More Than One Kind Of Hero

For a summer blockbuster about giant mechs fighting rampaging monsters, Pacific Rim is an extraordinarily unconventional film. One of the areas in which this shows up most clearly is in the depiction of its characters.

Some very serious spoilers, obviously. Don’t read this if you haven’t seen the movie yet.

To begin with, Pacific Rim is a true dual-protagonist film, a rarity in Hollywood and near-unheard of in the realm of summer tentpoles.

Fittingly for a movie about people learning to share their hearts and minds in the Drift, Raleigh and Mako are absolutely equal as protagonists.

They each have an inciting incident; Raleigh’s in the pre-credits sequence, and Mako’s (in keeping with the film’s unconventional treatment of time) revealed in flashback around the middle of the film. They each have a personal antagonist; for Raleigh, jealous, insecure rival Chuck Hansen, and for Mako, Stacker Pentecost, whose desire to protect her makes him as much an antagonist to be overcome as a mentor to be heeded. They each carry an emotional burden they must cast aside; Mako must master her need for revenge, and Raleigh, his guilt for his brother’s death.

But even more interesting that their shared centrality is the question: what kind of heroes are they?

For everyone who has hailed Mako as a feminist hero, someone else has criticised her for being passive, for being weak. For not conforming to the Hollywood hero stereotype: a self-sufficient hero who is stubbornly individual, rejects rules and advice, does their own thing, and often, does something apparently unwise and yet is proved right as conventional wisdom turns out to be wrong.

But Raleigh Beckett isn’t that kind of hero either. Add writer Travis Beacham’s response on Twitter on this subject:  “I will concede that [Mako] doesn’t act like a decisive alpha male action hero. I don’t much like that guy.”  and it’s clear that this is a very deliberate decision.

Pacific Rim has rejected the individualist hero pattern, and is presenting us with a new type of hero – a hero for who personal surrender is the way to shared strength, and for whom the whole is far more important than the individual.

Consider the scene where Mako proves herself a worthy partner for Raleigh in combat, but Pentecost refuses to pair them up. Was I the only one expecting Raleigh to threaten to walk out of the program if Pentecost doesn’t relent? I doubt it. That’s what the individualist hero does; defies authority and imposes his own will on the world.

It’s not what Raleigh or Mako do here, though. Each passionately argues their case – and then accepts Pentecost’s decision. When Raleigh does privately challenge the notion of obedience, Mako sets him straight: “it’s not obedience, it’s respect.” And even as she closes the door in his face, you get a sense that he understands that.

He certainly should. This is not a world that rewards individualism. It’s the Beckett boys’ decision to disobey orders that leads to Yancy’s death, and later in Hong Kong, rushing to assist their colleagues in defiance of Pentecost’s strategy almost does for the Hansens. Even Newt’s solo attempt to Drift with the kaiju brain risks his life and obtains only snatches of useful intelligence. Only when Gottlieb joins him, sharing the neutral load –  because “That’s what the jaeger pilots do” –  can the Drift be entirely successful and the vital information obtained.

Going back to Raleigh: later, with his perfect Drift partner grounded, he does slip into the individualist hero paradigm and challenge Pentecost – only to be cut down as the senior officer asserts not so much his authority as his responsibility. He is the “fixed point” in the crumbling world of the Shatterdome, and Raleigh needs that stability as much as anyone. Pentecost has sacrificed endlessly for others; he’s asking Raleigh to make similar sacrifices. To surrender ego for the greater good. And that’s what Raleigh does.

It’s hard to imagine this complex emotional exchange happening in any movie with an individualist protagonist, isn’t it?

Mako, of course, knows a lot about sacrifice. She’s been waiting her whole life for her chance to pilot a jaeger. I read her obedience to Pentecost as both respect and confidence. She knows that her day will come, when the time is right.

When machismo does rear it’s ugly head, it’s subverted. With Chuck right in their face, trying to provoke a fight, they fail to defend their own egos: Mako responds only when Raleigh is insulted, and he’s finally provoked to violence by an insult to her. Personal ego has no place in their increasingly anti-individual world.

