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Five More on Kick-Ass, Part 1.

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Five More on Kick-Ass: A Response to Criticisms of the Film

A response to my post on Kick-Ass showed up on the LJ mirror of this blog, and I decided I wanted to respond to it here, where it could be more widely seen. The comment went like this:

You’re the third person I’ve heard or seen recommend this movie (hadn’t looked at any reviews). The others were [my friend] and Peter Watts.

What I want to know is your response to criticism like this:

“Kick-Ass” is violence’s answer to kiddie porn. You can see it in Hit Girl’s outfit when she cons her way past security guards—white blouse, hair in pigtails, short tartan skirt—and in the winsome way that she pleads to be inculcated into grownup excess. That pleading is the dream of every pedophile, and I wonder if Goldman paused to examine her contribution to the myth. (Note what the script does with mothers: Dave’s expires at the breakfast table, causing no blip in the rhythm of his life, and Hit Girl’s was dead before she was born. Thus is any trace of tenderness expunged before our tale begins.) Goldman would presumably say that it is violence, not sex, that our pre-teen heroine learns, but that is a cowardly distinction—although, to be fair, it is a cowardice shared by everyone from the M.P.A.A. down. “Kick-Ass” is rated R, which means that adults are free to take children to watch a child hurting adults: a neatly wrapped package, like “Home Alone” on growth hormones. The standard defense of such material is that we are watching “cartoon violence,” but, when filmmakers nudge a child into viewing savagery as slapstick, are we not allowing them to do what we condemn in the pornographer—that is, to coarsen and inflame?

I should note that I will definitely ask [my friend], as he is the father of a nine year old.

Well, before I start, I’d like to point out the obvious: I’m going to be talking about pornography, violence, and children as both perpetrators and victims of violence. I’m going to talk about school violence and violence in other areas of life. I’m going to talk about what I think is a spurious link to child pornography. If any of these things bother you, well, you’ve been warned.

Now, back to the quote above: that’s a pretty long quotation to respond to,and I think it’s important to actually pull out the objections and note them each, one by one.

  1. Hit-Girl is essentially sexualized — and as a child, is kiddie-porn sexualized — in the presentation she receives in the movie,  especially in being dressed in a stylized sort of schoolgirl uniform.
  2. The absence of mothers from Kick-Ass is problematic and somehow linked to child pornography because of a lack of tenderness this absence guarantees.
  3. Violence and sex should be conflated, as should pornography and violent film; not to do so is cowardice.  The MPAA should be more courageous in conflating sex and violence, and restricting cinematic access of both to children who are able to steal, download, or otherwise see movies outside of cinemas.
  4. Whatever one thinks of violence in film, children harming adults is, whatever the circumstances, something that ought to be verboten.
  5. Pornography and violence in film both have a demonstrably negative influence on the viewer, especially when the viewer is a child.

I think those are the major arguments that are embedded in that meandering, sloppy paragraph.

So let’s begin with:

Number 1. Hit-Girl, in being dressed for example in a stylized schoolgirl uniform, is being sexualized. I will refer, later on and ion the context of violence in film and its influence on viewers, to a talk by Steven Pinker, but I’ll steal his point ahead of time and say that one of the reasons anyone in the world could notice and be indignant about this at all — ambiguous and subjective as I think it is — is because things have gotten so much better in terms of what we used to mean when we talked about the sexualization of women in media.

When women were sexualized in films in the past, this was not simply a straightforward case of women being presented as sexual beings, for after all, women are, for the most part, sexual beings. So are men, and in their way, so are children.

(This last point is a fact that the critic above probably would view with indignation, so allow me to simply note that I’m not equating the sexuality of children and adults. Anyone who’s been around a little kid knows when he or she has discovered what happens when his or her naughty bits get rubbed. I agree with the critic that the idea of kids “wanting sex” with adults is purely the fantasy of sick people… most of the time, and depending on your definition of “kids.” (Dave Lizewski’s sexual fantasies about his teacher are, on the other hand, quite plausible.))

My point was, the sexualization of women in film is not simply an issue of their being presented as sexual beings. Many female celebrities who arguably don’t have to do so, choose to present themselves as sexual beings, or make no secret of their sexual nature — indeed, many feel a woman being able to express this side of herself publicly represents an important step forward for women.

(Yes, yes, children aren’t women. Bear with me.)

Rather, the issue has been with the way that so many female characters have traditionally been presented primarily, or solely, as mere sex objects for male characters to use and discard, a type of misrepresentation which constitutes, for many, a sense of degradation.

