Hopefully you’ll forgive us for continuing to talk about Scott Pilgrim when we claimed we were done with it – but there’s an aspect of the film, an interpretation of it, that seems to be gathering some weight, and it’s one that both James and I consider worth addressing. An obvious example of it has come from the recently-launched pop culture blog re/action – and it’s my intent to respond here to this review by Jen Patton (I’d have done so in the comments there, but… it’s a Tumblr, so readers can’t actually comment on articles).
This is a little long, and if it comes off as a sustained attack on Jen specifically, I apologise; her article is an example of this argument rather than the only one. But as someone who identifies pretty strongly as feminist myself, I think there are far more deserving targets for ire than this film. At the very least it deserves a shot at a general rebuttal to that accusation, and specifically responding to Jen’s points – whether you agree with me or not – is designed to serve as one.
The thrust of the argument goes like this: Scott Pilgrim is a story about a guy who fights a girl’s ex-boyfriends in order to “win” her, like a “prize” or “pet”. And that that story is inherently sexist.
Now, I don’t disagree with the latter in principle – but I disagree strongly with the former, as I consider it to be an overly simplistic and in places downright inaccurate reading of what Scott Pilgrim is actually all about. More than anything, it seems to miss the fundamental point that the most obvious interpretation of the film (and book) is that the seven evil exes are a metaphor for the emotional baggage that comes with any new relationship – and that “defeating” the exes is equivalent to overcoming that. While it’s generally open to interpretation, the “it’s all happening in Scott’s head” angle is really the only way of looking at Scott Pilgrim that makes sense – otherwise, well, questions of sexism surely take a backseat to wondering why serial killer Scott hasn’t been arrested yet.
This would seem, to me, to address a number of the queries that I’ve seen raised over the plot’s apparent imbalance towards Scott’s confronting of Ramona’s exes (as opposed to anyone fighting his), as Patton herself asks:
Yet the landscape is strewn with Scott’s exes, both ones we know and those we hear of, and no-one is expected to confront them, Scott the least of all.
The simple answer to this, of course, is that the story is told from Scott’s perspective – it’s why the entire world of the film is viewed through this filter of video-game-ness – and so it’s about him defeating Ramona‘s baggage. If the story were being told through anyone else’s eyes, it would look very different; I’m put in mind of the way Neil Gaiman described people’s reaction to the character of Desire – the closest Sandman comes to an outright villain – in as much as if the comic had been about him/her, then Dream would have been the bad guy. It’s all about perspective. In fact, Wright has even said as much in interviews: “Stills and Kim have a different version of this film playing that’s more like an Almost Famous sort of version, where Sex Bob-Omb rise through the ranks.”
Patton also takes issue with the idea that Ramona is the “prize” to be won at the end of Scott’s fighting:
Ramona is, from the very beginning, portrayed as an object; literally she is the girl of Scott’s dreams which he has to get. Once he stalks and cajoles her into dating him, he learns that she has to be won like a prize by fighting her seven exes. If he loses? Well, she becomes someone else’s girlfriend…or is that Gideon’s pet? She has no agency or will of her own; she does not control her future or, it seems, her past.
… but again, there are multiple ways of looking at this. Firstly, if you’re accepting of the fact that the film is rooted in videogame tropes, then Ramona is – quite simply – the “princess“. You may not like it, but it’s an established trope that is an unavoidable aspect of the 8/16-bit eras upon which Scott Pilgrim draws for the bulk of its aesthetic. Criticising it for accurately playing to the correct trope would be like criticising The Princess Bride for much the same thing. Again – this is the world through Scott’s eyes. And his way of processing the events in his life is to view Ramona in that way. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with the notion of Ramona as a “prize” – Scott’s the hero, but it doesn’t always make him right, and it doesn’t mean that the writer/director are endorsing every opinion or perspective of his.
I’ll admit (in fact, I’ve already said) that there’s something slightly discomforting about the way Ramona just stands there for much of the climactic fight – but she does have a hand (or, rather, a knee) in helping to defeat Gideon; and indeed, to suggest that all the film’s female characters are models of passivity would of course ignore the significant role that Knives plays in that final fight.
