A Thank You Letter to Guillermo del Toro for “Pacific Rim”

*Editor’s Note: This is a spoil-heavy post; I suggest waiting till you’ve seen the film before reading this.

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Dear Mr. Del Toro:

 

I am writing this letter to thank you for populating the world of Pacific Rim with people of variety, equality, and difference.

Thank you for a film where men are allowed to be both physically strong and emotionally expressive. The world of Pacific Rim includes brothers, fathers, and sons who vocalize pride (and the occasional bit of chagrin) with each other. 

Thank you for a world populated with people of different races and nationalities, and for not including a single joke or line that undermines any of their personal power. In fact, race is never discussed in Pacific Rim. It’s not even a factor. Instead you give us Stacker Pentecost, played by Idris Elba, a black man who is both military commander and loving father to his adopted daughter, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). It’s a pleasure (and rarity) to see any diversity on screen, and particularly for it not to matter a damn iota to the characters depicted on screen. 

Thank you for including strong female characters in Pacific Rim. Admittedly, this beautiful picture would not pass the Bechdel Test, because there are no interactions between female characters. However, your representation of women in this film matters in great part because of what is missing: any discussion of their gender. There are two female pilots in this film: Mako and the Russian Lt. A. Kaidanovsky (Heather Doerksen). They may never interact with each other, but there are also no conversations between other characters about how they can’t do their jobs or how hot they look in their pilots uniforms. Indeed, the only time gender is even brought up is when Mako is referred to as a “bitch,” and this is done in a moment of tension and disapproved of. It’s the only gender-infused insult in the film, and it comes not after she sleeps around or cheats on someone, but after she fails her first test run as a pilot. In fact, the insult cuts so deep because it’s the only gendered moment among the pilots, and thus it’s out of place in the Jaeger-pilot world.

Thank you for your depiction of Mako, a woman both capable of great emotion and great physical strength. Yes, she is motivated by a sense of revenge, and yes, she often has a tear in her eye, but she is also able to overcome her metaphorical demons (mentally) in order to overcome some literal demons (physically). She is one of the best recruits for the pilot program, and we get to watch her kick some serious ass with a bow staff. 

Thank you for not making Mako a typical action hero female: a character relegated to the sidelines so that she may be lusted after and later rescued by the hero. Instead you tell us her story and make her as equally damaged (and as equally important to the plot) as her co-pilot, Raleigh Becker (Charlie Hunnam). They have each lost something, and their stories are given equal weight. They share the burdens of the past and the present equally. It’s an equality rarely seen in action films (or indeed, any major Hollywood films of late).

Thank you for never suggesting that Mako’s power lies in her ability to be sexy or flirtatious, but instead in her actual physical strength and the power of her mind. You don’t subject us to gratuitous images of Mako in her underwear or undressing. She and our hero never sleep together. They are bonded by shared terrors, by present fears, and they are literally “compatible” with each other because of their brains–it’s their mental compatibility that makes them good co-pilots.

And thank you, thank you, thank you for that ending, which emphasizes their bond as co-pilots and equals–as two people who save the world, and who care for and respect each other. Thank you for giving us a moment of pure male-female friendship, bonding, and appreciation, without insisting that the bond exist because of sexual and romantic chemistry. The lack of a kiss is a most satisfying absence.

Thank you, Mr. del Toro, for creating a cinematic world that is vivid, beautiful, and terrifying. Pacific Rim was a real film experience, and–monsters aside–it was a world I could really get behind.

 

Sincerely,

Reel Feminist

 

What Manic Pixie Dream Girl?

There are few cinematic terms I despise as much as the phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” (MPDG for short).  My problems with this term are legion, so first off let’s have a little history.  Nathan Rabin coined the term when describing Kirsten Dunst’s character ‘Claire’ in the Cameron Crowe film Elizabethtown.  According to Rabin, Dunst epitomizes the MPDG, a female character who “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”  These women are describes as bubbly, childlike muses who exist solely to inspire a male protagonist, encouraging him to embrace and enjoy life.

The MPDG is one of those cinematic terms that was assimilated as soon as it was uttered; a lot of people accepted its existence as fact immediately, as if Rabin’s term was absolute and not to be questioned.  No one seems to care if it’s a particularly useful or accurate term.  The AV Club (which originally featured Rabin’s Elizabethtown review) later published a list of “16 Films Featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls.”

The problem is that I don’t think the MPDG even exists.  The AV Club and other websites have spent a lot of energy chasing rainbows, trying to chronicle a supposed Grand History of MPDGs in Cinema, supposedly proving this trope exists by shoehorning some of film history’s most notable female characters—from Diane Keaton’s eponymous Annie Hall and Kate Winslet’s Clementine (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) to Katharine Hepburn’s Susan (Bringing Up Baby)–into this category.  I can’t possibly think what Claire in Elizabethtown has in common with Annie Hall, except perhaps that they’ve both fallen for neurotic men.  Indeed, if these women represent the MPDG, perhaps we could just as easily dub Orlando Bloom’s’Drew Baylor’ and Woody Allen’s ‘Alvy Singer’ the archetypal Neurotic Suicidal Boyfriends.  Or would that be reductive?

Yes, there are characters like Claire in Elizabethtown, who are childlike and irreverent.  However, not all of the characters considered MPDGs are as one-dimensional as Rabin would have you believe.  The MPDG is not an archetype, but is instead a failure by screenwriters to create multidimensional and realistic female characters.  She represents a lack of interest by screenwriters and directors to develop nuanced and complicated depictions of women on screen, when cardboard cutout women who merely stand, look pretty, and say compelling things would do just fine.  Because, lest we forget it, this is not our story: it’s the male protagonist’s story.  Elizabethtown, for example, is the story of how a suicidal man’s life is saved, not how one girl actively choses to do the saving.

 

The inclusion of so many complicated, strong female characters on these lists illustrate just how arbitrary and useless the definition of the MPDG really is, and how people eager to verify this term via example are actually misreading and/or oversimplifying complex female characters.  Many MPDG lists wrongly include Clementine from Eternal Sunshine, and Summer from 500 Days of Summer.  Clementine, for example, is explicitly not a MPDG: her character actually turns to the male protagonist of the film and says “Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.”  She explicitly tells Joel (and the viewer) that she is just a girl—she is no MPDG–and yet here we are literally assigning to that character the very thing she makes a point of rejecting.

It’s the same problem with 500 Days of Summer—people imagine that Summer is some quirky girl meant to cheer up and reinvigorate the depressed male protagonist, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s ‘Tom’.  In reality, the crux of the film is that Tom not only has to take control of his own life, but that he wrongly imagines Summer is his own personal MPDG.  In fact, director Marc Webb was asked specifically whether Summer was an MPDG and denied it, noting: “That is one of the codes of the movie. He falls in love not with her but the idea of her.”

It’s not bad enough that Hollywood chooses to make men the protagonists of most movies.  No, we as viewers have to oversimplify and quantify some of our most well-drawn, unique, and complicated portrayals of women on screen.  Labelling Annie Hall, Clementine, and other female characters as MPDGs serves as a means of dismissing them.  They are written off as manic (emotional) pixie (troublesome) dream (imaginary) girls (not women). In other words, the application of the term MPDG to a breadth of female characters serves as a means of highlighting the many one-note representations of women on screen, while simultaneously reducing any richer female characters to supposed one-dimensionality.  MPDG is a term used to turn women into girls, characters into quirks.  Ultimately, just as Tom did to Summer, American pop culture writers, theorists, and film viewers alike have fallen in love with the idea of the MPDG, when in reality she doesn’t exist.