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Girls and Guns: Understanding the Gender Politics of Kick-Ass

April 20, 2010

Image via MTV.com

By the time the movie Kick-Ass opened in theatres this past weekend, the discussion surrounding it had already erupted into a debate over the portrayal of one specific character: Hit-Girl. For those who haven’t seen the film (a satire of the superhero, action genre), Hit-Girl is an 11-year-old assassin, prone to cursing, murdering drug dealers, and wearing her hair in adorable pig tails. She is meant to shock us, and, apparently, she has succeeded — some people love her, others are upset and disturbed by her, and still others feel conflicted. My own reactions to the character — and the film as a whole — fall into that third category.

In many ways, Hit-Girl is an empowering character for young girls. She is the sort of role actress Chloë Grace Moretz had always fantasized about playing, and the idea of superhero and action movies creating space for girls to play aggressive, powerful characters is innovative and refreshing. My overall feeling once I left the theatre, however, is that Hit-Girl was a feminist character trapped in a dreadfully anti-feminist film. The character is wonderful and progressive, but because she is operating in a gender-essentialist environment, she can’t help but be problematized.

Analysis (containing spoilers) below the jump.

As one might expect from a film that features a gun-toting adolescent girl busting up drug dealers, Kick-Ass relies heavily on shock value. Which explains why most of the Hit Girl’s critics are troubled by two things: the violence she perpetuates and her use of the “c-word.” Roger Ebert, perhaps the film’s most vocal critic, is particularly disturbed by Hit-Girl’s violent actions:

Let’s say you’re a big fan of the original comic book, and you think the movie does it justice. You know what? You inhabit a world I am so very not interested in. A movie camera makes a record of whatever is placed in front of it, and in this case, it shows deadly carnage dished out by an 11-year-old girl, after which an adult man brutally hammers her to within an inch of her life. Blood everywhere. Now tell me all about the context.

I understand his point (I don’t especially care for the degree of violence in movies today, particularly given the amount of actual violence that takes place every day in the real world), but neither the violence itself nor Hit-Girl’s involvement in it particularly bothered me. To me, seeing a young girl hold her own in a fight against adult men is rather empowering. It’s a message I’m far more comfortable with a film sending to young girls over, for instance, the images of troubling romantic relationships projected by the Twilight movies. I am also not particularly offended by Hit-Girl’s use of the “c-word.” It struck me as a moment of reclamation — instead of allowing the men she fights to use it as a slur against her, Hit-Girl stops the anti-feminist verbal abuse before it can even begin by reclaiming the word and using it against her opponents. The word isn’t feminist (and neither is physical violence), but the context and Hit-Girl’s use of it arguably is.

Image courtesy of rogerebert.suntimes.com

What did bother me about Hit-Girl was her complete lack of self-agency. When we are first introduced to her, we see her father training her how to react to being shot (while wearing a bullet-proof vest). As the film progresses, we learn that Hit-Girl’s father (also a superhero, operating under the alias “Big Daddy”) has trained her since the age of five to become an assassin, with the ultimate goal of avenging her mother’s death. It quickly becomes painfully clear that Hit-Girl didn’t become an assassin because she wanted to be one — she became one because, since she was a small child, her father trained her to be one. Killing is all she knows, so it is not surprising that it’s the life path she wants for herself. It doesn’t make it an inherently bad or wrong choice, but it does make it less feminist. Instead of becoming a superhero because she idolized superheroes since a young age, or resorting to violence as a way to defend herself against misogynist attackers, Hit-Girl becomes a superhero because her father made her become one. So much for choice.

As I watched Kick-Ass, I kept thinking back to the Quentin Tarantino movies that feature strong, violent, aggressive women — Kill Bill, Death Proof, Inglourious Basterds (and, presumably, Jackie Brown, though I’ve yet to see that film and therefore can’t speak to it). What elevates those films above Kick-Ass, for me, is that the violent female characters are acting entirely on their own free will. The character who Hit-Girl reminded me most of was Kill Bill‘s O-Ren Ishii, as both O-Ren and Hit-Girl begin their assassin careers as children. But from a feminist context, I much prefer O-Ren’s assassin origin story over Hit-Girl’s. Though Quentin Tarantino isn’t necessarily known for his groundbreaking gender politics, and though Kill Bill is problematic and flawed, I love how O-Ren’s story demonstrates how a child can become an assassin purely on her own volition. Nobody told her to seek revenge — she chose to do so herself. That act, that choice, is what makes the character feminist. I wish such a choice had been available for Hit-Girl.

