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There's No Excuse For Misogyny In Space

Posted on Monday September 2, 2013, 17:40 by Helen O'Hara in Empire States
There's No Excuse For Misogyny In Space

It is a truism and a truth that science-fiction reflects the norms of the time in which it is written more than it accurately predicts the future. For every Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov story that correctly envisaged some future piece of technology, there are ten that feature antediluvian attitudes to women and patronising (at best) sexism. The original series of Star Trek, justifiably lauded for its multiracial cast and forward-thinking parables, still couldn’t quite stomach a female First Officer (she was jettisoned after the pilot) and put its women in secondary roles as nurses and communication officers. But that was then. It’s 50 years later, and here we are, still struggling with science-fiction that envisages a future where women just aren’t good enough to lead men.

Some of this admittedly results from the fact that many of our biggest blockbusters are based on 50 year-old characters and properties. Adapt Star Trek and you’re going to have too many dicks on the Enterprise. Theoretically, you could follow Battlestar Galactica’s excellent example and gender-swap a character or two, but with the numbers and fanaticism of the Star Trek fanbase and most comic-book properties (for example), that is probably too much to hope for. Still, let’s be clear: if you are creating original characters in 2013 for an original film set in the future you have absolutely no excuse for misogyny.

Exhibit A of what NOT to do is handily provided by this year’s Riddick (Spoilers follow, at length). There’s only one returning character here, aside from a brief Karl Urban cameo as Vaako, and that’s Vin Diesel’s Richard B. Riddick. Every other speaking character is up for grabs – and the result is the addition of two women with speaking parts and ten men. One of these women is unnamed; she’s a presumable abductee and multiple rape victim who is introduced in chains and shot almost immediately afterwards in a moment designed to give Riddick a reason to be angry at some newly-arrived mercenaries. The other is a kick-ass mercenary played by Battlestar’s Katee Sackhoff – and it’s around her that the film’s most problematic issues collide.

“More problematic than the fridging of a woman early on?” some of you may ask. “What’s fridging?” interject the rest. Well, it’s named after a Green Lantern storyline and describes a situation where Our Hero returns home one night to find his girlfriend murdered and stuffed in the fridge by a villain whose purpose is to provoke and hurt Our Hero. So 'fridging' refers to the death, injury, kidnapping, torture or rape of a (usually female) character solely or principally to hurt a (usually male) character. It’s endemic in pop culture from high to low: virtually every Christopher Nolan film ‘fridges’ a woman so his male heroes can feel something without compromising their manliness. And before you ask, it’s vastly more common for women to be killed this way than male characters. So when that nameless abductee is killed here – soon after another scene where four other nameless, naked women coil sinuously on a bed for Riddick’s amusement and the male audience’s titillation – it was, sadly, not particularly shocking and might have gone unremarked as just par for the sexist course.

What is shocking was the way they treat Sackhoff’s Dahl (pronounced like “Doll”, which is probably not coincidental). Sackhoff is something of a heroine to anyone with a brain: she played Starbuck in the great recent Battlestar Galactica series and was a huge part of the show’s success. Her Starbuck went beyond the usual “strong female character” into largely uncharted territory for women. Kara “Starbuck” Thrace was a hard-living fighter-pilot jock but also an emotional mess, a devoted friend and daughter-figure who also screwed up relationships on a regular basis. She went beyond the usual strong-female-character tropes and proved herself a complex and cool individual (even if we still don’t get that ending). Sackhoff also provided one of the eloquent and intelligent voices at this year’s Women Who Kick Ass panel at Comic-Con, discussing the need for more and more interesting roles for women in cinema. So it was particularly galling to see what happened to her character onscreen.

Let’s unpack it a little. We’re introduced to Dahl as a member of the slightly less awful of the two mercenary teams that land on a remote and inhospitable planet when Riddick triggers an emergency beacon there. Her crew, led by Matt Nable’s Boss Johns, wears a quasi-uniform and comes well-equipped for both the planet and the hunt for Riddick. Dahl is second-in-command, a sharp shooter and fierce fighter. When Santana, the leader of the other crew (the one that kept that unnamed woman for amusement and then killed her) hits on Dahl, she calmly informs him that “I don’t fuck guys”. Now let’s give the film the benefit of the doubt here: given later events, perhaps she’s lying. Maybe this is just a ruse to stop men hitting on her in a creepy and annoying manner. So we’re positing a future where men still hit on women in a grotesque and aggressive way, and women lie to try to get rid of them. But at least Jordi Molla’s Santana is clearly a bad man, so his behaviour doesn’t necessarily hold true for everyone. In any case, Santana continues to show disrespect and aggression towards Dahl purely on the basis of her gender, and she has to beat him up to assert her authority.

And we’re not done. There’s a breathtakingly gratuitous tit-shot when Dahl has a quick wash, during which Riddick lurks outside the window and looks, at one point, like he’s about to grab her (he’s actually going for her make-up case, for reasons too convoluted to get into).

But we’re still not done. Santana later attempts to rape Dahl and she again resorts to physical violence to keep him in line. Now as well as this being yet another reaffirmation of the problematic strong-female-characters trope discussed at the link above, this is also clearly meant to show Santana’s limitations. He is not portrayed as a seriously scary character after this point; being beaten up by Dahl twice is clearly intended to show that he’s not that tough, not that scary, compared to the mighty Riddick or even Johns. Dahl's two fights with Santana are a fulcrum around which Santana shifts from being principal bad guy to minor threat, and sure enough he’s killed off soon after. In this universe, if a woman can beat you, you’re not good enough to play with the men.

During the same speech where a chained Riddick announces that Santana will be dead within five seconds of Riddick being unchained (a promise he dutifully keeps), he also announces that he’s going to “go balls deep” in Dahl later “but only after she asks me, really pretty like”. Now, even assuming that Dahl was lying about being a lesbian earlier (and the only reason to assume that is in an attempt to give the film the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s not actively homophobic), this is a pretty outrageous statement on Riddick’s part. He’s just met this professional mercenary and didn’t bother having a conversation with her or interacting in any way that wasn’t creepy stalking before making this prediction of future events. Suddenly Riddick’s gone all rapey. After two and a half films of not getting any onscreen* Riddick must prove he is not The Gay (in the words of The Transporter) – and it seems the only way he knows how to do that is by being a total dick.

