Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Watchmen: Who cares about female characters, anyway?

What does it mean that this woman is able to convey a hundred times more depth, emotional expression, and humanity…

….than this woman?

It means Hollywood can suck it.

By the way, in the above image, Laurie is pleading with Dr. Manhattan to save the world from nuclear annihilation. Can’t you just feel the urgency? Granted, it’s probably hard for her to act without eyebrows.

I finished reading Watchmen a few days before seeing the movie. I don’t recommend doing this, unless you want to be able to recognize where they take dialogue word for word from the book, and wonder why they changed a specific word/setting/conversational participant. The film tries very hard to be faithful to the book, even leaving little visual homages to portions left out of the adaptation. It’s conscious of the enormity of the original work, and that it will have rabid fans to answer to. The casting is so focused on physical resemblance that they did this to some guy’s ears:

I wasn’t a huge fan of the character of Laurie Juspeczyk aka Silk Spectre II in the comic, but Malin Akerman, her screen counterpart was a travesty. Even though in the comic book she was a somewhat archetypal female character, she was real and she was relate-able. Her mother began grooming her at a young age to become a superhero so that she could live vicariously through her. However, Laurie hated all the training, hated her costume, hated being a superhero, and felt like a total idiot most of the time running around in a yellow latex costume. She began dating Dr. Manhattan at sixteen, and when we meet her in the book, she’s living with him at the military base on the government’s dime. She’s lonely, she’s isolated, she’s a kept woman. She has no idea who she is.

Laurie’s character gets a ton of screen time for being nothing more than foil to the other characters. We know nothing of her attitudes about being a superhero, how she hates her costume (god knows I hate her costume), and it’s not important. She looks pretty and moves the plot along. The only thing in her past that’s even brought up as being of any relevance is her parentage. She exists completely in relation to others, with barely any thoughts or feelings of her own. Maybe they didn’t have time to go into her back-story (though I managed to in about three sentences), but a good actress would have been able to convey Laurie’s confusion, dissonance, and vulnerability with the timbre of her voice. Akerman delivers every line with the same flatness, whether she’s leaving her boyfriend (and source of home and income) of fifteen years or asking him to save the world.

The thing that really pisses me off about this is that had I not read the book, I wouldn’t have even noticed anything wrong with this character. My mind probably would have just glossed over her and paid attention to the men—the characters that mattered—just like I was supposed to. Except when Silk Spectre’s wearing her latex leotard, then I would think about her nice ass and all the crotch wedgies that thing must give her when she does a high kick. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the shitty position of women in comics, but apparently, it gets a lot worse in Hollywood. And let’s face it. Hollywood reaches a wider audience. So Hollywood’s cast its vote, and Laurie is reduced to nothing more than a sexy, high-kicking babe, and probably no one cares but me. But I think reducing Laurie’s humanity reflects on a failing of the movie in general—it makes her too much like the one-dimensional superhero figure that the book tries to challenge. Each character must have complexity that makes them human, things that illuminate the absurdity of the superhero genre in general. Without that element, it’s just superhero allstars to the rescue.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

More lies my students tell me

Hayley: Do you want to hear something weird?

Me: Okay.

Hayley: This boy at my school, as soon as he goes into the bathroom, he takes off his shoe and starts eating his toenails!

Me: Ewwww! Wait, you can’t go into the boy’s bathroom. How do you know he does that?

Hayley: He’s not a boy. He’s a girl.

Me: He’s a girl?

Hayley: Yeah, he’s a girl.

Me: He’s a girl?

Hayley: Okay, I was just playing with you that time. But here’s something really weird…

Safiyyah: When my mother gets sick, she screams so loud, she goes, “Eyyyyaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaghhhhhhhhhh” and everybody in the whole building hears it and they are scared, and then she goes to the park and she kills everyone.

Me: Hold on. Did you just say your mom goes to the park and kills everyone?

Safiyyah: No, but she goes to the park, and she sees the people there, and she kills them.

Me: So your mom goes to the park and kills people?

Safiyyah: No, she only kills the Somali people. She doesn't kill the white people like you.

Me: Okay, but you’re saying that your mom goes to the park and kills people.

Safiyyah: No, I said that she goes to the park and she is nice to people.

