Scott Pilgrim faces off against the three evil isms

Posted on Thursday, August 19th, 2010 at 9:15 am under books, movies.

Scott Pilgrim

Scott and the gang wonder how this is gonna go down.

As you may or may not have read, I love the Scott Pilgrim series– I think they’re lovable, smart, and funny works. I don’t love the movie on the same level, but I nevertheless think it’s a breathtakingly original work of pop art, and a perfect summer movie to boot. So the last thing I want to think about are the ways in which Scott Pilgrim may be a tad problematic in its portrayal of people-who-aren’t-straight-white-men, but what kind of obnoxious humorless feminist would I be if I just let that go? Here we go with another battle: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The Three Evil -Isms.

Round 1: Scott Pilgrim Vs. Sexism

Ramona Flowers

Ramona Flowers in business mode.

It’s not news that Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (that’s the film version) been accused of misogyny by a handful of film writers. Personally, I think that’s a bit harsh, especially when you compare Scott Pilgrim to other mainstream films, and even more so when you compare it to movies aimed at young men. Think Sin City. Think Knocked Up– Katherine Heigl may be annoying, but it doesn’t mean she was wrong. Yeah. As I see it, the problem with Scott Pilgrim isn’t its hatred of women, but the somewhat lesser crime of being woefully typical in its thoughtless sexism.

One of my biggest problems with the film was how much the female characters, particularly Ramona, lost the complexity of their comic-book counterparts to become mere props in Scott’s tale. Book-Ramona may have started off as just a mysterious hottie that Scott’s suddenly crushing on, but as Bryan Lee O’Malley expands her personality and background, she becomes much, much more than that. The– let’s face it– pretty sexist conceit of a man having to defeat his beloved’s past lovers before he can claim her turns out to be anything but; instead, it’s just a unique way of explaining how our pasts follow all of us. (It’s worth noting that Scott’s exes come into play, too, if in a less organized fashion.) Book-Ramona has agency. While it’s Scott who initially pursues her, she gets to choose whether or not she wants to be with him– and for a time, she doesn’t. When Scott and Ramona finally get together, we know that it’s as much a leap of faith and love for her as it is for him.

Movie-Ramona, on the other hand, is unable to let go of Gideon primarily because of a creepy chip he’s implanted into her neck. It’s an irritatingly shallow way of explaining why a girl might go back to her ex: If a girl dumps you, it’s obviously not because she doesn’t like you or she still has feelings for her ex! It must be because he’s literally controlling her! Similarly, she remains frustratingly passive during Scott and Gideon’s big showdown. She only springs into action when she’s attacked by Knives, and then it’s merely in self-defense, not because she wants to fight for Scott. She does eventually land a final blow that helps Scott triumph, but it’s a very small gesture compared to the way she watched indifferently for most of their fight. Even afterward, she winds up with Scott not because she displays any specific interest in doing so but because he chases after her.

The film’s portrayal of Scott’s other love interests, Envy and Knives, aren’t much better. Envy’s a shallow femme fatale type who breaks Scott’s heart apparently just because she’s mean. Knives fits the little Asian schoolgirl stereotype to a T (more on that later) and doesn’t seem to have anything going on beyond her obsession with Scott. There’s a halfhearted attempt to flesh her out by having her move on, but we still don’t know who she is outside of her big Scott crush. Julie, Stacey, and Kim fare somewhat better, but they (like most of the supporting cast) are mere bystanders in a larger plotline. It’s not enough to make up for the way the more central female characters are treated. Like Ramona, Envy, Knives, Kim, and everyone else are much more substantial in the books.

Bottom Line: Calling Scott Pilgrim misogynistic is an exaggeration. It’s not so much malicious about as neglectful of its female characters, like Scott himself. But two-hour-limit or no, it’s disappointing that the cinematic versions of its female characters are a huge step– or several steps– down from the literary ones.

Winner: Scott Pilgrim for the books, Sexism for the movie.

Round 2: Scott Pilgrim Vs. Racism

Knives Chau

Scott Pilgrim: the Justin Bieber of Toronto.

These are the facts: There are four Asian characters in Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World. Two of them– the Katayanagi twins– literally don’t speak a single word. Two more– Knives Chau and Matthew Patel– draw heavily from stereotypes. Actually, I suppose there are five if you count Knives’ friend Tamara. But as she’s essentially a glorified extra, I don’t.

Let’s start with Matthew Patel. I’m pleased to see an Indian person in a movie who doesn’t speak with a comically thick accent, and who’s more ass-kicking hipster than clueless dork. However, I was a little less excited to see him bust out a Bollywood number. Correct me if I’m wrong, but in the books, there’s nothing explicitly Bollywood about his performance. Sure, it’s fun to watch, and yes, the film pokes at stereotypes of all sorts. But it’s an instance where I wasn’t thinking about the character in racial terms until the film brought it up.

