Thursday, March 7, 2013

Jack the Lady Killer

I took my kids to see Jack the Giant Slayer yesterday.  I wasn't expecting much, and so the movie didn't disappoint.  Once you got past the predictably weightless CGI monsters, the flatulence humor, and the obligatory endless battle sequence, it even had some good moments (most of them provided by Ewan McGregor's cheekily suave captain of the guard).  My son gave it a 7 out of 10.  I'd have put it a notch or two lower.

There was one regard, however, in which I found the movie rather troubling: its (mis)representation of women.  As has become obligatory in children's fantasy films of these post-feminist backlash days (think Aladdin or Brave), the princess heroine, Isabel, was initially presented as a spunky, irrepressible spitfire: bridling at her father's overbearing care, sneaking out of the palace to attend theatrical displays that poked fun at royalty, and ultimately running away to avoid marrying the odious suitor of her father's choice.  But notably, it is this final act of resistance that gets her into trouble: stopping at Jack's humble cottage while on the lam, she's swept up into giant-ville by the beanstalk that explodes from the hero's basement.  From that moment on, she reverts to stereotypical damsel-in-distress, achieving absolutely zilch on her own and needing to be saved by Jack at least three times (once when she's about to be eaten by giants, once when the beanstalk she's riding crashes to earth, and once when the two-headed giant king pursues her into the mortal realm).  If we read the giants as unlicensed authority figures--and I think we have to read them this way, given the fact that their ambition to supplant the rightful king is thwarted by the magical crown that enables Jack to bend them to his will--then the message seems clear: little girls who defy their daddies' orders end up in the hands of evil men, unless they're lucky enough to have a boyish hero to save (and wed) them.

Jack the Giant Slayer struggles mightily to distance itself from its fairy-tale origins: the tongue-in-cheek humor, the framing device where Jack and Isabel read themselves into the story that eventually unfolds in real life, the off-the-cuff nods to the source material (with golden eggs and singing harps displayed visually but never incorporated into the storyline)--all of these devices suggest that the film wants to be not only a retelling but a deconstruction of "Jack and the Beanstalk."  But the portrayal of its female lead suggests how much of a stranglehold the fairy-tale logic of gender relations still has on our collective consciousness.

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