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Silent, violent girls: X-23 vs Eleven

laura-and-logan-in-logan

It is pretty striking that Stranger Things and Logan, within the space of a year and completely independently of one another, both gave us characters who are twelve year old girls that have been locked up, experimented on and used and abused for their unique abilities. Both girls are characterized by violent rage and scenes where they tear through entire groups of baddies who are after them, both are alienated from the outside world and from civilian behavior, and they even both have a shoplifting scene where they’re oblivious to customs of buying/selling and just walk into a store and take what they want, and turn violent when stopped by clerks. Both also have a sort of father issues narrative, and: both are somehow and at least at first presented as being silent.

There’s something very uneasy in thinking about the juxtaposition of all of this, but I do think Logan is more successful in not falling into traps of otherizing Laura and letting all this negatively affect her portrayal. This isn’t to pit Laura against Eleven, which might be rich of me to say given the title of this post, but it’s useful to examine harmful othering that unfortunately comes across with Eleven.

In Laura’s case, it helps that her background as a mutant experimented on and reared to be a weapon directly reflects Logan’s (not to mention she is one among a whole host of such children), so it is not the distinct level of alienation Eleven is given. Laura and Logan are mirrors of one another and their bond is built up through that, as well as Laura’s bond with the rest of the escaped mutant children, all of whom share a very warm found-family devotion and camaraderie with one another that comes across strongly even in what little screentime that aspect is given. In stark contrast to the dynamic presented in Stranger Things of exclusive boy band gawking at/crushing on mysterious weapon girl, who becomes a device to help them or stir things up between them or give them something to react to. Eleven’s escaped trauma and personal struggle with what she’s been through take a backseat to her usefulness to the boys, even having to prove that she isn’t messing around with them and really is trying to help and/or protect them, which often comes at the expense of her own well-being. Her violence and abilities are an asset in service of the boys: finding/rescuing Will, warding off their bullies and fighting off whatever baddies and creatures come their way. Whereas Logan centers Laura’s interests, her protection and getting where she wants to go as the main plot objective, and her abilities (and Logan’s) are in service of that and of herself, in addition to being more clearly recognized as something negative intended to make her a weapon, and the struggle of coping with that (“there’s no living with the killing”) as well as emphasizing that she shouldn’t let this consume her (“don’t be what they made you”).

Perhaps the most uneasy part of how Eleven is handled is her appearance, and the utter lack of agency she has over it. With a shaved head and hospital gown from the lab that was experimenting on her when we first meet her, she is later given some ill-fitting boys’ clothing, first by a diner owner then by the group of boys. The lack of personal choice she has in any of it dilutes whatever badass and gender norm-defying vibe this is supposed to give her, later completely aggravated by an insane scene where the three boys literally dress her up in a pink dress, blonde wig and makeup so that she can be “pretty” (how anyone writing this show thought the concept of a twelve year old girl needing makeup and a twelve year old boy knowing how to apply it on her was a good idea, I cannot fathom), pushing her back into a traditional female beauty standard ( and then making her the object of the main kid’s affections and having them share a kiss). Laura in comparison has a scene devoted to choosing her own clothes, and doesn’t need an out of the ordinary look to set her apart and emphasize toughness and uniqueness. Her look is of a normal little girl and her hair is long and loose, and at no point does this detract from her “toughness”, nor does it ever give her an overly “girly” perception or push her into any kind of role. She’s just a girl. Who also has claws in her hands and feet and can tear people to pieces. There is of course nothing wrong with giving Eleven, or any female character a shaved head, which on the contrary can be very much a powerful statement (Furiosa in Mad Max), but Stranger Things handles it very poorly, first through her lack of agency in it and then by shoving her into that bizarre wig situation.

The lack of agency also carries through to other aspects of Eleven’s portrayal, as she is often uncertain of how to act and what to say, and falls into taking her cues from the boys. Whereas even though Laura is similarly escaping trauma and confinement and is oblivious about real world behavior and needs to be told “NOT OKAY” by Logan, she lacks Eleven’s utter timidity outside of fight mode. Laura’s self-assured demeanor is consistent and comes across strongly whether she’s slashing through villains, enjoying a mechanical pony ride, being inquisitive about music or arguing with Logan, and it isn’t lessened or stifled as her initial anger and lashing out give way to moments of emotion and tenderness as she connects with Charles and Logan and finds the trust and bonding that bring down her guard and allow other facets of her to emerge. All this making for an impressively well-rounded and dynamic characterization for her in the short space of one film, that an entire season of Stranger Things doesn’t quite afford Eleven.