Next, the Katayanagi twins. This is another instance in which the books’ length allowed these characters to breathe and grow, but the movie’s short running time demands that they be whittled down. The Katayanagis are possibly the least interesting of Ramona’s exes, but they nonetheless play a key role in the separation of Scott and Ramona at the end of Book 5. In the movie, not only do they have zero lines, we don’t even get their backstory as we do with Ramona’s other exes.

Knives plays a much larger role in the film than either Matthew Patel or the Katayanagi twins, so there’s more to unpack with her. Slashfilm’s Dave Chen posted a couple of discussions a while back about whether or not the film’s version of Knives was racist. I think it’s a little more complicated than that. There’s no denying that she’s an Asian schoolgirl stereotype– an innocent, giggly pixie in a Catholic school uniform. Scott also makes it a point early on to let people know she’s Chinese, and when she asks him to her house for dinner he asks, “Like Chinese food?” I should point out that the the story is told from Scott’s perspective. He’s the one who’s unable to see her as more than just an Asian schoolgirl, and his ignorance, not her Asianness, is what’s played for laughs. I get that, and yes, it is funny. But I cringe a little to think of the joke in the wrong hands. Will certain people not get the joke and decide that constantly referring to a character’s race is what makes the moment humorous?

It’s true that Knives’ race becomes less of an issue as the movie goes along, and as I acknowledged above, the movie pokes fun at all sorts of stereotypes. On the other hand, if Knives stops being so defined by her ethnicity, it’s only because she starts being defined by her fixation on Scott. The book gives Knives a pretty strong arc that lets her move gradually from a ditzy high schooler to a smart, interesting young woman. (Tamara, if you’re wondering, doesn’t have much more to do in the books than she does in the movie.) The film attempts the same, but it’s too rushed to be believable. Knives’ eagerness to forgive Scott felt forced and unnatural, and I found myself wishing she’d made him pay at least a little bit for being such a dick to her. As it was, the “white man screws over Asian girl, but all is forgiven” plot reminded me in a small but unpleasant way of the stereotype of the submissive Asian woman.

Of course I don’t think Wright or anyone else involved diminished the Asian characters’ roles for racial reasons. All of the characters’ parts were significantly reduced; a two-hour film just doesn’t have the luxury of time that a six-book series does. But it’s unfortunate that after everything they cut out, what they chose to keep was the stereotypes. It stings to see yet another missed opportunity to highlight interesting Asian characters in mainstream American* cinema.

Bottom Line: So, is Scott Pilgrim racist? As I said about its alleged misogyny– not more than any other big American film. And once again, the real tragedy is not that it’s worse than the other films out there, but that there was potential for it to be so much better.

Winner: Scott Pilgrim for the books, a draw for the movie.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. Homophobia (sorry there’s no catch “-ism” name…)

Wallace Wells

Wallace does not approve of how lengthy this article is getting.

I’ll say this straight off the bat: When it comes to Wallace Wells, Scott Pilgrim resoundingly gets it right, both on paper and on screen. He is a rare example of a well-done gay sidekick. As Film Drunk’s Vince Mancini notes, Wallace “manages to do a lot of stereotypically gay things (he’s a flirt, he’s a gossip, he’s always horny, etc.), without coming off as the usual, tired, gay stereotype.”

First of all, he’s most definitely gay. Not as in “effeminate” or “fashion-obsessed” or “inclined to refer to the straight protagonist as ‘girlfriend,’”– as in “attracted to men.” Demonstrably so. Unlike, say, certain gay television characters, he actually hooks up with other guys onscreen. Second, that’s not all he is. Sure, he has some stereotypically gay affectations, but it’s not the be-all, end-all to his persona. There’s an essential Wallace-ness that goes beyond those shallow mannerisms. In addition to being sassy and flirtatious, he’s pragmatic, caring, and clever. Were he to magically wake up straight– and “straight-acting”– tomorrow, he’d still be recognizably Wallace.

Third, Wallace’s homosexuality is a non-issue with the other characters. His friends are supportive to the point of being totally nonchalant; his homosexuality is no more impressive to them than Scott’s heterosexuality. And that’s refreshing. Look, the world needs frank discourse and public service announcements and tear-jerking episodes of Glee about Burt Hummel’s struggle to accept his son’s sexual orientation. Great strides have been made that way, and I’m not knocking them. But we don’t have to go through that every time. I’m not gay, but I suspect that for most gay folks, life is not actually just a series of teaching moments. So it’s encouraging to encounter a character who happens to be gay, rather than a character who’s defined by being gay.

