Things That Go Bump in the Mind

Things That Go Bump in the Mind
Look for a new post every Sunday morning.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

They Might Be Giants, But They Definitely Are All Dudes


Spoiler Alert: This week's column discusses Bryan Singer's film Jack the Giant Slayer. If you plan on watching the movie and you expect to be surprised by anything that happens in the film, then you might be better off skipping this post. It's not my intention to ruin this movie for anyone, but I'm not going to try to leave out the typical details readers would expect a writer to keep out of a film review. I'm not interested in writing a traditional film review, I want to discuss the rhetoric of this movie. For what it's worth, I would give the film a solid three stars out of four. It's pretty much the movie you would expect to see – lots of eye-popping visual effects, plenty of gratuitous violence, and a plot that's confined to the moral conventions of a medieval fairytale like a straitjacket. 


     Walking out of the movie theater last night, my wife, Ruth, was indignant at the ending of Jack the Giant Slayer. I don't think I'm exaggerating by saying she felt betrayed by the movie's ending, and it took probably five minutes in the cinema's parking lot for her to cool down. The source of her umbrage? She expected a payoff to the feminist undertones developed earlier in the film. I didn't expect any feminist message by the end of the film, and I was not disappointed – but then again, I'm a guy. I didn't expect a movie based on the archetypical notion that “the princess needs saving” to have any expectation of consciousness-raising for its audience. If I was surprised by anything, it was by how much Ruth expected to see the princess depicted as other than subordinated to Jack, the title character, by the time the credits started to roll at the end.
     Okay, here's what happened: A central element to the plot was that a population of evil, ugly, and hygienically-challenged giants could be controlled by anybody who wore a magical crown that had been crafted centuries before by a legendary king. During the last 15 minutes of the film, there was the inevitable struggle for the magical crown that could stop the giants from laying siege to a castle where they intended to gorge themselves on the people trapped within. (For a movie that lacked precious little possibility for product-placement advertising, I think the producers missed a golden opportunity by not having the giants refer to the king's stronghold as “the White Castle” and the soldiers they intended to eat as “sliders,” but that's neither here nor there.) Anyway, after Jack The Title Character had – at the last possible moment – realized he could kill the giant who was holding the magic crown by tossing a magic bean down the monster's gullet, the farm-boy turned adventurer then rushed outside in his climactic moment of glory to make the invading horde of giants take a knee and reconsider their whole strategy of pausing to gloat before eating their adversaries. What ticked Ruth off was that it was Jack who came smugly ambling out of the castle to control the giants and not the Princess Isabelle. Both Jack and Princess Isabelle had been alone together when the giant – who had been holding the magic crown – died of IWD (Invasive Weed Disease), and Ruth fervently expected that common farmhand would turn over the crown to his princess before going outside to prevent the invading giants from commencing with their post-victory smorgasbord of human flesh.
     Rhetorically, I think I understand why Ruth had such high expectations for Jack to hand over the magic crown and let the princess end the film by being the one who saved her realm from the hungry, hungry, huge guys. And, furthermore, I think I can explain why this ending never even occurred to the filmmakers (and if it did, why they probably never gave it a second thought). Perhaps, if the film had ended with the couple walking out together – with the two of them holding the magic crown high in the air each with one hand between them, then the movie would have had a modern fairytale ending, but it would have failed the internal consistency of its patriarchal subtext and risked offending its primary audience. The Golden Rule of Capitalism is “Never risk offending your primary audience.” Of course, I intend to explain all of this below.
