People, it is time to talk about white male privilege and how it is being used as a "default" form any time a licensed movie comes down the pike in search of a plot. Because I am sick of it.
We watched Battleship this weekend. And: Okay? I knew it would be bad going in. Seriously, if anyone responds to this post saying it's Battleship what did you expect of course it would be bad then they are going to be introduced to Hektor the Moderating Dog, because yes, I knew it would be bad. But I expect more from my Bad Movies than white male privilege leaking all over the place; I was hoping for nothing worse than campy dialogue and silly CGI. And I won't apologize for holding movies -- even Bad Movies -- to a higher standard than this.
So. We watched Battleship this weekend because Husband wanted something nice and campy for me to yell at in good fun. It's like having Mike Nelson and the bots in the house, only ALL THE TIME. Only I wasn't available to yell in good fun because I was instead sitting on the couch slack-jawed in astonishment at how thoroughly this movie revels in white male privilege. Because what the flip.
The movie starts with Taylor Kitsch (Alex) and Alexander Skarsgård (Stone) bitterly lamenting the fact that Alex has no job, no apartment, and no transportation -- apparently largely because he despite being really smart and really handsome and really white and really privileged and really educated and really AWESOME, he doesn't feel the need to actually earn anything in life and prefers to have everything handed to him on a silver platter. And while it may seem like I'm being unfair in that characterization, I can assure you that it is based on the full two hours of this privilege-fest movie.
In order to impress the Smoking Hot Woman who has walked into the bar and asked for a chicken burrito, Alex runs to the nearest gas station slash convenience store, harangues a tired Asian-American convenience store employee for refusing to reopen the store for his White Male Privilegeness, and then proceeds to break into the store while causing a tremendous amount of property damage which is apparently based on a real life incident and about which I give not one fuck.
Alex then runs back to the bar while chased by police sirens and manages to place the chicken burrito in the hands of the Smoking Hot Woman before the police taser him, which is in itself a manifestation of White Male Privilege because I'm pretty sure that Alex has never once had to worry that the police might shoot him with real bullets instead of with taser darts. Because privilege is comfy like that. And also Because Privilege, the woman -- Brooklyn Decker (Sam) -- finds this whole thing deeply amusing and tremendously romantic rather than terrifyingly obsessive and a frightening single-minded disregard for the rights of others when they get in the way of Alex's desires. Exactly what any woman wants in a boyfriend!
The next day opens with Alex moaning about the wounds left by the taser darts -- rather than, as I had expected, in a jail cell -- because Privilege means never having to face any consequences for your actions. Stone demands that Alex join the Navy with him so that he can stop getting into trouble, and one short flash-forward later, we learn that -- despite the fact that Alex is a loose-cannon with no respect for authority and a blatant disinterest in serving his country -- he has been promoted to Lieutenant and placed in charge of weapons systems. Indeed, if you listen to Liam Neesom (Admiral Shane) in this trailer, you can learn that Alex wasn't just promoted, but was promoted from "enlisted to officer faster than anyone in the history of the United States Navy". White Male Privilege will do that for you!
Alex then proceeds to get kicked in the head during a soccer match and loses the game for his team by insisting that he be the one to attempt the penalty shot despite his obvious concussion -- and he gets his way by simultaneously applying emotional pressure to his brother (the team captain) and by literally threatening to kill the teammate selected to perform the penalty kick in his stead. After losing the soccer match, Alex lounges on the beach for awhile with his girlfriend -- a major sub-plot in this movie is when and how he will ask her father, Admiral Shane, for his "permission" to marry Sam -- before then sneaking in late to a major opening ceremony and refusing to take off his sunglasses out of respect for the veterans being honored at that ceremony. Because he's cool like that.
And when Sam steers Alex towards her father after the ceremony so that he can ask permission, Alex instead ends up in the bathroom, illegally brawling with the soccer player who kicked him in the head earlier in the movie. This scene climaxes in Admiral Shane chewing Alex out for being so damn awesome, including being able to interrupt Admiral Shane quoting Homer, so that he can finish the quote himself. Which means that Alex doesn't just memorize Homer in his free time, he memorizes all English translations of Homer. Because White Male Privilege.
Briefly we cut away from Alex so that his blonde white woman girlfriend Sam can literally lecture a black disabled man about his "anger". I am not making this up.
And here is my point: Literally this entire movie is about White Male Privilege pain. The movie goes out of its way to establish that Alex is awesome, not because he's a good person or because he makes good choices, but because he's inherently good by virtue of being white and male and educated. The story arc is about Alex losing his brother (manpain!) and learning to grow up and accept responsibility. There is literally a scene where a person of color -- John Tui (Chief Petty Officer Walter "The Beast" Lynch) -- pleads with Alex to step into command after Stone's death, telling Alex: "If you can't...who can?" The movie denouement involves Alex accepting an award for being awesome, being reassured that he has an amazing future in the Navy, and agreeing to have lunch with Admiral Shane so that he can give his permission for Alex to marry Sam.
All the stuff with aliens and battleships are nothing more than a stepping stone between a Privileged White Boy becoming a Privileged White Man.
It would be easy to write this off as Battleship just being a shit movie, but that would be missing the larger picture. The self-discovery of a privileged white man as he grapples with adversity has become -- and perhaps always has been -- a standard default form for movies, particularly action movies. Want to tell a story about aliens fighting naval battles? Let's craft the narrative about a white man learning responsibility! Want to tell a story about humans invading another planet for its environmental resources? Let's craft the narrative around a white man learning the importance of nature! Want to tell a story about the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the loss of life that day? Let's craft the narrative around two white men learning to love the same woman! Want to tell a story about a magical land full of strong female characters as written by a feminist man? Let's craft the narrative around a white man learning the importance of leadership! Want to tell a story about American history and slavery and the civil war? Let's craft the narrative around a white man standing up for what's right!
And, you know, that's just shit off the top of my head. I'm sure I could name about eleventy billion more if I really tried. And -- more often than not -- the few times a movie isn't about a white male privileged guy learning self-discovery while navigating the end of the world, it ends up being a white female privileged gal.
The thing of it is, I don't think this is the worst formula in the world, okay? I get wanting to insert human interest in an action movie. Some things -- like, for instance, an ALIEN INVASION -- are going to be hard for some of the audience to really grapple with and so it's often very useful to give them a viewpoint character to sink into. Someone who can humanize the vast tragedy and bring to home precisely how awful and terrible this big, awful, terrible thing is. And I think that this formula doesn't necessarily preclude larger human interest and social themes and important messages. This is not a post saying that you can't make or enjoy movies with privileged white male protagonists anymore.
This is a post saying that I would like the viewpoint character for these movies to not nearly-always be a privileged white male protagonist. I am tired of this being the default form that producers and writers and directors apparently never seem to question that audiences will just love. Why, instead of a monumental fuck-up privileged jerkass who pisses away goodwill and opportunity like there's no tomorrow, could not this movie have starred a black woman who had managed to make Lieutenant despite the barriers of racism, sexism, and Good Old Boys' club assholishness? Why, instead of a self-discovery of maybe I shouldn't be a violent self-absorbed asshole anymore culminating in a medal of awesome, could not this movie have been about a black woman Lieutenant being catapulted into a command she might otherwise have never been given a chance at and being incredibly awesome at it, culminating in a medal of kickass and the message that diversity is important if we want to be good at repelling alien invasions?
Because -- and this might just be me -- I would so much rather have watched that movie than the one we ended up with.