Tag Archives: diversity

Wednesday Collective — “Birds of Prey” Edition

I’m going to keep talking about “Birds of Prey” because it is just that important a film. It’s underrated, speaks to our time, and it’s a lightning rod of toxic reaction to its feminism and diversity. I stopped counting how many comments from people with “nazi” in their name I had on my article “’Birds of Prey’ Box Office Failure is Make Believe”.

This is a film with a generationally good action-comedy performance in Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. It has award-worthy design. The direction is wildly assured and draws from a shockingly large range of influences to create something unique and precise. Its scenes are often thickly layered with dueling perspectives even as Quinn’s own storytelling drives the plot. It’s subversive in a blunt, forward, and challenging way that’s needed.

I used to run Wednesday Collective as a weekly gathering of articles on (mostly) film that I found interesting. One of the joys of being a critic is sharing voices with readers that cover diverse perspectives, and that help me learn. Let’s talk about what they have to say about the film’s treatment of trauma, its “Tank Girl” connection, its meaningful costuming, director Cathy Yan, and Margot Robbie as a producer.

BIRDS OF PREY, Trauma, and the Female Gaze
by Jessica Plummer

Birds of Prey lead 1 resize

This is a superb article at Book Riot that deals with a particular moment in “Birds of Prey”. It’s something I could tell was playing out differently, but because I have a male gaze, I focused on the reaction and what that said about toxic masculinity.

There was also something else happening in the scene that I couldn’t identify, that plays to female gaze. That there are so many moments in a film like this, and that it can produce this level of layered meaning in a scene, continues to blow my mind.

It’s also an argument for why we need more women in film and as critics. A male director wouldn’t have included this in the film. A male critic wouldn’t have noticed it in the film. Yet as a man, I can benefit, know more, and find more beauty and care in a piece of art simply from it being included and pointed out to me.

A Girl is a Gun: ‘Birds of Prey’ and the Legacy of ‘Tank Girl’
by Maya Thornton

Promo image for 1995 cult film Tank Girl

Maya Thornton points out for Adventures in Poor Taste one of the stronger influences in “Birds of Prey”: director Rachel Talalay’s 1995 cult classic “Tank Girl”.

Her article considers the through-lines in story, design, and comedy, how each film treats women (and how men react), as well as the differences in how studios acted toward these films in 1995 vs. 2020.

She doesn’t mention, but Margot Robbie’s production company LuckyChap Entertainment optioned the rights to “Tank Girl” in September 2019 as a starring vehicle for Robbie. That doesn’t mean it will definitely get made, but with the film already months into pre-production and director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte (who directed Robbie in “Dreamland”) tapped to direct it, it’s reasonable to hope.

Harley Quinn’s ‘Birds of Prey’ Costumes are Full of Hidden Meanings
by Irina Grechko

Various Harley Quinn costumes from Birds of Prey

Fashion-centric site Nylon goes into the inspirations behind costume designer Erin Benach’s unique and varied costumes. The strongest influences in “Birds of Prey” are DIY glampunk and glitterpunk, but Blaxploitation, 50s fashion iconography, and emo clubbing accessories each inform characters in the film.

Benach needed to create costumes that made statements, told histories, and defined the world of the film. They needed to be utilitarian and focused on the characters’ preferences instead of the male gaze that dictated Harley Quinn’s costume design in “Suicide Squad”. One of Benach’s most interesting imperatives was to take these influences and do something revolutionary with them – add pants.

How ‘Birds of Prey’ Director Cathy Yan Saved Harley Quinn From Joker and the Male Gaze
by Melissa Leon

Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, and director Cathy Yan in Birds of Prey

Here’s a rangy interview with director Cathy Yan at The Daily Beast. “Birds of Prey” is one of the most self-assured films I’ve seen recently, and it offers a storytelling voice that feels more authentic than anything else DC or even Marvel have done. Yan talks about accentuating the female gaze and how a woman filming women focuses on the actual performance being given. Yan wanted to make sure her characters sweat and that the work and effort they put forth was aspirational – not the impossible beauty standard of an impeccably photoshopped magazine cover.

