Monday, 9 July 2012

Are James Cameron’s Movies Misandrist, and What Would he Hope to Gain if They Were?

Before I begin, there are two things I’m going to need to tackle. The first thing is that I actually really enjoy most of director James Macaron Cameron’s output (apart from Titanic, but that doesn’t mean it will escape comment!). You may have read my outright praise for Aliens in the past. His plotlines and dialogue are elegant and functional, and the action scenes which drive his movies are hyperkinetic without being incomprehensible. There’s a lot going on, but he can hold a camera still for a few seconds rather than chucking it across the room a la Transformers.

The other thing is what misandry is. I’m sure you’re all familiar with its counterpart, misogyny – the hatred of women – and all the notions that go with it, such as objectification (treating women as objects primarily for the pleasure of the so-called ‘male gaze’). Misandry, it follows, is the hatred of men. What could its possible equivalent to objectification be? Some people would say that hyper-masculine, hyper-muscular male figures are there for women to look at, but a Feminist would be partially correct in dismissing that as a male-manufactured power fantasy. But did you ever wonder why it’s a power fantasy? Because power gets you laid and, statistically speaking and apart from socially important lotharios, bigger and more aggressive men get more girls. Ask yourself, whether you be a man or a woman, how many women have you met who claim to actively prefer puny or fat guys? Are you such a woman yourself? Don’t lie, because I’ll know. And I will find you.

The masculine equivalent of objectification of women – if the argument for it being a problem for women acts as a kind of denial that it could ever happen to men, which is an utter lie – is something I’m going to have to semi-invent a term for. That term is ‘agentification’. An agent is someone or something who actively influences the world around them. How is this bad? It becomes bad when I offer you the following definition – ‘the treatment of men as agents who act primarily for the benefit and gain of women’. As with the objectified female, the thoughts, feelings and personality of the agentified male are considered irrelevant.

Our culture has even had a platitude which reflects this for hundreds, if not thousands of years – ‘man is defined by his actions’. It is an attitude so deeply entrenched in our culture that we take it for granted and it has ceased to be a problem. Think about it – surnames in most cultures are subject to patrilineal transmission, from father to son. Type that into spellcheck. Patrilineal doesn’t exist. But matrilineal does. Why is this? Hmm. I digress. Surnames are patrilineal in most cultures and what do you notice? Potter. Smith. Farrier. Wright. Turner. And so on. All names derived from jobs. A man is what he does – not how he thinks or feels. You don’t get Mr. Sympathetic or Mr. Likesicecream. Of course, if Bruce Wayne had a son, according to occupation-derivation he would be Mr. Batman, which would give the game away just a tad. If a man’s surname doesn’t come from his job (i.e it sounds posh) it is generally an aristocratic derivation referring to some place his family owned i.e De Montford.

Back to the problem. It is the problem that makes young men enlist in militaries and die for countries that don’t care about them. It is the problem that makes men aged 16-24 the absolute statistically-proven prime victims of violent crime, even though culturally we harp on about how at risk women are. It is the problem that means that the human race today is descended from half as many men as women, which means that throughout our evolution males have consistently been killed off twice as fast as females. But this is all okay, of course. This is because it is their choice (although, if they don’t make such choice, they lose their masculine agency and are less likely to be considered for breeding rights. Evolution, baby). The notion that this is okay is firmly supported in many of James Cameron’s films – but in what ways, and why?

I will start with Avatar as the most obvious culprit, and attempt to do it in summary. At its heart, this movie presents a male-driven military industrial complex (the baddies) against a female Gaia-type earth-spirit, Eywa (the goody). The milindust complex is led by the snarky (and physically slight) corporate bigot Parker Selfridge and the scenery chewing Lt. Col. Miles Quaritch. The irony is that although Quaritch is nominally the villain, he is decisive, self-sacrificing and lives up to his word which the ‘hero’ Sully is largely unable to do. Sully’s main motivations for turning against the military that employed him? His new blue body lets him walk, and helped him get a hot blue girlfriend. The hot blue girlfriend part is critical to this discussion.

