Film Corner: 30 Days of Night (and Some Thoughts on Character Gender)

[Content Note: Violence, Vampires, Stylized Blood on the Poster Image, 30 Days of Night Spoilers]

I really like the 30 Days of Night franchise, though it's difficult for me to say precisely why. I own the movie, the book novelization, and several of the comic books, but from a critical perspective I have to admit that the comic books past the initial Barrow, Alaska incident don't really do anything for me, and the art style of the comics is very much not the sort of thing I like. (The stylized faces seriously freak me out.) And the movie and associated novelization are unperfect in some serious ways.

I think, to be honest, what I like most about the franchise is that single starting concept, and for the benefit of non-fans I'll give a brief rundown here. 30 Days of Night takes the fact that there are places on earth where the sun doesn't come up for an extended period of time (also known as Polar Nights) and asks what would happen if asshole vampires decided to take advantage of that fact to create a self-service vampire buffet that lasts a full month.

As story setups go, I like it. I like how it takes an existing genuine (and interesting and neat) fact about our world and applies it to an existing mythos in an original manner. (Or a manner which I presume is original; probably someone will inform me in the comments that Dracula Takes Alaska came first or something, lol.) And I like how it manages to work a siege story into a vampire story when usually siege mechanics are more often the providence of zombies.

One thing I don't care for is the emphasis on gore, which was repeated in the movie to (imho) its detriment, but then I recognize this is possibly the equivalent of me gate-crashing an ambassador's fancy dress party and complaining about all the Ferrero Rocher -- just because I may or may not care for something doesn't mean that all the fans unanimously share my opinion.

But something struck me the other night when I was musing over the film-slash-novelization with regards to the gender of the characters and their fate. For the bulk of the film-slash-novelization, we are saddled with this unlikely crew (and note that none of them are described with gender-neutral pronouns or suggested to not fit a gender-binary, so I am presuming that the authors intend us to read these characters as cis-gendered):

• Eben, apparently cis male. Local sheriff. Sacrificial death to save Stella.

• Stella, apparently cis female. Estranged wife to Eben. Lives, thanks to Eben's sacrificial death.

• Jake, apparently cis male. 15-year-old brother to Eben. Lives.

• Beau, apparently cis male. Loner who lives on the outskirts of town. Sacrificial death to save Eben.

• Carter, apparently cis male. Infected by vampires and asks Eben to kill him.

• Doug, apparently cis male. Too stupid to survive. Killed by vampires. 

• Isaac, apparently cis male. Has Alzheimer's and wanders out into the town. Killed by vampires.

• Wilson, apparently cis male. Isaac's son; follows his father trying to save him. Killed by vampires.

• Lucy, apparently cis female. Owns the local diner. Lives.

• Denise, apparently cis female. Her entire characterization is that she's sexy. Lives.

Briefly, at the end, we get two more folks tacked on to the group:

• Billy, apparently cis male. Deputy sheriff. Killed by vampires.

• Gail, apparently cis female. Little girl; saved by Stella. Lives, thanks to Eben's sacrificial death.

So, hang on, let me get my calculator. Twelve major named characters. Four of them are female. Eight of them are male. Seven of the men die; none of the women die. If we classify Jake as a child instead of as an adult -- which is something his protective older brother Eben would very much like us to do -- we would seem to have a classic Men Are The Expendable Gender situation, where women and children are the only folks left standing after the apocalypse.

But hang on a second. 30 Days of Night seems to try to avert this criticism a bit by having named women dying copiously, as long as those named women aren't part of the main cast. John and Ally Riis both die, and Ally dies first. Kirsten Toomey -- who the vampires use as bait to try to lure out survivors -- dies in a visceral and painful to watch scene. And you could argue that both Ally and Kirsten are characterized more thoroughly than Denise "Yes, the book compares her to Catherine Zeta-Jones" ...whut.