But worse is still to come. The film’s climax sees a cornered Riddick, atop a mountain, being rescued by Johns and Dahl; she’s lowered by a winch from a hovering ship and straddles Riddick (who immediately grabs her ass) to attach a harness around him. Then she says, as they’re lifted back to the ship, “I have something to ask you, real pretty like...” while smiling at him. As he flies off in his own ship at some point soon afterwards, he tells Johns, “Tell Dahl to keep ‘er warm for me”, and the clear impression is that this mercenary who “doesn’t fuck guys” does, if it's Riddick.

So if we take Dahl at her word, we’re in the territory of that most obnoxious and homophobic of tropes, the lesbian who is ‘cured’ by a manly man. If we assume she was lying to begin with, then we have the most obnoxious pick-up routine by a film’s lead since Pepe le Pew left screens. And any way you look at the film, Riddick envisages a future where women are objectified and treated as unworthy of authority by men.

“But the future doesn’t have to be a utopia!” you may object. “It’s just as valid to imagine a dark, almost medieval future like this, a future where might is right and only the strong prosper.” Well, first of all it’s pretty ahistoric to imagine that the future will be in any way medieval. The wonderful thing about history is that its general drift is towards more equality, more fairness and more opportunity. The wonderful thing about technology is that it tends to shift power away from elites and into the hands of the masses – and away from the physically strong and into the hands of everyone. The last millennium has seen humanity gradually cast off absolute monarchies and the feudal economy; we’ve begun to step away from racism and sectarianism (and the more corrosive effects of religion) and homophobia and, yes, sexism. It shows a paucity of imagination to simply transpose our already-outdated gender attitudes onto the future. The point is not to imagine a future utopia. It’s to imagine a future with anything approaching a brain.

What’s more, try to envisage, for a moment, a major star appearing in a science-fiction film about an openly, breathtakingly anti-semitic or racist future where that was not an issue. Try to imagine a film where our anti-hero (because Riddick's an anti-hero, not a full-on villain; he's only ever been described as a sociopath by his enemies) actively engages in this racism or anti-semitism and expects to retain the audience's sympathies. Riddick is not trying to make any particular point about sexism (or if it is, it entirely fails). The fact that women are subject to contempt, attack and rape in this universe is not even worth discussing; it’s just window-dressing. Women are raped, killed, attacked and harassed purely for the viewer’s titillation and Riddick’s character building, and it seems that no one involved, at any stage, has suggested that this might be a bad idea. It’s grotesque.

This is particularly galling when you consider that Pitch Black actually had pretty decent female characters. Radha Mitchell’s guilt-stricken pilot, Rhiana Griffith’s punchy stowaway and Claudia Black’s capable miner were all at least a little nuanced and treated as human beings. Griffith’s cross-dressing seems less like an attempt to avoid sexual assault and more like an attempt to avoid discovery after she runs away, and none of them are defined solely by gender. Heck, the film was told through the eyes of Mitchell's Fry rather than Riddick. Even Chronicles Of Riddick had the Lady Macbeth-alike Dame Vaako and the ethereal Aereon. As a consort and an angel the pair were, arguably, a step back from the first film, but hardly the devolutionary quantum leap that this one proves.

This film, more than either previous Riddick effort, feels like it’s grounded in the arrested mentality of a 13 year-old videogame aficionado who is obsessed with tits but doesn’t speak to people who own them. The aesthetic is pure game, all muscly men with improbably large guns shooting indiscriminately at endless beasties. That alone is actually fine, but there’s no inherent need to treat women like shit in order to communicate that. And if this is designed to appeal to 13 year-olds, what sort of screwed-up attitude to women is the film trying to encourage among teenage boys?

What is really infuriating about this whole thing is that Pitch Black was a good film, The Chronicles Of Riddick was a noble failure and Riddick was a quite enjoyable romp right up until it all went misogynist. Look, I know that film schools actively tell student screenwriters not to write films that pass the Bechdel test and there’s a whole book for another time on the utter failure of empathy on the part of male viewers, generally, towards female characters onscreen. Under-representation of women onscreen is a huge issue and an infuriating one, but the problems here go far beyond that. There just isn’t any excuse for this level of casual misogyny and homophobia, particularly in science fiction, because it is plain evil to assume that the current levels of sexism will endure and even get worse over the next few millenia. To misquote the creepy Nazi kid from Cabaret, tomorrow belongs to us too.

* Off-screen, it’s implied that he has his run of the Necromonger women, but that any of them could be an assassin so maybe he had a reason to abstain.

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1 Pineapples101
Posted on Tuesday September 3, 2013, 11:15
Wait... Your saying that Katee Sackhoff gets her tits out... on screen?!?!?
F@ck your review - I just bought a ticket!

2 gambit21
Posted on Tuesday September 3, 2013, 12:13
I haven't seen the film but this is a great article. I had heard that Riddick was terribly sexist but since I haven't seen it I had no idea how bad it was.
What is most annoying is that science fiction is one of the few places where writers and filmmakers can really push the boundaries against such sexism and put forward visions of the future that are more egalitarian.
I would say that although history does tend towards more equal societies as you say - there are blips along the way, the dark ages post Roman Empire, WWII, etc. So giving the film the benefit of the doubt again, perhaps Riddick's world is set in such a blip - its does seem unlikely though. Hollywood in general is slowly starting to realise that there is a female audience out there but until it (and we) can get over these stupid tropes this sort of filmmaking will continue.
The best example I can think of in recent years to avoid some of these mistakes would be Firefly/Serenity, and again as you say Battlestar.

3 xzynomorpher
Posted on Tuesday September 3, 2013, 15:28
Wow, I know that Hollywood isn't generally seen as the most progressive of institutions when it comes to this matter, but this movie sounds terrible!

I honestly thought we were at least done with the whole 'one token female' thing and I can only hope that this is part of the final wave in that regard.

Can't wait to here you discuss this in the podcast.