So how is the above so critical? Sully is portrayed as stupid, bland and selfish – he betrays pretty much everyone. Despite constant verbal abuse and disdain from his soon-to-be-girlfriend Netyri, (“She calls me ‘skown’ which means moron”) he still falls in love with her. He starts off on the wrong side, and betrays his new blue buddies. What redeems him? Two things – that he acts upon the instructions of a female (Netyri) for the benefit of a female earth-spirit, and that (as a masculine agent) he tames ‘Last Shadow’ which is essentially a huge and deadly pterosaur. The fact that he is accepted back as a saviour under these circumstances amuses me – suddenly, all the Na’vi trust him. It is very much like me leaving in shame driving a Fiat Fiesta and becoming a hero just because I drive back in a Mercedes Benz. His feelings do not matter, the fact that he is stupid does not matter, the fact that his motivations are skewed does not matter. He is the hero because he did something cool to impress a girl.

Don't laugh mate - you die in 45 minutes' time.
Let’s examine the other male figures now. Sully’s main competitor is an arrogant blue dude called Tsu-tey who basically dares to expect a woman who had already pledged herself to him to be faithful! What a goddamn crime! How does the movie absolve him of this terrible crime? Twofold – by having him become subordinate to the ‘hero’ (who is in turn subordinate to Netyri’s genitals), and die heroically assaulting the bomb shuttle. The good old disposable male strikes again – Cameron leaves no trope behind.

Killed by your own tree, FFS!
The two tribal leaders can be compared, too. The patriarchal leader – who wants to kill Sully – is ignobly disposed of via a spare of wood when hometree is blown to bits, while the matriarchal figure, who saves Sully (stereotypically nurturing - how ironic) is spared. Ho hum.

How do men and women in the milindust complex compare? Little better. All the background female figures who remain loyal to the army have close-cropped hair like their male colleagues, while the heroic female pilot (Trudy) who turns against her employers has lovely long hair. As a strong, assertive man, Quaritch is put in a position where the audience is not meant to sympathise with him despite the fact that he’s the only consistent and trustworthy character with any power in the whole damn film. His female adversary and equivalent, the scientist Grace Augustine, whose name is just a face-palm worthy pathetic fallacy, is a total bitch to everyone. But the film tells us to like and respect her – so a behaviour changes from wicked to respectable depending on whether a man or a woman does it. In a meritocratic, equal society, we should judge people’s behaviour, not their sex. Cameron’s hypocrisy here clearly sees him judging sex. Shouldn’t a (pseudo) Feminist avoid employing the supposed tactics of the patriarchal enemy?

Anyway, Doctor Elegant Majestic wilfully pounds down on her subordinates Norm Spelman and Dr Stereotype Patel. These are the two token consistently loyal and pleasant men in the film, but they are both portrayed as nervy, nerdy, back-seat taking somewhat asexual blobs. Norm is even a drooler, apparently as Grace tells his Avatar, “Norm, you’re getting your saliva in the samples” in response to his lisping dialogue. So, Jim, you’re saying that we should be confirming the stereotype that nice guys are chumps, but bad guys can be redeemed if they subject themselves to the will of a woman while retaining their ability to act and take risks. That’s just fucking great man – game over man, game over.

"Not if I kill you first, Jim!"
Now, on to a summary of how this works in his other movies. In both Terminator films, male (or masculine-bodied protagonists such as the T-800 in Terminator 2) exist to protect the female and her offspring and then die. Kyle Reese gives her offspring, protects her, then dies. The T-800 gives the thumbs up as he commits suicide or ‘self-terminates’. As the T-800 is referred to as the ultimate father figure at several points throughout the movie, the implications are sinister. Mother-of-the future Sarah Connor says, “watching John with the machine, it was suddenly so clear. Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing, this machine, was the only one who measured up. The Terminator would never stop. It would never leave him. It would never hurt him. It would never shout at him or get drunk and hit him. Or say it was too busy to spend time with him. And it would die to protect him. In an insane world, it was the sanest choice”. Ideally, men are just self-sacrificing machines that exist only to help females and their young. What they make of it is meaningless. What they feel is moot. But we are not permitted to see them as victims of agentification.

