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WEB EXCLUSIVE | SUMMER 2010

Feminist Film Analysis 101: A Case Study of "Despicable Me"

Given the ire my reviews of Toy Story 3 and Iron Man 2 generated (especially in their traversal of the non-feminist blogosphere) was largely due to their feminist slant, I feel a little bit of “gendered film analysis” or “feminist media theory 101” is called for.

Many of the angry comments my film reviews received were of the lighten-up-you-angry-man-hating-feminist- it’s-just-a-film variety. Such comments fall into the tired misconception that feminists hate men and misdirect their anger for any number of reasons; they “need to get laid,” are ugly or all that unshaven leg hair is getting them down.

It's sad that such a mainstream conception of feminists still holds strong sway. Alas, one of the reasons feminists like myself are angry is due to the media’s continued fortification of sexism, racism, classism and homophobia. We recognize that the media is a form of “psychic spackle,” as Susan Douglas calls it, that fills our minds with certain ideas of how the world should be.

In our media-saturated culture, the messages we receive about who matters and what is normal bombard us relentlessly, and most of these messages include latent if not overt sexism. This is certainly true of our movies, and is precisely why feminist film analysis is so necessary. This type of analysis refuses the idea that films are “just entertainment” and takes movies to task for their less-than-stellar representations of women, people of color, homosexuals and other "others."

Shaped by the common feminist notion of “intersectionality,” such analysis insists that different categories of social identity intersect in ways that privilege some and disempower others. A term coined by feminist theorist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, the concept of intersectionality is sometimes referred to as “the multiplicity of oppression” or “the privilege/oppression matrix.” As all of these terms suggest, we are not “just women” nor “just men,” but are defined also by our geographical location, our socio-economic status, our sexuality, our appearance and so on.

As I wrote in an earlier post on my Professor, What if ... ? blog, “Words are like overstuffed suitcases” that need unpacking. As I argued,

'Woman' should not be used to make whiteness or other categories of social privilege invisible. It should not be used as a synonym for white woman, for a heterosexual female or for any other supposedly (ugh) ‘normal’ category. Rather, the word must carry all the heavy connotations stuffed into the very large, overstuffed suitcase of all those social positions, identities and intersectionalities that are socially constructed as well as embodied by those who identify or are identified as women.

Films are also like overstuffed suitcases, and as a feminist critic I am keen to unpack the many messages they foster about identity norms and social ideologies. In the second section of this post, I will analyze the recent film Despicable Me in relation to some of the key concerns of feminist criticism so as to offer a “feminist primer” film review. Key areas of feminist concern are underlined in hopes that some of these ideas might make their way into the non-feminist blogosphere and put a few cracks in the “fear and loathing of feminism” that Susan Faludi describes as “a sort of perpetual viral condition in our culture.”

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Despicable Me, though not overtly feminist is, in fact, better than many children’s movies in its depictions of gender, race, class and in its explorations of power and privilege.

It has a fairly good gender ratio. Though the two arch villains, Gru and Vector, are both male, and all the minions are coded as male, many females, from Gru’s mother to Miss Hattie, play key roles. Most significantly, the moral of the story comes from three girls--Margo, Agnes and Edith. As Elizabeth Weitzman puts in her review, the film teaches us that “three little girls with a penchant for tutus will melt even the iciest villain's heart.”

The film begins by detailing the daily annoyances that drive Gru to villainy, such as the long line at the coffee shop and slow drivers, leading us to believe that contemporary life is what has generated Gru’s despicable-ness. Alas, as the film continues, it enacts a “blame the mother” meme, suggesting that poor Gru was ignored and neglected by his mom and it's this, not the annoyances and inequalities of life, are what spawned his evil-ways. From a feminist perspective, blaming the mother in this way is suspect and tired--it is the same blame that has been heaped on “evil stepmothers” and “wicked witches” for centuries.

Yet, to be fair, the film similarly blames Vector’s father for his son’s villainy, suggesting that parental neglect is problematic from mothers or fathers. The focus on family and parenthood is particularly praiseworthy for its representation of the difficult, thankless task, as well as for its suggestion that parenting need not be gendered. As noted at Feminist Review, the film calls “into question traditional roles of masculinity, especially in response to parenthood.”

However, the film does fall into various stereotypical representations. In the opening scene, the little boy is an active troublemaker, the mom is the nurturing and aware parent, and the dad is oblivious, only concerned with hamming for the camera. The dad also accords to another common stereotype: Fat equals funny. Later, the representations of Miss Hattie and Vector’s father trade in another stereotype: Fat equals evil. How films depict certain bodiesmatters, as it furthers notions of--to use Judith Butler’s conception--which bodies matter and why. Unfortunately, Despicable Me falls in line with the ubiquitous message that fat isn’t normal and can either be played for laughs or used to represent defect.

