I used to label myself a feminist.
I was a teenager, and inspired by Kurt Cobain, who did the same. I agreed then, as I do now, with the original meaning of the word – one who believes in treating both genders equally, and is opposed to discrimination against women.
It only became a problem when others who embraced that f-word – my mother among them – started telling me what, based on that word, I was and was not supposed to think beyond the basic definition. Action movies were to be bad. Porn was flat out. Gangsta rap and heavy metal, forget about it. I decided then that I would keep the beliefs but ditch the label.
I still believe that we need more great female characters in movies. I don’t pretend that we’re at a level playing field on that score yet. But when I see feminist critiques of something like The Lego Movie, I find them counter-productive. Let me take a moment now to strap a gigantic bullseye to my face, as I write about pro-feminist themes from the point of view of a guy who possibly has no right to.
1. The “Trinity Syndrome” Is a False Premise.
Broadly speaking, the Trinity Syndrome, named for Carrie-Anne Moss’ character in The Matrix, is a badass, tough female who is introduced as the best at what she does but ultimately serves only to boost the male hero, who becomes a Chosen One better at everything even though he started from zero. It’s a provocative argument…and one that ignores the Matrix sequels.
Yes, I know a lot of fans would like to do exactly that, but once you get through the jargon, the sequels reveal the Chosen One as anything but. Neo has been set up from the beginning to be a fake Messiah, keeping everything in balance by giving the people false hope so that the machine overlords’ controlling cycle of destruction and rebirth can continue, occupying the pesky humans without disturbing their mechanical masters. The true female power in the Matrix movies is the Oracle, who challenges the pedantic Architect with a more challenging, more human way of looking at things. Trinity is still a better character than Neo is by the end; a real human being rather than an answer to an equation.
The Lego Movie draws strongly on The Matrix in its depiction of Emmet and Wyldstyle; this is true. Yet it’s for the right reasons, not the wrong ones. Like Neo, Emmet is a phony Chosen One, the product of a lie that keeps everyone else down. Wyldstyle/Lucy spends much of the movie trying to be something that doesn’t exist, whether it’s her fake goth identity or the Special role that Vitruvius made up. When she finally sheds that, she accepts the dunder-headed Emmet as an equal too. And by the way, in case you missed it…Emmet isn’t the one who saves the day. Which brings us to…
2. Unikitty. Everyone Forgets About Unikitty.
When people criticize The Lego Movie for not having strong female characters, I can only assume a pro-human bias is in effect. Unikitty, who reigns over what we later learn is the only part of the Lego universe that Finn – the real-life eight year-old – is allowed to play in, is the purest example of the real mind behind all the action. She has no husband or boyfriend, she is positive without being sickening, and, oh yes, she saves Emmet’s ass at the end.
What’s even better about that is how she does it – using the power of female rage. Think about that for a second. Pop-culture constantly tells us that angry women are bitches, that female anger is irrational compared to male anger, and raging women are probably the victims of monthly biology rather than autonomous beings making conscious choices. Unikitty suppresses her rage the entire movie, even as signs of it slip out, in what we might read as an attempt to go along with her expected narrative as a cute, pink, stereotypical girls’ toy. And yet when she unleashes her pent-up, angry side, it’s the crucial move that saves the hero.
3. Batman Is Defined by His Relationship to Wyldstyle, Rather Than Vice-Versa.
Critics of female characters in popular fiction often note, with some justification, that supposedly strong female characters are defined by their relationship to the male character. Yet while Will Arnett garnered raves for his satirical performance as Lego Batman, we should note that his character is entirely defined by the fact that he’s Wyldstyle’s bad boyfriend. It is not only his dominant trait – it is the only one introduced in the movie, as the story relies on our knowledge of Batman the character to fill in all the blanks (consider: if you’d never heard of Batman before The Lego Movie, his “Darkness! No parents!” song would make no sense to you at all).
I would dispute the notion that Wyldstyle asks for Batman’s permission to dump him at the end of the film – she’s being nice and trying to let him down easy, having learned, as every character has, that they are all living a bit of a lie. And she’s the one who sees the cracks in everyone’s pre-defined role first, even if she doesn’t see the full extent.
4. The Movie Undermines Cinematic Male Archetypes at Every Turn.
Perhaps the most understated cinematic critique in The Lego Movie comes when Batman hitches a ride on the Millennium Falcon with most of the cast of Star Wars, only to immediately return and complain that it was a total sausage-fest of all dudes.
Yes. Yes it was. And that’s a totally valid critique of the original trilogy.
But it doesn’t stop there. Cowboys, pirates and hard-ass cops are deconstructed and mocked even as a pink unicorn/kitten hybrid is built up to more than she seems. The stereotypical prophet is revealed to be a liar. The stereotypical male villain is a buffoon who profoundly misunderstands everything around him, down to Band-Aids and nail polish remover. Even our hero, Emmet, is perhaps the least manly construction worker you’ve ever seen. Superman and Green Lantern, two classic male heroes, are depicted as pathetically codependent. Albus Dumbledore is hopelessly hung up on mispronunciations of his name.
Meanwhile, the one area of the Lego world dominated by the child with whom we’re supposed to sympathize is Cloud Cuckoo Land, a hodge-podge where the overwhelming theme is cuteness and rainbows. That’s actually a pretty radical, possibly Brony-inspired undertone, one that undermines gender stereotypes in another direction.
5. The Kid Sister.
Though many of my critical brethren disagree, The Lego Movie really sinks its point home when things turn live-action. Using the basics of the toy at hand to distinguish original builders from those who follow instructions, it brings home a theme of how new generations of toy collectors see each other, how parents can get stuck into rigid thinking, how every form of play is valid and how denying that makes you the bad guy.
We’re meant to react against Dad’s literalist gluing, and support Finn’s outside-the-box thinking and storytelling. Except…in the movie’s final twist, Finn’s kid sister is allowed to play. She brings in her Duplo blocks and pledges to destroy everything Finn has created. In one fell swoop, Finn the rebel has become the establishment that an even younger generation is now rebelling against. There is no right way to play.
She may be young, and actually voiced by a boy, but it takes a little girl to finally prove the movie’s point that everything can be awesome in many different ways.