The book series takes its gay-friendly stance even further with Stephen Stills’ plot arc, which was cut entirely from the film. In the novels, Stephen starts off as straight, but ultimately enters a relationship with another man and comes out to his friends. After the initial surprise wears off, both for Scott and for the readers, O’Malley goes back to treating it like it’s not a big deal. Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” was laughable in its attempt to portray girl-on-girl kissing as risque, years after it actually stopped being such. But the idea that men, too, might dabble in gay action is still rarely discussed (my love Tom Hardy’s casual admission notwithstanding), and the fact that O’Malley presents it with so little fanfare makes it that much more progressive.

Perhaps the female counterpart to Stephen’s relationship with Joseph is Kim and Knives’ drunken makeout session– also only present in the books. Contrary to the way mainstream television and film usually portrays girl-on-girl action, it’s presented as an experience that Kim and Knives have for their own pleasure rather than to titillate men. Although Scott catches them, O’Malley presents the incident as part of Knives’ character arc, rather than an apropos-of-nothing scene of two hot chicks making out.

Things get murkier with Ramona’s ex Roxy Richter. Ramona in the films refers to her lesbianism as “a phase,” while Scott calls it “a sexy phase.” But experimentation and sexual flexibility are part of the modern sexual landscape, and the story (in both forms) takes Roxy seriously as one of Ramona’s ex-suitors. Ramona may have decided to start dating men again, but it doesn’t invalidate her history with this woman. Nor does Roxy fall into the lame old stereotype of either the mannish butch or the sex-kitten femme. So far, so good.

Where we run into trouble is the big way that the Roxy battle differs between the book and the movie. In O’Malley’s version, Scott defeats Roxy by slicing her with a sword. It’s not too different from the way that most of Ramona’s other exes go. But in Wright’s, Scott hits a certain part of her leg to trigger a what appears to be an orgasm. My best guess is that Wright felt the image of the ostensible hero attacking a woman would be too troubling for viewers. I really wish he’d found a different workaround, because I think this sexual humiliation is even more disturbing. Don’t get me wrong– it’s a lighthearted scene, and Roxy’s treated with the same affection and humor as the other evil exes. But the idea that lesbians just need a good man is an old and dangerous one that’s been used to justify emotional and physical violence. While Scott Pilgrim certainly never goes that far, I’d rather not see echoes of it at all.

Bottom Line: Wright’s version deserves criticism for the way Roxy’s battle ends. Otherwise, Scott Pilgrim is very gay-friendly, and the fact that it doesn’t make a fuss about how gay-friendly it is makes it even more so. Once the Kurt Hummels are done making peace with their fathers, this is what we can expect to see: People accepting sexual orientation as just another character trait, rather than an defining characteristic or an challenge to overcome.

Winner: Scott Pilgrim, on both fronts.

The Final Analysis

Scott Pilgrim's friends

Drumroll please...

By these measures, O’Malley’s original series is actually rather progressive. Asian men successfully date white women. (Kim Pine, at some point, also briefly dates an Asian man.) Women have inner lives as complicated and varied as the men. Homosexuality is a non-issue. Best of all, he doesn’t act like any of this is particularly groundbreaking. It’s heartening to think that this might become the new normal. O’Malley’s protagonist may start off a doofus who thinks of Knives as an accessory and and Ramona as a prize, but he eventually learns better.

Wright’s adaptation, on the other hand, is much more problematic. I honestly believe that it’s a differences are an issue of time and space rather than intent, but we can only judge what’s onscreen. The film’s problematic aspects are somewhat more forgivable if you take the view that 1) events and characters are portrayed as seen from Scott’s perspectives and 2) from the audience’s perspective, Scott himself is the butt of the joke because he’s the ignorant one. I, for one, buy both of those things. Based on the way the other characters are shown, we might gather that Scott is a little bit sexist, a little bit racist, and a little bit dismissive of lesbianism. Now, Scott is far from a perfect hero, and he’s not presented as such. But will audiences pick up that these ugly prejudices are part of his flaws, along with his laziness and whininess? Or are they so close to the stereotypes that we in the audience already have that we’ll giggle without giving them a second thought?

Wright seems to be presenting these stereotypes knowingly and with tongue firmly in cheek, but he never goes so far as to offer us any alternatives. At the end of the day, we’re still seeing the same tired portrayals of women as trophies, young Asian women as lovelorn schoolgirls, and Indian men as Bollywood stars. Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World may not be actively endorsing these stereotypes, but by showing them without refutation, it’s unwittingly doing its part to perpetuate them.