This is also a different Gotham City than we’ve seen, and Yan has a precise reason for this. She discusses why she wanted to make Harley’s section of Gotham feel like a neighborhood on the outskirts instead of gloomy, downtown Gotham – that a story taking place on the outskirts of power avoids telling a story that focuses too much on established patriarchy.

How Margot Robbie Changed Her Hollywood Destiny
by Anne Helen Petersen

Margot Robbie holds grenade launcher in Birds of Prey

Anne Helen Petersen breaks down Robbie’s path to production and how it enables her to choose her roles and expand the range of other voices in film. The BuzzFeed News article reminds us that Robbie isn’t just clearing a path as an extremely capable actress, she’s also one of the promising and hardest working young producers in film.

Petersen does this in an absolutely brilliant and captivating piece that calls to account male journalists’ coverage of young actresses. It takes steps beyond this to interrogate the opportunities blocked to women as producers and how Robbie’s seized on becoming an important and exciting risk-taker. It highlights the history of how studios have limited women’s opportunities as producers, how women have fought back, and how patriarchal systems artificially block women into competing for limited opportunities while men aren’t similarly obstructed.

That would be more than enough to make the article stunning and important, but Petersen also threads how class plays into the opportunities women have, and how it informs and leads to typecasting, while also recognizing Robbie wouldn’t have this opportunity if she were nonwhite. I’m trying really hard not to swear to accentuate just how good this article is.

When something is this well-researched, clearly voiced, intersectionally woven, and pointedly structured, it is important. It functions as crucial journalism as well as a clear-eyed piece of art unto itself. Read this, it is one of the best articles covering the industry of filmmaking that I’ve recently read.

If you enjoy what you’re reading, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

The Best Diversity of 2015

Diversity Poe from Star Wars The Force Awakens

by S.L. Fevre, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez

Rarely has the “Star Wars” universe felt so big. Where before, white men saved a white princess (the only woman in the story) from being trapped in prison and being chained up as a sex slave by Donald Trump a giant space slug, today women and people of color are saving the galaxy with help from white allies.

And yet, criticisms persist that fans of the new diversity in “Star Wars” are simply falling for a market-tested Disney trick. But that overlooks the point.

Feminist critics been saying for years that films led by women and people of color will make money. If Disney finally decided films led by women and people of color will make money, good. Our argument wasn’t somehow free of market forces; it was based on them.

That’s not “falling for it.” It’s like telling us we fell for hitting the bullseye with the arrow we just shot. Thanks; that’s what we were aiming for.

Regardless, “Star Wars” has the same effect on children no matter why the decision was made. Girls and boys now see a woman named Rey saving the universe. She is a skilled mechanic and pilot. She can fight and men recognize they should follow and assist her when in her areas of expertise.

A princess named Leia, once told to lose weight for the franchise and stuffed into a metal bikini, is now a general who’s aged realistically. She has a broken family, and yet she hasn’t shirked the mantle of leadership in order to mourn that fracture. She’s got a galaxy that needs protecting.

Children now see a Black hero in Finn who rejects what he’s been told he needs to be. He removes a mask of aggression that’s been placed upon him according to the role society wants him to fill. That society sends him for re-education so that he’ll better remember to leave the mask on. He is a man whose unique problem is empathy in a structure that tells him this sensitivity is weakness. He decides upon his own path, and in so doing faces down the fear of being visible for once in his life.

Children now see that the best starfighter in the galaxy is Hispanic. No, Poe doesn’t get quite as much screen time, but damn, he can fly an X-wing. He’s not lazy. He’s not wearing a space poncho or speaking in a stereotypical accent. He’s not stealing anyone’s job. He’s saving the day, and gifting jackets to boot.

And finally, the villain. He has been taught to view himself as weak so that he can hate himself. He has been taught to draw strength from the rage of hating this weakness. He echoes Elliot Rodger, uploading a video of his faults to YouTube and blaming women and minorities for his perceived oppression. Or a hundred other shooters, stabbers, stranglers. Or “legalize rape” rallies. He is the young man crafted to hate, and blames anyone different or accepting of others for that hate.

