Archive for February, 2014

The LEGO Movie! Everything is Awesome (Except when it isn’t!)

February 12, 2014 Leave a comment

It should go without saying that this contains spoilers. This isn’t just “You should see this movie” or “You shouldn’t see this movie.” You should. I highly recommend The LEGO Movie. It’s great fun, it’s technologically amazing, it’s funny, and it has–at its core–a very good message about individuality, creativity, and parental relationships. I cannot praise it enough for its good qualities, which it has in spades, and you can, I’m sure, read about elsewhere.

However, in the realm of not-so-good qualities, it also knocks ’em out of the park. It does this in to major ways. First, it’s a massive, massive sausagefest that I think actively dismisses women and almost insults people for bringing their daughters. Second, it’s ableist as hell.

Of the hordes of characters in the film, four of them are women or girls with speaking roles (maybe five, if you include a literal one-line appearance). All of those–and I say “all” without hyperbole–are only there to serve the needs of the main character or another man. What makes this even more irritating is that at least one of them, the main female lead, Wyldstyle (played by Elizabeth Banks) is so close to being a really good, well-rounded character.

Wyldstyle initially comes on a strong, independent, creative character. She’s quick on her feet, she builds great vehicles and is calm and collected in the face of extreme danger. (This is not to say that she’s the Female Badass. She is a strong character, not a Just One Of The Guys dude with breasts.) And then…

She has a boyfriend. Okay. He’s Batman. Okay. She spends the entire movie pointing out that she has a very serious relationship. Okay. And in the last five minutes, she totally dumps Bats for the main character. Why? Why does she automatically have to fall for the main character? Why does she have to be in a relationship at all? Can’t she simply exist as an independent entity? This supposed romantic relationship does nothing to further the plot at all. It’s basically tacked-on for… I don’t even know. Not even the main character (I should probably name him from now on: Emmet) seems to know why or how he ends up in this romantic relationship that is established by the film as being mostly platonic (at best) anyway.

The only explanation I can come up with is Hollywood Bullshit. Wyldstyle is the female lead and must therefore fall for the male lead in whatever hamfisted way, just so some demographic’s numbers look a teeny bit better. I can’t see test audiences approving this incredibly artificial premise of a romance, but I guess if the test audience is made up of 8-year-old boys and their thirtysomething fathers, maybe I can understand it. Incidentally, that’s pretty much all I saw at the screening we went to: lots of younger elementary boys and their dads. The few girls and women I did see were far more excited going in, and throughout the movie. And I hope the “plot twist” stabbed all those dads right in their livers.

What makes it worse is Wyldstyle’s character spends the entire film serving under the male characters. Emmet, Batman, Vitruvius (the Wise Old Sage character), all of them. After her initial entrance, she spends the entire rest of the movie being the exact opposite of what she could have, should have been. And worse than that is how she is repeatedly told that she is not “The Special” (basically exactly what is sounds like, the “prophesied savior” character.) Nope, that’s Emmett. The unremarkable, uninteresting male lead. He even talks about how not-special he is, but Wyldstyle has to keep reminding him over and over again that he has to be. Because, y’know, he’s the male lead. Or something.

And this is the best female character in the movie. All the others that actually have speaking roles–Unikitty, Wonder Woman, Bad Cop’s mother, the female coworker of Emmet whose name escapes me at the moment–they’re all marginalized, impotent, and secondary to the men in the film, at best used as plot devices. Even Wonder Woman.

In the larger scale of the film, the metadiscourse of the live action segments (like I said, spoilers) is pretty painful from a LEGO P.R. standpoint. The entire third act of the film revolves around a boy and his father and their relationship. It’s all about making boys feel good. Every character in the film, then, is serving not just Emmett (the “main” character), but the boy who is ostensibly “making up” the movie. Which is itself a pretty difficult concept: the film implies than this kid only sees women as objects to help him achieve his goal (whatever that may be.) It’s a much more potent film than it lets on just from that one subtle implication.

Now, my other major gripe isn’t nearly as detailed or even nuanced as above. The LEGO Movie is completely and unabashedly ableist. Morgan Freeman’s character, Vitruvius, is the Wise Old Man of film. Which is okay, I can handle a well-worn archetype like that. However, the film goes one step further and makes him blind. Okay, whatever, I can handle that. The appalling part is that his blindness is repeatedly played for laughs. And even in backwards-as-hell Fort Wayne, IN, a lot of those jokes fell flat. Yeah, they got a couple titters here and there, but by and large those jokes were completely superfluous and solely played as comic relief. They are literally “This guy is blind and isn’t that funny? Look at him walk into walls! Ho ho ho!” It’s physically uncomfortable.