* If I’m not mistaken, despite its British director and Canadian setting, Scott Pilgrim is still considered an American production. IMDb, at least, agrees with me.

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17 comments

  1. Great analysis.

    Totally agree re: Wallace. Probably the firmest and most ‘I know someone like that’ character throughout.

  2. Thank you for this. You covered everything that started bugging me once the movie high went away, and it’s nice to know that it isn’t just me being paranoid. The movie was grand fun, but there’s definitely room for improvement.

  3. Great work.

  4. Good article, expecially agree w/r/t Ramona’s diminished character, but O’Malley himself explained the genesis behind Matthew Patel’s character here

    http://destroyerzooey.livejournal.com/108276.html

    “Matthew Patel is thus named because someone I know dated two Matthews, and I really liked this designer named Harsh Patel (he designed the font that I used for the large titles such as “So Yeah,” and gave it to me for free because, uh, we were both Sloan fans?). He’s visually based on a guy I saw on the train one time, and he’s Indian because… uh… because his name is Patel. And I was planning more of a Bollywood thing, which got toned down into the slightly-less-baroque scene we see shortly.”

    fwiw the first time I read V1 I saw the Bollywood aspect to it.

  5. Rick: Thanks for your support, as always.

    AO: Interesting, thanks for that link. I didn’t get the Bollywood vibe from that scene, personally, and regardless of O’Malley’s intentions I would say that it doesn’t come across as explicitly Bollywood in the final product. But even if O’Malley intended a clear Bollywood vibe, I’d find it somewhat less problematic than I found the film’s version of the character. Although Matthew doesn’t have a greatly expanded role in the books (IIRC), overall there are far stronger representations of Asian characters in the books. Within that context, it’s easier to give the Bollywood thing the benefit of the doubt and read it as a minor aspect of his personality (rather than a large, defining part of it), as well as understand it as a knowing, affectionate nod to the culture than as the recycling of an old stereotype. I wasn’t horribly offended by the film version or anything, but the fact that all of the other Asian characters had so many iffy aspects to their portrayals didn’t make me feel too great about it, either.

  6. Yes, Ramona and Kim lost a lot in translation. I especially miss the Kim material.

    Ramona’s decisions are treated as her own, but they are called into question by Gideon’s mind-inhabiting ability (in the movie, via neck chip; in the book, via star portal through conscious sub-space). Going back through the books, Gideon actually has even more of a presence than the film, for the characters and the audience.

    Envy Adams was an ass in the books too.

    Knives Chau feels better to me in the film than the books. She does more sterotypical Asian-y and Scott-obsessive things in the source material, so it hits harder there than the film. At the same time, simply because a charcter can be seen as sterotypical, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be depicted. I knew someone in college that acted really similarly to Knives. Coming from the indie-music background, it’s not hard to find a “Knives” at a show or store. That’s just my experience. Also, this isn’t just tied to one gender or culture, this goes for everyone. My friends and I knew people who were like the “unbelievable” characters in Napoleon Dynamite. People said the same thing about Precious. I’ve seen it all.

    The Matt Patel fight is designed as a song in the book, or at least rhyming dialogue. Making it a Bollywood number and more of a monologue makes the scene a bit more sensible. Then again, when the character is a mystically-enhanced Indian fellow that fights like Dhalsim from Street Fighter or a Dragonball character, Bollywood shouldn’t be a negative.

    I don’t feel too bad about the Katayanagi twins since they basically got Daft Punk’d in the film. Awesome.

    Scott Pilgrim, the character, kinda gave me a Banky Edwards (Chasing Amy) vibe. Just as relatable and ignorant, but less venomous. This is based on the film and books. That said, there is nothing in the film that illustrates that “lesbians just need a good man”. The knee thing is in the books, but Scott does it to Envy to stop her from attacking Knives and Ramona. Both sources sexualize the videogame concept of weak-points. It’s fine if both are found disturbing, just put it in context.

    Glad you liked the books and the film. Too bad so few saw this in theaters.

  7. Great Analysis. This touches bases on some things that I noticed when watching the film, but I’m not sure if I have a different look on things that caused me not to be bothered by the apparent problems of the film protray of ceratain characters.

    When reading the book and watching the movie, I was totally okay with how certain events transpired and how ceratin characters were translated from one medium to the other. When I learned that it was through Scott’s Eyes, I became accepting.