One very sensible response to all of this comes from my critique of the critique of a fellow blogger in Korea, James Turnbull, on the issue of The Wonder Girls, a Korean girl-group presented in a sexualized fashion in many of their videos and appearances in media. My complete post is here, and there are points that are not pertinent here, but one argument is pertinent.

It is the recognition that objections to depicting the sexuality of young people — not in a pornographic sense, but rather in the sense of puritanically insisting on wholly desexualizing young people under the age of 18 — is also a misrepresentation, and one that stands to be quite confusing for young people.

This is, of course, all taking for granted the idea that school uniform-like outfits inherently sexualize girls. If that’s the case, well, I have to say, where I live, most school-aged girls wear uniforms of some kind. This doesn’t seem necessarily to summon up porno-movie fantasizing for most men I know here. In fact, you basically see schoolgirls in uniforms as one of the noisy groups of people who wander around, taking the subway or bus. Real schoolgirls in school uniforms? Apologies to Atom Egoyan (yawn) and the Japanese porn industry, but there’s nothing really sexual about that, not even when someone puts them to a lovesong soundtrack. The video below pretty much is what the kids look like on the street.

But then, in Korea, most school-aged boys also go about in uniforms. When I see kids in these uniforms, I mostly feel bad for them since girls often seem stuck wearing skirts even on cold winter days, and kids of both sexes often seem not to have proper jackets on either when they are wearing their uniform jackets. (Fashion is, I guess, hell all over the world.)

Well, that, and of course the fact that being forced to conform in uniforms is just another way kids are forced to conform — something that Daniel Gilbert in fact points out, in Stumbling on Happiness, is something that human beings instinctively dislike doing. (We want to conform generally, but being exactly the same actually causes us very mild distress, if I remember right.)

But in fact, lots of people wear costumes as part of their everyday lives: business suits — very often black ones — are only the start of it. More than one Korean I know who’s spent time abroad has commented, on returning, that your average agashi (a young Korean women) approaches fashion in a way reminiscent of a uniform — in a given season, almost everyone ends up wearing the same sort of thing, like high leather boots or short skirts, or “dress shorts” or whatever.

I know, I know, I’m talking about Korea, and not about America — where, however, discussions of school uniforms are not absent, remember, and school uniforms are not quite extinct, especially in places like New York City where the film is set.

But one of the major points that the critic seems to be missing is that the theme of costumes and their role in the conscious and selective performance of identity runs throughout the film. Dave cannot be Kick-Ass without his green wetsuit. Big Daddy isn’t Big Daddy until he’s taped on those bits of extra mustache hair, painted the black spots around his eyes, and donned the costume itself. Hit Girl has a uniform of her own, too, and self-consciously plays a role. If it is a role imposed on her, it is no less imposed than the roles imposed upon all of us by social expectation, education, and so on. And when Hit Girl dons the uniform, it’s not so she can be abused, as in the pedophile’s fantasy: no, it’s so she can take advantage of the big dumb bad guys — and, maybe, their sick fantasies, but probably just their lack of imagination — to do what needs to get done.

The point being, that our critic’s horror at Hit-Girl’s use of a school-girl costume — because of it’s ostensibly inherent sexuality, which the critic sees as imposed upon her — this reveals a very different imposition upon Mindy and children everywhere that the critic seeks and approves of. That imposition is desexualization, naivete, or, to use a word popular in Korea but quite applicable, “purity.”

The critic, in short, sees Mindy as sexualized primarily because the film fails to desexualize children to the point where they are unable to even perceive sexuality in the obsessions of adults; it fails to infantilize everyone under the age of 18 (or 21). It fails to insist upon the polite fictions to which our critic clings so vehemently, that children cannot, or do not, or should not, have occasional fantasies about doing physical harm to adults who do cruel things to them, or those whom they care about. Little girls are little ladies, who think about little girl things.

And, I think it’s fair to say, this is likely a case of the critic transferring anxieties triggered elsewhere in the film, like when Dave and Katie have sex in an alley, onto this scene.

Here, our critic wants to remind us of that, most energetically: in films, children ought to know their place, so that in the real world, children can learn their place. And in our world, kids have no sexuality or awareness of it until age 18, or 19, or 21, depending on the age of majority where you live.

I hasten to add: this is not a defense of child pornography. This is not a defense of films that actually do sexualize children. But if Mindy is killing two birds with one stone — wearing her schoolgirl uniform not only to trigger the innocence trope in some gangsters’ minds, and the porno trope in more monstrous gangsters’ minds, well — this shows she’s not naive, but she’s also smarter than the grownups. Because those thugs won’t even be able to lay a hand on her anyway, and she knows it.

This is, in short, a case of a vampire calling a mosquito a blood-sucker.

Next time, I’ll beat the crap out of assertion number 2. That comes tomorrow!

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