The following was said to me in all honesty, but I'll just throw it in there.

Kadijah: I like you the best. You have pretty hair.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

On a holiday from school, Halima came to program without her headscarf. She seemed to be in a bad mood when her mother dropped her off, her eyes shifting around as she gave her a somewhat squirmy and resistant hug. Before going to join the other kids, she flipped up the hood of her baby blue Hannah Montana sweatshirt, consciously tucking her stray hair back away from her face.

As she was sitting with the kids, one of the staff members, Shaun, remarked brightly, “Halima, why don’t you got your hijab on?”

She glowered at him, then looked back down. Shaun is well-meaning, but sometimes has trouble reading the kids.

“Whoa-hoa, don’t talk to me, then.” Throughout the day, he periodically enthused, “Halima, you’ve got such pretty hair!” and was met with a cold reception. Once, as he was walking behind her, he flipped down the hood of her sweatshirt.

“Don’t!” She screeched, yanking the hood back up.

Shaun sat down near the cluster of kids. “I’m not trying to play with you. I’m just wondering how come you here every day with your hijab, but today you don’t gotta wear it.”

“Because she’s little, it’s okay,” some of the other kids piped in.

“She used to come here without a hijab a lot before you started here,” I added.

“Did she?”

“Mmhm,” I turned to Halima and said gently, “But you don’t like not wearing it now, do you?” She shook her head sullenly.

Halima is in first grade, and I remember when she started wearing her hijab. At first it was infrequent, then she started wearing one nearly every day. The day after Eid, she was without her hijab, the hair around her crown braided into cornrows, with the rest was loose, thick dark curls to her back. She was in bright spirits all day, and when I asked her how her Eid was, she excitedly told me, “I got new clothes, and these new shoes, and my hair was out, and we went to the Mall of America, and it was so fun!” When she first started wearing her the hijab regularly, like many little girls, she frequently adjusted it in public. Once she asked me if her hair was showing, and since then helping little girls tuck stray hairs under their scarves became a regular occurrence for me, like fixing uneven buttons or watching for untied shoes.

“Oh, so the hijab is optional until you’re what, fifteen?” Shaun tried.

The kids snorted. “No! Until you’re ten!”

Shaun looked at one of the girls. “How old are you, Farhia?”

“I’m nine.”

“But you’re always wearing your hijab. Couldn’t you just skip it sometimes?”

“Yeah, but I pray a lot,” she replied.

Farhia not only always wore her hijab, but she also wore billowy shirts and long skirts, like all of the other girls in the program but Halima, who was usually dressed to the nines of little-girl fashion, often in nice jeans and tall boots. Their mothers tend to adhere to the standards of modesty to different degrees, some always wearing loose, one-piece, monochromatic garb, others mixing and matching loose tops and skirts. Halima’s mother is my age, and she’s beautiful. I saw her once in jeans and a non-traditional scarf twisted around her head, rather than draping over the shoulders like a hijab, once without her scarf when I was dropping Halima off at her apartment, and once in full, conservative garb. Children are usually dressed less conservatively than their mothers, but I’ve seen some three year olds who are never without their hijab.

There’s so much variation, even among the Somali community. I wonder about the pressure about whether to wear or not wear hijab, because I know it goes both ways. I wonder how religious Muslim women come to a point where they don’t wear hijab anymore, and how secular Muslim women decide to continue to wear theirs.

Gradually throughout the day, Halima let her hood occasionally fall back to her shoulders. When Shaun made some remark about her pretty black hair, she turned to him and smiled, grabbing her ponytail, “My hair’s not black, it’s brown.”

As I saw Halima warming up to Shaun’s constant comments, I thought about myself as a little girl, how I would have been absolutely mortified by some man making comments like that about me. I was scared of men, didn’t want to sit on their laps, didn’t want them to wink at me, didn’t want them to call me “little lady” or pretend to flirt like so many older men think is appropriate to do with little girls. Halima was starting to enjoy the attention, but I couldn’t help but think that Shaun’s behavior was in a way reinforcing the belief in Islam that when a woman exposes her hair, she runs the risk of objectification. When she’s old enough to really understand, I’m curious about what choice Halima will make.