Even as the double event wipes out jaeger teams, Raleigh and Mako don’t muscle in to save the day. The John McClaines and Jack Bauers of this world would have marched down to the hangar and set off into the fray, without orders or in defiance of them. But rather than putting themselves forward as heroes, Raleigh and Mako wait until they’re sure they have something to offer the situation. As it turns out, that’s not even them – it’s Gipsy Danger herself, the one jaeger immune to the new weapon.

Even in the final assault on the Drift, it’s hard to pick out the kind of individual hero moment you would expect from a typical Hollywood narrative. The sealing of the breach is a group effort, and, with the possible exception of Raleigh sacrificing his oxygen supply, no single act achieves victory. Even the sacrifice of Chuck and Pentecost is – of necessity – a joint decision between two Drift partners.

For a Hollywood movie, this is a whole new world of characterization – and I love it. It’s long past time for new explorations of what it means to be a hero.

But I suppose we must proceed with caution. Although Pacific Rim isn’t the ‘flop’ headline writers would have you believe, it has underperformed in English-speaking territories. If I had to venture one explanation for that, I’d probably guess it’s the unconventional character choices being misread as weakness by an audience with a narrow sense of what’s “heroic”. It’s tough to be the first person to break the rules…

The Hero’s Journey & The Virgin’s Promise

After some fascinating discussions on Scott Myer’s blog, Go Into The Story, a few weeks back, I invested in a copy of The Virgin’s Promise by Kim Hudson.  I know, I know, it sounds like a Mills & Boon novel, but here’s the subtitle: Writing Stories of Feminine Creative, Spiritual and Sexual Awakening.

So here’s a first for Never Get Off The Bus: a book review!

Essentially, Hudson’s thesis is that there’s a broadly feminine equivalent to the famous Hero’s Journey model of storytelling. This doesn’t necessarily mean stories with female central characters – she mentions many male characters who fit the model –  or even stories aimed at a female audience.  It’s just a model that values traditionally ‘female’ story arenas, values and preoccupations.

If the Hero’s Journey is myth, the Virgin’s Promise is fairy tale: where the Hero goes out into a strange world to prove himself and conquer evil for the good of the community, the Virgin stays home, discovers a talent or facet of her personality that she’s been keeping hidden because of social pressure, and begins to develop it in secret.  Eventually her secret comes out, and traditional, rule-bound society is rocked by this threat – but ultimately the Virgin wins them over, and society changes to accommodate the new, more powerful and fulfilled her.

The films she quotes as adhering to the Virgin’s Promise model include Billy Elliot, Bend It Like Beckham, The Wedding Crashers, Brokeback Mountain, Maid In Manhattan and Sister Act.  She provides step by step breakdowns of the films, detailing how they fit into the thirteen-part structure, and the opening of the book digs into Jungian theory and details twelve archetypes that male and female characters fit into at various stages of their lives, and what their typical stories are, which is interesting stuff in itself.

Is it useful?  Yes, very.  To me, The Virgin’s Promise feels like a model that would work tremendously well for “character-driven” films without a strong plot arc, such as indie dramas or coming of age movies (Hudson discusses coming of age stories in the book, in fact).  It focuses on self-discovery rather than external achievements, emphasizes personal relationships as both a strength and a weakness for the central character, and promotes self-esteem and honesty as the key to changing the world.

It would be fair to say that, for a female writer, I write very “male” stories, in terms of genre, tone and character – and I can still see myself weaving elements of this system into my work from now on.  I can particularly see the value of it for a secondary character (male or female).  While the Protagonist proceeds on the Hero’s Journey, a Sidekick or Attractor character might be exploring the Virgin’s Promise, learning and changing in ways that compliment the Protagonist’s story without repeating beats or interfering with the Hero’s outwards and inwards arc of change.

The book itself does feel a little padded: Part Two, ostensibly a guide to screenwriting, is basic three-act structure with the Virgin’s Promise rehashed throughout it, and Hudson also spends a chapter on the Hero’s Journey itself, which anyone reading this should already be familiar with.  (Though I suppose if you’re not, that makes this book a “two for the price of one”!)