4 OrganicLifeform
Posted on Tuesday September 3, 2013, 16:38
Great article, Helen. What I find curious is the fact that Katee Sackhoff took the role, regarding her stance on 'kick ass women'. Sure: people need a paycheck every now and then, but this sounds like a movie with a very sexist (and sadly mainstream) sensibility towards women, something Sackhoff has spoken out against, if I read correctly. Could Empire perhaps pick Sackhoff's brain about this?

Sidenote: I was really surprised reading your article, since the trailer made Dahl come off as a badass mercenary chick... which I guess is another male fantasy, if there's really no character to speak off and she just needs to look pretty.

5 pythonlove
Posted on Tuesday September 3, 2013, 17:21
Well, I have yet to see the movie so I have no idea how accurate you are in your description. It certainly sounds a bit creepy. But I have to wonder if the heroine was actually a powerful man-loving sex-loving villainess who somehow betrays our lead character...if you wouldn't have called that sexist as well? The female movie fans I know who view everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, through a feminist lens are remarkably agile at twisting any plot into misogyny. Stronger female characters make better, more intriguing stories, but if female characters are made into saints and sanitized at every turn...that's boring, unrealistic, and condescending. I also don't believe a bare breast or any nudity for that matter is misogynistic. Women don't feel the need to apologize for swarming to Magic Mike or Twilight for bare chests, why should men apologize for their attraction to hot women?

You may be right on this movie, I don't know yet, but I think this wider trend of neo-feminist outrage at every movie that handles the war of the sexes with a little grit and adult gray area is dangerous. It's actually quite BAD for storytelling because it makes writers censor themselves, like I say it makes stories boring and predictable, and worst of all, it might make writers scared to even write female characters at all. Why ask for trouble when that character's every action, word, and piece of clothing will be scrutinized for some sort of insult or "statement"?

6 Helen OHara
Posted on Tuesday September 3, 2013, 17:36
Wow, pythonlove. Well, first up I don't have any problem with female baddies, if well-drawn (see Dredd, for instance). I am not "twisting" anything into misogyny here, and you might want to consider that those female movie fans might have a legitimate point in a world where women make up 50% of the audience and less than 30% of speaking characters overall. No one's asking for saints or even "strong" female characters (check the link above); just well-drawn and varied characters. You'll also notice that I didn't make a big deal about the gratuitous boob shot here, and I would additionally point out that naked upper halves carry different connotations for men and women, so a naked torso is not of equal value for both sexes.

My problem with this film is that it does not handle the "war of the sexes" (what a way to look at humanity) at all, and that it has no grey area. Writers are already censoring themselves and not writing female characters, but it's not because they're scared of the "neo-feminists" (same old feminists, just with twitter). A lot of the time they're not writing female characters because they don't care about women.

7 zeeblebum
Posted on Tuesday September 3, 2013, 19:05
pythonlove - Your whole comment could be summarised as, "I'm not sexist or misogynistic, but..."

It's telling that you are predisposed towards thinking that any feminist analysis that identifies misogyny in a film is 'twisting' the plot into this interpretation. Perhaps the fact that this happens with such frequency (and with such remarkable agility) is an accurate reflection of how much sexism and misogyny there is in films?

On your comment about nudity - I agree with what Helen wrote in her comment above. The comparison you made doesn't hold water.

As far as writers censoring themselves and being scared to write female characters is concerned - good writers won't have a problem with this; writers that care about sex equality won't have a problem with this; and writers that want to avoid sexism and misogyny will welcome the scrutiny and feedback.

8 pythonlove
Posted on Tuesday September 3, 2013, 19:30
A couple things, just to respond...

I don't know why you said "Wow". Was something I said particularly outrageous? I admitted, twice, that you may be right about this movie. Traditionally, these are the kind of loaded debates where all intellectual nuance goes to die. If I disagree with even one of your assertions, I'm just another sexist.

And I do at least disagree with you equating nudity and sexuality with misogyny - which you clearly did when you complained about a "gratuitous tit-shot". No, of course a man's chest is not equal to a woman's breasts, but you know exactly what I meant. We all, and I hate this term, sexually objectify people, especially movie stars (that's what they're there for) and this is part of our biology not a political crime. It can't be cute when you do it and pervy when I do it.

Obviously, any form of sexual violence or harassment is something else. I don't link the two. That's what killed feminism in the 1980's, when it became synonymous with an attack on sexuality itself.

Secondly, by "strong" women, I didn't mean physically strong or "tough", but rather well-defined, dimensional, articulate and yes, integral to the plot. So we're in absolute agreement on that. Nor am I the inventor of the term "war of the sexes". It's a tongue-in-cheek as applicable today as ever.

But yes, I am skeptical of what seems like a lot of new shouts of misogyny every day in our social media now. Even something as trivial and pleasant as Alice Eve in her underwear caused a huge fuss. That's new. And incredibly stupid. That's what I mean by "neo-feminism". The addiction to outrage.

9 pythonlove
Posted on Tuesday September 3, 2013, 19:38
Zeeblebum - Thanks for proving my point. The accusation of sexism is supposed to stop me from analyzing the logic of what someone is saying and if I don't just nod in agreement, I'm one if "them".

I don't disagree that there needs to be more female representation in film - although TV is never mentioned and that's highly female-centric - but it has to be a brass tacks approach to interesting characters all over the spectrum of good and bad, not just the old and simplistic Madonna-whore debate.

10 danmoran
Posted on Tuesday September 3, 2013, 21:07
Oh dear pythonlove, oh dear

11 Garth_Marenghi
Posted on Tuesday September 3, 2013, 22:31
Garth - removed by editor because we're wary of libel.

12 zeeblebum
Posted on Tuesday September 3, 2013, 22:49
pythonlove - You wrote, "The female movie fans I know who view everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, through a feminist lens are remarkably agile at twisting any plot into misogyny."

With this preconception, how are you allowing yourself the space to analyse the logic of what someone is saying? It sounds like your mind is already made up, in advance of hearing that person's opinion. Can you discard your prejudice before undertaking your logical analysis, and consider that - at least sometimes - the feminist (logical) analysis that you are dismissive of will be spot on?

13 pythonlove
Posted on Tuesday September 3, 2013, 23:57
Oh dear Dan, oh dear.

