Saturday, September 17, 2016

from the manic pixie dream girl through waif fu to the murderous ingenue: Ex Machina, The Witch and film critics who will fall for the manic pixie dream girl as long as she stabs the patriarchy

When I coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” in an essay about the movie “Elizabethtown” in 2007, I never could have imagined how that phrase would explode. Describing the film’s adorably daffy love interest played by Kirsten Dunst, I defined the MPDG as a fantasy figure who “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

That day in 2007, I remember watching “Elizabethtown” and being distracted by the preposterousness of its heroine, Claire. Dunst’s psychotically bubbly stewardess seemed to belong in some magical, otherworldly realm — hence the “pixie” — offering up her phone number to strangers and drawing whimsical maps to help her man find his way. And as Dunst cavorted across the screen, I thought also of Natalie Portman in “Garden State,” a similarly carefree nymphet who is the accessory to Zach Braff’s character development. It’s an archetype, I realized, that taps into a particular male fantasy: of being saved from depression and ennui by a fantasy woman who sweeps in like a glittery breeze to save you from yourself, then disappears once her work is done.
When I hit “publish” on that piece, the first entry in a column I called “My Year of Flops,” I was pretty proud of myself. I felt as if I had tapped into something that had been a part of our culture for a long time and given it a catchy, descriptive name — a name with what Malcolm Gladwell might call “stickiness.”

Now that we've had a decade of negative regard for the manic pixie dream girl it could possibly explain why, in spite of authors who are alert to the sexual stereotypes in waif fu, there is a bare, slight modification to the waif fu trope for which film critics have fallen, if only some film critics.

Whether it's Mindy's Hit Girl, or Ava from Ex Machina or Thomasin from The Witch, if a Hollywood reaction to criticism of the manic pixie dream girl has taken a shape then the preternaturally beautiful female has stopped being the manic pixie dream girl and has become the murderous ingénue and for some reason this slight pivot is enough to win over film critics as though it were an insightful, revelatory and revolutionary iteration of cinematic girl power.

Basically nothing substantial about the objectification process of the female has changed EXCEPT what film critics have given themselves license to publish as to the significance of the narrative perspective on the old femme fatale trope.

This is most easily documented in the case of The Witch.


Throughout the film, Thomasin’s family is picked off one by one until she’s the only one left (a particularly gory moment near the end sees her father William gored by the horns of a demonic goat named Black Phillip). She then signs herself over to the devil and joins a coven of witches dancing in the woods; the film closes on Thomasin levitating and laughing with delight. In an interview, Eggers said he didn’t initially approach his screenplay of The Witch as Thomasin’s story, but that he eventually realized she had to be the heart of the film

The original draft was about how the titular witch manifested herself to different members of the family, meaning the film spent roughly equal time with everyone. “But through working on the second draft with my producers, Thomasin became the protagonist,” he said, adding that the film still works as an ensemble piece. In the story, the witch and her demonic partners take several forms: a goat, a raven, a rabbit, a beautiful woman, and a disfigured crone. While most of the other family members are besieged by these figures, Thomasin is targeted instead with suspicion from her parents and siblings, who come to think she’s in league with evil forces. “It was not my intention to make a story of female empowerment,” Egger said, “but I discovered in the writing that if you’re making a witch story, these are the issues that rise to the top.”
The film’s exploration of patriarchal power was the key to unlocking Thomasin’s story. As a woman in the 17th century, she’s entirely stripped of agency. She exists only to work and help her family, and eventually be married off and bear more children. As The Witch progresses, it becomes clear that the campaign being waged against her family is targeted at freeing her so that she can join the coven in the woods. The idea that she’s been liberated is an intentionally muddy one—when she submits to Satan near the end of the film, he takes the form of a man—but there’s a giddy sense nonetheless that she has triumphed.

