The question of “How Do I Feminism?” is something the media has grappled with for years. Too often the answer falls into the Strong Female Character, who can punch things really good and is an absolute asshole to everyone until the male Chosen One comes along to surpass her and also melt her stunted heart. While there’s nothing wrong with physical strength, the niggling problem of it all is, of course, diversity. Too often writers (mostly Straight White Men) mistake physical strength for depth and respectful treatment, creating a stopgap that lets themselves pat themselves on the back for their progress without having to actually examine their writing (see also the “writing the exact woman I, the writer, would like to sleep with over and over again” school that your Joss Whedons and Stephen Moffats tend to fall into).
I know that anime is something of a flagging industry in recent years, and there’s been a major upswing in merch and secondary publications to offset that fact, but I draw the line at outsourcing the emotional bond that theoretically drives the plot. And the names and characterizations of several secondary cast members. And any but the most bare-bones plot revelations necessary to keep the plot moving. I was really burned by K, is what I’m saying.
C’mere internet, I need to explain a thing
It’s my own fault in some ways, as someone who’s continually looking for a repeat of the perfect guilty pleasure high that was Descendants of Darkness despite knowing how rarely supernatural pretty people fests can handle their one-cour runs. And years of keeping up with the gaming community have trained me to expect being nickel-and-dimed for content (the most egregious example being we’re-not-a-MMORPG-we-swear Destiny, whose approach to plot best is summed up as “I don’t even have time to explain why I don’t have time to explain this to you”). In fact, a lot of series I love commonly practice the release of world-building material and character tidbits outside the main story (see: Pacific Rim and Tiger & Bunny, among others). I can even, now and then, get behind the idea that additional content (paid or in some other way specially acquired) is a way for fans to invest more deeply in the show or to return to a story that had reached its conclusion. When you need a roadmap to decode what’s going on as it’s airing, we need to have a talk.
There are few things so hellish for a grownup as writing a convincing young protagonist. There’s the line between making them too cloying or too foul mouthed, too dumb or too much like tiny adults in child suits, never mind actually getting within spitting distance of believable character arcs. And in the maelstrom of figuring out how to capture how kids act, it’s easy to forget how often those same kids look to fiction to figure out how to act themselves.
Before we go any further, two points. Firstly, no, not every character created ever needs to be a capital letters Role Model. The best fictional characters are flawed in relatable ways, but with merits that outweigh their weaknesses. That being said, where you put those strengths and weaknesses can have a more potent effect than one realizes, especially for an audience that isn’t yet adept at parsing the finer nuances of media.
It is not an infrequent barb thrown by Evangelion’s detractors that the show is needlessly bleak, or pointlessly cruel. And when I hear that I laugh and laugh, not because it’s untrue (though I’d argue it is) but because those people have clearly never sat through a Lars Von Trier movie. Those lucky bastards.
Actual photo of my expression post-Von Trier
At any rate, let’s draw a distinction between a story that explores bleak themes and a story whose philosophy itself is bleak. The former might put its characters through hell, and it might not even have an ending that we’d necessarily call happy (at least in any conventional sense). But it’s structured in such a way that the audience is meant to learn something positive from it. A bleak philosophy, by contrast, exists merely to point a camera at violent, dark, or distressing subjects for their own sake. The difference between handing someone in a shovel to clean up dog poop and tripping them so that they fall in it, you might say.
Hey, remember when I said that Dreamworks had risen above deserving kudos for pleasant mediocrity? I did not think we’d be returning to that comment so soon, but then I ended up going to the movies this weekend.
Last week I spent a good deal of time lauding quite justifiable praise onto How to Train Your Dragon for its tightly plotted story and believable world inhabited by likable characters. Its sequel…does not get the same lofty position in this little comparative game. But! Despite what might seem like the intuitive choice, we’re not going to measure How to Train Your Dragon 2 against its predecessor. Same world aside, sequels have a different burden of expectation upon them. Only another sequel will do. Let’s bring out the pandas.
Once in a while, though not often, the onus of friendship and previously poorly chosen viewing material leads me to the position of watching a movie that would not be tops on my viewing list. In this case it was The Croods (a Dreamworks picture about a prehistoric family, heavy on the ‘dad learns to let daughter live her own life’ theme), and I was probably still making up for the weaker episodes of Samurai Flamenco. And in both Film Friend (who is often quite skilled in the choosing of entertainment) and the movie’s defense, it was hardly the excruciating experience I was expecting: there was probably enough energetic creativity, earnestness, and gorgeous visuals to fill a strong 30-40 minute short film (tragically, the actual running time is 90 minutes). And it certainly didn’t leave me in the same excruciating pain as Shark Tale.
But ever since How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda, Dreamworks doesn’t get a pass on pleasantly mediocre, and so I found myself trying to reverse engineer the little niggling bothers that kept jabbing at me. And thus my thoughts kept coming around to two factors: one more specific to stories that write from a strong POV, and the other possible anywhere but particularly relevant to comedies and animation.