The supposedly shocking elements of Kick-Ass — the violence and Hit-Girl’s foul language — did not bother me as much as subtler moments did. I was disturbed by Big Daddy’s control over Hit-Girl. I was disturbed by Hit-Girl referring to another superhero’s taser as “gay” and countless male characters calling each other “pussy” — words clearly not meant to be as shocking or offensive as the “c-word,” but words that are upsetting because we have already become desensitized to their usage as slurs. I was disturbed by the constant “othering” of Hit-Girl in the superhero world — while the male characters, such as Kick-Ass and Red Mist, have gender-neutral names, Hit-Girl’s name is a constant reminder that she is different, an outsider in a man’s world. I was disturbed by the film’s racial politics — the only non-white character who isn’t a drug dealer, thug, or mob boss is a police officer who never has an opportunity to take an active role in the story. It’s the moments that we aren’t supposed to notice, because they are so commonplace in film today, that bothered me most. The “shocking” elements may have been the most feminist and progressive parts of the film, and they are watered down by constant reminders of the anti-feminist status quo.

Despite the fact that Hit-Girl is the most engaging character in Kick-Ass, she is not the central focus of the film. And, by the sound of it, the sequel being developed will not focus primarily on her character, either. I hope that will change. Far more than Kick-Ass 2, I am interested in seeing a movie all about Hit-Girl. I am interested in a movie that lets Hit-Girl be a superhero and defeat the bad guys, and I want to see her do so for her own reasons, on her own volition. That’s a feminist film I would enjoy.

6 Comments
  1. Pat permalink
    May 4, 2010 6:35 pm

    “It quickly becomes painfully clear that Hit-Girl didn’t become an assassin because she wanted to be one — she became one because, since she was a small child, her father trained her to be one.”

    This is different in the graphic novel, but I don’t want to describe it for fear of spoiling the book for your readers. Suffice it to say that she is a comic lover in the actual comic.

    “I was disturbed by the constant “othering” of Hit-Girl in the superhero world — while the male characters, such as Kick-Ass and Red Mist, have gender-neutral names, Hit-Girl’s name is a constant reminder that she is different, an outsider in a man’s world.”

    Big Daddy is not a gender neutral name. I’m not sure why you chose to ignore that. If we really want to talk about gender specific superhero names we’ll have to go through Super Man, Bat Man, Iron Man, Spider Man, etc. You can’t take the use of a name that identifies gender and claim its sexist in this context but isn’t in the same genre going as far back as the 1930s.

    “… the only non-white character who isn’t a drug dealer, thug, or mob boss is a police officer who never has an opportunity to take an active role in the story.”

    In the comic Dave’s friends are multi-ethnic. I’m not sure why they weren’t cast that way in the movie. Maybe for the same reason that the casting for the all Asian universe of The Last Airbender did not include any Asians.

    • Carrie Polansky permalink
      May 5, 2010 1:08 pm

      Pat,

      This is different in the graphic novel

      Fair enough. Unfortunately, I’m only analyzing the film, not the graphic novel, so while the point you make is certainly valid, it doesn’t really factor in to my analysis. Also, if the comic-lover attribute of Hit-Girl was crucial enough to the story, why wasn’t it included in the film?

      Big Daddy is not a gender neutral name. I’m not sure why you chose to ignore that.

      Again, fair enough. But isn’t it interesting that out of three male superheroes, only one has a gender-specific name, while the only female superhero also has a gender-specific name? It’s still unequal.

      You can’t take the use of a name that identifies gender and claim its sexist in this context but isn’t in the same genre going as far back as the 1930s.

      Context does matter. I didn’t write this to analyze sexism in comics throughout history — actually, a lot of comics have excellent female characters. But that isn’t the point here. In the context of this film, Hit-Girl is othered. There is no reason why she needed a name that made her separate from the boys (unless there is more backstory as to how she got her name that isn’t explained in the film — in which case, it should have been explained in the film). The only purpose is to further demonstrate how Hit-Girl is different, which is already done by her language use, cutesy demeanor, etc. If the filmmakers and comic book writers chose their character names as intentional references to the characters from the DC universe, why didn’t Kick-Ass and Red Mist have similarly gendered names?

      In the comic Dave’s friends are multi-ethnic.