14 BondVsPredator
Posted on Wednesday September 4, 2013, 12:08
Main point:
Great article Helen. You always have something that bypasses my TLDR filter :)

One thing I'll note is that the internet encourages democratisation of information consumption, yes. But in terms of information provision... it's as dystopian as they come. In Riddick's world the strongest survive; online it's the most malicious.

Even the thread above is a very mild illustration of where it starts, a bit of my-opinion-counts-more-because-it's-mine, but of course it gets worse elsewhere as numerous teenagers would testify if they hadn't recently taken their own lives.

I hope you're right that humanity improves with experience, but if that trend continues we won't have the internet to thank. The sexism onscreen in Riddick pales next to the sexism, and every other -ism, that can usually be found by scrolling four posts into any given online thread, anywhere.

Sorry, back on topic you go!


15 Helen OHara
Posted on Wednesday September 4, 2013, 12:23
Pythonlove - I said "wow" because of your apparent belief that the more feminists speak out, the less likely they are to be right. Your comment that zeeblebum "proved" your point is, as she has already pointed out, circular logic and shows a remarkably closed mind. You seem to feel that people are using the word "sexism" to shut you up, but ironically you also indicate that you distrust anyone who dares complain of sexism and tend to assume they're making a fuss about something "trivial and pleasant".

On Star Trek Into Darkness' Alice Eve scene, may I then take it that your view is that a "strong" female character is someone who strips off her clothing mid-conversation with someone she's just met? You're defending something there that even the scriptwriter and director responsible have acknowledged was ill-advised and which is a really dumb piece of character writing even aside from its exploitative side.

No one here, least of all me, is asking for a 'Madonna-whore' approach to female characters; I am certainly NOT asking for uniformly positive female characters but it would be nice to see more women on screen who actually qualify as characters.Re Magic Mike (a film about *strippers*) and Twilight, above, tell you what: in exchange, we'll give you a pass on Showgirls and the American Pie series in return. That still leaves everything else. You're using a familiar sexist tactic, which is to equate the dominance of the male gaze in cinema as a whole with a tiny number of films that explicitly attempt to appeal to the female gaze and that won't really stand up. The difference is not simply about how sexy the character is. The difference is that female characters rarely have the chance to be defined by anything BUT sex.

16 Garth_Marenghi
Posted on Wednesday September 4, 2013, 14:35
That's okay, I didn't think it would last long! ;) I hope a few people got to read it and had a chuckle, any way...

17 cm1trk
Posted on Wednesday September 4, 2013, 15:20
Haven't seen the movie yet, but read the script a while ago because I was excited Katee Sackhoff had finally landed a big part in a mainstream movie. (She was amazing on BSG, and should be much more famous by now IMO.) You're certainly not wrong about the misogyny. (Early script made it clear she was lying about being a lesbian to fend off unwanted advances, AND had a really cringe-inducing line about Riddick knowing she wasn't gay because her pink toenail polish gave it away. Seriously.)

Yet, with the lack of actually sizeable parts for women in action films still these days, I have no confusion over why Sackhoff took the role. She still has yet to get her foot in the door on a mainstream film, she loves sci-fi, and the movie actually gives her a lot to do. She's objectified but not totally marginalized. Her character has authority and gets to throw some big punches, spout some snarky one-liners, shoot some big guns, and rescue the guy. (It helps that Sackhoff is one of the few actresses out there who can believably play a menacing, authoritative presence and was even willing to put on several pounds of muscle to make it more believable. I mean, no offense to Zoe Saldana or Scarlett Johansen, but the women who are being considered for the top "action" roles these days....well I couldn't really see any of them as a bad ass mercenary able to do the things that Dahl does.)

Dahl could've been a total accessory, who's just trotted out to say one or two lines and do that shower scene. In a lot of action films, she probably would've been. I'm not sure if it's progress, but it's something I guess?

I'll consider it a trade off (even though I wish I didn't have to in this day and age). I'll gladly pony up the money to see Riddick, despite the terrible misogyny, if it means a good box office positions Sackhoff to be seen as a viable action film star.

18 OrganicLifeform
Posted on Wednesday September 4, 2013, 16:22
Just thought I'd state that I love the fact you're responding to the comments, Helen. I've been a devoted reader of the magazine and the site's review and news sections, but this makes me want to check out and respond to more of the blogs.

But now that I am responding: when you watch a lot of movies (and if you're being analytical about them), it's really hard not to notice that most women characters are not up to par. I myself found the movie "Playing For Keeps" a big offender. In the review I did for the Dutch Up Magazine I wrote that the women in that movie were portrayed as "one- dimensional" and "infantile", basically the only thing they're defined by is the way the male 'protagonist' percieves them and chooses to (or not to) interact with them.

Another thing that often happens is that male machismo is attributed to female characters to make them 'more bad-ass'. Usually that's all surface and it doesn't change the role or dynamic these characters have in the movies they're in. What it does, instead, is put another male fantasy on the screen. Reading this blog I gathered this is basically the case with the new Riddick movie.

I have a feeling there's a change happening though (albeit rather slowly): some movies take these gender conventions and turn them on their head. Unfortunately it seems hard to get away from the misogyny that's everywhere in pop culture. And, as long as actresses keep taking these kinds of parts, where does change start?

19 Helen OHara
Posted on Wednesday September 4, 2013, 16:48
Organic, thanks for the kind words. I agree with much of that, but I feel like we're on very shaky ground blaming the actresses for taking the only roles out there. They are not the ones with the power to change things, and attempts by actresses to change the thrust of their character or the film would swiftly get them a reputation for being difficult and would jeopardise future employment. What's more, any concessions they did get could be cut out in the edit.

20 BenTramer
Posted on Wednesday September 4, 2013, 17:11
"There's No Excuse For Misogyny In Space." Write your own sci-fi script then. Men don't usually write good female characters because who the hell knows what goes on in a woman's mind? Guys sure as hell don't and neither do most women (When Helen Hunt was promoting What Women Want, she said: "I don't think even women know what women want." She's right). That's the enigma we're dealing with. I only care if a movie is good or not, not whether it appeases angry feminists who are paranoid about everything and never satisfied.