Despite that, I heartily recommend this for anyone who’s mastered all the basic systems and models and is looking for something a little different, and especially for anyone interested in feminist or female-centered stories.


The Sword And The Distaff

In my last post, I was talking about The Hunger Games, which got me thinking about the role of Peeta within the action, and the strange feminisation that afflicts male love interests in female-led action movies.

Of course, male love interests in anything other than a rom-com are a rarity, simply because female leads are so rare, so our scientific sample will be rather small. I’d love to be able to throw in some male-on-male relationships in action movies as a control group, but since gay lead characters are only ”allowed” in movies about how traumatic it is to be gay (and there’s a whole other blog post in that!), I guess we’ll have to do without…

So, let’s start by defining the trope, with Peeta in The Hunger Games. In what ways does he falls into traditional ”feminine” behaviour patterns?

First off, he’s largely powerless.  He’s forced to compete in the Games, whereas Katniss volunteers – to save her sister, yes, but that makes her sacrifice more heroic, not less. He’s an underdog, jeered at by other competitors in training. Unlike Katniss, he has no special skills or training, just his brute strength (which, strangely, is rarely utilised during the action). Katniss has to push him to show his strength and stop the others viewing him as a victim.  We could make a good case for him having longterm low self-esteem (flashbacks suggest he’s bullied and dominated by his mother).

He’s emotionally vulnerable.  He makes a public declaration of love for Katniss which she doesn’t explicitly return, traditionally the role of the female character – think ”I love you,”   ”I know,”  in  The Empire Strikes Back…

Once they’re in the game arena, Peeta accepts protection from a group of stronger, better trained (and mostly male) competitors, under the leadership of the Nemesis, Cato, a traditional alpha male.  The price for this seems to be agreeing to betray Katniss, though he makes efforts to steer them away from her, and gets them to wait her out rather than attacking at once, which ultimately enables her to escape.

Finally Katniss finds him, wounded and using his artistic skills to hide (a passive strategy, and the fact that he learned his skills decorating cakes only reinforces the feminine role he’s being pushed into). It’s down to her to nurse him, risk her life for the the medicine he needs, and ultimately save him from the (ultimately rather tragic) alpha male Cato.

Underworld, another female-led action movie, follows similar strategies, making its werewolf love interest entirely dependent on its female vampire protagonist for protection, exposition, and moral direction.  The Terminator begins with Sarah Connor dependant upon Kyle Reese for survival and emotional support, but as Sarah grows into her role as mother-protector, and particularly once Reese is wounded, he effectively loses his power to highlight the fact that she is gaining hers.  Perfectly acceptable dramatic strategy, particularly if you look at them as Hero and Mentor as well as Hero and Attractor, but still interesting in the context of male love interests.

So what’s going on here?  Why is what Peeta is doing reading as ‘female’ behaviour?

Isn’t it actually unintended social conditioning?  We’ve all watched so many films over the years where women have needed nurturing, rescue, moral guidance and affirmation from a strong male hero that we’ve come to associate that social role entirely with women. So when we see a male character expressing vulnerability and need to a protective, dominant female character, we find ourselves surprised at their ”feminine” behaviour.

What can we do about this?  Should we feel compelled do anything about this? After all, the action movie is all about risk, gains and losses. Someone needs to be in danger, someone needs to rescue. Someone has to express weakness so that someone else can express strength, right?

Fine. But can’t we share the burden more equally between the genders?  In the end, isn’t it a question of making both your hero and your attractor well-rounded characters who both contribute in different but equal ways?

There are films that do rather better at depicting a female hero and a male love interest as equals. Haywire, for example. The first time we see the love interest, before we’re even aware of their relationship, Gina Caruso is kicking seven bells out of him, but he fights back competently, and once we’re into the flashbacks, it becomes clear that he’s a valuable operative with the capacity to make his own decisions (even if he is a little easily led).  So it’s perfectly possible to create a male love interest who’s the equal of a female action hero –  and indeed, a female love interest who’s the equal of your male action hero!

Go ye and do likewise!