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Scott Pilgrim vs. the Accusations of Sexism

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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.

paragonNow, 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.

Written by Seb Patrick

September 16th, 2010 at 11:26 am

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7 Responses to 'Scott Pilgrim vs. the Accusations of Sexism'

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  1. After reading the article, it seems to be the kind of review that is deliberately inflamatory to generate internet traffic for a new site and not actually review a movie. Thanks for the comic link though.

    Erd

    16 Sep 10 at 1:25 pm

  2. I’ll toss my hat in the ring here.

    Is the character of Scott Piglrim, sexist? Yes and no. On the one hand, he’s a womanizer, always looking for the next best thing. He dumped Kim, he cheated on Knives, and now he’ll do anything to get Ramona in the sack. But, he’s so stupid that he’d never noticed unless you told him, even then, it would take 5 convoluted volumes to convince him of that.

    My concern isn’t with the character, as much as it is the author. Bryan Lee O’Malley is pretty much Scott, but he doesn’t have the excuse of stupidity on his side when it comes to what he writes. See, the problem doesn’t lie within Scott, as much as it does the way O’Malley writes females. If O’Malley is Scott, than his series is basically his equivalent to fan-fiction about his own life…fan-fiction that’s not very well written.

    O’Malley portrays Scott as stupid, but there’s also a hint of self-deprication. He knows he’s a moron, he knows he’s a loser, but there’s nothing he can do about it. Fine. It’s admirable to show a level of humbleness. But take a look at the females around him, they’re all unhealthy obsessed with him. Even ones who don’t have a romantic link to him, like Stacy or Julie. Stacy has a bit of an excuse, considering she’s his sister, fine, I’ll let that slide, but what about Julie? Why the fuck is she always so concerned with Scott? Why does she consistently have to tell Scott what a loser he is, every time she see’s him? There’s not one panel she’s in where she’s not talking about Scott.

    Which brings up the biggest problem in the series. None on the female characters have a life outside of Scott. We never get to know them, all we know, is that Scott is God. The universe revolves around Scott.

    Let’s start with Ramona. Yes, there are her exes, who she never really interacts with. She’ll give them a line or two, and in Gideon’s case, a couple more, but is it really TELLING use anything about Ramona? No. It’s not. She defined herself as a cold bitch and that’s all we need to know. So why are we rooting for her and Scott to get together? How different would Scott’s life be without the burden of a terrible person like Ramona be? Probably better. She’s simply not a good female lead. If we can’t have an ounce of compassion for her, then why should we root for her?

    She seems to have a decent level of intelligence too…so why is she with Scott? Because the story fucking wills it. O’Malley tricks us into thinking that Scott’s “lovable loser” charm just pulls her in. I don’t buy it…at all.

    Then there’s Knives and while it may be unfair to insult an energetic naive 17-year-old, I’m going to. Just because you’re stuck in a house, studying most of the day, doesn’t mean you’re going to go head over heels for the first loser you see on a bus. But once again, the story wills it, so we’re tricked into believing that there’s some kind of chemistry there, when there’s not.

    I think my biggest gripes in the series lie with Kim Pine. I love Kim, I think she’s a very well-written character, and she has some of the best dialog in the books and the movie. But, why on earth is she letting Scott get to her? She knows he’s an ass, she doesn’t have to see him, but she’s a slave to him. I don’t get it. Why is Scott so popular?

    One of the biggest crimes the story commits is the lesbian kiss between Kim and Knives. In any other case, it wouldn’t bother me, it’s a cute little scene of two girls kissing. However, let’s take a look at this. Why are they kissing? You could say it’s the alcohol, fair enough, but what gets them to kiss is how hot they are for Scott. “I’ve kissed the lips that kissed you”. Classy O’Malley. Seriously, read it again, and you’ll see what I mean.

    I could go on and on, but I really don’t want to type anymore. Scott Pilgrim had the potential to be a fun series, but what it became was the deviantart journal for a guy who thinks pretty highly of himself. Not only that, but it became way to popular

    Gary

    1 Jun 11 at 1:12 am

  3. Analysis going well… interesting… but wait! “Not only that, but it became way to popular” ah, had to ruin it by imposing your superiority by failing to find pleasure in something popular.

    snarks

    5 Aug 11 at 9:36 am

  4. I mis-spoke there, that honestly shouldn’t factor into the analysis. Sometimes I let my personality slip into these things.