21 OrganicLifeform
Posted on Wednesday September 4, 2013, 17:15
Yeah, that's definitely shaky ground and you are totally right about what it would do an actress's reputation. It was more of open question than a retorical one, though :) I'm just curious what could be done about this (if there's anything to be done). I mean: it's not as simple as just writing better scripts too, obviously.

I would like to bring up another related topic that has baffled me in the past and now baffles me again weekly: the reaction of audiences to Anna Gunn's Skyler White on AMC's Breaking Bad. Especially in the earlier seasons Skyler was just a hardworking, upstanding mom: she took care of her kids and Walt. Now, when Walt 'turned' and started doing more and more terrible things, Skyler stood her ground and did what anyone would do: condemn his actions. Weirdly this ended up giving Skyler the lable of a bitch and, even more crazy, it caused Gunn to receive death threats. Apart from the crazies, this is telling of how we, as viewers, are conditioned to root for the leading man, despite whatever or whoever he is up against and despite the 'justness' of his actions.

What are your thoughts on this, Helen? What's the role of the public, in your eyes?

22 OrganicLifeform
Posted on Wednesday September 4, 2013, 18:41
@ BenTramer

Let's keep it civil, shall we? There's nothing stopping you from taking part in this discussion, but I doubt remarks like 'Write your own sci-fi script then.' and calling people 'paranoid' and 'angry feminists' are constructive.

So, let's have a look at your argument: nobody knows what goes on in a woman's head and that's why people can't write decent female characters. I would argue there are certainly films, books and other media to prove you wrong. But, in addition, the article and discussion here revolve mostly around the fact that "Riddick" and other movies are not really interested in creating female characters: women are simply there to provide context for a male hero (the 'fridging' Helen writes about is a good example). It happens a lot that the roles of women are one-dimensional, without layers and that - like I said earlier - the women characters are only defined by the way the male 'protagonist' percieves them and chooses to (or not to) interact with them. It's not that there's no grasp on 'the minds of women' (which is I feel is a generalisation, by the way), but that the creative forces involved with a movie often don't even bother.

23 raclements
Posted on Wednesday September 4, 2013, 19:35
RE: Post 20.
"Write your own sci-fi script then. Men don't usually write good female characters because who the hell knows what goes on in a woman's mind?"

I write sci-fi and fantasy comics and pretty much always have a female lead character. This is partly because the attitudes of comic readers towards women are similar to your own.
And it is as easy to write female characters as it is to write male ones.
You know why? Because, get this, women are people! They have the same foibles, strengths and weakness as we men do.
As soon as you start writing 'male' or 'female' you have lost. You write people.

24 OrganicLifeform
Posted on Wednesday September 4, 2013, 20:04
'As soon as you start writing "male" or "female" you have lost. You write people.'

Well put, and agreed!

25 trainedasninja
Posted on Wednesday September 4, 2013, 22:49
I agree to many of the points made in the blog aside from the 'fridging' concept. I can think of many films that feature this kind of thing however I do not agree that it has anything to do with sexism. If female characters are killed off in a storyline it is not simply because they are female but instead they just happen to be so. I see it as a frequently used plot device that many films adopt, in which a character, emotionally close to the main protagonist, is killed off for the purpose of adding drama to the story and an emotional response from the audience. Whether that character is a man or a woman, old or young is insignificant. I can think of many films in which an older character gets killed off, is this ageist? Usually the death of such a person reveals how greatly they are valued and respected by the main character. Of course if the film like Riddick is sexist then yes it would be fair to argue it. However, take the Nolan film The Dark Knight I do not see how that comes across as a sexist film at all it, it really depends on context.

26 phil_mackenzie
Posted on Wednesday September 4, 2013, 23:04
It could be argued that this film is targeted at a male audience much like some films out there such as Twilight are targeted at a female audience. The reversal of this scenario being Taylor and R Patz taking their shirts off at every conceivable moment. It comes down to making a product appealing to it's customers. It is not necessarily right but something worth considering.

27 MadMatt
Posted on Thursday September 5, 2013, 00:14
As someone who enjoyed the first film in the series and feels David Twohy is undervalued as a genre director, this is terribly disappointing to hear. I had a higher opinion of him as a writer, and would be interested to see an interview with him in the magazine or on the site addressing this failing.
But while I agree with your conclusions entirely, Helen, I don’t know if the primary aspiration of all science fiction should be to accurately predict or reflect our hopes for technological, moral or political advancement. That’s speculative fiction, isn't it? There are other types of sci-fi; some use a science fiction setting or tropes as a vehicle for a philosophical idea (exploring memory, identity and perception in Verhoeven’s Total Recall, for instance). Sometimes it’s a platform for retelling folklore and exploring mythic conventions (Star Wars). And on other occasions it’s basically a way to dress up an action movie. The Pitch Black series really is Roger Corman territory; a fifties B-movie (sort of) brought up to date (minus the communist paranoia/nuclear Armageddon subtext – unless I’m missing something). It’s sci-fi exploitation, which I think most would agree has its pleasures. But clearly not in the form it currently takes. I think it’s time for a 21st century take on that notion – equal opportunity exploitation! Whenever there is a gratuitous boob shot for the hairy-palmed straight guys, the straight female geeks and gay geeks deserve an equivalent amount of salacious ‘dude-ity’ for lack of a better term. And for every instance of lipstick lesbianism, let’s have a couple of buff dudes soaping each other up in the shower and/or sucking suggestively on cigars like Brendan Fraser and Ian McKellen in Gods & Monsters. In this day and age we really shouldn’t be actively alienating and excluding half of the audience, even in the trash-cinema genre.

28 Helen OHara
Posted on Thursday September 5, 2013, 08:45
Ben, you might want to get those levels of anger looked at.

Organic, the Skyler thing's really interesting and it's something I'm planning to write about in future. I think that, basically, men are taught (quite forcibly sometimes) NOT to empathise with women from a young age. They're taught to actively reject girl stuff in a way that women are not (there's no female equivalent to being called a "big girl's blouse" or a "pussy") and I think it genuinely causes problems in seeing women as fully human beings with legitimate desires. You could consider Ben's comment for an example.

Phil and trainedasninja, I realise there are examples on the other side and said as much in the article. But there are far, far fewer.

