Bye-bye, boys! Have fun storming the castle! Part 1

4 Mar

*taps mic* This thing on? Guess I should post something, since my Les Mis blogging project of unusual size (L.M.B.P.U.S.  for short. Actually, that sounds like limbpuss in my head. Limbpuss 2000, anyone? </Harry Potter nerdery>) won’t begin until I can reread the book.

As I said in my last post, I’m computer-less at the moment. I’m working to earn money to replace it, but until I can afford to do so, I have way more time on my hands than I’m used to, because my classes are annoyingly brainless this semester. I’ve been using some of this extra time to watch movies, like The Princess Bride.

This is one of my all-time favorite movies, so it makes what I need to say now kind of…painful. This movie and I have a lot of history together – when my parents started dating, this movie was the first one they saw together (Yes, they got divorced later. Ah, twu wove!). I’ve pretty much crushed on Mandy Patinkin since my mom drilled the Evita soundtrack into my head as a child (one of the Evita film’s major failing points, besides Madonna, was the tragic lack of Mandy Patinkin.). I can quote certain scenes of this film by heart. So, without further ado, I present criticisms! Spoilers will most definitely be below the fold, so if you haven’t seen it

This movie is not, as the title might mislead you to believe, a “chick flick.” It’s filled with swordfights, flesh-eating eels, and…a surprising dearth of female characters. The title indicates that the movie is about a woman – specifically, Buttercup, the woman whose image is placed on the front cover twice – but really, it’s about a bunch of men. You can count on one hand the number of women in the film (one hand and a thumb if you count the uncredited character), and the only conversation between two of the women centers on Buttercup’s relationships with Humperdink and Westley(Bow down to the queen of slime! The queen of filth! The queen of putrescence! – ETA: link added). The default character is male, and the female characters are either in a relationship, or obsessed with other people’s relationships (in the case of the booer mentioned above), with the exception of Fred Savage’s character’s mother. Valerie and Miracle Max (Valerie is also arguably obsessed with other’s relationships, as she begins yelling at Max when he denies the importance of  “true love”), the Queen and King (I don’t remember if the queen had speaking lines, or if she was just sort of…there) and Buttercup and Westley (Buttercup – a Manic Pixie Dream Girl?).

Speaking of just sort of…being there, the characterization of Buttercup also lacks something. Panache, perhaps? A backbone? She’s outspoken, to the annoyance of the men in her life (Vizzini: “Of all the necks on this boat, highness, the one you should be worried about is your own.” Humperdink: “I would not say such things if I were you!”), but the things she says immediately prior to these outbursts from her male companions is of “X will save me, and you’ll be sorry” character, where X is either Humperdink (before she knows of Westley’s undeath) or Westley. So she’s completely dependent on men to save her, rather than being able to take care of herself. She does jump off the boat when Vizzini kidnaps her, and I’m not sure what to make of that. I’ve never really been sure what she planned to do once she was in the water – did she plan to swim to the other boat? Was she just trying to get away from Vizzini? So, dear reader, I leave that portion of the movie to you to decipher in comments. Does it negate my argument? Make my argument stronger? What are the underlying dynamics of that scene? But other than that scene, Buttercup has no agency of her own. She talks brashly, but she’s ultimately a rather passive character. 1) When she hears of Westley’s death, she “neither slept nor ate” for days. Which is understandable, considering that grief comes to different people differently. But when combined with 2) Engaged to Humperdink, with little apparent choice in the matter, and despite the obvious unhappiness this engagement caused in her. 3) Kidnapped, threatens kidnappers with her fiance’s retribution. 4) The incident in the fire swamp, which I will describe more thoroughly momentarily. 5) Her surrender of Westley and return to engagement with Humperdink. 6)Acceptance of Humperdink’s terms regarding the letter sent by the “four fastest ships” and marriage to H. if Westley doesn’t respond to said letter, and a few other scenes*, it seems like the filmmakers wrote a character that was there just to drive the action of the other characters, rather than act hirself. Which would make sense, if the bloody film weren’t named after said character, and if said character weren’t part of a frequently oppressed group (in a hypothetical, not at all relevant to this film example or real life, women) and expected to act as a vehicle for the actions of the frequently oppressing group (again, in this highly improbable situation, men). Ahem.

