Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Tarzan: Gender in the jungle

I was planning to write a thing today about therapy, about depression, about the general malaise and despair that comes from doing the things that are supposed to make you better and seeing no difference and having no idea where to turn to find any alternative, but 1) it was itself hella depressing to write and 2) it went nowhere productive.  Maybe I'll try writing a thing about therapy again some time in the future.  Right now if you want to understand where I'm at mentally just read the first half of Depression Part Two by Allie Brosh (everything before things start to get hopeful) and also this tumblr post by Cliff Pervocracy.

So instead today we are going to talk Tarzan, specifically Disney's Tarzan from 1998 and what it's got for it and against it.  This is actually an oddly appropriate followup to my previous post about Kingsman, because both stories are about men (Manly Men) and the true marks of civilisation, and are unnecessarily white and prevent the women from having any substantial agency in key moments.  (I listed some of my thoughts to the blogqueen over skype, which she summarised as "So, needs more lesbians".  She's not wrong.)

Disney did not shake up the classic Tarzan story in any major way: an English couple suffer a shipwreck somewhere on the massive coast of Africa (no more specific than a whole continent) and do their best to survive before getting killed by a leopard, but their infant son survives to be raised by a passing clan of gorillas.  Years later, more English explorers arrive, leading Tarzan to the shocking discovery that he's not just a pasty hairless gorilla, but another species entirely, he falls in love with Jane, the young woman on the expedition, and they are torn between his jungle home and hers in London.

The movie has some strong points; one that jumped out at me this time was Clayton, the villain, who follows more in the style of Gaston than Scar, Jafar, or Dr Facilier--far from being a fastidious conniver sowing chaos through whispers (like some kind of woman), he's a great burly gun-toting explorer out to take what he wants from the wilderness through right of conquest.  In another time, Clayton would be the intended hero of the story (the writers did this very intentionally--in the original novels, Tarzan's human name was John Clayton).  Instead, he's played here as contemptible from the outset, pointing his gun where it doesn't belong and assuming he can get what he wants by shouting demands.

In a movie that's all about Tarzan trying to figure out his identity, Clayton very quickly sees himself as Tarzan's model for what a man is supposed to be: strong, commanding, and ruthless.  Tarzan's own father-figure, the gorilla Kerchak, is distant and dismissive, which might have made this a compelling possible bond, but Tarzan spends the middle of the movie focused on Jane, who is helping him discover things like written language, astronomy, and erections.  I think maybe my favourite thing about Tarzan's story is that he never does attach himself to a father-figure; his biggest influences are all women (mother Kala, best friend Terk, and love interest Jane).  His most important moments with men are rejections: he refuses to let Kerchak's judgment discourage him, he refuses to operate on Kerchak's principles of defensive xenophobia, and he rejects Clayton's temptation to might-makes-right conquest.  When Clayton's Evil Scheme to capture all the gorillas is inevitably foiled and Tarzan has him at gunpoint, Clayton even goads him to shoot: "Be a man."  Tarzan instead smashes the rifle and declares "Not a man like you" before the forces of plot convenience go to work and Clayton accidentally hangs himself with a vine.  It's not uncommon for Disney to allow the hero to keep their hands clean while still killing the villain (Gaston doesn't even get pushed--he just trips and falls to his death once his role in Beauty and the Beast has been completed).  It's a little less common for the hero's refusal to implicitly be a rejection of white male entitlement as a whole.  So, like, high five on that part, writers.

But on this viewing, what I mostly felt was that Tarzan is a layered story about bigotry and the struggles of mixed identities (from a child's despairing 'why don't I look like everyone else' to an adult's ongoing efforts to not lose either side of himself) which is tragically wasted on a straight white dude.  A white dude with dreads.  (Fellow white people: as you are hopefully aware, our hair doesn't do dreadlocks.  No, the Norse didn't do dreadlocks either.)  This whole movie is white.  The humans are all white (even the unvoiced extras), the gorillas are all voiced by white actors, everyone.  The only character for whom whiteness is arguably an integral part of his character is Clayton, who embodies the colonialist English 'adventurer'--that kind of entitlement is very us.  Our other three significant humans are Tarzan himself (whose parents are also onscreen for the intro song), Jane, and Jane's father, Professor Porter.  None of these people need to be white.

