[SPOILER WARNING for The Rebellion Story. If you’re in the magical girl loop or just don’t care, read on unafraid]
Not gonna lie—there’s something immensely satisfying about watching a character rise up powerful when they’ve been everyone else’s kicky bag in the story so far. Especially if it’s someone characterised as traditionally weak and helpless, a young woman for example. Fighting back against the resident nasties, in whatever form they come, removes the damsel in distress frame and makes her her own vengeful hero. Bonus points if she’s superpowered up now, bonus bonus points if it’s something the baddies wanted but backfired. Yeah. It’s bitchin’. But it’s also a trope that can be used quite problematically.
Look at Lucy for example, or at least the trailer for it—I might be jumping the gunshark to cast judgement over the movie before it’s even out, but bear with me—aside from being all “woo-hoo! A lady-led superhero movie!” something about it rubbed me the wrong way. At first I thought it was just the ‘using more of your brain’s capacity makes you an automatic badass’ thing, which, I mean, I’m not a neuroscientist but I’m pretty sure that’s not as grounded a theory as some might think, even if it is explained by Morgan Freeman. Then I realised that the badassery I was watching played exactly into this little narrative idea that grates on me: Our Heroine is a force to be reckoned with, oh yes, but only after being manipulated, fondled and beaten to a pulp.
The drugs that make Lucy superhuman were implanted in her completely against her will, removing any agency from the get-go, and they were only activated when she was kidnapped by (presumably?) a rival gang and violently injured. Yes, there’s something very rewarding in watching the thug come back in thinking he’s got the upper hand and Scarlet Johannson smirking and kicking his expectations square in the crotch then swaggering out of there. But that’s the trap this trope falls into—women granted the ability to be world-shatteringly badass, but only once everything else is stripped away from them and, as the trailer states, they’re losing everything that makes them human. It’s sister cliché is ‘she’s suffered so much she’s really done and she’s going to turn evil’. It happens to perfectly respectable main characters everywhere, from Buffy to Madoka Magica. And it can be annoying, problematic, and occasionally make no damn sense.
Granted, this is not a gender specific irritation, but this post is going to talk about its effect on ladies. I think it happens more to female characters because women are more traditionally subject to being pushed around, thus making it, like I said before, a subversion of the distressed damsel archetype if they not only save themselves but toss off their innocent, feeble persona while doing so. It’s an “oh crap” moment for all those who looked down at them. So naturally, the more they’re kicked around, the more satisfying to watch it is when they kick back.
It’s the Daenerys Problem again. Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t have any of these narratives, because as a concept they’re very important. It’s really great to represent, in fiction, victims of abuse both believable and fantastical rising up and being powerful. Just because you’ve suffered at the hands of others, doesn’t mean you don’t have the power to slay continents.My issue is when it’s done stupidly—first up, it can be subject to a load of icky fan service on both ends of the spectrum. Someone somewhere is enjoying watching the kicky bag phase of Our Heroine’s story, especially if they’re, I don’t know, a slapped-around slave girl in suspiciously revealing gear. Of course, when they become a cold badass someone’s also going to find a way to make that perverted. What better to symbolise it than an outfit change? Tight leather and black dresses, anyone?
When [SPOILER ALERT] Homura becomes the devil in essence at the end of Rebellion Story one of the first changes we notice is a sultry smirk, coloured lips and longer eyelashes. And that’s before the black dress. Anime girls are at the mercy of this more than anyone else, unfortunately. Just ask Fate Stay Night’s Sakura, if she’s not too busy destroying those who would do her wrong in her slinky outfit presumably made with a blend corrupt Grail essence and Egyptian silk.
It may not be fair to compare these two directly, since (from what I understand of the third FSN route, anyhow) Sakura gets snapped out of her corrupt curse (with the power of love!! Among other things) and spends the rest of the story trying to help fix stuff, and is generally acknowledged as a person that made terrible mistakes and is awfully messed up but is deserving of healing love rather than banishment to the realm of smirking ice queen supervillains with legs that never end. Homura is also an odd case because her transition into evil made absolutely no sense except to end the movie on a cliffhanger and open the gates for new material so the Powers That Be can make more money off suffering magical girls. That really rubbed me the wrong way. It’s a double whammy of pushed-to-the-brink-for-smarmy-purposes, meta and in-universe.
Odd as it may sound, even Kill La Kill did that better. There was plenty of agency-stripping and fan service all around but in the end the characters got their power from their combined rage of how dare you force us into these objectifying and abusive situations, you disco-haired supremacist! So yes, there can still be an element of empowerment in these stories that push their characters around and are horribly problematic. That is also the Daenerys Problem. Game of Thrones is sketchy as all hell sometimes (consistently, even) but that doesn’t mean her story of rising up to become a cold badass has no worth. It also gets not-being-stupid-about-it points in acknowledging that Dany is still kind at heart, fallible and multi-faceted, and actually follows her transition from abuse victim to ‘badass’ and all of its consequences instead of just going shazam she’s the evil queen now!
Which is what peeved everyone about the transition of Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who had before then been a cutie patootie and half of one of the most well-written same-sex relationships on TV, until both of them were hit by the cliché truck that killed one and made the other evil. Better watch out for those magical lesbians. They are not to be trifled with, whether it flies in the face of hundreds of hours of previous characterisation or not.
Hey, if it’s a logical progression that’s handled well, isn’t overly sexualised, has consequences that are actually dealt with and makes sense to the story, and isn’t just done because its writers don’t know how people deal with such levels of trauma and thus the first conclusion they think of is to have them ‘snap’ and turn evil and because woo we get to design a hot dark outfit for them! then I’m willing to roll with it. When it’s done for its own sake it rustles my jimmies on a multitude of levels. I’m all for tragic backstories, but I’m also all for powerful evil ladies that don’t have to be stripped of all agency and power first.
Someone go see Lucy and tell me if it’s any good, because if it’s just Limitless with more fan service and guns I’m going to be really unimpressed.