Ah, yes. The fire swamp. Buttercup, once she realizes that Westley is alive, defaults almost automatically to his leadership (which, given their previous relationship with her as his boss at the beginning of the film, seems a bit odd. What, once they fall in love they magically go into these prescribed gender roles?). She doesn’t show an ability to critically analyze things (Westley is the one that gains a rapid understanding of the mechanics of the Fire Swamp), and requires rescuing from both the flame spurt and the lightning sand. She’s this damsel in distress character – again with the lack of agency, Mr. Reiner! When the Rodent of Unusual Size attacks Westley, she stands around in horror, not able to find anything productive to do. At one point, she picks up a stick and timidly jabs at the R.O.U.S., but doesn’t accomplish anything towards saving Westley. Eventually, Westley (with his ubermanly critical thinking skillz) predicts a flame spurt and is able to kill the R.O.U.S. And they emerge from the swamp, suddenly surrounded by Humperdink’s men, at which point Buttercup again accepts the condition of marrying Humperdink for the safety of Westley’s life.

Another thing that bothered me about the film was the treatment of Buttercup as “a lovely face” (yes, that poem is long, but it is good so what does length matter? Quality, not quantity, my sweets). The “lovely face” phenomenon, where a woman is granted God’s grace solely based on the fact that she is pretty (or, in the case of the linked poem, was pretty while alive, even though nobody ever saw her alive) seems to be an undercurrent of the film. When she speaks to the king, Humperdink’s father, after the wedding about her plans of suicide, he is mainly concerned with the fact that she kissed him on the cheek. “She kissed me!” he exclaims happily to his wife, the queen (if the queen spoke at all in the film, this would be the scene, and they may have been along “yes, dear” lines). And then, when she is holding the happy dagger to her heart, Westley comments on the damage this would cause to herperfect breasts“, rather than on what makes her human and “a gift to this world.” ETA: And yes, I understand that Westley was being flippant. But I would argue that the things humans are flippant about are oftentimes ways of reinforcing the power-structure of the world – a power-structure that I, as a feminist and believer in human rights, find objectionable.

As I’m at 1200+ words with still more to say (I think I’m done talking about Buttercup, but there are gajillions of (male) characters remaining to analyze), I’ll stop here, and break this into a series.

*I am ABSOLUTELY NOT blaming Buttercup (i.e., the victim), but rather the filmmakers and screenwriter for not giving her any agency. In case that wasn’t clear. (ETA: link added)


5 Responses to “Bye-bye, boys! Have fun storming the castle! Part 1”

  1. The Bald Soprano March 4, 2009 at 3:08 pm #

    If (IF) I remember correctly, the book is slightly better in at least some of these respects. But only slightly.

  2. Eleniel March 4, 2009 at 6:09 pm #

    Great post! I so hear you on this, TPB is near and dear to my heart as well, but jeeeez is it frustrating from a feminist standpoint. I’m looking forward to your next posts on this!

  3. eloriane March 8, 2009 at 3:50 pm #

    Basically, what Eleniel said. I fell in love with the book/movie before I was a feminist, and it’s one of my few youthful loves that I cling to, but which doesn’t stand up to more-enlightened scrutiny. (Another failure: Harry Potter.) I love it anyway! But compared to all my Tamora Pierce… it definitely has its flaws.

    And you’re totally right about the flippancy comment. I tend to find that it’s through “jokes” that power structures are enforced most often, possibly because it’s when we’re “kidding” that we’re able to be most honest. Plus, if anybody complains, we can silence them by saying they’re “taking it too seriously.” Jokes are serious business.

  4. niemaodpowiedzi March 8, 2009 at 6:19 pm #

    Yeah, most if not all of the books and movies I love are horrifyingly problematic from a feminist standpoint, especially the ones in the fantasy genre (I mean, look at all the female characters in The Hobbit! Oh, wait, there are none…). Things you’ve mentioned on your blog, like Howl’s Moving Castle (Jones doesn’t deal with gender particularly well, I’ve found through other books she’s written), which is less troubling than some, also tend to fall in the pattern of denying women agency in the name of creating an interesting plot. So I’m becoming increasingly convinced that feminists need to swarm the writing and screenwriting, directing, and film-producing sectors of our culture. And write all the musicals, for good measure. :)

    Yep. It’s what you’ve said time and again with your Stumbleupon posts – and why non-sexist jokes are necessary. I love bawdy, irreverent humor, but not when it comes at the cost of another human’s personhood. I refuse to find the objectification and othering of another to be funny, and this separates me from too large a section of the population. “But it’s good fun!” “Jeez, can’t you take a joke?” “God, I hate all these humorless feminists that come and censor us.” Srs bznss indeed.

  5. niemaodpowiedzi March 8, 2009 at 7:23 pm #

    I just found Pierce’s Livejournal, and thought you might find this post interesting:

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