Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Erika vs Dredd

I feel the need to defend this week's choice first. The idea behind "surprisingly feminist media" is to take the lowest scrape-the-barrel "Hey, this movie is only minimally harmful!" media and analyse its strengths and weaknesses.  Which brings me to said choice of the week: the 2012 Dredd.

Content notes: murder, police violence, threats of sexual violence.

Picture: The title character Dredd in a helmet that covers his eyes, frowning, with flames reflected in his visor.

He makes that face the entire movie and talks like Batman. (The one from the Dark Knight Trilogy, not the perennially wonderful Adam West.) I won't pretend I don't replace half his dialog in my head with "I'M BATMAN" in my head, and it doesn't really change anything. It's wonderful.

Dredd is a movie is set in a post-apocalyptic world where humanity has built one giant mega-city (aptly named Mega-City One) and within this giant mega-city are giant apartment buildings (200+ floors). Because these cities are so huge and everything is corrupt and awful because there was some sort of apocalypse the new system of law enforcement is Judges, who are cops, but also juries and executioners. Sounds a bit like a wish fulfillment for some of the cops in the US, doesn't it? Our title character, the fascist Judge Dredd, is given a failed rookie to take with him to evaluate (she is a powerful psychic, which is why, even in a world of hard yes and no, they're testing her anyways). He will be the sole one to decide this, because this world is big on giving cops that sort of power. These two go to investigate a triple homicide in one of the mega blocks and then OH NO THEY'RE TRAPPED AND AN EVIL MOB BOSS HAS LOCKED THE PLACE DOWN AND SET EVERYONE IN THE BUILDING ON TRYING TO MURDER THEM!

If you are looking for an over the top DARK GRITTY ACTION MOVIE with super cheesy dialogue I will gesture emphatically at Dredd for you. (The Husbeast adores this movie, but is quick to point out that Dredd is supposed to be a fascist and they never address that at all. There are no overt politics, although as we're about to dive into, there are some disturbing implicit ones.)

So, the bad: Dredd is kind of racist. The movie, not the character. Maybe the character? He gets very little development so I legitimately can't say (I also know nothing about the comics, if someone else wants to chime in). The Rookie (Anderson) is cast as a pretty white woman:

Pictured: A pretty blond white woman wearing a fair bit of make up
She spends a fair portion of the movie fighting with a black villain in their custody, who (on three separate occasions) threatens her with sexualized violence. Yeah. Awk. In one super unnecessary scene occurring psychically in his head, he twists things to make her perform oral on him, but she quickly twists the 'dream' around on him and, long story short, he pisses himself and she walks away completely victorious. She also doesn't wear a helmet so we can keep seeing her pretty face, although I will give them points for justifying why she doesn't (it interferes with her psychic powers, if you were wondering). The movie is set in a mega-block which we're told has an unemployment rate of 96% and one of the highest crime rates in the area. It has some of the most diverse casting of background characters that I have ever seen, which would be great if this wasn't a building mostly full of criminals and the unemployed. (How can a 96% unemployment rate be sustained? Where do they get their food and other necessities?  They clearly can't be farming or ranching.  Do they steal from other blocks?  Does Mega-City One have a vast and abundant welfare program to go with its murderous ultra-cops?)

It would be nice seeing so many POC in the background if it didn't translate to Dredd and Anderson mowing through dozens of men of color without batting an eye. There are three times that we see hesitation from them: One is Anderson's first kill (a white man), another is a victim of violence (another white man, also Anderson being the one to hesitate), and the third is when Dredd tries to talk kids away and stuns them instead of shooting to kill (one is black, one is white). This is the only time we find out he has that capacity; it is never used again or mentioned, even when he is running dramatically low on ammunition.  There are a lot of ways in which feminist goals (the health, safety, and freedom of all women, not just the privileged white ones) aren't compatible with a fascist police state that routinely murders people on a whim, but for the sake of this post, we're working within its premise.

(The 'whim' nature of the judges is both highlighted and ignored--Dredd will enter a room with guns blazing and take out four suspected criminals to make a point, but then declare that he won't execute one of the captives on a mere 99% chance they are a murderous drug dealer.)

With all of that said, we get to the reasons that this movie qualified for SFM in the first place! (Did I mention the sweet action scenes and how all of Dredd's lines can be replaced with "I'M BATMAN"? Because I feel that's relevant.)

