Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises: Women Can Be Badasses. But Just Two of Them.

This is part of my series on the gender of the 2012 big budget blockbusters. Check out the others: The Hunger GamesPrometheusMIB3The AvengersBraveSnow White and the HuntsmanTed and Abraham Lincoln Vampire HunterMagic Mike, The Amazing Spiderman.

Last night, I went to a midnight showing of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, the culminating piece in his gritty Batman trilogy. It's a movie I've been waiting for all summer so I've decided that it will conclude my summer blockbuster series. I, of course, will continue to write about the gender of movies that strike me in a particular manner, but I'm not going to write about them with this frequency until another series idea strikes my fancy. (Maybe Oscar season? Who knows?)

Anyway, while there are a few failures, my overall reactions to the gender situation are positive. The two main female characters, Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) and Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) are strong, independent, and pretty much badasses. It was a shift from the previous main character in Nolan's Batman universe, Rachel Dawes, who much more fell into the stereotype of the goodhearted woman who needs to be saved.

Spoilers to follow, I'm sure.

I guess I'll get out of the way what I didn't like about the gender situation first. The movie failed the Brechdel test epically, as the only two women don't really ever converse. In fact, besides Selina Kyle and Miranda Tate, it's almost like Gotham is totally devoid of women. For example, major scenes involve a bus load of orphans (no really!) who are all male, an all male football team, and a police force of 3000 where I didn't spot a woman among them. And the main villain, Bane's, crew is all dudes too. And of course, when the movie only contains two thin, sexy, able bodied white women, it's a universe where women of color, fat women, women of differing abilities and looks, are almost nonexistent. (I did spot one black woman on Wayne Enterprises' board.)

While I'm going to jump off into how I really do like Kyle and Tate, this point shouldn't go unacknowledged. It feels like a case of female exceptionalism--where Tate and Kyle are created to be so interesting, but we're not sure how Nolan views women in general. Additionally, both women have a physical relationship with Bruce Wayne at different points in the film, which was disappointing to me and felt unnecessary to the story. Honestly--I was puzzled what that element added at all.

All that said, let me delve into what I like about each of the female characters, starting with Ms. Catwoman herself. Selina Kyle is very interesting to me because she carries her own set of moral standards which interact with Bruce Wayne's. Overall, she tends to operate out of self interest and she doesn't sacrifice herself for anyone, unlike so many other women in action films.

Much like Robin Hood, Selina Kyle steals from the rich only. She is very concerned about how the rich have gained their wealth on the backs of the poor. This theme is very relatable to our current climate with the recent Occupy Movements and it becomes a central point of the film.

Kyle, much like the Black Widow in The Avengers, uses her femininity to her advantage and preys upon the sexism of the men she encounters to get ahead. In the end, she also becomes an ally to Batman and they work together to ultimate success. At first I was disappointed when Batman saved Catwoman, but later, she saves him too. Again, similar to The Avengers it displayed a sense of teamwork between the men and women instead of an unequal balance of power.

Miranda Tate is equally strong. She is a shrewd business woman and investor who has made her money on her own. (This part is super spoilery!) And as it turns out, she is also the mastermind behind Bane, with a past full of surviving and thriving despite impossible odds. While all of the villains in Nolan's movies to this point have been men, Miranda Tate (or Talia al Ghul,) is his ultimate reckoning.

Overall, I was pleased with the way that Tate and Kyle are portrayed and it is certainly the best that Nolan has done so far. But again, I wish that there had been more women represented and that they didn't both have to have a sexual relationship and tension with the hero.

Additional Note: I feel I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the atrocity that occurred last night in Aurora, Colorado. At least 12 people like me, who arrived at a midnight showing prepared for entertainment, were killed. Many more were injured. The story is still developing. I don't really know what to say about it right now--I'm still processing this horrific situation, but I would note that I agree with Amanda Marcotte when she tweeted, "Gun control supporters get accused of 'politicizing'. But politics is how we deal with social problems." 