Sorry, I was going to put Denise's last name there as a sort of FIRST "NICKNAME" LAST joke, but I just realized she doesn't have a last name. For reference, the only other people in the cast without last names are either "dies instantly" victims or vampires. I.e., not people who survive from the first chapter to the very end.


Setting the "Denise Zeta-Jones" issue aside for a moment, my earlier point was that lots of women, including named-and-characterized women, die in the book. And an effort is made to put Eben (male alpha hero badass) in danger so that he can be saved by a heroic sacrificial death, and also an attempt is made to dial Eben down a bit from Total Badass by giving him asthma and a need for inhalers. And I kind of like this; there's not a lot of media where the guy swinging fire-axes around to decapitate invincible vampires also has to stop for a whiff on an inhaler every so often. Yay for heroes with disabilities and medical conditions and whatnot. So it seems like the authors weren't consciously trying to have Strong Men Dying For Women And Children going on. (Though intent isn't magic.)

But later in the movie/book something happens which really bothers me, and I'll summarize the events leading up to it as briefly as I can:

1. The group is attacked in the General Store by a vampire that looks like a little girl. Jake is forced to kill her and is traumatized by the juxtaposition of her youthful appearance with his deadly response.

2. The group is forced to split up and the Billy-Eben-Stella group are huddled under a house for safety when they see young Gail stumbling randomly around the street. Despite the fact that they know the vampires follow victims to flush out fresh victims, Stella acts on impulse and pulls Gail under the house with them, alerting the vampires to their presence and forcing the group to break up further.

3. When Stella and Gail become fatally trapped under a car (with a RIVER OF FIERY OIL creeping toward them), Eben sacrifices his humanity to become a vampire since that's the only way he can cause a long enough distraction for Stella and Gail to flee to safety.

And that's when this scene happens:

Book version:
“He’s one of them,” Denise whispered.

Eben opened his eyes again and looked at her. She flinched back under his gaze. Lucy, too, backing away from the window and toward the stairs leading up to the balcony. He smiled, and he felt a pearl of blood dribble from his receding gums. He ran his tongue across his teeth, surprised at how long they suddenly felt, and then he realized what the movement would suggest.

Jake stood his ground. The ax still hung from his right hand.

“How do we know he won’t attack us?” Lucy said, speaking as if Eben was no longer there. And in a way, he supposed he was not.

Denise whispered again. “Maybe we should stop him now.”

Jake spun on them, brandishing the ax and backing up until he was standing directly in front of Eben. “Shut up! Shut up, now!” he shouted. “You touch him and you can kill me, too! Don’t you see what he’s doing? Don’t you understand what he’s done?”

Movie version:
Then he reels back as another wave of agony shatters through him; DENISE GASPS AS EBEN’S PUPILS WIDEN, LARGER AND BLACKER

-- he’s one of them --

Eben’s lips pull back in a rictus of pain -- his gums have started to recede, making his teeth look unsettlingly feral

-- how do we know he won’t attack us?

(reluctant fear) Maybe we should stop him now --


So, we're all on the same page. Man (Eben) sacrifices his life in order to save women (Stella and Gail), but two other women (Denise and Lucy) doubt his rightness and have to be threatened by another man (Jake) who is the only person who is armed in this scene and who is brandishing a fire axe. Um.

This is the scene that inspired this post; everything else about the gender disparity in the group (4 to 8), and the gender disparity among the dead, and the fact that Denise doesn't have a last name -- all that came after. I wanted to write about this scene.

The thing about this scene is, I feel like I see what they were doing. I don't think the authors had a misogynist message in mind about strong men fending off weak and wrong women. I do think they tried to make Jake and Eben weaker by giving Jake youth and traumatized feelings about killing and by giving Eben a medical condition and traumatized feelings (played up more in the book) about having to kill Carter. And while Lucy is consistently wrong (because Eben has to be right) and while Denise is consistently undercharacterized, they still come off as smarter and stronger and more resilient than a lot of the now-picked-off-by-vampires male members of the group.