He's just DYING to help out!
The creator of Skynet, Miles Dyson, is on the other hand a male who neglects his family in favour of his work and needs to be shown the error of his ways by a woman. He dies redeeming himself in staying behind at Cyberdyne to detonate the bomb intended to wipe out Skynet’s future. Can you see a pattern developing here? 

In The Abyss, proto-Augustine superbitch Lindsey Brigman appears and makes a fool of her ex-husband, Virgil. He makes his transition from immature layabout to hero only once he accepts that his ex-wife is right about the aliens being benevolent. The villain of the piece is unsurprisingly a male soldier -but he’s played by Michael Biehn, so I’m automatically on his side. Corporal Hicks and Kyle Reese are good-guys!

 In Aliens, Ellen is a mother-figure who essentially adopts the little girl Newt / Rebecca. Carter Burke, the primary villain, is the proto-Selfridgian corporate stooge. The nice guys, Corporal Hicks and android Bishop are both horrifically injured in the service of a woman. They accept this humbly, despite the fact they got hurt as the result of said woman taking a massive risk (trying to save someone from alien impregnation) which she had previously disapproved of herself (“You can’t help them! You can’t! Right now, they’re being cocooned just like the others”). Yet the risky hypocrisy displayed by Sully is shown to be just fine when Ripley does it. No-one needs to redeem her – her actions redeem themselves in the narrative. Granted, it is the only grave error in her otherwise sterling leadership.

So Jack and Rose get married and - nah just messin wit ya.  HE'S FUCKING DEAD!
In Titanic, Jack dies to save Rose. Oh yeah, ‘Women and children first’. I forgot. 
All of his men are put-up, shut-up, define-yourselves-by-your-actions types who become defined as heroes in their services to women. Self-serving men are villains, self-serving women are frequently sympathetic protagonists. His films are frequently hypocritical and misandrist on this level. True Lies is the only one I can’t figure out.

Do as I say!  Not as I do!
 But why does James Cameron keep doing this in his films? I don’t think he really believes any of this stuff. It’s all sinister marketing. Knowing that just making a kick-ass action movie won’t be enough to bring in the big dollars considering that some – though not all – of the female audience will be hesitant about seeing it, Cameron essentially enshrines women in order to put bums in seats. Does he believe in this ‘natural order’ in real-life? He is on his fifth marriage. Former wife Linda Hamilton, who ironically played the heroine Sarah Connor in both Terminator movies, is on-record as describing being married to him as “terrible on every level, he was terribly insecure that I was going to ruin it for him somehow,”(The Week Uk, March 3rd 2010) and that  - in another blazing irony -implied he was much like Miles Dyson in that he was single-mindedly focused on his work to the detriment of his family relations. It is also suspected that he cheated on Hamilton with current wife Suzy Amis. None of this is secret, libellous or revelatory – just have a look on Google. You can make your own judgments as to whether he has anywhere near the respect for women he pretends to have in his films.

What does this all mean? Look at it all from this angle, and his movies are pick-up artists. These movies are the sleazy guy in a nightclub who sidles up to a woman and says ‘all these other guys are horrible. You should sleep with me. I’m nice. I understand. I’ll look after your interests. Come with me if you want to live’. Well, to paraphrase the awesome and now sadly perished female-fronted alt-rockers Lush: You say that women are superior to men? Well, I know the score – and I’ve heard it all before.


David M. Jackson is a lecturer in English Language and Literature as well as Sociology, so he’s seen your retorts to this article coming from a mile away and frankly they’re bloody feeble. Don’t even start – you don’t want to see him get out of this chair.

When not teaching or beaming smugly from this hallowed webpage, he works on making his ‘about the author’ blurbs shorter.

By the way, he wrote a novel about a cybernetically augmented police officer struggling to maintain her humanity while seeking revenge for her father’s death against the backdrop of civil war in happy ol’ Britain. It’s called ‘Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity’ - which you may find a bit ironic. It’s out on Sunday 1st  July 2012 via Amazon, priced at £3. Keep your wallet handy – there’s more to come.