Film Corner: Percy Jackson and the Sea of Fail

[Content Note: Racism, Misogyny, Holocaust appropriation, Percy Jackson Spoilers]

We went to go see Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters primarily because the trailer had Captain Malcolm Reynolds (i.e., Nathan Fillion) in it. His bits were, as anticipated, great. He also made a great Firefly joke, referring to a fictional TV show within the movie as "the best television show ever" before announcing "so of course it was cancelled". The sad face he held as the beat of the joke was possibly just a little too long, but we forgave him for it because he deserves all the nice things.

The rest of the movie I was less enthused by and it's difficult for me to say why. The movie was visually stunning and well-scripted, and I already realize that most of my issues with the characterization were issues that were both (a) contained in the source material and (b) overcome as part of a moral lesson. But it's just getting harder and harder for me to sympathize with misogynists and racists even when they have a Deathbed Confession moment at the end. And even when the Deathbed Confession moment is a point that the audience is "supposed" to come away with. Let me back up.

Percy Jackson stars as its main character Percy Jackson, who is white, the son of a major god, and one of the few kids at Camp Half-Blood who had something of a happy childhood and still has a loving and still-living mother. He also went on a major quest last year to save the world, but he's broody because his dad only talked to him that one time (which is more times than most of the kids at camp get) and because he isn't being constantly praised at camp which is obviously terrible for a young white male protagonist.

Instead, the majority of the praise is going to, get this, a girl who is obviously a total bitch and doesn't deserve the praise unless you think about the fact that she's done about twelve more quests than Percy has. But she only got those because she's the teacher's favorite, and we all know that. (If this were an older film, it would have been implied that Dionysus has a boner for her, too. Movie tropes, I am on to you.)

The fact that Clarisse is a total bitch is established in the opening sequence where they're doing some kind of sporting event and Percy decides to save a camper from almost certain... something? Probably not death, but maybe a broken leg or something. Whereas Clarisse callously ignores the student and wins the contest. Which seems like a terrible thing to do until you realize that apparently that was how the game is supposed to be played, so basically we (the audience) are condemning Clarisse for following the rules. Which is something I think would be understandable to do when you're a girl in a patriarchal society seeking approval from your teachers and peers. Why, it's almost like Percy has an extra layer of privilege that allows him to break rules (constantly) and still be praised not only in spite of but because of it!

But never mind, Clarisse is a bitch and we're all supposed to recognize that and hate her. But of course this is all a setup for Percy to Learn a Lesson! What that Lesson is about is less than clear: either he overcomes his confidence issues or his patriarchy-instilled misogyny or... something. But he does learn that Clarisse has a softer side and that she's Not All Bad just as long as she defers to his authority and specialness, which she does in a scene where she shamefacedly elects him quest leader. Once she acknowledges that she would rather be led by Percy than lead herself, then Percy is able to let her rake in all the end-of-quest accolades because he knows what's what in his heart.

The funny thing is, ten years ago I probably would have seen this as a win. Clarisse is still allowed to be hardcore and strong and badass and Percy has learned to play second-fiddle. But he's not really playing second-fiddle, since Clarisse has deferred to him in a pretty big way (and it's clearly an uncomfortably humiliating moment for her). It comes off less like Percy is okay with being second-best and more like Percy being assured that he really is the best and that the pertinent people in this equation (him, Clarisse, and their questing buddies) all know it. And indeed this authorial demand that all the girls be Less Than Percy has been a problem throughout the series and one reason why I haven't finished reading it. As I wrote in my review of The Titan's Curse:

On the bad side, I am just about ready to apply the "Faux Action Girl" label onto every girl in this series. The first two books were bad enough with Annabeth's crippling fear of spiders and Clarisse's aversion to being sensible, but I really thought that "Sea of Monsters" found its footing with Percy realizing that Tyson and Clarisse were individuals in their own right and I thought a lesson had been learned about respecting others. The lesson, however, seems not to have stuck.

There are five main female characters in this novel and all of them are pretty much useless and depend on Percy to save the day, despite each of them supposedly being strong, smart, capable women. Two women spend the entire novel chained up and awaiting rescue; another two spend the entire quest engaging in petty squabbles and childish grudges with each other. This is particularly frustrating since one of the girls is several thousand years old and a reader might assume that she would be above petty, childish temper tantrums all the time when, you know, the biggest war of the millennium is rapidly shaping up around them, but apparently not. (Thankfully, Percy is around to rise above it and keep the peace between the squabbling women.) Annabeth's crippling fear of spiders from the first book is recycled here as a fear of heights that causes one of the girls to completely seize up and become useless and/or dangerous no less than three times. Several of the girl characters are essentially defined only in terms of the males around them -- what Percy, Luke, and Nico think and feel *about* the women is portrayed as essentially more important than the women themselves. As a woman, it's frustrating and it feels like the author sees his male characters as people, but his female characters as plot objects.