Who better to fight against that voice, a voice too prevalent in our society, than women, a Black man, a Hispanic man, and white allies?

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is of a time and it is of a struggle. It may happen a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but it teaches us how to be heroic here and now: together, by lifting each other up.

More than anything else, its ending reminds us that after the grave sacrifices and heartbreaking tragedies we see in the world around us, in the aftermath of the most violent and unexpected acts, the most valuable thing we can do is seek to learn more, to better ourselves, to fight the fight with that much more collaboration and determination tomorrow.

Diversity Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Other films that were considered for this award were “Mad Max: Fury Road” for its bold feminist themes, “Blackhat” for its truly diverse group of professionals, “Tangerine” for its transgender protagonists and racial diversity, and “Furious 7” for its diverse cast of action stars.

Where did we get our awesome images? All come from Screen Rant’s spoilers article. Just beware of, you know, spoilers.

The Best Diversity of 2014

by Gabriel Valdez

A Japanese hero. African-American, Latina, Korean, and Caucasian teammates. And a robot. Yet…diversity isn’t about checking off boxes. It’s also a way of looking at the world. The cast of Big Hero 6 doesn’t act in any way stereotypical or feel the need to point out its diversity. It simply demonstrates characters from different backgrounds getting along and solving problems through teamwork. Their personalities are informed by their ethnic backgrounds, sure, but they aren’t restricted to them.

Furthermore, the women of Big Hero 6 never feel any need to talk about the men. They talk about science and math, the tactics they’ll use in battle, the technology they’re developing, or how to deal with loss. The characters are all given a level playing field, meet through the great equalizer – education – and are treated as intelligent, creative, and fully capable in and of themselves.

The film’s villain isn’t even that evil at his core. It is his way of looking at the world that’s evil, informed by his need to avenge the tragic loss of a woman even as this narcissistic reaction causes him to completely overlook the option of finding her a way back home. (If you had problems with the way The LEGO Movie treated women, Big Hero 6 is your answer.)

When the other writers and I talked about this category, we didn’t just want to award the movie that has the most minorities or female characters. We wanted to award the movie that assumes diversity is a given, an advantage, a feature of a successful team, and then moves forward from there. Big Hero 6 does all these things. It never says our team of heroes is strong because they’re diverse, it just brings them together and lets the characters show it themselves. There’s no too-clever message here for kids, just an assumption that kids are smart enough to recognize what’s in front of them.

Big Hero 6 does take source material featuring mostly Japanese characters and vary the ethnicities to better reflect those of the movie’s chief audience, the United States, but to hold this against it would be to hold every culture’s storytelling against that culture. We all do this. When Japanese artists adapt American stories, the characters inside these tales are often shifted to Japanese analogues. It’s a device every culture uses to tell stories so that its people can better identify with them, but the problem with Hollywood has long been that this means making every character Caucasian, which is not a true reflection of American culture.

This isn’t an award for taking Japanese source material and not being dumb enough to fall into the Hollywood trap of totally whitewashing it. Neither is this an award for multiculturalism. This is an award for the attitude of a story and how it internalizes diversity as a way of looking at the world. Big Hero 6 doesn’t treat diversity as a goal to be achieved. Instead, it treats diversity as an assumption, as a very happy and supportive way of living life.

Assuming this kind of diversity in fantasy and science-fiction also does a lot to shape more complete worlds. Create a homogenized genre universe and viewers notice. When viewers notice, you have to start explaining inside the film why you made it that way, which creates extra work for you and keeps you from getting to the plot.

On the other hand, create a universe composed of different ethnicities working together, and you’ve already suggested history without even mentioning a word about it. People assume this history exists because to get from here to there is going to be far tougher than making robots and spaceships. You save yourself that much more work when viewers are already crafting possibilities for you in their own heads. The universe you’ve made feels more populated and real. You can get to the plot that much faster.

(It’s also worth noting that all of the voice actors are appropriately cast for the ethnicity they’re portraying, which seldom happens in animated films. This also contributes to shaping a fuller world.)