When asked about The Witch’s deeper commentary at a press conference, the actress Anya Taylor-Joy said she thought the film had a “happy” ending—because joining the coven is the first choice Thomasin gets to make on her own. Eggers is careful to communicate the darkness of Thomasin’s coercion, but doesn’t shy away from the fact that she’s leaving a repressive society behind. When he started thinking about The Witch, his focus was on the unknown, on “understanding where all this stuff comes from, the origins of the clichés—how they’re powerful, how they’re part of everyday life.” But he’s surprised and happy with the way his story evolved, and how it can speak to important modern issues despite being set centuries ago. Thomasin and The Witch seem destined to enter the great canon of horror films that includes the likes of Carrie, The Descent, and A Nightmare on Elm Street: stories that terrify by tapping into the immense power and fury of isolated women.
Normally, the fall of the main character in the final scene of a horror movie would be a director’s gloomy or gleeful surrender to evil. But The Witch presents Thomasin’s conversion as a victory for her: Embracing Satan allows her to escape from the physical hardship, moral hypocrisy, and gendered violence that’s tortured her thus far. (Given how few people in the Calvinist universe actually belong to the divine elect, hedging your bets by becoming a cursed, uberpowerful immortal is just good sense.) I can’t overstate just how shocking this moment feels, when you realize that the movie has up until now perpetrated a fundamental deception about its own point of view. All along, Eggers has stood on the Devil’s side; the triumph of the forces he’s trained us to dread and fear actually constitutes a happy ending. This hugely daring reversal could read as a middle finger to viewers, who’ve spent the past hour and change sympathizing with the pilgrims and rooting against the dark hosts. But don’t have such a limiting, orthodox view of what a horror movie ought to accomplish! Let the film’s ending serve as a reminder—as a certain goat might say—how delicious heresy can be. [emphases added]

Perhaps religious education has declined to the point where people don't realize that the primary difference between Protestants and Catholics over the centuries in the realm of diabology was simply who decided who was the Antichrist; in nearly all other respects, as the historian Jeffrey Burton Russell has put it in his numerous books on the history of thought about the Devil in Judeo-Christian traditions, there was agreement among Catholics and Protestants.  The largely reflexive reactions on the part of American film critics to cast the Puritan legacy in diabolical terms can seem like overcompensation when you have some understanding that Western Christian diabology has been one of the handful of areas in comparative religion where the Christians largely affirmed the same core ideas.  Be that as it may, film critics who might blush at stereotypes about people of color don't blush quite as much if the stereotypes involve, let's not finesse this too much, white trash Protestants.

An ever so slightly more nuanced version of this sentiment about the dread state of being female in a Puritan context ...

Would the director and talented, fresh-faced actress Anya Taylor-Joy consider Thomasin’s final resting place in Satan’s blood-soaked embrace a “happy” ending? Taylor-Joy answered: yes, because it was the first choice she really got to make. Yes, because it meant empowerment. Yes, because society left her no other option: if she went back to the plantation, she’d face the same accusations; and she couldn’t very well run a farm on her own with nothing but her dead family’s corpses for fertilizer.
Already, red flags were firing. How can Thomasin’s story be one of female empowerment when, as the final scenes imply, she chooses Satan because she literally has no other choice? If the story had painted her ultimate destiny as a clear decision between the life she lived with her family and dancing naked in the woods around a flame, that would be one thing. But Thomasin is no Carrie (of the Stephen King novel), who, despite ending up worse off in many ways, at least chose to be up there of her own volition.

The author quoted above went on to talk about how terrible the plight of women was in Puritan era America. 

But not everyone quite bought into the girl power

By Will Leitch
February 19, 2016
The Witch is the sort of horror movie that gets a ton of praise for its dogged resistance to conventional scary movie tropes. An indie hit out of Sundance last year, The Witch is the type of film that’s a success at film festivals but tends to evaporate once released into the wild; what works in the relentless hustle of a festival can feel airless when introduced to the elements of regular human audiences. The Witch is wrapped up in its own views of religion, of sin, of feminine power, but more than anything else, it is wrapped up in itself.


The parents are seen as tormented but also cruel and vengeful in a way that’s easily mocked from the distance of 450 years; Eggers is much more interested in their suffering than their plight. The family begins to crumble as William starts to wonder if he is reliving the life of Job, and we are invited to revel in the family’s strife and even perhaps suspect William and his brood may have it coming to them a little. [emphasis added] William is seen as a decent but deeply misguided man, and the movie briefly flirts with the notion that God is somehow punishing him. Except we know there’s a witch: We see her in the first five minutes of the movie, and the possibility of her reemergence is the central driver of tension the rest of the way. Something is legitimately tormenting this family, and it is not God. We should feel more sympathy for William than Eggers allows us to. Sure, he’s got some outdated views—he’s 500 years old— but there’s still a witch trying to kill his family, cut the guy a break.