      Then there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have been in the film as well. Did the director thinks that only white kids are comic book geeks and having a diverse group of actors would alienate his target audience? Maybe so, but that doesn’t make it okay.

  2. orangehands permalink
    May 14, 2010 2:51 am

    I finally got to see this movie (which I only wanted to see because of the different posts about Hit-Girl) and I completely agree with you here: “It’s the moments that we aren’t supposed to notice, because they are so commonplace in film today, that bothered me most. The “shocking” elements may have been the most feminist and progressive parts of the film, and they are watered down by constant reminders of the anti-feminist status quo.”

    Hit-Girl (and even Big-Daddy) followed the same story line hero story lines do, and made us ask what it means that we watch graphic violence. Cause if we have a problem with an 11 yo enjoying watching a guy get smashed in a compacter, what’s it mean that in real life 11 yo.s are watching the guy get smashed in a compacter. And while Big-Daddy was definitely a manipulative abuser, he wasn’t any worse to me than, say, Dumbledore. The mentor controls the kid, pushing them into a lifestyle they may not want, letting them fight the battles they should have fought, dying to give the hero the final push into the climax. Hit-Girl was a hero story that – because of how our culture views 11 yo girls – made us question what the hero story means. I liked that.

    However, I did not like this movie. The homophobia, the rampant use of misogynistic language, the racism that is easily overlooked because it’s in almost all movies, the role of the “girlfriend” and the regular friends, that one of the friend’s looks at her carnage and wants to have sex with her (as the other friend said, “she’s ELEVEN!”, not to mention, why are you turned on by a psychopath?)…that all bothered me so much more than watching Hit-Girl curse and kill people. Did I like that she used the word “cunt?” No, I didn’t personally see it as empowering. But I had a lot less of a problem with her using the word than I did with the amount of times the three boys used “pussy,” mostly because three boys using “pussy” is not “shocking” to the general audience.

  3. May 27, 2010 6:48 am

    The use of the word ‘cunt’ didn’t shock me, and neither did the fact that a child used it. It barely registered until I read the online comments because it’s about as prevalent in my real life experience as other kinds of profanity, including (and especially) among younger people including kids.

    But I don’t know why some people think that the character’s use of the word ‘cunt’ is more empowering or acceptable because of her gender. Looking at it from that point of view – one which valorises the source as lending legitimacy – it’s relevant that the character was written by a male. It’s a poor argument, and somewhat analogous to racially discriminatory epithets being considered acceptable (or more acceptable) if they come from a person belonging to the group being maligned. They’re not. Reclaiming a word has to do with reclaiming its potential to harm. Think of words that have been used against certain minority groups. I’m conscious here that this is a blog that may have readers with vastly different cultural contexts than my own but where I come from I mean words like ‘black’, ‘blackfella’ or ‘nigga’. Reclaiming usually means a maligned group giving new (positive) content to a word that was previously used (negatively) to harm members of that same group. Cunt is not a reclaimed word. The character of a little girl written by a man speaking the word as an insult to other men does not constitute reclaiming the word and is not empowering. When sisters are using the word ‘cunt’ to refer positively to one another – recognition of members in a club – you’ll know the word is being reclaimed.

    I was also struck by the Lolita and O-Ren Ishii comparison and the differences. One of the things that disturbed but didn’t surprise me was Hit-Girl’s costume. Despite never having been to school before (as we’re told at the end when she enrols in Kick Ass’ school), she wears a schoolgirl-esque uniform. Why? What’s with the short skirt, pigtails and crazy purple wig? It’s out of character for someone who scorns Bratz dolls. I was also disturbed that she was less humanised than Kick Ass. He’s given the airtime to explore his motivation, self-doubt etc. while she is a 2-dimensional killing machine moulded by her father. Her decision to enlist Kick Ass and continue to go after the baddies is the only sign of fledgling autonomy (which is also clearly influenced by what she thinks her father would have wanted). Even Red Mist is allowed more character development. The other girls and women in the movie are equally predictable stereotypes: they’re either Virgin, Mother or Whore – the sexy teacher, the sexy girlfriend, the sexy girlfriend’s girlfriend who becomes the chubby geek’s girlfriend, the dead beloved mother of Kick Ass, the dead beloved mother of Hit-Girl, the trophy wife who’s Red Mist’s mother… /yawn There are no advances or icons for feminism here.

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