a game? It's called "Remove the Coming-Out Scene." First, you cut the scene where Tony says he's gay. Then, watch the movie and tell me if losing this scene has any impact on the story in any meaningful way shape or form.

If there is any change, its on how we interpret his gesture to enter into a sham marriage so that Jess can play soccer in America. But for me, his sexuality doesn't really change the nature of the gesture (which is a noble one, which we could add to his character list if I was in a more charitable mood, but since it's this fake-out deus-ex-machina that is immediately dropped, I'm not going to). Let's say we didn't know he was gay. He;s still entering into a (romantically) loveless marriage of connivence to help a friend. And had it gone through, Hollywood probably would have forced a sequel where they really fall in love and please all those Tony/Jess shippers out there, but realistically we have to take the movie as a complete package, concrete in its habitus (isomorphically emergent with its own structural conditions). At the end of the day (and end of the move), straight, gay, bi, non... hell, the guy could only be attracted to bumblebees; his sexuality in no way changes the nature of the gesture. He is willing to enter into a lie to help a friend.

(And regardless: that's nice in all, but for a sacrifice to be meaningful, I have to think that he's giving up something worth while. “Oh no, he's giving up his life of... really liking David Beckham?” Seriously, movie. Who is this guy, why should I care? What does he do for a living? Does he have a job, other friends, does he like movies, music, anything at all besides David Beckham? Will his sham marriage keep him from really liking David Beckham? Because I'm pretty sure Jess also likes David Beckham.)

If he was gay, and it was just accepted (i.e. no coming-out scene), then that would be great. I love to have gay characters who's sexuality isn't used as way to milk pathos from the narrative. As is, its used as disposable emotionality. “Huh, this bit of the film needs punching up, let's cram an awkward-yet-endearing “I'm gay” scene to pad out the run time and make us seem topical.” Who is Tony? It doesn't matter, he's just there to help the protagonist go kick a ball in a country that has an entirely different definition of the word 'football'. I need to know that Tony is something other than a manifestation of the main characters subconscious need for a perfect male friend who loves everything she does (Soccer. David Beckham. Soccer) without wanting to get in her pants.

There's a lovely test called the Bechdel Test, which a movie only passes if it meets the following criteria: 

1.It has to have at least two women in it,
2.Who talk to each other,
3.About something other than a man.

I'd like to compliment the Bechdel Test with something I call The Prager Test. A movie passes the Prager test if:

1.It has a homosexual character
2.Who talks to the main character
3.About something other than a crush, or the main character's interests and problems.

Your character is gay? Fine, that's great. But it's not enough. Work with that, do something with that, define your character as, well, someone more than a one-dimensional plot point. Please. This heteronormative indifference is ever so aggravating. 

Anyone needs me, My Little Pony Season 2 just started up, so I have to re-watch the premiere and finish my twelve volume series “Why Glee is the worst thing on television since My Mother The Car” 

I remain, yours &c.,

James Campbell-Prager

(Corollary: Putting the gay character in peril does not mean I have any interest in seeing them live over dying. This holds true of "adorable" yet bratty children. If I simply hate them, I may be thrilled that they died. This is what's known as “Adric Syndrome” )

tl;dr: You're in university now. If you can't be bothered to read long things, drop out. Now. I'm dead serious. You will be crushed without mercy by an uncaring education structure that expects your reading skills to be at least at a grade eight level.

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