It's been a while since we've had a link to Cinemagogue so a link has been overdue and so ...

What can be read as a fairly classic cautionary tale by a movie critic who's also a pastor in the Reformed tradition and is able to take the Reformed idiom of the characters seriously has been read as a girl power ode by other film critics.  Whereas people looking for a pagan girl power cheerleading anthem see Thomasin's signing herself over to the dark side as a victory, a Christian can see that decision not as a rejection of a father's obstinence and self-righteous self-determination but as the logical outgrowth of that.  Thomasin merely embodies further the sins of her own father that led him to choose his own path and, by dint of being the father, forced the rest of his family to join his fate.

We'll come back to the theme of the daughter and the father almost immediately but first we need to shift back to those manic pixie dream girls.

Now if the manic pixie dream girl role was secured by the likes of Zooey Deschanel, Kirsten Dunst and Natalie Portman a decade ago, in this decade the murderous ingénue has been championed by Chloe Grace Moretz, Alicia Vikander and more lately Anya Taylor-Joy.  Each of these actresses is conventionally beautiful enough to end up playing manic pixie dream girls somewhere in the future. These are still actresses fit to play the manic pixie dream girl;  they have become known by being cast as avenging angels literally stabbing the patriarchs who embody the privilege and power that runs the world as we know it. These femme fatales, these deadly debutantes are sympathetic not so much because they aren't murderous schemers and, really, still manic pixie dream girls, but because they enact revenge fantasies against the big dicks who have God complexes who feel entitled to reorder the world around their sense of entitlement.  So, yeah, it's easy to root for these murderous ingenues, perhaps, but the image of the feminine has not necessarily changed so much as the frame around the portrait.

Making a femme fatale a sympathetic protagonist does absolutely nothing to alter the trope, but the shift in narrative perspective alone seems to be enough to convince some film critics that the deadly debutante is a fantastically subversive thing. 

Let's propose that the chilly remove we can observe in these films with the murderous ingénue is a sign that filmmakers don't want to necessarily come out and say they're rooting for the murderous ingénue ... but if that if you do once you've paid for your ticket, well, hey, girl power.

Perhaps there's some kind of subtext in the film criticism dealing with the trope of the murderous ingénue.  They're not necessarily just writing about films featuring a murderous ingénue like Ava or Thomasin or Hit Girl, they're writing about the frustration of being unable to assimilate into the mainstream of cultural power and influence; the frustration is the degree to which an art form that is more than a century old seems to have so few women headlining and defining the culture.  The patriarchy we're complaining about is not really the old Puritan era patriarchal system that didn't allow women a voice that, if we were to interview women from that era by the magic of a time machine, they might not have considered necessary in the way we do, the patriarchy at play is the one perceived to exist right now, the patronage empire that can greenlight one Bayformers movie after another and keeps the Star Trek franchise alive decades after the end of the Cold War that is a necessary historical component to understanding why anyone made the franchise to begin with

There could be more than just a few things to say about the abjection of the past necessary for this interpretation but perhaps we can say for the moment that films like The Witch and Ex Machina can function as Turing tests that ask you who you think the protagonist of the film is without committing to the idea that many film critics who have reviewed this films simultaneously commit to, which is the decision that once you've settled who the protagonist is you've established who the hero is, as if the protagonist and heroic were one and the same thing.

Let's not be too hasty.  We've already had years in which to observe the formulation of the murderous ingénue since Chloe Grace Moretz played Hit Girl in Kick-Ass

Chloe Grace Moretz went on to keep doing the murderous ingénue type in the form of a remake of Let The Right One in; by reprising Hit Girl for Kick-Ass 2; and by starring in a remake of Carrie. The trajectory is short and it tends toward domestication and remakes.  I hope Moretz can shake off the murderous ingénue role typecasting before she obviously ages out of the part.

Meanwhile, Anya Taylor-Joy has since shown up in a film described as a respectable second-tier Ex Machina, the sci-fi film Morgan.