    My initial ideas still stand though.

    Gary

    29 Feb 12 at 1:43 am

  5. @Gary
    Not to say you’re completely wrong, but you’re almost completely wrong. I’ll start with the accusation that Scott is sexist. I would say he’s more self-centered. He acts as if women exist to serve him, but he also acts as if men exist to serve him. Witness how he acknowledges his parasitic relationship to Wallace without much of any guilt. This same attribute is what makes Gideon evil, although Gideon has access to greater financial and creative resources (as well as being more motivated), allowing him to do a lot worse. Scott eventually develops a sense of empathy and attempts to atone for his past cruelties. Now, he could still be called sexist for being a womanizer (i.e. treating women as sexual objects to be discarded), but he isn’t. He doesn’t seem to enter relationships for sex, but for emotional purposes. Besides Knives, we can see this in his reaction to Ramona going back on having sex with on their first night together. He declines Lisa even though no one would need to know. He also isn’t “always looking for the next best thing.” He left Kim involuntarily, not in pursuit of some other girl. He and Envy broke up under unclear circumstances, but it seems to have been about Envy’s personality change. He certainly didn’t hop onto some other girl immediately. Even in the case of Knives, he wasn’t on the lookout for someone new.

    Um, next. Brian Lee O’Malley. He isn’t Scott. He’s quite different, really. He’s happily married, he’s highly productive, he’s a well-respected author (even before Volume 1 of Scott Pilgrim, his work was critically acclaimed) and he’s both intelligent and self-aware. He may be taking inspiration from a past version of himself, but Scott’s character growth couldn’t have been written by a person who was still at Scott’s ignorant starting point.

    Alright, on to the women’s supposed unhealthy obsession with Scott. Firstly, I’d like to point out that everyone’s lives seem to revolve around Scott to a certain point, because it’s Scott’s story. Wallace is certainly very supportive of Scott, to a greater degree than most of the women. Stacy gets away with it for obvious familial love reasons, as you pointed out. On to Julie. To start, I’d like to point out that you’re wrong about her never talking about anyone but Scott. There are a ton of panels, and scenes, where she doesn’t. And she always vocally and negatively judges things. She does it to Nat, she does it with Stephen’s songs. She reacts really badly to things not being how she wants them to be. We see the most meddling in cases involving Scott’s private life, because, oh yeah, it’s Scott’s story, so most of the interactions we see involve him. But her anger at Stephen’s song in Book 4 and her desperate attempt to have a hold in the backroom conversation in Book 3 both show it.

    Ramona! I would say that we don’t have to see a lot of Ramona’s interactions with her exes to pick up on her character and life story. The information she provides in other ways is enough. Again, it’s important to remember that this really is Scott’s story, and, with a few exceptions, we know only what he knows. Why are we rooting for them? Well, they seem to have found a way of making each other happy. Their pasts and internal issues frequently disrupt it, but what are we really being asked to root for if not a triumph over those things? Every conflict in the series (except for fighting Mr. Chau) revolves around that theme. Certainly, them being able to make the happiness they find in each other more consistent is something worth supporting. If Scott has a save-the-princess moment, it’s not when he defeats Gideon or anyone else, it’s when he talks Ramona into forgiving and changing herself (just as he forgave and changed himself during the events of his visit to Kim). And would Scott’s life be better without Ramona? I don’t think so. he would either be in the same unfulfilling relationship with Knives, or he would be still hiding from himself and his past. And why does Ramona go for Scott? Besides the ample textual evidence that Scott is noticeably above average in terms of looks (Wallace and several young women comment on this), she has personal reasons. You may have missed them, seeing as you don’t see to have been very perceptive as far as Ramona’s character and history goes, but they are there. Like Scott when he finds Knives, she is on the run from a badly resolved relationship, and she wants something solid to show that the Interregnum is past. She is in an even greater need of this than Scott, because she never even broke up with Gideon, she just left. Scott is attractive, and is very interested in her, and she decides he’s worth a first date. It goes well. Maybe he’s not perfect, but like Scott with Knives, she needs something simple and reliable. That’s part of what makes her an good character. Even as the principal love interest, she’s not in love with the protagonist from the start and she has her own reasons for her actions, not just shallow obsession like what Scott seems to have for her (at least in the beginning). And eventually she falls for him, because he’s attractive, cares about making the relationship work, provides her with a community in her new city, and can make her happy. And apparently she cares for him despite his flaws, because she’s that sort of person. And yeah, the story wills it, but that’s how stories work. The personalities and histories and physical attributes of the characters are chosen to make the story work. It’s also worth noting that a character’s personality is revealed through the story, so unless we the sense of Ramona’s personality that we get is inconsistent with her committing to a relationship with Scott, which it isn’t, being that sort of person is part of her personality.