Now, in true compliment-sandwich style, I could go on for at least as many words about how wonderful The LEGO Movie is or how technically brilliant it is. I could talk about its financial success, or its great cast, or its fucking amazing theme song, but frankly those things just highlight how much of a letdown these other issues are. I don’t think it would be hyperbolic to say this would be the best kids film I’ve ever seen with just a few subtle tweaks that wouldn’t even substantially change the film. A gender flip here or there, the removal of the awkward romance between Wyldstyle and Emmett (and even Wyldstyle and Batman), and the removal of the ableist garbage from Vitruvius’ character, and it would be absolutely amazing. But as it is, we have a flawed masterpiece of children’s entertainment, because it’s not children’s entertainment. It’s boys’ entertainment.

It’s a major stumble of a company that’s already stumbled in its relation to girls while still making halting steps toward including them. And despite the fact that I’ve already given them (and Warner Bros.) my ticket money, and I’m strongly considering getting it on Blu-ray, I do so with several caveats, including the one about having conversations with my daughter about how girls are (or aren’t) portrayed in the film. About how there’s nothing funny about simply being blind. About how she and I interact with each other and the LEGO collection we share. These are all important subjects, but I really wish we wouldn’t have to talk about them because of how an otherwise amazing movie screwed up those subjects so badly.

Post Script:

There’s a lot to be said about the Friends theme from LEGO, and it’s relation to girls, and it suffers from a lot of the same problems the film does. It’s so very close to being good for girls–there are great sets subtly inserted into the line that go against the beauty salon-type sets. There are a lot of really good ideas promoted by those sets, and the focus is much more on camaraderie than the adversarial nature of a lot of the main-line sets (and definitely more than, say, the Star Wars sets.)

I encourage you to look at the full line than just cherry-pick. As I’ve said, it suffers a lot of the problems in messaging–especially when you add on the marketing push behind it and the world they created around the sets, beyond just the bricks and characters.

When viewed from the angle of “What is there to build?”, it’s hard to make the argument that getting more girls to build more things with LEGO is bad. I love that there are vehicles and science sets and town buildings, and that many of those things are generally pretty gender-neutral outside of using a (usually small) number of pastel bricks in pink or purple or blue. And I love that those colors now exist to integrate into the rest of the LEGO world.

However, when viewed from the angle of “What is the overall message we’re sending?” LEGO still has a long way to come. They’re making an effort, and while it may be shrewdly profit-driven, more choice is never bad. The only thing that really irritates me (I mean, aside from, say, Stephanie’s Newborn Lamb) is that the sets aren’t in the same aisle as the “boys” sets. I don’t think that’s a failing of LEGO, though, but one of our retail environment in general. Society in general.

I don’t think it’s misogyny on the part of LEGO so much as patriarchy in general on the part of society. Which is… sort of how I feel about The LEGO Movie? Like, I don’t blame LEGO for operating within the confines of the space that exists for them. I will definitely take them to task for failing to do all that they could do, though. Why does Wyldestyle have to be “in love” at all? Why does Emma have to have a “fashion” design studio instead of a “general” design studio where she can create whatever she wants? Why does Unikitty have to be a generic bubbly pink character? (Hell, her name is basically a portmanteau of “unique” and “kitty”!) Why are almost all (and I mean this, all but a very small handful) of the “Master Builders” in the film male?

Post Script 2:

I fully expect that I’m going to get some garbage from both/many sides for this, but seriously, the whole thing–from the movie to Friends to the corporate climate at LEGO–is a lot more subtle than most people give credit. The movie not JUST good or bad (from every angle). Friends is not JUST good or bad (for girls, for LEGO, for society, whatever). LEGO is not JUST trying to make a buck off of The Pink Aisle (though it seems that way from the outside). As a LEGO enthusiast from before I was in school, a feminist, a father, a father of a daughter, and a genderqueer individual myself, there’s a hell of a lot more to this issue than just “Pink LEGO is bad for girls/Pink LEGO is destroying the hobby.” So please, please, please: question things and educate yourselves about the whole thing instead of just looking at the color of the bricks and the aisle they’re in. Like most issues, there’s good and bad in everything, and the best that we can do is learn about ourselves and the world we live in. And while we can always strive to make the world better. Let’s not shit on the advancements we’ve made, even if they seem minor. Let’s not vilify those who make decisions we don’t agree with. Rather, guide them. Educate them.

That is what good stewards and, moreover, good parents, do.

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