Scott Pilgrim; musings on misogyny

After enthusiastic recommendations of the film by at least three men very dear to me, I’ve finally given in and seen Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

Having a mountain of work to catch up on, I don’t think I have time nor energy for an in-depth analysis, but the film did leave me with one very pointed question mark hanging above my head, and it is the question ethics and pop culture.

Abigail Nussbaum completely seconds my opinion when she writes, on her blog, that Scott Pilgrim is both a fun movie, and an indisputably misogynist movie. Giving herself more time and space to analyse how and why, and also to wrestle with a number of Pilgrim fans who loudly disagree in the comments’ section, Nussbaum gives a very rounded overview of the film, equally critical and generous: it is both a fun piece of cinematic fluff, and one more brick in the general misogyny of the American (Canadian-American?) pop culture.

To both the fans and the critics of the film, this bias may be even more tragic when considering that, by all accounts, the original graphic novel works hard to unwind precisely the cliches that the film perpetuates. What appears to have been a subtle(r) and (more) nuanced critique of a certain kind of narcissistic, young slacker male, has here turned into a largely positive portrait in which, in the end, all faults are forgiven, some personal growth detected, and the loser gets the patient, mature and beautiful girl. There is a passage, it seems, between the subculture and the pop culture that flattens nuance, as registered in the fact that the Bechdel test would pass the comic, but fail the film.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Left: the flawed but lowable protagonist. Right: the romantic lead with a bit of personality, but no character.

(What is the Bechdel test? First divulged to me by one of those same men who invited me to see this film, Bechdel test is named after Alison Bechdel, an American graphic novelist. It both demonstrates the comparative progressiveness of the American graphic novels when compared to the movies, and is a one-size-fits-all detector of misogyny in any narrative. To pass the Bechdel test, a movie:

1. has to have at least two women in it,
2. Who talk to each other,
3. About something besides a man.
Whether this detects merely misogyny, or the complete inability of our popular art to portray women as human beings is a pertinent question, but let’s leave it aside. Let’s also leave aside the fact that many, many other films, TV shows, and comics fail this test together with Scott Pilgrim, including such beacons of feminism as Sex and the City, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Frida. The point is, Scott Pilgrim fails.)

It’s interesting, however, that a few web-commentators have remarked on the misogyny, but no one to my knowledge has mentioned racism *. Yet Scott Pilgrim is also an undeniably racist film. From the first moment the only Asian character faints, clearly too anime to do anything better, I wondered how the portrayal of gay characters has managed to shoot up from caricature to respect, leaving behind such comparatively more frequent behaviour as being of non-Anglo-Saxon ethnicity.

Yes, it is possible to give a hundred reasons for why Knives Chau behaves the way she does: she is only 17, meant to be a boy-fantasy girlfriend, the most immature character, etc. But I watched the film thinking of all the young Chinese Australians I know, all wonderfully rounded and complex people, and wondered how annoying it must be for them to never see faces like their own in any more central, more complex, more rounded role than the screaming sidekick caricature. Yes, the immature 17-year-old girlfriend swoons and says OMG. But why is only the 17-year-old girlfriend a Chinese-Canadian? Why not the romantic interest, the lead, the mature best friend?

At the same time, I’ve always found it annoying that this question is treated with such seriousness by feminists, post-colonialists, and Left-leaning liberal people in general. How serious can this issue really be? Is it really on par with slavery and Hiroshima? I don’t think so.

But today, I’m wondering if we could compare this pop-cultural treatment of women and races with smoking – not least because I’m reading That Book That Makes People Quit Smoking.

Namely: every smoker tells herself and her friends the same story. It goes like this: “I am not addicted. I just enjoy it. I could stop any time. If I’m not stopping, it’s because I like smoking/it relaxes me/it helps my concentration/I only smoke socially.” But what happens when someone asked the smoker, given the absence of serious addiction, to stop smoking for a week to demonstrate that she could quit any time? Ah, now it’s impossible. The smoker realises she is unable to, but will come up with a host of reasons for why now is not the right time to try this: “it’s a stressful period/it’s a period of socialising/I am still enjoying it too much/I’ll quit next week.” Because each cigarette is perceived as only one cigarette, not one in a long chain, not one small perpetuation of an unhealthy addiction, it is very hard to make the smoker acknowledge that the addiction is there. But, just like the cat doesn’t need to know where the hot-water pipes lie under the floor, to know that sitting in certain places is nice and warm, so the smoker doesn’t need to understand the mechanics of the nicotine addiction to enjoy the familiar relaxation of satisfying it.

The low-level, low-intensity racism and sexism of pop culture is, I think, very similar to the low-intensity nicotine addiction. It provides so little palpable pleasure that neither is perceived as a conscious act of satisfying a deep desire, either for nicotine, or to humiliate women/other races. Each act of misogyny and racism, just like a cigarette, is perceived as a single act of satisfying something else (humour, narrative cliché, shorthand, simplifying for greater clarity). But when you ask a question that would reasonably follows from such disawoval, such as: why not have a Chinese girl as the romantic interest?, or why not have multiple developed female characters who talk to each other about music, politics or cars? (the equivalent of quitting smoking for a week), it becomes obvious that these disparate actions, however unintentional and unperceived, form a long chain of habit, in this case a habit of portraying other races as inferior, or women as nothing but love interests.

Taken separately, each instance of a female character with barely a trace of interior life (like Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim is a perfectly excusable artistic error – just like, taken separately, each cigarette is just one tiny little mistake in a very long life. But, cumulatively, one kills you and the other one builds a world in which all Chinese girls say OMG and swoon whenever they’re supposed to make a rational decision.

* This is actually incorrect, as I’ve discovered now. Prof. Susurro, a cinema/cultural studies academic, discusses precisely the racism of Scott Pilgrim on her extraordinary blog Like a Whisper **.
** This leads to another question: what would the Bechdel test for racism look like? Clearly, two people of colour talking to each other, but about what..?

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