In the same way that the female characters are under-developed, the rest of the world building is rather neglected here in this third novel -- now that Percy has hit his stride, it seems like the rest of the world is now defined entirely in relation to him. Characters are either for him or against him, or they're just sitting around on their hands back at camp. (At least three or four of the godling cabins are officially forgotten about now.) The increased hyper-focus on Percy could perhaps be forgiven if he wasn't becoming so blandly perfect! Though still hampered by his lack of knowledge about Greek myths (and you'd think he would have brushed up by now, under the circumstances), nevertheless, he comes up with almost all the winning battle strategies, makes all the right decisions, doesn't allow himself to become hindered or distracted by doubts, phobias, or grudges, and has a perfect, never-wavering moral compass. I know he's the hero of the story, but having a hyper-competent hero who regularly outshines everyone around him with his perfection became a little tedious by the time I reached the end.

In parallel to Percy and Clarisse working out misogyny issues in a blatantly unsatisfactory way that largely favors the privileged man, we also have Annabeth, a white blond girl, working out her racism issues on Tyson, who is a cyclops and the son of Poseidon and a sea nymph, ergo Percy's half-brother. Annabeth hates all cyclops because a cyclops killed her friend Thalia, which is... I don't even know how to describe how fucked up that is. Here, let me try:

There's a scene where Annabeth says something about how "his kind" (i.e., cyclops like Tyson) kill people, and NO ONE IN THE MOVIE calls out that the half-god Luke is killing people left and right and also it's major worldbuilding canon that World War II was caused because Adolf Hitler was a son of Hades, and Churchill and Roosevelt were sons of Poseidon and Zeus respectively. This is, for the record, why the Big Three gods (Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades) don't birth children anymore. (Except, ha ha, they totally do because what good is being a god if you can't break your promises.)

So this is basically a study in racism: Annabeth sees People Like Her as complex individuals capable of moral choice despite the fact that People Like Her are literally responsible for the worst atrocities of history, whereas she sees Other People as one-dimensional bad guys who are incapable of being anything other than stupid and evil and bad. She needs to Learn a Lesson! So of course Tyson sacrifices himself to save Percy (it's not permanent) and Annabeth realizes that cyclops people can be good sometimes after all! Awwww.

Wait, what?

So, just to be clear: we solved Percy being a misogynist by having a woman acknowledge that he's better than her, and we solved Annabeth being a racist by having a person she and Percy treat like absolute shit give his life for them.

The thought occurs that these plots are written for audiences that are expected to be misogynist and racist, and very probably by writing teams composed at least in part by people who haven't examined their misogyny and racism. That's why they expect the audience to insert into Percy and Annabeth as opposed to inserting into Clarisse and Tyson. And it's why they "challenge" misogyny and racism by assuring the audiences that women and people of different races are very nice and will defer to your privilege at their own personal cost.

If we must make fantasy movies steeped in misogyny and racism so that people can Learn a Lesson, why not have them Learn a Lesson by being seriously and painfully challenged on their misogyny? Have it pointed out to Percy that Clarisse is better than him at a lot of things, and that she's favored by the teachers because she follows the rules and doesn't roll her eyes at them when they're speaking? And that's she's favored by the students because she doesn't mope constantly about not being called by her dad, because she recognizes that all the students feel that way, not just herself? Have it pointed out to Percy that he can't continue to coast on being the son of a Big Three. (In the book he doesn't even try to better himself because that would hurt his Everyman status.)

And have it pointed out to Annabeth that white blond women have committed their share of atrocities so she can shut up and sit down in the Thinky Corner for fuck's sake. And, yes, this would possibly necessitate pointing out to the audience that white people have done some bad shit. But if we're going to have racist protagonists for the learning of lessons, that's the right way to do it. Not by humanizing a person of another race to prove that They're People Too, but by getting down to the root of the process of Othering and how fucked up it is to apply generalized observations about People Not Like Me while not doing so for People Like Me.

But also... sometimes I'd just like to see protagonists who are already not-misogynist and not-racist to begin with. From the beginning of the movie I could see we were building up to Learn a Lesson, and even if they'd executed it perfectly (which clearly they didn't) a part of me would still have been disappointed because I'd like to see a kid's movie that doesn't present racism as a perfectly understandable thing that has to be overcome. I'd like it to be instead sometimes presented as a horrible thing that heroes overtly reject and refuse to engage in.

Maybe not all the time. But I would have liked it this time. And especially when it became clear that the people writing the Learn a Lesson moral didn't know the first thing about intersectionality.


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