     First, here's why I think Ruth expected Princess Isabelle to save the day with the magic crown. At the very beginning of the movie, the film cut back and forth from two parents telling reading the same bedtime story to their children – Jack's dad reading to him the story of the giants' previous defeat at the hands of magic-crown-holding King Erik and Princess Isabelle's mother, the current queen, reading the identical story to her. By inter-splicing these two stories of Jack and the Isabelle in the opening, it would be reasonable to expect that perhaps the film would portray the two protagonists as equals. As the film leaps ahead 10 years to show Jack as a young man traveling to the city to sell off a horse, the viewer soon encounters Isabelle traveling in disguise in the same market as Jack. The two quickly run into each other. Again, with this first encounter between the two main characters, it would not be unreasonable to expect that the rest of the film would try to maintain a balance of “his story” to “her story.” Furthermore, given the film's early depiction of young adult Isabelle's willingness to defy her father's injunction against traveling alone outside of the castle, it's not difficult to understand how Ruth (and other people expecting a more contemporary portrayal of womanhood) would read into the story that this princess is not going to be the typical traditional heroine who will need a man to save her, but rather a post-modern, feminist princess who will demonstrate her independence by seeking out her own adventures – regardless of whatever her father's patriarchal rule demands of her. Later, after Isabelle has been transported to the land of the giants by the miraculous growth of the beanstalk beneath the hut she had been trapped in, both the film audience and the other characters in the movie have it pointed out to them that given the choice of climbing down the beanstalk to return to the safety of her father's domination and the dangers of independently exploring the territory of cannibalistic giants, Princess Isabelle opts for the risk of the giants. While in generations past this decision to go it alone in the wilderness may have been played off as a sign that a princess is not smart enough to go back down a beanstalk, in the context of this film, it is clear that she was bravely looking for her own adventure. Additionally, when this film is put into the context of other recent “fairy tale” movies, such as last summer's Snow White and the Huntsman in which Snow White fights like a ninja, it is perfectly reasonable to expect that perhaps by the time the movie ends, Princess Isabelle would end up holding the crown that controls the dreaded giants as a paragon of female empowerment.
     And here's why I think it never even occurred to the filmmakers to end the movie with Isabelle saving the day (or at the very least, sharing the day with Jack). Although the movie winked at the audience with a self-awareness of modern irony (in one scene, for example, a giant attempted to bake “pigs in a blanket” with actual hogs enveloped in flour blankets), too much attention was given to maintaining the traditions of patriarchy within the story itself. When Jack encounters Isabelle at the market for the first time, Jack takes a punch in the face to defend Isabelle from some ruffians who clearly had no idea who they were dealing with. From this moment on, it is clearly a “guy film.” One way to distinguish a “guy film” from a “chick flick” is count the number of explosions it depicts, but another is to actually count the number of female characters. With the exception of the queen who reads to Isabelle as a child, and whose disappearance by the time Isabelle comes of age is reduced to nothing more than the screenwriters' need to explain the princess' “rebelliousness” in her insistence on going off alone, there are virtually no other female characters in the movie. Not only are all the giants filthy, rude, and violent, they are all dudes as well. All the king's knights who travel up the beanstalk to rescue the princess are men and all the soldiers who fight off the giants at the movie's conclusion are men. If there are women shown among the crowd at the market or within the crowded castle, they are nothing more than scenery. If I wanted to really push how masculine the undertones of this film really are, I'd point out that the princess's name “Isabelle” is meant to point out how pretty she is; she “is a belle.”
     As a viewer, the rhetorical message I think the filmmakers wanted to send to it's primary audience of young men is that given enough courage and determination, anyone can overcome the stigma of poverty to defeat the giants of power, wealth, and influence. Early in the film, Jack is told in no uncertain terms that no matter what happens, there is no chance of a romance with the princess because he is a commoner and only the privileged nobles have any opportunity to court royalty. Given the gorgeousness of Nicholas Hoult (who does an admirable job of playing Jack), there is virtually no one in the audience who would believe that Jack wouldn't end up with the princess once he saves her from those awful, smelly, and apparently misogamistic giants. By the end of the film, not only has Jack defeated the giants, but he has overcome his humble beginnings as well, demonstrating the tired and medievally anachronistic message that there's nothing a little bravery, optimism, and hard work can overcome – unless you are unfortunate enough to be born too big, too ugly, and too grimy for Hollywood's perfect aesthetic, then you deserve whatever gigantic fall to earth that comes to you.
     Keep thinking rhetorically and I'll be back next week.

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