... Morgan’s biggest downside, really, is simply that last year’s Ex Machina got here first, tackling many of the same issues (and some of the same scenery) in a more audience-friendly, immediately satisfying way. Still, that second-banana status shouldn’t negate this film’s virtues, most notably the impressive sense of chilly remove that lingers past the final enigmatic frames. 

Is playing a type that Vikander got to first edgy enough?  I haven't seen Morgan yet and may not get around to it but an advantage of steeping yourself in a little film criticism is that you can keep up with films you can't afford to go see and can observe patterns here and there. Taylor-Joy may be the latest actress to benefit from the murderous ingénue trope and, well, that conveniently lets me have three murderous ingenues to correspond to three manic pixie dream girls from the earlier decade.

Twenty years ago Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer was considered wry and inventive and we've had those decades as an interval in which feminists and film critics have been able to discern the long-term limitations of Whedon being a one-trick pony.  Waif fu has been shown to be not so different from earlier tropes.  The risk in the current cultural moment is that film critics who by now ought to know better because they review movies for a living are falling for the murderous ingénue perhaps only because they were so saturated by the waif fu/manic pixie dream girl trope in the previous decade they don't understand that they're seeing the same stuff but through the refraction of a different narrative prism/trope.  The light that shines through and the resulting rainbow is unchanged.  And make no mistake, the kinds of endings we can get in Ex Machina or The Witch can still fit comfortably into waif fu.

The reason we shouldn't be so eager to celebrate these films and these murderous ingenues as odes to girl power is because a collective cultural venting of frustration now can be blind to trajectories. The trajectory of the cinematic universe is short and tends toward repetition and tropes.

What the murderous ingénue shows us, whether it's Hit Girl or Ava or Thomasin,, is that the murderous ingénue is the daughter who magnifies in her vice those things her father regarded as virtue. In the case of Hit Girl (the cinematic version, not the comic) she is the daughter who lives out the quest for vengeance, justice and murder she received from her father.  For Ava, she embodies the insatiable ambition of her creator and his quest to revolutionize and overthrow whatever the old order might have been, it just doesn't so happen he is the old order.  For Thomasin, if we were to take the Puritans a bit more seriously on their own terms than the average American film critic might want to, her turn to Satan is just a more explicit form of rejecting social formation as a necessary component of individual and spiritual identity that she got from ... her father. The reason we shouldn't celebrate the murderous ingénue as some kind of stab at a patriarchy is that she is her father's daughter.

If we wanted any more vivid proof of how readily an actress who has played the murderous ingénue can pivot over to what will probably be waif fu ... Alicia Vikander (who's turn as Ava in Ex Machina was engrossing and charming) is going to be playing Lara Croft.

Meet the new boss.  Same as the old boss.


Cal of Chelcice said...

I've thought C.S. Lewis' comment about witchcraft (i.e. we only complain about witch trials because the women were not, in fact, witches, but if they were as their accusers said they were, would we really feel so much sympathy?) would make for a good movie. It would be interesting to flip Miller's Crucible upside down, tricking the audience. We think a paranoid fundie crowd is going to kill a thoughtful, independent girl, only to discover, they were right. The stoner-rock band Queens of the Stone Age did a song/music-video like that, except it highlighted the corruptness of the process and the inability for the so-called righteous to actually deal with a real witch. I'd like a movie to leave us a little more confused about what to feel and for who.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Some folks I know who actually saw The Witch said the gap between what journalists want the film to be about and how the film actually comes across is substantial. The director mentioned in an interview how it started off as a full ensemble narrative of a family going crazy in the woods and that the producers nudged it toward making Thomasin the protagonist. I'm still curious to see it based on the word of mouth that it's an ensemble story and that Thomasin's not actually presented as the plucky heroine but a girl who cracks under the pressure of seeing her family die around her, but if there's been a film that embodies film critics reading what they want into a film over against what people can see in the film itself I'm hearing from friends this is "that" movie.

One of the most absurd gaps between actual movie on screen and what a film critic decided to write about was the latest Fantastic Four debacle--Richard Brody decided to hold forth at length on the film he was fairly sure Josh Trank WOULD HAVE made if the studio hadn't interfered so much. The film criticism equivalent of Molinism where the film critic plays God doesn't help anyone figure out if they will want to see the movie being discussed!