And with the over-arching anvilicious theme of FAMILY! throughout the movie/book, I get that this was supposed to be One Spouse saving Another Spouse while Family Member supports hir risky decision. I do believe that the genders we ended up with in this scene were probably an unfortunate semi-accident resulting more from Men Are The Expendable Gender misogyny* as opposed to Women Are Always Weak And Wrong misogyny. (Though, again, intent is not magic.)

Yet the thought occurs that this scene could have been done differently with very little difficulty -- all you would really need to do is swap out Jake and Stella. Have Jake trapped under the car with little Gail. And this would actually go a long way towards explaining Stella's understandable-but-nonetheless-suicidal impulse to grab Gail, even knowing that the vampires watch their victims: Jake was feeling so traumatized at killing the little girl vampire that he couldn't stop himself from saving the little girl victim. Cause and effect, and without invoking tired old tropes about all women having overpowering motherly instincts. And then Stella could defend Eben from the other women.

Not a perfect solution but at least one where the phrase Bros Before Hos cannot be applied.

The thing is, this isn't (in my opinion, ymmv) even necessarily an egregious example. I probably read the movie novelization scene three times before noticing the gender problems. (In part because the story is reasonably engaging.) And because the book tries so hard to clarify that this is a family thing and that these men aren't uber-strong (sort of) and these women aren't uber-wrong (sort of), I do think that a lot of the problems are... well, not mitigated but would be less noteworthy if this didn't happen all over the place in every media ever. It's like the Bechdel test: some movies fail egregiously and others fail in ways that are noteworthy only because of the pattern and not because of the specific example.

I mention the above because I know a lot of the readers here are writers who are sometimes paralyzed with concern that they will screw up in their writing. (Myself included.) I want to point out that while screwing up occasionally is pretty much inevitable (which, again, is not intended to demotivate but instead to encourage everyone to embrace the screw up in mitigating ways, much as one might embrace a fall by aiming for something soft and pillow-like) screwing up isn't a binary All Bad / All Good thing. Sometimes things will screw up in gentle, mitigated ways where people can see where you were going and can see that the screw up was probably unintentional. Sometimes the screw up won't even be a screw up so much as might maybe-potentially-possibly fit into a pattern of screw ups. So embrace the inevitable screw up, if you can, and know that it doesn't make you a bad person inside.

But I also mention this because some of you have previously talked about assigning character gender (on whatever scale you use in your writing; I'd like to see substantially fewer binary-gender scales in literature asap) semi-randomly and after the initial drafting process. And while I realize drafting doesn't work for everyone, the thought occurs that such a process could have helped 30 Days of Night tremendously. With 7 of 12 main characters dying, the odds of the dead being all cis male by chance seem pretty low. (Is there a statistician in the house?) With 5 of 12 main characters surviving, the odds of them all being children and/or cis women by chance seems pretty low.

I've been told that one of the reasons why Ripley from the Alien franchise turned out so great was that the character was written as a Default Normal Guy and then gender-swapped later on in production. (According to IMDB: An early draft of the script had a male Ripley, making this one of at least three films where Sigourney Weaver played a character originally planned to be a man. The second is The TV Set and the third is Vantage Point.)

The saddest thing about this to me, I think, is not that women characters are written "better" when the character starts off male, but rather that characters apparently have to be cis male before they get baseline-normal things like characterization and last names and personalities. It seems like maybe we could establish that stuff first and then work out gender assignments later, in at least some-if-not-all cases.

* Yes, the fact that men are considered more expendable in movies is a function of misogyny and not misandry (sad and ironic though that may seem). A situation wherein women are only allowed to die if it's either/and: sexualized for titillation, emphasized to demonstrate just how evil the villain is, used to propel/motivate/wound the male hero, or because the dying woman was too threatening to the perceived audience is a situation rising out of hatred of women, not hatred of men. The Patriarchy Hurts Men, Too.


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