Miss Hattie also furthers the notion that women can’t handle power (it turns them evil) and, further, that a woman who does not love children is truly heinous. Like Miss Hannigan of Annie or Medusa of The Rescuers, Miss Hattie is bad not because she is a world-threatening villain (as Gru and Vector are) but because she refuses to abide by the norms of femininity--a key requirement of which is to be nurturing. Yet, she ultimately goes soft when Gru flirts with her (another stereotype) and allows Gru to adopt Margo, Agnes and Edith.

These girls in many ways represent positive female role models--they are smart, rebellious and creative--and as the films quasi-heroines they bring about the happy ending. This part of the storyline suggests that, regardless of age or gender, one can be a hero. (If only these heroines were featured in the promotional posters and previews. Alas, their absence attests to the fact most films are directed at boys and men as if they are the “neutral audience.” In fact, Disney went out of it’s way to man-up the forthcoming Rapunzel-themed Tangled lest it lose the all-important boy factor. No one seems concerned, apparently, about losing girl audiences.)

In addition to suggesting girls can save men instead of the other way around, Despicable Me also undercuts ageism in the representation of Dr. Nefario, ace inventor. Though his problems with hearing are used for comic effect (he makes a “fart gun” instead of a “dart gun”), he belies the notion, much like the protagonist in Pixar’s Up, that old equals incompetent. When Gru complains “Why are you so old” the audience is encouraged not to support Gru’s ageism, but to root for Dr. Nefario’s funny ingenuity.

However, when Dr. Nefario slowly rides his scooter for comic effect, the film teeters towards ableism, or the concept that non-able bodies are either inconsequential or an annoyance. This meme is also furthered at the level of language, as when the word “lame” is used to describe less than stellar villains. As Renee at Womanist Musings explores in her post “It’s not just lame,” this word has powerful ableist connotations. She shares,

When I hear or see the word lame written, it reminds me that the world was not created for bodies that function like mine.

The film plays this fact to comic effect, indicating that the world is indeed not created for bodies like Dr. Nefarious. However, at least it included a character that falls outside of age and able-bodied norms.

The film also does not act as if the entire world is white or American via its inclusion of various raced characters. In so doing it refuses the unexamined white privilege lens, depicting society as diverse. It's also diverse in its depiction of class status with the banker, Gru, Dr. Nefario, Vector and Miss Hattie representing class/power privilege while the minions and the three girls represent exploited workers. In a quasi-Marxist depiction, the minion factory floor workers do all the drudgery and are treated as objects for experimentation purposes. Gru tells them there will be “no raises” at one point, and though the film does not explore this exploiter/exploited theme at length, it at least hints at the unfair power differential between bosses and worker bees.

The girls similarly function as exploited workers, forced  to sell cookies for Miss Hattie and meet quotas that, if not met, will result in their imprisonment in “the box of shame.” As noted at Feminist Review, this is a jab at the adoption system, as well as gender and class privilege…”

Yet, as pointed out by Gategrrrl at The Hathor Lecacy, the film problematically doesn’t tie up this narrative thread of abuse. As Gategrrrl notes,

The girls are sad when they’re booted back to the orphanage with the abusive head of the orphanage–but never express too much anger about it. Nor does Miss Hattie ever get HER punishment, and there’s not any thought about the other orphans in her orphanage, as some sort of wrap up in the plot. Gru rescues the girls from Vector--but not the orphanage and evil-but-'nice' Miss Hattie. Notice that the rescue is from HIS adversary, but not theirs?

This failure to tie up the Miss Hattie storyline is problematic, but the film’s  overall depiction of the inequity and power structures that keep certain people subordinate to others is laudable.

Further, its exploration of the hardships of daily life reveals how the personal is political. As noted at Feminist Review,

The title alone is a reflection of the human condition, for any one of us can be the ‘me’ in question, participating in any variety of despicable acts on a daily basis.

These personal, despicable acts, the film insists, are political. It is not only our big actions (such as Gru’s attempt to steal the moon) that define who we are, but also our little acts (such as his inability to wait in line). The importance of everyday life, of work/life balance, of teamwork or collectivity, are all emphasized, showing that the public/private and personal/political dichotomies are false constructs.

In contrast to what girls regularly learn via mainstream media, which Katha Pollitt wittily sums up as  “to be a passenger car drawn through life by a masculine train engine,” Despicable Me suggests that girls need not be submissive passengers, and males need not be exploitive, powerful engines. Rather, the film proposes, we are all on this ride together. Like the Minions who join forces to save Margo, we should “buddy up” and live by the motto that oppressing one oppresses us all – or, as Marian Anderson put it in 1957, “As long as you keep a person down, some part of you has to be down there to hold him down, so it means you cannot soar as you otherwise might.”

Photo: Official movie poster from Despicable Me via Film-o-Filia.

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