26 April 2010

Girl Meets Gun: 1 of 2

Part I:

[Spoiler Alert! This is about the recent film “Kick-Ass.” But by the end it will also include numerous references to tons of YA and children’s books and films.]

If I were a ten-year-old girl I would want to be Hit-Girl for Hallowe’en. (Heck, I want to be Hit-Girl for Hallowe’en now, but I think I’m a little too tall.) There’s no way my parents would have let me see “Kick-Ass” if I was ten. They wouldn’t let me see the PG-13 rated “Jurassic Park” when I was eleven, and I was the biggest dinosaur fan around. Part of me has still never forgiven them for my never seeing on the big screen the moment when they first reveal the herd of diplodocus.

Dinosaurs aside, the reason ten-year-old me would want to dress up as Hit-Girl has less to do with her purple wig and half-mask than it does with her birthday request. She asks for a butterfly knife. Which she uses on some low-life drug dealers a few scenes later. When I was six, I asked my dad for a pocketknife for Christmas. He didn’t get me one. But about the same time, he took me out for target practice (not William Tell style). I remember going and firing the .22 rifle that’s been my dad’s since he was a teenager. A few years ago I asked him about that trip. He agreed I’d been about six, and he insisted I’d loved shooting empty soda cans. When I asked why we’d only gone once, he didn’t have an answer.

While most reviewers have enjoyed “Kick-Ass,” Hit-Girl herself has been the center of some controversy. Roger Ebert opens his review with the statement, “I find “Kick-Ass” morally reprehensible.” And he goes on to mostly cite Hit-Girl’s death defying (and dealing) activities. Apparently having a little girl taking on a role that should be reserved for teenage boys, adult men, or half naked, cleavage baring starlets (Jolie, Angelina: Wanted; Saldena, Zoe: Losers) screws with reviewers abilities to understand basic plot concepts. Village Voice reviewer Karina Longworth writes, “progressively brutal action set pieces shot through with shaky moralism (when a child murders grown-ups, Kick-Ass wants us to cheer, but when an adult man pummels a little girl, Kick-Ass wants us appalled),” seemingly forgetting that we cheered Neo when he took out everybody and then were really upset when we thought he had died. We rejoice when Indy kills Nazis (even North African Nazis who were probably, as these things go, just regular soldiers and not death camp commandants) and cringe when he is so beaten he can’t even have sex! That the good guy’s kills are glorious and the bad guy’s are despicable is the moralism of every action movie ever.

Ebert again seems to miss the point when he willfully ignores the second beat of the scene where Hit-Girl is nearly killed, writing: “the villain deliciously anticipate[ing] blowing a bullet hole in the child's head.” But then missing that the villain, at least, values and respects Hi-Girl. He realizes she is both a worthy enemy and something to aspire to, saying with admiration, a hint of loss, and a touch of sexism that should be familiar to the movie reviewers, “If only I had a son like you.”

In an equally moralistic, though closer to crazy-town vein, Manhola Dargis insists on misinterpreting a loving father-child relationship (odd as it may be) as an inappropriately sexual one: “Tucked inside this flick is a relationship as kinky and potentially resonant as that between Lolita and Humbert Humbert.” Now, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a movie where a father raises up his son to be a lethal killing machine, but I’d bet money that no one would accuse that dad of sexual deviance. (Maybe they’d compare it to Karate Kid?) She also willingly implicates the director and audience: “There’s something about the killer schoolgirl that turns some filmmakers on, and audiences, too….” So if you thought Hit-Girl was awesome, you’re a pedophile? At least one NYTimes website commenter thought so, calling Hit-Girl “pedo-bait.” But the director keeps my new favorite heroine fully and demurely clothed at all times. Even her schoolgirl outfit reveals less than an inch of skin around her knees – making her more real girl and less Brittany.

Of course, the crazytown cake was taken by Anthony Lane in the New Yorker who wrote: “‘Kick-Ass’ is violence’s answer to kiddie porn. You can see it in Hit Girl’s outfit when she cons her way past security guards—white blouse, hair in pigtails, short tartan skirt—and in the winsome way that she pleads to be inculcated into grownup excess. That pleading is the dream of every pedophile….” Say what? Anthony, darling, Hit-Girl doesn’t plead. She demands, she orders, she emotionally blackmails (in the scene where she commandeers Kick-Ass’s help to avenge her father), and she’ll pull a gun. But she doesn’t plead and it’s not about sex.

But while I could take on the rest of these earth shatteringly dumb points on one by one (although Mr. Lane’s comparison of Hit-Girl to Antigone is spectacularly interesting and may get its own post), I’d really like to situate Hit-Girl in the larger world. What does it mean to be an eleven-year-old girl? What does it mean to be a fictitious eleven-year-old?

Eleven is about the age when it’s all over for girls. They are entering puberty and it’s basically all downhill from there. Between eight and eleven girls are the strongest, fastest and biggest kids on the playground. They are tougher and have better language skills than the boys too. It’s the last time their hips and knees are in the proper alignment to avoid ACL injuries (as wider adult hips put more stress on knees), it’s the last time they can run without having their breasts bounce around causing pain and back problems (or if they are going to be an A-cup, like yours truly, that they won’t feel horrifyingly inadequate because they can run without a sports bra). Menstruation means a lack of control over the body that lasts for days, not minutes like the lack of control that hits guys. Suddenly being treated like a sex object (or like you are going to be treated like a sex object) turns little girls from active controllers of their own destiny and of people’s perceptions of them into nothing more than a surface image. Suddenly older girls, parents and concerned adults start warning you about rape, pregnancy and never wearing white pants. They never talk to you about losing the body you’ve been growing in for the last ten years for one that people will judge you for, even though you’ve done nothing but keep growing. There are numerous stories of female athletes who begin their training at very young ages – gymnasts, swimmers, ballet dancers – who can no longer practice their sport after puberty or have to relearn their sport entirely. For boys who begin training at similar ages, puberty may mean awkward growth spurts, but it also means gaining the height and strength to make the skills they’ve practiced worthwhile.

So if I think that Hit-Girl is a better female action hero than Laura Croft, it’s mostly because she gets to wear an actual bullet proof vest instead of a white tank-top and push-up bra. Her age makes her terrifying to people who want their action heroines to jiggle and be sexually available. When those heroines don’t, we lack any language to discuss our discomfort that isn’t sexual as well. If Hit-Girl was a deadly eleven-year-old boy we call him a boy scout run-amok and talk about how he fulfilled the Peter-Pan fantasies of the filmmakers and was supposed to rope in the eleven-year-old boy fans who don’t already own Robin costumes. No one imagines the audience will be titillated, or that the relationship between father and son must be similar to one of sexual molestation and abuse.

The female body must exist in a sexual context. So we have no other way to discuss the bodies of female athletes, or female physics-defying assassins. Whether the actress, the screenwriter (a woman), the original creator of the comic or the director of the film, wanted to (or didn’t want to) make Hit-Girl a sexual object is a moot point, because no one can discuss her in any way that isn’t sexual. The press at large seems to lack a way to discuss a girl’s strength, flexibility, speed, competency, skills, knowledge base or deadliness without turning to the possibility of her sexual deviancy or degradation.

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