Furthermore, writing off the suspect as a "crazy person" or a "deranged psychopath" distracts from the reality that our culture has a violence problem. We shouldn't be ignoring that. I've heard blame being place on parents for taking their children to a midnight showing. I've heard blame being placed on the film for existing. All of that is illogical. Marilyn Manson wasn't to blame for Columbine and Nolan isn't responsible for this. I really hope that we, as a nation, can take a good long look at what is really going on and begin to make the changes necessary to curb violence. Too many people have suffered too many times without any real action.

So today, my thoughts are with the survivors, the friends and family of the dead, and the community of Aurora. If you would like to help, The Huffington Post has some helpful suggestions.


  1. (Spoiler's will follow)

    Hmm, I thought Holly Robinson and Selina Kyle do speak to each other in the movie about a pretty major issue. Holly is all for Gotham being run "by the people", while Selina picks up the broken picture of the family and says "This was somebody's home." Although, it's not a major plot point, I'd say that that exchange is by no means minor. So perhaps it does pass the Bechdel test?

    On another note, I thought the movie was pretty sexist. It just showed me that in order to be a female character in an action movie you either

    a) have to wear skintight clothes which reveal absolutely everything

    b) be a villain

    c) either sleep with the main character or be his love interest

    d) be a damsel in distress or a major male character's wife.

    1. Hi Noora, I had forgotten about the talk w/ Holly and her character all together, but you are right. Thank you.

      As for your other points, I see what you mean but I think we can both have valid claims here. I'm personally satisfied with some of the agency displayed by women, while your points about how they are tropes is well made. Here's a few of my thoughts on your list:


    2. ...sorry having trouble commenting on my iPhone.

      A) yes, I agree. I wanted go write more on that but I had a plane to catch.

      B) I would argue Selina Kyle is not a true villain.

      C) I too had a problem w/ this like I said above. So unnecessary.

      D) I don't think Selina is either of those...?

    3. "Although, it's not a major plot point, I'd say that that exchange is by no means minor. So perhaps it does pass the Bechdel test?"

      It depends how you define the test. For example, Anita at Feminist Frequency ( added another criteria- that the two women have to talk to each other for longer than sixty seconds (about something other than men etc) to pass the test.

      But even then the test is limited when it comes to judging the importance and quality of female interaction. I find that the test is strongest when used to spot trends in the movie industry as a whole (as Anita does in the linked video above) rather than in isolation on specific movies.

  2. I was actually surprised by the number of women I saw in the police force, especially during the chase for Batman and then in the rise up against Bane. I cannot recall seeing them enter the tunnels.

  3. 'All male football team'?
    Are there mixed-sex football teams knocking about?
    With regards to Banes crew, I reckon the audience would be pretty aghast about seeing Batman punch a women in the face, pretty sure that wouldn't do so well in the ratings.

  4. I actually just put up a blog post in which I explain (more snarkily and less reasonably than you :) ) why I thought Catwoman was VERY stereotypical in her depiction. I don't know what to call this trope - Femme Fatale Cat-Burglar?? She's a thief, strong, capable of kicking arse (even if she always looks too teeny for this to be convincing!), amoral and self-interested, but not *quite* evil.

    Bela from Supernatural, Mrs. Reynolds from Firefly, Marion from Psycho & the eponymous Marnie from the Hitchcock film would all be examples of this trope: I actually find these characters anti-feminist, in that (their initial independence and lack of Good-Hearted Woman As Moral Centre-ness notwithstanding), they usually undergo some form of moral redemption that is directly engineered by the men they initially challenge & antagonise. (Except for Marion, who reaches it alone, only to be punished for her agency - so only a partial example, in her case.)

    Brienne from Game of Thrones is the best example of an anti-FFCB I could find: not only is she honest and moral WITHOUT being a bleeding-heart nurturer in the banal female tradition, but she actually LOOKS like she could kick your arse, without it coming as a great shock. :)

    1. Bailey, what's your point? Catwoman is an iconic character from the comics who has ALWAYS been encouraged by Bruce to do good things that she otherwise doesn't want to do. Nolan was just following the comics.


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