This is also tied to the handling of Laura’s “silence”. She appears mute for a large portion of the film, only to suddenly erupt into arguing with Logan later when they are alone. This all plays into her arc of opening up and moving past the constant wired state that she’s in as an escapee of captivity and trauma; she starts out guarded and playing things close to the vest, wary and mistrustful of Logan, illustrated by her fighting him off of looking into her bag, and rebellious and hard-headed with him as she cautiously follows his lead, which at first is a means to an end for her: Logan is the one person who can help her get where she wants to go. But as the emotional bond between them unfolds so does she, letting down her guard of silence. In the end Laura’s silence is not a defining aspect of her; rather a choice she makes and then lets go of. The silence barrier and language barrier (Laura’s first language is Spanish) also reinforce the aspect of Laura and Logan struggling to understand one another even as they have this intrinsic connection, and also creates an environment where everything not being said is percolating between them and building up tension that erupts when Laura breaks her silence and full on starts yelling at Logan. When she wants to, she doesn’t hold back or mince words with him at all. In addressing her silent spell, Logan director James Mangold also talked about how earlier drafts of the movie had her going back and forth with Logan from the start, which ended up being too much snappy banter overshadowing the more subtle and meaningful expression that comes through without it. This speaks to the strength and presence of Laura as a character that she emanates even without dialogue, and reminded me a little of J.J. Abrams speaking on earlier drafts of The Force Awakens that more heavily featured Luke, saying that Luke ended up hugely overshadowing everything else and so the decision was made to have him not appear until the end, and not speak. The treatment of Eleven’s distinct lack of voice is pretty different though; it is not a personal choice on her part to withhold speech so much as just a general lack of speech ability. She seems to genuinely only know a few words and this contributes a lot to how she is set up and perceived as a character: bewildered and aimless with no real motivation, following the boys’ lead with them always explaining things to her while she just listens and nods. It’s a stark contrast to how Laura manages to convey so much through just her demeanor and general attitude even when she’s not speaking, purposeful and pointed even in unfamiliar territory.

Even the fact that both girls in their captivity are reduced to identification by code number, yet Laura gets to move past that imposed identity and otherization and have a real name whereas Eleven even well after her escape is still just known as Eleven, contribute to the overall very different presentation and perception of each of these characters, even as they fall into a lot of the same larger tropes on first glance. Here’s hoping that the next installment of Stranger Things gives Eleven the dimension she deserves.

Originally written in March of 2017. 

Ex Machina and the death of the sexbot

EX MACHINA, Alicia Vikander, 2015. ©A24

[Major spoilers for Ex Machina]

There is so much that could be endlessly dissected and discussed in Alex Garland’s 2014 masterpiece, but one thing I particularly spent a lot of time thinking about after first watching Ex Machina was the dichotomy of it as yet another film that sexualizes its female AI, but one that uses that both explicitly and implicitly as commentary on gender and how men perceive women. The important nuance here is that the sexualization is consciously imposed on Ava by the film’s two male characters: It is never something inherent in or defining of her, but a view that the men project onto her.

The gratuitousness of the ubiquitous sexy woman robot that sci-fi has long treated as a mere male gratification object – up to and including very recent, supposedly more thoughtful takes on the genre, from Her (2013) where even an AI that is just a voice is sexualized (and unconvincingly has the ability to experience sexual pleasure) and largely exists to indulge the central male character, to Blade Runner 2049 (2017) with its completely regressive sexy hologram housewife – has always been a reflection on real world toxic male perception of women. That gender dynamics revolve around male pleasure; that our worth is in our bodies and our desirability to men; that our bodies naturally invite objectification, even sexual assault and violence, removing male responsibility and culpability therein.

The sexualization projected onto Ava happens both overtly, in Nathan’s misogynist walking embodiment of toxic masculinity thrusting this sexuality onto her, and covertly, in Caleb’s innocent nice guy interpreting her behavior as attraction to him and romanticizing her as the damsel in distress that he can rescue from Nathan. As the film engages with questions of the believability of Ava’s artificial intelligence and a Turing test to see whether she can pass as human, both men ultimately cannot separate their attitudes towards women from their attitudes towards what they know to be a machine – exposing the correlation between the otherness of the machine and the othering of women by men; the treatment of women as this mysterious thing that falls somewhere between object and person, existing to cater to men. The more Caleb “humanizes” Ava, the more he sees her through the lens of his own desires, and vice versa.

In the end, for both men their perceptions of Ava lead to their own downfall, in a turn that flips on its head the trope of a woman using her “feminine wiles” to trick/defeat a villain. Ava has only manipulated these men insofar as they have in high arrogance done so to her and each other and in turn, to themselves; nor do her actions stem from any gender tendency because she has no gender – it only exists in the form of what was projected onto her, in their minds. The lines between Caleb as hero and Nathan as villain also break down; there are no heroes in toxic masculinity, there will be no male wish fulfillment here. As Ava leaves her physical entrapment, she also leaves the metaphorical one of being defined by her capacity for male gratification.

In a sci-fi landscape where themes of existential and ethical questions and complexities around artificial intelligence have been reserved for male-coded AI characters, while their female counterparts are reduced to sexbots, Alex Garland’s masterful, subtle subverting of the sexbot trope (and many others) to expose it and expose toxic perceptions of women, gender and sexuality, while centering Ava in a deeply intricate and thrilling rumination on artificial intelligence, is a landmark feat. Ex Machina remains a small, under-watched film, and not without its faults, but it is one of the most important sci-fi films ever made. The knife Ava plunges through Nathan’s chest is a knife in this tired, backward trope, and Ex Machina holds accountable any more lazy depictions of it that follow.