The other misconception that Patton seems to be labouring under is that it’s the film’s world’s rules that enable Gideon to control Ramona. It’s not, though. Gideon’s cheating. He’s controlling Ramona through a chip in her head. Because he’s the baddie. Nowhere does the film say “If Scott fails to defeat the exes, Ramona defaults back to belonging to Gideon” – or if it does, it’s only because Gideon’s broken the rules. You can’t criticise the film’s morality or message based on the actions of someone who’s specifically acting contrary to it.
There are other remarks in the review, too, that I feel are worth responding to. First of all:
Scott also leaves his exes worse for wear – he turned sweet Knives into a neurotic obsessive and Kim (Alison Pill) into a bitter shell, as he barely takes responsibility for leaving them without a second thought. Yet Ramona, who seems to have ended her relationships legitimately, has somehow turned everyone she ever dated evil? Doesn’t seem fair!
Multiple things to pick up on here, really. Firstly, “neurotic obsessive” seems a little harsh when describing Knives, an easily-excitable teenager – and it also ignores the fact that actually, she comes out of her experience with Scott somewhat matured (if anything, Knives has by far the strongest character arc of anybody in the book or film). Meanwhile, Kim’s relationship with Scott is given only a couple of cursory mentions in the film, so it’s a bit of a leap to suggest that it’s responsible for her entire attitude and demeanour based on those almost-throwaway lines – there’s no evidence to suggest that she wasn’t always sullen and sardonic.
And did Ramona really “end her relationships legitimately?” The film even makes point out of her having ditched Lucas for Todd (“It wasn’t very nice, but I used to be… like that”), and although we’re not given the story behind her having dated the twins at the same time, that presumably wasn’t hugely positive either. And I’m not sure where the film suggests that she turned any of the exes evil, either – they each exhibit traits that suggest they were fairly evil enough before she came along. None of this is really major when it comes to the main argument – but they seem indicative of an effort (conscious or otherwise) to twist the film’s narrative to fit an “it treats the female characters badly” interpretation.
Patton goes on to discuss the Roxy fight – unsurprisingly, as if you’re going to call any aspect of the film troublesome, it’s probably that one, a scenario dealt with (sadly, given the excellence of Mae Whitman) significantly less effectively than in the book. But again, Patton is criticising the film for Scott’s inability to cope with the idea of Ramona’s past same-sex relationship. It’s an important distinction to draw – Scott is an emotionally immature 22-year old guy, of course his reaction is one of surprise and bewilderment. It doesn’t mean the film is actively saying “Same-sex relationships don’t count”.
I don’t hugely disagree, though, with the notion that the Roxy fight could have been ended in a better way than in her being destroyed by having an orgasm (if nothing else… well, why hasn’t it happened to her before?); but this point is taken to an extreme in perhaps the most contentious moment in Patton’s review:
Female sexuality is seen as something that should be defeated, and is ultimately the downfall of virtually every woman in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
Er, what? I simply don’t see how the line is drawn from “one of the fights ends with a sex-related defeat” to “female sexuality is seen as something that should be defeated”. And is it “ultimately the downfall of virtually every woman”? Really? There’s Roxy, yes – but is there a single other character this would apply to? The only one I can even think of who has any kind of “downfall” is Envy, and in that instance it’s caused not by “female sexuality” but by her rejection of her own personality and character in favour of a cold rock star facade (admittedly the film doesn’t deal with this in as much depth as the books, but the “No-one calls me Natalie any more” line is at least a nod to it).
I’m not going to claim that Scott Pilgrim is a treatise on the virtues of feminism, because it isn’t. It’s also, yes, quite a “male” film in its outlook and appeal (although I know plenty of women who’ve enjoyed it very much). In that sense, it’s clearly not the film that Jen Patton was looking for, and doesn’t really do much to fulfil the stated desire of the re/action writers to see more films that break away from going after the standard “WHM” market. And that’s a shame. But to accuse it of actively mistreating its female characters, of having an “ideology” that is fundamentally sexist – well, I think that’s doing Wright, O’Malley, Bacall and their film a grave disservice.