Batman and the Case of the Missing WomenPosted: September 25, 2012 | |
*MASSIVE SPOILER FOR THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, I AM NOT EVEN JOKING, IF YOU DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED, DON’T READ THIS POST*
So. Er. Did anyone notice that here really weren’t any women in The Dark Knight Rises?
Everyone Else On the Internet: “… No?”
Yeah, I’ll admit this seems like an out-of-place critique. Compared with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises was practically FLOODED with women.
We had not one, but two female characters! They both had big important roles! And both of them were defined by more than just Bruce Wayne’s romantic interest in them! We finally – FINALLY – got Catwoman.
But I, the resident Feminist Batwoman, still have some complaints about the presence (or lack thereof) of women in the movie.
In the immortal words of Selina Kyle:
Okay, so, I will gladly admit that there are actual women in The Dark Knight Rises. I will even gladly admit that they are interesting, well-rounded characters. We have Miranda/Talia. We have Selina Kyle. We even have Selina’s friend Jen. And then we have, er…
A quick search of IMDB informs me that the other women included Maids #1-#3, a female security guard, and Ra’s Al Ghul’s wife, who never talks (and honestly, we never even see her face).
So… not so much in terms of “other women.”
Oh, but maybe The Dark Knight Rises just doesn’t have a lot of named characters! Maybe that’s why there aren’t that many named women!
Least you ask, there are some fifteen-odd named male characters in The Dark Rises, including Bruce Wayne, Fox, Alfred Caine, Commissioner Gordon, Blake/Robin, Dr. Pavel, The Mayor, Strykker, Daggert, Ra’s Al Ghul and Foley.
It’s a product of how few women there are in action movies full stop that we look at two (or three) women in a superhero movie as a lot. Named female characters in The Dark Knight Rises are vastly outnumbered by named male characters. So while I’m pleased that we’re finally moving towards having more well-rounded, interesting female characters…
I’m not ready to start baking feminist cookies yet.
Okay, so, not a lot of named female characters in The Dark Knight Rises. Sure.
But frankly, it wasn’t the lack of named female characters that struck me. It was the lack of unnamed female character. The lack of female extras.
The lack of women in the movie’s background.
The Dark Knight Rises is filled with people. The filmmakers must have hired thousands of extras to create all of their crowds; it is, after all, a film about a city.
And most of the crowds are divided into very specific groups: Groups of terrified civilians. Groups of Bane’s henchmen. Groups of cops. And groups of young children.
According to my very un-sophisticated analysis, the four “groups” that were the most important in terms of the plot were the henchmen, the cops, the prisoners (both in the Gotham and the Bane children) and the children. All four get big chances to shine, both as heroes and as sympathetic (or antipathetic) figures. There are, I will admit, a lot of shots of terrified crowds, but they’re more important in terms of atmosphere than in terms of thematic importance. The scene of the police advancing on the henchmen, or the children stuck on the bridge, is much thematically important, in my understanding of the movie, than the shot of all the bankers screaming as they exit the stock exchange.
Perhaps most importantly, the henchmen/prisoners, the children and the police serve as mirrors to the larger themes of the movie: sacrifice, service, loyalty and family. The children and the police are the two sides of Bruce Wayne – the innocent, wronged child, and the protective, warrior-adult. The police, moreover, are the lawful side of Batman’s quest – they too, work to protect hte civilian population. The henchmen are the more brutish manifestations of Bane and Talia Al Gul. And the prisoners are in the middle – symbolic of Bane and Talia’s past, but also of Bruce’s challenges. They are the dark side of the population of Gotham, the angry hordes hidden inside prisons, just waiting to be released.
So. Four major groups of people. Huge thematic importance. Thousands of extras.
And you know what?
There aren’t a whole lot of women in those groups.
In fact, in most of those groups, there are no women at all.
Try to think of a female policewoman in The Dark Knight Rises. Any. There were hundreds of police officers in that movie, both in and out of uniform. They’re everywhere.
And I will be highly impressed if you manage to find one woman in the mass of teaming cops.
I saw the movie twice; the second time I was specifically looking for these elusive background women. I think I managed to catch a glimpse of one female cop near the middle of the movie. I can’t be sure.
Sure, I think we could probably find one or two women cops, if we looked hard. But one or two women in a group of hundreds – or thousands – of policemen?
… that’s all kinds of ridiculous.
And I will bet you actual cash (not a lot of it – remember that I’m a poor college student) that you cannot find a single female henchman. Again, I looked pretty damn carefully, and I did not see any.
There are a LOT of henchmen in The Dark Knight Rises.
None of them are women.
Bane’s group of merry terrorists are solely and exclusively male.
Not surprisingly, there are also no female prisoners
(with the notable exceptions of Selina Kyle and Talia Al Gul, but crucially, but women are cited as EXCEPTIONS. Selina is in a men’s-only prison, as is Talia Al-Gul, and in fact, prisoners are so coded as male that no one guesses the escaped prisoner (Talia) might be female. Also, both Talia and Selina are named female characters – there are no random female prisoners walking around as extras).