Also HOLY NONSEXUALIZED FEMALE CHARACTERS BATMAN! Am I making too many Batman jokes in this post? (Do I care?) Nah. There are two major female characters. Ma-Ma (Madeline Madrigal), the head of Ma-Ma Clan, who is a former sex worker who bit the dick off of her pimp and took over his holdings to become the top gang leader in the block. She's known not for being sexy or sultry, but for violence and cruelty. Her first scene is in the bath, and you see nothing. She's in opaque water up to her neck.  The point is instead to show us what the movie's narcotic Slo-Mo feels like to the user--everything is slow and sparkly, and sometimes the movie feels like Twilight if the vampires were perma-violent gun fanatics.  So, SFX porn, but not actual porn!

Then there's the rookie, Anderson. Her uniform is the same as Dredd's. They don't tighten it up or make it more fitted. They don't put her in awkward boobs and butt poses, she moves and behaves like someone who knows what they're doing. She is (and is treated as) competent. The only time we get anything remotely resembling "but ur a girl" is from villains. When Dredd doubts or questions her, it's because he's evaluating her, not because he doubts her for being a woman and (minor spoilers) by the end of the movie Dredd thoroughly relies on and trusts in her.

The movie on a few occasions actively subverts "sexy" tropes. Ma-Ma is a former sex worker but they never feel the need to show her acting "sexy". She isn't hanging out in heels and a cat suit ordering her minions around, we see her in loose shirt and in the war room. We see her taking action, and being the one to hold the knife to people herself. There's a set up for a GIRL FIGHT between Anderson and another woman, which the movie gleefully skips past by having Anderson psychically foresee the ambush and just shoot them down before carrying on her way. Later Anderson gets shot--it looked like a shoulder shot and when I first watched the movie I sighed. Great. Time for some awkward bloody cleavage. (Why bloody women in pain can be considered sexy yet people are so grossed out by periods baffles me.) But then: they don't do it. There are no weird bloody boobs. They unzip her uniform and she's not wearing a basically-see-through white tank top; she's wearing a dark t-shirt, and even though it looked like she got shot in the shoulder it's a gut wound.

Is Dredd groundbreaking in representation or writing? Absolutely not. It's awkward in how it handles it's POC characters (Dredd's boss is a black woman with two brief scenes, and that's about as good as it gets), and never tries to address the fact that it's about a fascist system of murder-cops. But it's a fun action flick that didn't leave me thinking "Why is it so hard to get action movies made with women as people?", which is depressingly rare.  Whatever credit Dredd could be granted doesn't come from displaying empowered women who are 'just as good as men', but by making characters who simply are women while being cops and criminals.  People who aren't written as if 'woman' is a personality trait, and who aren't just there to fuel sex fantasies.

(And yes, from all we've heard, Mad Max: Fury Road will definitely be the subject of an upcoming Surprisingly Feminist Media post.)

As always feedback and further suggestions for this feature are welcome. Tune in next week for more of Will suffering!


  1. If it's anything like the comics, MegaCity One does actually have a vast welfare program, and while Peachtrees is a little above average, the city as a whole does have 90+% unemployment. It's all supported by food vats of some kind, nuclear reactors, and lots of robots that take care of all the essential work and lots of manufacturing. "But wait, if robots can do almost all the work, why isn't this a Federation-style utopia?" you ask? Well, it's because (a) the apocalypse, (b) the city's organization is barely holding together the status quo, let alone improving things, hence the judges, and (c) we are rapidly reaching the point where we are looking at vast robot-induced unemployment but we still demean those who don't work, with right-wing parties barely wanting to give The Poors enough not to starve, if even that, so whoever set up the original pre-nuke system probably didn't want the 80-90% of people who don't really need to do traditional 'work' to be comfortable because then they wouldn't bootstrap or something.

  2. "Her uniform is the same as Dredd's."
    That's interesting, because in the comic, although the uniforms are mostly identical, male judges wear bulky, flat boots, and female judges wear slender boots with (very) high heels for no reason I can fathom.

  3. I love this movie!! I'm very sure that human bodies are used as resources, you see Dredd call for the 'recyc' of corpses in beginning of the movie. I really liked how human they portrayed Kay, he was a criminal most foul but was it was understandable how the world he lived in could mold him into a monster. It would have been easy to make him a one note 'bad guy'. The real villain seems to be the system, even in ma'ma's case. As for the lack of acknowledgment of the fascist system...hopefully they thought the audience would glen that? I mean it is a disopian hellscape.

  4. This might seem like strange suggestion, but how about Reservoir Dogs as a reviewable feature? I've always considered it something of a feminist picture...