    Knives! This one is pretty simple. He’s unusually nice (in her first encounter with him, that is), he’s unusually attractive, he’s fairly witty, he has a certain mystique due to being older and in a band and all, and he’s willing to go out with her. What more does a naïve teenage girl need? I don’t think we’re ever tricked into thinking that there’s any chemistry, neither of them ever really interact with the other on an emotional human level. She fosters a deeply inaccurate picture of him in her head instead of discovering and caring for his flawed reality, and he doesn’t care about her except as a symbolic (but not actual) victory over his unresolved Envy problems.

    Kim! I don’t think she’s “a slave” to him. She does have a lot of emotional investment in him, and I think it comes down to the painfully unresolved end to their relationship. As seen with Scott, Gideon, Knives, and Ramona, unresolved endings are a big motivating force in the Scottverse (surely, if we accept physical laws being smashed, we can accept behavioral laws being pushed at a bit, so long as they are pushed equally for all). Before the story begins, she’s the only important person in Scott’s life who isn’t connected to him through college, so she must have made a conscious decision to reenter his life. I’m not saying she sought him out or anything, but she certainly immersed herself in his community after finding him. He was, after all, responsible for some very happy moments in her generally unpleasant life, as well as some exceptionally unhappy ones. I think Scott is to her as Envy is to Scott, in some ways. Yes, she’s more kinder and more forgiving toward him than he might deserve, despite her general dislike of him, but that’s exactly how Scott is with Envy. The main difference is in how the huge blowout of a breakup in Envy’s case versus Scott never even breaking up with Kim at all, and I think that is why she’s still able to be fairly comfortable around him. I’m not saying that she’s a model of feminist strength, but I am saying that she is a genuine character who acts according to a coherent emotional system which is consistent to how other characters act (and, most likely, O’Malley’s perception of the world), and not an inconsistent and self-indulgent piece of sexist wankery. Stephen and Wallace are both also unusually kind and forgiving towards Scott, although he notices less due to his own unresolved feelings about Kim.

    Alright, the kiss. I think it’s fair to say that Knives is kissing Kim partly because of how she feels about Scott (although it’s worth noting that the transitive kiss thing is something Knives has mentioned before, so it’s probably just a thing she thinks about). The conversation that proceeds that statement is about how much they hate boys and how they’re all the same. With Knives, that is about her internal tension regarding Scott, because she’s in insane teenager love with him. But Kim genuinely doesn’t have the hots for Scott anymore. I mean, maybe she does, but assuming that she must is buying into Scott’s inflated idea of himself. She’s just drunk, doesn’t kiss people frequently (I surmise from the boys’ disbelief when she tells them that she has a date), and seems to like kissing. I think that that scene serves mainly to allow Scott to show how people having lives of their own is kind of weird to him. It keeps on coming up in his dialogue; it’s very clear that it shook him. I think it has to do with two women whom he thinks of as being very loyal to him (and thus in his mind romantically interested in him) being intimate with other people. This hits him even harder in Book 6, when he makes advances on all of his ex-girlfriends, and finds that each of them have more complex lives and desires than simply pining for him.

    Johnnyboy

    29 Aug 12 at 8:20 am

  6. All good counter points, sir. Well researched and thought out, but for me it just comes down to difference of opinion.

    Different views I suppose. I simply wanted to throw my ideas out there. Wasn’t trying to make a statement that would rock the fanbase.

    Gary

    16 Oct 12 at 3:33 pm

  7. Also, I can grant you the point that Vol 6 fleshes out the girls more. I will absolutely give you that.

    To be completely honest, I was in a really bad place when writing this.

    Gary

    16 Oct 12 at 3:46 pm

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