So yeah. Women can’t be “normal” bad guys (henchmen/prisoners) and they can’t be “normal” good guys either (the police).
Now, I can hear the objections already.
Oh, well, that’s just ACCURACY, that is. Because there AREN’T a lot of female cops or bad guys in real life, so The Dark Knight Rises is just being ACCURATE.
I HAD NEVER THOUGHT OF THAT.
(that was sarcastic, in case you couldn’t tell).
Okay, Point the First:
The Dark Knight Rises is about a man who dresses up like a bat and fights bad guys in the dark of the night. I’m not sure it’s going to win any prizes for accuracy. Also, that part where Bruce Wayne’s back is broken and all his cartilage has been destroyed, but he gets back to top physical form in less than, like, two months?
Point the second: There aren’t female terrorists or female cops in real life?
In the United States, most local police departments have at least 12% female officers. In big cities like Detroit, Philadelphia and Chicago (one of the places where the Batman series was filmed), nearly one fourth of cops are women. In Canada, TWENTY PERCENT of cops are women.
Female cops EXIST.
There is no good reason why, in a movie with dozens of shots of hundreds of police officers, we can’t spot more than one or two female officers. That would indicate a 1% female enrollment, which is SIGNIFICANTLY lower than the actual rate, even if you take the lowest one one (12%).
And henchmen? No female henchmen? Oh, right, there have never been any women involved in terrorist movements, or resistance movements, or populist uprisings.
… with the small exception of ALL the terrorist movements/ resistances/ populist uprisings.
There are women suicide bombers and female members of terrorist groups. Some populist resistance groups/ freedom fighters are mostly female. It’s ridiculous that I even need to do a historical overview, because women freedom terrorists are so damn ubiquitous it would be like trying to prove the existence of MALE terrorists.
[Sidenote: I’m about to cite a whole host of groups that have been classified by the west as terrorist organizations. This does not mean that I personally believe they are terrorists; it’s just that the popular western imagination SEES them as terrorists, so they’re organizations that someone like, say, Nolan, would look to to craft Bane’s group]
Here are just a few examples of women in terrorism: Women have been central figures in Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers (a group that pioneered female suicide squads), Chechen terrorism (the “black widows”), the liberation movement in Algeria (where women smuggled weapons, planted bombs and served as spies), the Shining Path in Peru, the Japanese Red Army (founded and led by a woman), the Weathermen of the United States and the Ku Klux Klan of the United States (okay, these guys are definitely terrorists, no qualifications needed. They’re also racist assholes).
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of female involvement in terrorist groups.
Believing that a Bane-like revolt movement would not have any female participants involves such a willful ignorance of history and social realities, it’s somewhat mind-boggling.
Of course, the place where the whole “but there aren’t that many women in those groups ANYWAYS” argument *really* falls apart is with the children.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but there are usually approximately the same number of male and female children, right? That’s a thing, right?
So why the hell are there no female children in The Dark Knight Rises? (I will get to the notable exception later; don’t kill me).
I mean, the filmmakers even make a POINT of coding children as male: they make sure to specify that Blake went to a home for young boys and when Blake tries to save the children, he returns to that same home for young boys. When the Wayne Mansion is converted into an orphanage, it’s pretty clear that it’ll be a boy’s orphanage (I didn’t spot any girls in the crowd of children running in, and I was looking pretty closely).
Where the fuck are all the female children, that’s what I want to know. Do they get fancy orphanages? Are there any organizations taking care of them? Does anyone bother trying to save the orphan girls during the nuclear explosion?
Why don’t they matter enough to be a part of the narrative?
Did some kind of plague kill all the girls?
OHMIGOD, HAVE THEY ALL BEEN KIDNAPPED?
BATMAN! GET ON IT.
Do women just pop out of the ground, fully-formed, like Athena from Zeus’s head?
What aggravates me is that children – or, more precisely, boys – are SUPER important thematically. The orphan boys represent Bruce Wayne’s past; they also represent Gotham’s future protectors (since both Blake and Bruce were once orphaned boys). Moreover, they’re symbolic of what Batman has to protect, both with his fortune (by building orphanages) and with his life (by sacrificing himself so the boys don’t die).
[note that even in the previous movie, The Dark Knight, the child Batman saves at the end is a boy]
And women are completely excluded from that. They’re excluded from this narrative of loss, and eventual growth:
They don’t get to be protected. They don’t get to be the orphans who grow up to be heroes. They’re not part of Gotham’s future.
Because all the children in The Dark Knight Rises are boys, the Batman cycle is an exclusively MALE cycle: young boys with dark pasts grow up to protect other young boys.
It’s also quite disappointing to see this lack of girls in the movie because of Selina Kyle. In the comics, Selina Kyle was also an orphan. After her parents died, she was put in a juvenile detention center; she escaped and, in order to survive, she became a child prostitute. Later, she transformed into Catwoman in part to protect and feed (with her ill-gotten gains) her fellow child-prostitutes.
Thus, in the comics, Selina Kyle serves as another side of Bruce Wayne’s narrative of loss and protection. The movie, however, refuses to let her mirror Bruce in that way.