MadMatt, as I said in the article, I'd have much less of an issue with a sexist future if I thought the film was trying to say something about that. This one is not. It's just casually, pointlessly sexist. It's absolutely legitimate to use a dystopia to explore interesting ideas; I'd watch THAT film.

29 waltham1979
Posted on Thursday September 5, 2013, 11:07
Helen OHara:

I agree with you to a certain extent; you only need to look at films like Transformers (in fact anything by Bay), Riddick etc to see that I think their is an inherent attitude in Hollywood that to attract that teenage boy audience we do need to be hit with gratuitous arse and tattybojangles shots and I do find them fairly tiresome.

For example; As a 33 year old man with an 11 year old son, I do cringe when he is desperate to watch the aforementioned Transformers films but by default at, in my opinion, too young an age he is treated to a 20 second slow motion close up of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley's arse walking up a flight of stairs (perhaps a debate on the obvious encouragement of sexualisation at a young age of children would be a good blog as well?).

That said, I am curious to know what your thoughts are on perceived 'strong' female characters that have appeared in other recent blockbuster fair, such as Scarlett Johnason in Avengers and Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises? Two films that are far more critically praised and pulled in a lot more money than Riddick which is, by all accounts, fucking terrible and won't do much bonce at the box office?

30 blindfold
Posted on Thursday September 5, 2013, 13:28
I was lucky enough to be invited along to a press screening of Riddick and noticed at least 6 members of the EMPIRE team all sitting next to each other (Some poor bugger didn't even get an invite yet Empire get a plus 5 LOL) .

I'm not one for misogyny either - But I was truly shocked to see HELEN O'HARA literally cover CHRIS HEWITT's eyes when the breast shot from RIDDICK appeared.
I'm sure they were just messing around, but I do start to worry when an active feminist has to resort to physically blocking others views.

31 Chris Hewitt
Posted on Thursday September 5, 2013, 14:03
Well, there's no need to worry, blindfold. We were just messing about, and as I recall, I covered Helen's eyes.

32 Helen OHara
Posted on Thursday September 5, 2013, 14:05
Blindfold, rest assured that we were messing. Chris had also covered my eyes during the long shot of Riddick's butt.

33 Dances with Weasels
Posted on Thursday September 5, 2013, 15:06
Dear lord Helen ,have you never watched an episode of “Game of Thrones”???????
Having hunted high and low all week for the Empire review of “Riddick” and totally failing to find it I came across this piece the day before I went to see it.
From the way you’ve reviewed it I was expecting the most graphically shocking sci fi film since “A Clockwork Orange” or “Barbarella”.
And what did I get? A blink and you missed it under-the-arm mercenary deodorant commercial ( “Remember girls to wash that scent of death daily from those sweaty pits!!!!!”) and a very far shot of Vins ass tanning under a Not Furyian sun (“ Alien Sun, don’t burn your bum! Use Necro Sunblock 50!)
And that was it.
Remember this in an age where only about a decade or so ago “Sex and the City” drove most men down to the local pub in sheer embarrassment whilst their missus stayed in and watch it alone. Flashforward ten years after thousands of unwilling husbands and boyfriends had been unwillingly dragged to watch two movies by the same and we have mega seller “Fifty Shades of Grey” which has been bought and read and presumably enjoyed by millions of women worldwide and is being widely announced in a blaze of publicity that its soon to be a film. I look forward to your meltdown when reviewing that.
The only message I took from this film about relationships dynamics is if you are particularly cruel to women and animals in a Riddick film you are going to die in a wide variety of extremely nasty ways. Which, incidentally , resulted in the biggest laugh in the cinema when that most misogynistic of mercs got his head handed to him on a plate ( I didn’t quite get that right did I !!!)
So Helen, when you do watch (and I know you DO watch it) “Game of Thrones” with everybody else at Empire are blindfolds mandatory for all the men?
I can think of dozens of films where you would have been absolutely right to raise this as an issue of concern. But Riddick?
Truly quite extraordinary.

34 MadMatt
Posted on Thursday September 5, 2013, 15:39
All I meant to say is that there is a place for empty-headed genre flicks, but they need to evolve. I like gore, filth and tastelessness in my trash cinema. But bigotry? Not so much...

35 blindfold
Posted on Thursday September 5, 2013, 15:53

I think you should have a poll or survey some of the worst cases of this in recent movies! Might make for interesting and alarm bell ringing reading!

36 Tim Hayes
Posted on Thursday September 5, 2013, 16:11
Helen, not to deflect from your main argument since I've not seen Riddick, but there's a long tradition of misappropriating Gail Simone's Women in Refrigerators term in the years since she coined it, and you've slightly done that here. She's gone on record often and with some exasperation about its use as a broad label for female characters being killed or abused, when in fact it was created specifically to describe the neutering of female characters by various methods after they had been established as strong, capable and sympathetic, and the way in which that implicitly treated female readers as second-class citizens. The manipulation of female characters as motivation for male characters is a broader dramatic staple/cliché/disaster, and deserves to be rubbished on its own terms, as indeed may Riddick; but it wasn't what the label was for. (It's worth reading the response of the author of the comic that started it all, on that score.) If you have it, read Gail's interview in The Comics Journal 286 where she discusses all this in depth, it's relevant to the broader discussion of misogyny in the culture too.

For actual 'fridging', look no further than The Bourne Supremacy, which had me spitting fire.

37 mikejstevenson
Posted on Thursday September 5, 2013, 18:47
Like any sensible man with half a brain in his head, I'm going to stay 15 parsecs away from this discussion; I'll just buy a ticket, and judge it for myself.

38 xzynomorpher
Posted on Thursday September 5, 2013, 20:49
Dances with Weasels, she has already pointed out that she only touched upon the issue of the tit shot very briefly and it was hardly the main thing she was criticizing the film for.

For all the gratuitous nudity in Game of Thrones, every female character in that show is, well, a character. They are just as strong, just as complex, just as flawed and just as sympathetic as the male ones.

Yes, the constant, and I mean constant, nudity in the show can be brought to question. Yes, there is a clear imbalance in the ratio of female private parts shown to male private parts. But that is for another blog. As far as the issue being discussed here is concerned, Game of Thrones is a shining example of feminism while Riddick is, by all accounts, the complete opposite.