Diversity is what comes after the struggle. It comes after civil rights and voting rights and equal pay and immigration reform and not getting shot in the street for the color of your skin. True, honest, daily diversity in our lives is an American science-fiction, yet it’s a science-fiction we need to tell because every dream we dream, the next generation takes as its challenge.

Diversity isn’t at the core of Big Hero 6‘s story, yet it’s reflected as a source of strength and resilience. Each hero is stronger for relying upon people different from them: in personality, in ethnicity, in gender, in socioeconomic background.

Even if its plot internalizes some of the big arguments about diversity, Big Hero 6 doesn’t have to make all of those arguments outright. It presents a world where all those big arguments have already been won, and it’s an astonishing world. It’s most fantastical not because of flying robots or nano-machines or portals to other dimensions. Its most envious quality is a world that feels meshed from different cultures, yet still offers space for everyone to enjoy and value their own individual identities.

(Read the review)

“Big Hero 6” is This Year’s “Frozen” (and might be even better)

Big Hero 6 flying

by Gabriel Valdez

There’s a moment in Big Hero 6, Disney’s new animated superhero film, when I was reminded why I like watching movies with live audiences instead of in critic screenings. Young Hiro has just flipped the switch on his sweet, rotund, inflatable robot Baymax, turning him from a friendly caretaker into a killing machine. In order to exact vengeance, Hiro momentarily erases any conscience the robot has. The next time Hiro tries this, Baymax refuses. You see, Hiro’s lost someone very close, and Baymax tries to teach Hiro to cope in a healthier way than just getting even.

It’s a touching scene that offers a glimpse into how deeply emotional something as silly as a computer-animated superhero comedy can be. I glanced around the theater. Critics would have been furiously scribbling in their notebooks. Instead, I saw a mother wipe away tears and a father badly pretend not to. I looked further and saw this reflected across the entire theater. Families leaned a foot closer to a screen 80 feet away and cried. I’d already given up on wiping away my own tears.

As an adaptation from a Marvel comic, Big Hero 6 is hilarious and full of creative action. It’s colorfully, brightly animated, written for both children and adults, and let me repeat: it is incredibly funny. It’s also a tremendous film about coping with loss, one of the most difficult subjects to talk about with children.

Big Hero 6 mid

Hiro is a child prodigy. He invents robots in a California-Japan mishmash of a city called San Fransokyo. He’s content to hustle robot fighting leagues until older brother Tadashi inspires him toward college. Hiro is putting it all together until one key cog comes loose, and everything is taken from him. All Hiro is left with is a clue about the man responsible, and his brother’s robotic personal healthcare assistant Baymax, as large and squishy as he is well-meaning.

The two follow the clue, recruiting help from Hiro’s inventor friends and, once they realize they’re out of their depth, recasting themselves as a team of superheroes with Baymax at the center.

If you’ll follow me on a tangent, Disney (like Pixar) runs a short animated film before each feature. Big Hero 6 gives us a treat with “Feast.” It’s the story of a dog rescued off the street who changes the direction of a man’s life. It is easily the best pairing of animated short and feature film either Pixar or Disney has ever made – “Feast” sets the theme and level of emotion for the bigger film that follows. What is Baymax, after all, if not a rescue? Take away the central mystery and the villain and the superheroics, and the emotional effect Baymax’s innocence and unconditional loyalty have on Hiro’s life are much the same.

Big Hero 6 hairy baby

Let’s get to that headline, though. How is superhero adventure Big Hero 6 like fantasy musical Frozen? There’s no singing, there’s no dancing, no talking snowmen or ice palaces. And yet, I felt the same way coming out of both of them. Endorphins had been kicking in the whole movie, I felt happier coming out than when I went in, and I’d been taken on a very complete emotional journey. I’m still feeling overwhelmed and incredibly charged by Big Hero 6 even as I edit this a day later.