    Ramona is a cardboard cut out of her book counter-part. That’s because Scott is completely self-absorbed. He doesn’t really like to get to know people outside of how it will benefit him. An example would be when he kicks out Wallace of their apartment (really Wallace’s apartment :P ) so they can have an intimate night. The scenes that transpire, most of the time, it’s just Scott asking shallow questions and Ramona question Scott to the point where he gets embarrased (hair-cuts, song written for her….).

    If you think about why her character was cut super short and the time limit Wright was given, you can only imagine where he would put more of her story (deleted scenes maybe). 7 Evil Exs under 2 hours is quite a feat (I feel bad for the twins. Should of definately got more screen time but apparently they spoke little to NO English whatsoever). Out of all the characters, Knives it the one that really had no excuse (aside from said perspective issue). She had the most screen time and had a somewhat developed backstory that ended short because of reasons I’m unaware of. Her giving Scott away to Ramona did feel a bit force, but that’s because the whole ending felt contrived and a bit rushed. Granted, the book’s ending hadn’t been written til after completion of the film.

    I felt that the movie did it’s best to portray a certain aspect of the books to the best of it’s ability. Short of having a multi-movie Scott Pilgrim, Wright’s adaptation was probably the best we would have gotten. I didn’t feel taken aback from the “racism” or “sexism” because like the books, I wasn’t looking for it, nor did it pop up in my face as if I were watching an episode of Glee. The whole thing was, as you said, non-chalant about the whole ordeal (both the book and the movie). Hopefully the audience takes it as such (which wouldn’t be hard since only a handful of people watched it in theaters)

  8. I’m in agreement on most of what you say except about Wallace – All the other characters have complex relationship issues and are in some way troubled in their attempts to make relationships work. The casual, carefree and untroubled nature of Wallaces relationships (in comparison to the other characters) implies that they don’t have as much depth, aren’t as serious, aren’t ‘real’ relationships. Sure, he’s witty and likable, and as with your other conclusions i think it’s a case of lazy writing/cliches rather than anything malicious… but the oscar wilde, sharp tounged and non-monogamous gay is a very common, very lazily written character

  9. Mauricio OrellanaNo Gravatar

    I absolutely enjoyed your analysis on the film and the book series, which I have just recently had the pleasure to begin reading due to some publishing complications in my country. Personally, I absolutely loved the characters. Wallace is one of my most favorite characters for example. He’s witty, intelligent and lovable. Scott and Wallace have a perfect male buddy relationship that I could relate to and therefore admire.

    I acknowledge and agree with most, if not all of the flaws mentioned in your review, and it just hurt too much how rushed the third act of the film felt. Scott Pilgrim is definitely my favorite film of 2010 right next to Inception (I’m totally crushed to see that neither of them are up for academy awards) even if it’s not perfect. The one thing I will say is, that I really wished they would’ve taken their time to make a series of films out of this. With the amount of precious story there is in the book series, this could’ve easily been a remarkable trilogy.

  10. Are you forgetting that Movie-Roxy dies by being poked in the leg, as opposed to having been sliced in half in the comic?
    The movie version of her fight was less brutal but still showed a kind of cruelty to the woman.

  11. I would like to point out that being less racist/misogynistic than other films doesn’t mean it’s not racist or misogynistic.

  12. I’d also disagree that all stereotypes are presented “knowingly”; as I recall, the film frequently confused Chinese stereotypes with Japanese stereotypes.

  13. This is an old blog post, but I just saw this movie on TV as it aired today.

    I haven’t read the books, but I found this movie pretty offensive in the way it reinforces racial and cultural stereotypes.

    From the very outset when they kept saying “she’s Chinese” when talking about Scott’s girlfriend I knew it was going to make some weird awkward issue out of her race. Also, Chinese schoolgirl? The movie can’t even get the stereotypes right. I really don’t think it’s trying to be ironic and funny, I think the movie is just flat out ignorant.

    What message does it send to young Chinese-American or Chinese-Canadian girls when the character of Knives is a one-dimensional, overly eager and hyper girl who likes to play DDR-style games. Really, she couldn’t just be a normal girl?

    When the Patel character started breaking out into a wannabe Bollywood song and dance, it just made the whole thing ridiculous. I feel like this whole movie was a full step backwards from Harold and Kumar.

    I also think it’s interesting that the minorities seem to be positioned as roadblocks or rivals to the two white main characters getting together. Minorities are also seemingly portrayed as a ‘phase’ in dating. As a mixed-race person, I feel like this is pretty harmful to the perceived legitimacy of mixed-race families.

    I hate to say it, but I really think this is an extension of certain racist undertones in the hipster community (see: hipsters pretending to be Native Americans).

    Anyway I stopped watching halfway through, not just because of the awkward racial portrayals, but mostly because I just thought the movie was terrible.

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