Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Unexpected Feminism of SABOTAGE

Wait, whaaaaat?

You mean the late-period Arnold Schwarzenegger SWAT thriller? The one that’s basically Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” for juggalos?

Warning: if you haven’t seen this relatively recent (2014) film, I will basically spoil everything. Since it’s (nominally) a whodunit, twists actually matter in SABOTAGE’s case.

In film in general, and the action movie in particular, women have historically been second-class citizens. The token woman of the team, the loving/worried/possibly murdered wife, the background titties at the start of act 2…  these are the archetypal roles for women in action movies.

Action movie legend Geena Davis is nowadays mostly known for her Gender In Media Research Insitute, which is pretty much the go-to data center for refuting angry fanboys who are upset about female Ghostbusters or something. Here’s a thing she said, as per THR:

It wasn't the lack of female lead characters that first struck me about family films. We all know that's been the case for ages, and we love when movies like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Frozen hit it big. It was the dearth of female characters in the worlds of the stories — the fact that the fictitious villages and jungles and kingdoms and interplanetary civilizations were nearly bereft of female population — that hit me over the head. This being the case, we are in effect enculturating kids from the very beginning to see women and girls as not taking up half of the space. Couldn't it be that the percentage of women in leadership positions in many areas of society — Congress, law partners, Fortune 500 board members, military officers, tenured professors and many more — stall out at around 17 percent because that's the ratio we've come to see as the norm?

This is why representation – especially in non-traditional roles – is important. While SABOTAGE is anything but a family film, I believe that its efforts in presenting female lead and supporting characters are to be commended, especially considering that it certainly didn’t need to in order to reach its likely intended target audience.

Besides Ms. Davis’ eloquent plea for equal representation in film, I must also paraphrase a discussion my lovely significant other and myself had a few months ago on female villains. These are usually able to be categorized as the following:

1.) Children’s film villains (such as evil matrons, governesses, etc)

2.) Femme fatales/man-eaters

3.) Scorned women/”crazy bitches”

4.) Witches

5.) Broodmother-style monsters

That’s a bunch of shit motivated by men and/or the desire for babies! Very rarely will you find a female Hans Gruber, someone who’s just there to get paid, and will use guns/non-erotic coercion to reach that goal.

Final mini-warning for spoilers!!!

SABOTAGE delivers on this front! A white trash (and Terence Howard) SWAT team steal $10m from the cartels on a raid. Before they can enjoy their ill-gotten gains, however, the money is stolen from them in turn. Soon, someone starts killing them all off. It’s the one female member of the team, pissed off at being robbed of robbed money.

The murders are investigated by a supremely overqualified Olivia Williams, whose Atlanta detective character is pretty much the audience identification character for this story of horrible monsters the government deems worthy of carrying automatic weapons.

During a flashback, a triumphant slo-mo walk down an airport runway escorting a just-captured cartel kingpin is interrupted by a crooked federale blowing a hole in the Big Boss’ head, so as to prevent him from talking to the Americans. This federale is a woman. She immediately drops her gun and goes to her knees, grinning, as she is apprehended by her own colleagues.

In the final shootout, there’s a henchwoman that gets her head blown off by Arnold. Her dress and demeanor is very different from the female sex workers’ in the Mexican bar where the action scene takes place, so she’s quite obviously meant to be a woman with a different profession, rather than a sex worker who’s packing.

The death of Sam Worthington’s bizarrely Fred Durst-looking character (side note: it’s honestly the best performance I’ve ever seen him give) is followed by villain Mireille Enos stuffing him in a refrigerator. That’s too serendipitous for me not to think director David Ayer isn’t at least partially aware of genre fiction’s gender issues.

I went to see SABOTAGE in the theater, and didn’t really like it at the time. Over time, I’ve sort of come to respect it. I went in expecting an Arnold kill-em-all yuckfest, punctuated with “oh god I can’t believe they did that” scenes of jolly Michael Bay sociopathy after reviews had described this film as overly mean-spirited and relentlessly cruel. It certainly is those things, but it’s never really winking about it. David Ayer is VERY SERIOUS about all this shit indeed. Hey, in this day and age of King PG-13 I’ll grudgingly tip my cap at anyone making an action movie as gory and nihilistic as this one.

Why do I say this? Surely a movie’s quality is irrelevant to this discussion! It is, but I believe I had to distance myself from appearing someone trying to defend his fandom of something by mounting a long-winded defense why it’s totally in line with that popular thing, guys!

SABOTAGE is an ugly, mean, gross movie. But I believe it managed to walk the line of “a movie featuring misogynist characters” rather than “a misogynist movie.” Yeah, there are strippers. Yeah, there’s a dead wife. There’s also a clever homicide detective, a badass special forces woman, a corrupt captain, a sicaria, and a dumb donut-munchin’ “huh-buh-whaaaa?” uniformed cop.

Diversity! Sleaze needs it too!