39 nimd4
Posted on Thursday September 5, 2013, 22:54
Just commenting on the article over @ IMDB, but noticed something here.. "The Chronicles Of Riddick was a noble failure and Riddick was a quite enjoyable romp right up until it all went misogynist." - the text would've been better, if you hadn't lost all credibility there.

40 sipi
Posted on Thursday September 5, 2013, 23:15
Well, I think there is little argument against the fact that there are very few dynamic characters in films these days, especially mainstream science-fiction. Will be exciting to watch films that buck the trend.

41 Filum
Posted on Friday September 6, 2013, 00:34
Helen, your argument would be a great deal
More compelling if you were in the kitchen baking me a cake.

KIDDING!!!!!! :-p

42 KeithyT77
Posted on Friday September 6, 2013, 12:56
I agree that there is no excuse for any type of poor sexual representation in film. Women are very poorly portrayed in this film, but then men aren't particularly well-viewed either. The men in this film are shown as muscle-bound violent thugs who solve all their problem with horrific acts of violence as they are too brainless to think their way out of situations. They are also all shown as lustful rapists with no respect for women. Men are also treated with poor outdated sexist attitudes, but these days people do not concern themselves if it is sexism against men. It is similar for racsim, where it appears acceptable against some ("simples" for example) yet horrific for others. There need to be more equality, as opposed to the tipping scales we have these days.

43 KeithyT77
Posted on Friday September 6, 2013, 13:02
I saw Fifty Shades get mentioned as something women appear happy with in terms of representation, along with Twilight. Personally I find women incredibly poorly represented in these films too. In Twilight, Bella is not powerful independent woman as she is emotionally crippled for most of the second film after Edward leaves. She simply cannot function without a man in her life. Also, most of the women in Twilight enjoy being in volatile violent relationships. The second film showed the wife of the Wolf leader with scars across her face where she had 'made him angry' which caused the wolf in him to attack her. Bella also enjoys being with two men with anger issues who could kill her if provoked, and when dates the normal nice-guy human is just bored (as he even pukes at gory films). Women are very badly portrayed there too, and are treated with very outdated sexist stereotypes there too.

44 JackSlater
Posted on Friday September 6, 2013, 16:03
This movie is utter dreck. Vin Diesel does a sub-par Bear Grylls impression for the first act. We then need to endure two teams of muscle-bound mercs spout rejected clichés from 'The Expendables' for the second act. With an Xbox-style "if it moves, shoot it; if it doesn't move, shoot it anyway" battle to finish this most unnecessary of sequels since the last outing of Riddick.

Did nobody realise the most interesting aspect of 'Pitch Black' was the aliens?! Drop another unsuspecting bunch of space tourists on that planet, and I'd pay to see it.

Save your time and money on this Complete Galactic Incompetence, and just watch 'Pitch Black' instead.

45 Garth_Marenghi
Posted on Friday September 6, 2013, 22:52
Hang on a minute - "pussy" is a derogatory term comparing the qualities of weakness and cowardice in a man to lovely lady-parts? I've always thought it was an anti-feline insult, referencing their skittishness, along the lines of "scaredy-cat". Hmm. You learn something new every day.

46 MaryPell01
Posted on Saturday September 7, 2013, 16:24
you have to work and use the computer and internet, and if you can do that and dedicate some time each day then you can do this with no problem. I have been working with this for a month and have made over $2,000 already. let me know if you need more help......

47 Cookiedough
Posted on Sunday September 8, 2013, 18:05
Love your posts, Helen! I, for one, will not watch this film. Not because it sounds properly caveman sexist, but because the storytelling sounds awful! I'm all for a bit of 'dumb' in my films, particularly if it's done in an intelligent, self-aware kind-of way; big and loud definitely has its place. However, this sounds particularly unintelligent and pandering to the seamier side of its audience in its whole approach. In other words, an absolutely cynical bit of film making - aargh! (Throws hands up in despair at Hollywood.)

48 claudialen
Posted on Sunday September 8, 2013, 23:55
Great article Helen! It was good to read that most of the comments were reasonable as many times any article challenging misogyny in any area gets angry and sometimes insulting comments. That sort of response is another issue that would be interesting to analyse.

I love science fiction and superheroes and it is a pity the lack of female characters. I have also noticed that silly movies directed to teenage boys get a lot easier ride from movie critics than silly movies directed to teenage girls. May be because the movie critics tend also to be men, so a female point of view is very welcome.

49 Gretzky
Posted on Monday September 9, 2013, 11:05
Thus it goes that the comments after a piece about feminism prove the need for feminism... It's the same story, different website. It's a shame to see an interesting, truthful piece belittled by the traditional WATM drivel one usually finds in the women's sections of the Guardian website.

50 Garth_Marenghi
Posted on Monday September 9, 2013, 15:08
I don't know, Gretzky, I think the response is as even-handed as one could expect on the internet for any opinion piece. Perhaps better; a handful of idiots, a touch of cheeky flippancy, but most agreeing with Helen. Imagine the feedback on volatile hell-pit that is the AICN comments section...

51 Azzurro06
Posted on Monday September 9, 2013, 16:37
First of all Riddick did not intend to rape Dahl, as he quite clearly states that she will ask him to have sex. It's tongue in cheek for God's sake as is Dahl's invitation at the end. And anyway whether she is gay or straight, does it really matter whether she did indeed have sex with Riddick anyway??? And we are honestly saying now that a woman showing her chest in a movie is sexist!!! Listen you should watch Game of Thrones, its way way more misogynistic than Riddick could ever hope to be.

52 IanVanCheese
Posted on Monday September 9, 2013, 18:14
The entire argument is that there simply shouldn't be sexism in the future, but you pay no attention to the fact that Riddick's universe is a pretty grim one. We didn't reach space and become the fucking federation. It's grim and reflects the grimmest parts of our society. Sexism is so rife in reality that too assume it won't happen in an even grimmer universe is utter nonsense. The film doesn't make a point of this because that isn't the point of the film, it's just the universe it's set in.

Just because we should be fighting sexism in real life, does that mean we can't portray a society where it is still prevalent?