I'm aware that in the original novels (which are deeply racist and stunningly misogynistic, surprising no one) Tarzan turns out to have been an English Viscount, which has largely been a whites-only club for most of history.  (Although the crown was a fan of granting Indian people aristocratic titles under the British Raj.)  But the original novels also don't feature any musical numbers with Rosie O'Donnell, so it's not like we're trying to be that purist, and in this movie, Tarzan's parents don't even get dialogue, let alone backstory, so they could be literally anyone and not impact the story.  Similarly, even if we imagine that only a white Professor Porter would be likely to have the wealth to boat down to Africa to study wildlife, there's no reason his (dead, never-pictured) wife should have to be white as well, and a biracial Jane opens up a whole new connection to Tarzan, who has also grown up with all the joys of being visibly different from his peers.

(Disney isn't exactly known for doing intricate love stories, and this movie as it stands is no exception: Tarzan admires Jane's fieldwork and she's amazed by his expertise in navigating the wilderness, but for the most part they appear to love each other because they're both very pretty and have literally no other viable partners.  It's hard not to wonder whether, five years after the movie, Jane doesn't perhaps raise the subject of making a quick jaunt home to pick up some books and penicillin and clothes not made of skin, especially once she learns that basically all animals can 'talk'.)

Lastly, in a movie about Manly Men Doing Manly Things (not referring to this excellent webcomic of the same name, sadly), how do the women fare?  I've already listed the three named women, all defined by their relation to Tarzan--his mother, his bestie, his ladyfriend.  Kala is a typical Disney mother (caring and understanding in all things) who at least gets to survive the movie.  Jane is primarily a plot object with only one goal (meet the gorillas) who casts aside her entire life up to that point, and any of her prior goals and dreams, to be with her man.  (Any hope of interpreting her choice to live in the jungle as something to do with studying the apes is undercut by her willingness to leave until her father reminds her "But you love him".)  The least stereotypical woman in the cast is Terk, Tarzan's best friend, who tends toward the disruptive, sarcastic, and acerbic, but this ultimately doesn't do much for her agency.  None of her choices really impact the plot--in the moment when she might be most relevant, when Tarzan has decided to leave with Jane but immediately then been captured by Clayton's goons, it's not her loyalty that leads to his rescue--it's the tertiary elephant friend Tantor who overcomes his timidity to reprimand Terk for being emotionally withdrawn and then charges in to save the day.  Narratively, I get why the writers would think this is a good twist--the timid character finally standing up to the heroes is generally good stuff, like Neville facing down the trio in the first Harry Potter--but here it means that Terk's last chance to impact the story is instead handed off to the nearest man and she is a barely-consulted tagalong.

I do like this story as it works for the men and the contrasting manly identities, but stories for men aren't a rare commodity.  I'm aware of one retelling of Tarzan from Jane's perspective, about which I've heard deeply mixed things, and given the dozens upon dozens of Tarzan stories at this point, I think we can do with a few more that maybe ask what kind of person you have to be to leave civilisation behind, charge headlong into the merciless wilds, and decide that this is the place you will feel most at home, with your mighty half-intelligible beast-master husband at your side.  Or wife.  Like we always say here at SS&S: this story could have been about lesbians.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Erika vs The Client List

Due to my meat sack being faulty, I spend a lot of time at home and couch-bound. Which means I spend a lot of time playing Pokemon* and watching Netflix. Despite this I seem to always be behind on things I'm "supposed" to watch, or people are telling me to watch. I also spend a lot of time scrolling through Netflix seeing what's new. This is where I found The Client List. The description caught my eye: single mother turns to sex work and ends up tuned into all of the town's gossip. The last sentence is even "Can this double life lead to a happy ending?" which made me think that this was going to be almost a romcom? A movie about a sex worker taking some agency and maybe getting into some mischief with all she knows about everyone's secrets.

I could not have been more wrong.

The movie opens with Sam and her husband off to the bank to beg for an extension on their mortgage payment since they've fallen on hard times. So already I have been lied to, she's not a single mom. Her own mother swings through to look after their three kids while they're gone, and reminds her daughter that she can and should use her looks to get her way. Which she promptly tries to do, and manages to convince the bank manager to give them the extension with her freakishly perfect memory of the conversation they first had. Still, it's a stall tactic. She and her husband are both desperately searching for jobs when she finds one the next town over at a place searching for massage therapists! Perfect! She's a licensed massage therapist! We all know where this is going. It's not just massages they give. She takes the job ignorantly, walks out when she finds out what they really do, and when she realizes between she and her husband they have a dollar to their name, she slinks back.