Neither Disney film is a cinematic marvel, and they each lack the polish of a Dreamworks (How to Train Your Dragon) or proper Pixar (Brave) movie. Yet Big Hero 6 and Frozen are both more rough-and-tumble creative propositions, less finely tuned and more willing to make mistakes. They each bite off more than they can chew, yet find a way to rise to the occasion. They each make up for some occasionally simplified animation with well-defined characters, improvised elements, and plots that are incredibly full of heart. If there were an Oscar for Best Crowd Pleaser, the two Disney animations would walk away with it two years running.

The Big Hero 6 by the way? That team consists of African-American, Caucasian, Japanese, Korean, Latin-American, and robot characters. Three men, two women, one robot. Including more diverse casts of characters not only provides a wider range of role models for children to look up to, it’s also one of the easiest ways of making the world of a film feel bigger and more real. It’s one less suspension of disbelief rested on an audience’s shoulders. Given the response I saw, I’d say it works.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does Big Hero 6 have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Two of the heroes are GoGo, voiced by Jamie Chung, and Honey Lemon, voiced by Genesis Rodriguez. (They all have silly names like that. The hero’s name is Hiro, for godssakes, although that’s lifted from Snow Crash). There’s also Hiro’s guardian, his Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph).

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. They talk about science and technology, plan how to foil a villain, and argue over whether they’ll make it out of precarious situations. They also engage in group conversations in which women and men address the group at large.

As I was researching the film, I found an early interview indicating GoGo and Honey Lemon would have a petty rivalry over the boys’ attentions. Somewhere along the line, that got ditched, and I couldn’t be happier. Who are they without that petty rivalry? They’re both inventors, geniuses, technically apt, and good in a fight. GoGo is a laconic daredevil, Honey Lemon a stylish nerd.

When they become superheroes, GoGo uses magnetic levitation roller blades and hurls discs at enemies as if she saw Tron and took it as a challenge. Honey Lemon enters chemical formulas onto a keypad on her purse, which then dispenses the correct concoction. She can toss a ball of ice, sticky goo, or hardened shields at a moment’s notice.

As for the men, Wasabi has energy swords and Fred can jump high and breathe fire. That’s fun and all, but the women are far more exciting. GoGo’s scenes offer a lot of high-speed movement and stunts. Since Honey Lemon uses chemical reactions to fight, you don’t exactly know what she’s going to do – that always makes for an intriguing brand of action. Yeah, she uses her purse, but a purse that creates chemical reactions at will to let you fight as you want? Hell, I walked out of the theater wanting one of those.

Big Hero 6 GoGo

I’ll admit, GoGo is now one of my favorite superheroes. At one point, she tells a fretting Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.) to “Woman up.” This later becomes a catchphrase she uses when she does something especially superheroic. I imagine my niece running around and shouting, “Woman up,” treating the phrase as the absolute essence of toughness and bravery. That is an incredibly big deal.

Additionally, on that diversity I mentioned earlier – Big Hero 6 is based on a Japanese comic in which nearly all the characters are Japanese. Obviously, that’s going to change in an American adaptation. It’s just what happens, and the same thing happens in reverse when American material is adapted in other countries. There’s nothing wrong with that. Cultures adapt and cast specifically to speak to their own demographics.

In this adaptation, however, Hiro’s family is Japanese, GoGo is Korean, Honey Lemon is Latin-American, Wasabi is African-American, and Fred is Caucasian. Where Frozen tackles issues of gender equality head-on and makes it an issue for certain characters, in Big Hero 6, no one ever has an attitude that someone can’t do something because of ethnicity or gender. It’s never even mentioned.

Both approaches are valuable. Frozen forces audience members to confront the way in which traditional media presents women as weak, helpless, and in need of saving. In Big Hero 6, equality just seems an everyday normality, and you get to spend two hours experiencing what that world is like.

That in itself is a powerful statement, and I can’t applaud the multitude of writers, directors Don Hall and Chris Williams, and casting director Jamie Sparer Roberts enough for how they designed this cast and these characters.

As moving as the film is itself, it’s even more extraordinary when you take into account how rare an approach to casting and character treatment this is in something that cost $165 million to make. I can’t recall a big-budget film ever doing diversity this well. Period.

Big Hero 6 team