53 Dances with Weasels
Posted on Monday September 9, 2013, 19:45
Interestingly , I never read Dahl as anything but an efficient professional team member who was bright enough to set her boundaries immediately upon meeting the other team. Maybe there were echoes of Starbuck here but I felt she simply resorted to crudely threatening the others just to show how disinterested she was in having any interaction with them and that was the only way they‘d understand her. Not the brightest of individuals were they?
And I thought the “predator pink” reference to her toes nails indicated that Riddick had spotted she was simply hiding her femininity and she was warning him off again, though I have to admit the dialogue was remarkably juvenile at times. Certainly every effort in the script was made to make the audience root for the evil mercs to meet very bad ends. Look what they did with the CGI jackal for goodness sake.
The entire film was played as a bad guy B movie sci fi actioner and worked pretty well at that level. Imagine if the first team of mercs had been a wholly female one (just to level things up) and tell me what the reaction would have been then?
Which is why I find it curious Helen picked this film out of the dozens that would better describe her point of view. It obviously touched a particular nerve. Having read her comments on “Fifty Shades” a little further down the blog I’m curious as to how she can balance the arguments there with this post.

54 EmmlinGremlin
Posted on Wednesday September 11, 2013, 01:11
Having seen this film tonight, I'm sad to say that I agree with this blog pretty much word for word. The lesbian being "cured" by a male protagonist thing makes me incredibly angry, and that was the real dealbreaker for me. As you said, it was a perfectly enjoyable film in every other respect. Bitterly disappointing, especially after Pitch Black (which I only discovered recently before seeing Riddick with friends).

55 joemanji
Posted on Wednesday September 11, 2013, 13:32
Some good points, but Riddick is a ridiculous video game movie. I would be more worried about the characterisation of women in something like About Time.

There they have no discernable personality traits other than smiling and being fancied by a male character. Rachel McAdams's character exists solely to fulfil the needs of the male lead. We learn nothing of Bill Nighy's wife other than she loved him. The sister is an alcholic mess without the love of a good man. At least Dahl is a strong female character who engages with men on a level playing field. If the writing of other characters she engages with is horribly misogynistic well, that isn't great. But at least her character starts from a position of equality.

56 KeithyT77
Posted on Wednesday September 11, 2013, 13:37
I agree with you JoeManji about About Time. The women are completely subservient, as they are in Twilight. They do not have their own strengths and are complete wrecks without a man in their life. What a terrible representation.
Also the men in Riddick are all muscle-bound, brainless, casual rapists and misogynists. How do men come across in this film? Any better in terms characterisation? Not really.

57 Emyr Thy King
Posted on Thursday September 12, 2013, 02:03
Does anyone else feel they've just been lectured on 'already learnt materials'? If I can coin such a term. I think Miss O'Hara's preaching to the converted here. Which means that this blog will not make a difference because it's not directed at the right target audience: pre-pubescants who lap this stuff up (admittedly some are here but I give Empire more credit than that). It's fine to fire up the outrage bus but unless you intend on taking that bus to an actual destination then you're just pissing away fuel on nothing.

I feel the blog has only scratched the surface. A bit like a judge striking the gavel and only hitting air and nothing else. You need to go deeper. If we are to treat this subject with real considered thought then why not ask the questions no-one has. If Katee Sackhoff (or knickers off?) can 'eloquently' speak at the Women Who Kick Ass panel at Comic-Con about the need for better female roles yet simultaneously play a misogynist's wet dream then there has to be something wrong with her decision making surely? Why do actors like Vin Diesel like characters with chauvinistic attitudes and lines? Why do the writers and directors get off on this? Furthermore... why is there a sizeable audience (let's spit it out: male demographic) have an appetite for this sort of thing?

What I'm asking about is accountability. There is a root cause here but we won't for instance blame the actors now will we? "Well they have to work.." that old chestnut likes to get wheeled out more often than David Jason in a royal variety show.

If people from the entire spectrum of 'participants' (from film actors and makers to us the consumers) stopped buying into this sort of drivel then we could certainly look forward to a utopia that's not only depicted on film but practiced in real-life.

Right I'm orff. Sucked away enough O² to kill a fire.

58 sirvolkar
Posted on Thursday September 12, 2013, 13:10
Hi :)

I think it should be pointed out that Riddick is not sci-fi...not really. Just like Star Wars is a fairy tale, Riddick (and Chronicles) is pulp-fantasy, a homage to Conan and its ilk. So the whole thing about the portrayal of society - a utopian/distopian future - and the role of technology is irrelevant in this debate. Diesel and Twohy were looking backwards, not forwards for inspiration, and they achieved their goal considerably more effectively than the god-awful Mamoa movie.

I would also second one of the earlier posters observation that Dahl is meant to be a focused professional. She is a mercenary and her gender is irrelevant and her colleagues treat her that way. Riddick's observation is a subtle character comment hidden by a very unsubtle dialogue. Let's not forget though that that whole scene was meant to be Riddick messing with the mercs minds and manipulating them.

Why does she have to be shown as 'masculine' to be accepted? I would argue that she does not. Violence is certainly not just the remit of men. In my experience of teaching, girls are just as likely to scrap it out as boys. In my experience of martial arts, women are more than happy to bring the hurt. Dahl giving Santana a beating is initially her showing insight (he is a man of violence and violent people respond to violence) whilst the second time she is simply defending herself. If you are going to be hunting criminals for a living, I'm pretty sure this is a rather handy skill set (unless your Mrs Dawg and you simply sit in the car).

As for the lines at the end of the movie, I interpreted these as playful banter/vulgar flirtation, like those of Drake and Vasquez in Aliens (although not as endearing).

And how this all relates to her initial statement of being lesbian, I'm pretty sure this was meant to be a way to shut down unwanted attention, not a statement of fact. This is certainly something women do/feel inclined to do in the world of the real (another debate altogether).

59 Azzurro06
Posted on Wednesday September 18, 2013, 10:00
Personally I think current US television is way worse than Riddick.

60 TheMightyBlackout
Posted on Sunday September 22, 2013, 18:16
Fantastic article, thank you. It details the issue so much better than I could; I just kept getting caught up on the dreadful script and its equally dreadful delivery.

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