The movie spends the rest of its time showing us how morally reprehensible sex work is and how Sam remains sympathetic because she was driven to it out of desperation. We also see that she's very good at her job because she actually talks to and engages with her customers. The movie wastes an excellent opportunity to explore that more, and brushes it over just to explain why she's so popular and is being given lavish gifts by her johns. So, first it's sex work, but she's just running herself so ragged because... uuuuhhhh.... We never actually get a good reason why she can't scale back on her own hours (something we get told very early on she has the option of doing), but we're assured that she's working ever so hard and too much, all for her family! We're shown her just being super tired a lot until she nearly falls asleep at the wheel and one of her johns gives her some coke. Naturally, if you're a sex worker you're also doing coke? She says no at first, but as she struggles to keep up with the demands of motherhood and sex work, starts to use to give herself the extra kick.

Her whole issue boils down to: she needs to scale back at work (which we are given NO reason for her not to be able to do) but refuses to. We're supposed to feel sorry for her as she goes down the "wrong" path but again, I just keep seeing someone who doesn't know how to balance life and work, and I don't know that she wouldn't have gotten into trouble in any job that offered enough hours for her to run herself ragged. We're supposed to assume it's all the sex work being so demanding, but we see her getting up early and getting home late and are told what long hours she's putting in. Her issue isn't that she's a sex worker, it's that she has no work/life/self-care balance.

Eventually things go to total shit and the cops raid the place and she's all over the news. Her husband had no idea what she was doing and this is how he finds out. He takes off with the kids while she and the other girls try to make a plea bargain for less jail time in exchange for a list of their johns (this is where the movie gets its title). Sam, with her perfect memory and excellent rapport with her clients, is able to provide enough to get the sentence from minimum two years to 30 days and a 2 grand fine.  So far the movie has done nothing but say "sex work is bad and will ruin your life". Only after serving her sentence (both jail time and a separation from her husband) and finding her way back to the "right" path (waitressing as she goes back to school to provide for her family "honestly") that she gets her life back and forgiveness from those around her.

This movie is a mess. It nearly goes places and says something a bunch of times but veers from one place to the next too quickly. She at one point admits that she didn't dislike the work, and that she liked the way her clients treated her, but that is all swept aside as part of the reason why she is Bad and Wrong for what she did. Saying "well, it's not what I wanted, but yeah, it wasn't all bad" would have made for a much more nuanced and interesting ending, but no, sex work=bad. Even as she and one of her former co-workers are lamenting the money loss, they both seem to agree it's for the best. At one point her mother apologizes for telling her that her looks would get her everywhere in life, and that she should have fostered the importance of other traits, but that's not really explored either, nor the other ways that message would seriously mess up a kid. Just: yeah, that's part of why she thought this was an okay thing to do. The women go from church to her home at one point to ask her for help since, because their husbands were going to sex workers, they personally felt they were doing something wrong. Nothing around female bonding or forgiveness or the expectation on women to please, or husbands being unfaithful not being the wives' fault, just a cute cut away after Sam grabs some bananas to start giving tips. As far as we can tell, these women all still loathe her, if their response to her apology is any indication. The movie could have been potentially somewhat salvaged if only it had taken some of these scenes just a little bit further. The only consistent messages are "sex work is bad" and "counting on your looks is bad".

I'm disappointed. Not in the movie (okay in the movie too), but in myself for getting my hopes up. I should know better than to hope for, well, anything from mainstream media about sex workers with nuance or substance. I mean, can't have a movie saying that women get into sex work for different reasons, many stay because they like it and it lets them balance finances, work, and life more easily. Or that many balance parenting and their jobs just fine without developing a drug addiction. The other girls Sam works with don't seem to have any of these problems, but that'll never get explored. Just look at how having sex for money destroyed this poor woman's life! Saying anything else might give girls ideas about the choices they might have, or, lord forbid, maybe help to destigmatize sex work so maybe it'll get decriminalized and these women can do their jobs in safer environments! Can't have that. No, better make another movie about a woman ruining her life with it. Again. That's safer. 

*If anyone wants me to add them as a friend just leave your code in the comments. My code is 1993-8573-6315