Selina Kyle proves that the Batman story – the story of loss and eventual heroism – is not an exclusively male narrative; instead, The Dark Knight Rises CHOSE to make it an exclusively male narrative.
Random People object: ARE YOU SAYING NOLAN IS EXCLUDING WOMEN BECAUSE HE HATES THEM AND HE’S A MISOGYNIST? YOUUUUU SUCK.”
Answer: Yes, I do suck, but for other reasons.
And to be fair: No, I do not think Nolan and his fellow filmmakers excluded women on purpose. I think it was almost entirely unconscious.
That’s what so damn depressing.
I will bet you a giant pile of jellybeans that when Nolan and Co. looked over their crowds of policemen, henchmen and children, none of them thought: “Huh, there aren’t a lot of women.”
And I will bet you another giant pile of jellybeans that most people who saw the movie weren’t thinking that either.
In fact, both the filmmakers and their audiences probably saw these giant, male-dominated crowds, and thought it was perfectly normal.
They also probably didn’t think “oh, look at all those men.”
They probably thought: “Oh, look at all those people.”
If you’re casting for a pretty gender-neutral group of extras – like, say, policemen or children (yes, I think policemen are gender neutral), you would assume that in a gender-neutral world, people would cast their crowds approximately 50-50. But in our world, you can cast an entire set of extras as men and not have anyone (except me) bat an eye
Because men are the default.
That’s why we don’t notice when we see all-male crowds, or all-male movies. Men are the default. Men are people. You grab women when you specifically want a woman (like for Catwoman), but you don’t cast women to just be people. People are men.
That’s why feminists – including me – did a happy dance when Barack Obama used a default female pronoun to describe the life of an average American child. Because we’re so used to thinking of these average workers, average children, average voters – as men.
Women are other.
If men weren’t the default, I guarantee you that I would not be the only person ranting about this gender inequality. I don’t think people didn’t notice it because they’re sexist, I think people didn’t notice it because we’re used to having men be the default. I don’t think Nolan cast his extras this way because he’s sexist, I think he cast the movie this way because he’s used to having a male default. Need a random bit character? Cast a man!
Hell, if men weren’t the default, there would be tons of female henchpeople serving Bane, and no one would say anything, because of course women are henchpeople, why wouldn’t they be?
Here’s the really important part. The part I think everyone – mostly superheroes – need to understand.
If you assume a male default, you’re REALLY SHOOTING YOURSELF IN THE FOOT.
Look, the only reason Miranda/Talia managed to pull off her whole “hiding in plain sight” routine is because everyone assumed the “child” that climbed out of the prison was a boy. The child had short hair, no one called her a “girl” – so Bruce assumed it was a boy, and thus assumed it was Bane. If he hadn’t assumed it was Bane, maybe he would have, you know, done research to check the evidence.
And the reason the cops let Selina Kyle go during the bar shoot-out scene is because they assumed that a frightened, screaming woman couldn’t have anything to do with the kidnapping. WHOOOPS.
Assumptions are a dangerous thing. Because we’re so used to seeing women in action movies as a single role – the love interest – most of the audience didn’t even consider that Miranda/Talia could be anything but that.
You assume a male default, you’re basically allowing women an automatic advantage of surprise.
…And I really don’t think someone like Selina Kyle or Talia Al Ghul needs any more advantages. They’re pretty badass already.
Women can be bad guys. Women can be cops. Women can be children (no shit). Once we start moving away from these huge inequities and gendered assumptions, we won’t have to construct plots based on the major surprise of “OH MY GOD, THE CHILD WAS A GIRL.”
So yeah, I’m not giving The Dark Knight Rises a feminist cookie. Like I said, I appreciate that there are more named female characters. I’ll appreciate it even more when women aren’t treated like exceptions or like “surprise bad guys” or Othered in various ways. And I’ll appreciate it EVEN MORE when I can see a crowd of police ready to take on the bad guys… and half of both the bad guys and the police are women.
There’s a point in The Dark Knight Rises where one of the Baddy McBadGuys (Daggert), flush with his evil victory, says “Hey, can we get some girls in here?”
You know what, Mr. Baddy McBadGuy? Much as I disagree with your morals, I very much agree with the sentiment. Can we get some girls in these movies?
… I don’t think it’s going to bring the quality of the action down.
I should note that I loved The Dark Knight Rises. LOOOOVED it. I want to follow Selina Kyle around and give her buckets and buckets of roses and champagne and pearls. I want to give Alfred a big hug. Hell, I even want to give Talia a high-five for pulling one over Bruce Wayne. You are one BAMF, Talia. I salute you.
And I was SOBBING through the end.
EVERYONE in the theater could probably hear me.
And for the next three days, I was just like:
I really loved The Dark Knight Rises.
Which I think speaks to the fact that art is COMPLEX, and people are COMPLEX, and we can have COMPLEX feelings, and be having joygasms over awesome things while also pointing out the ways in which they suck.
It is possible to like problematic things, everyone!
Talk amongst yourselves.
[BRUCE WAYNE x SELINA KYLE OTP]