Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In Defense of Hit-Girl

Since Kick-Ass was released in theaters, there's been a lot of swirling hubbub about Hit-Girl- her place in cinema, her place in feminism, her place in the film. It's an interesting debate, since the space she's occupying is unique in Western cinema.

There is a wonderful article about the phenomenon of ass-kicking pre-pubescents over at a wonderful blog, The Mystery of Girl's Media, and I'm going to touch slightly on some of that here, but you should give it a read.

One of the comments about Hit-Girl's ease of disposing of other humans is that it seems indicative that she will become a serial killer. I don't think Hit-Girl is going to turn into a serial killer. Especially now that she's going to be acclimated to life as a normal kid and has a supposedly strong father figure, who was her father figure before, who she trusts and loves and who apparently believes in the value and the power of the law (or else he wouldn't have stayed a cop). In the first place, serial killers aren't trained to be serial killers. They are innately serial killers. They're not carefully taught to torture animals and derive sexual gratification from torture and dismemberment. It's readily apparent in most case studies that there is something about a serial killer that is exceptional and usually off from a very early age. At no point are we shown that Hit-Girl has a built-in disdain for human life or a hatred for older men. She has a massive daddy complex, sure, but guess what: So do lots of girls.

She does, however, enjoy violence. But enjoying a bit o'the ol' ultra violence does not a serial killer make, not by default.

What's interesting about Hit-Girl is that she has ZERO sexuality. NONE. Even the winks and nods to male fantasy tropes amount to zero in effectiveness because she doesn't have it, it's not there. The blown kiss, the school girl uniform. She's not cashing in on the lust of the men around her, she's using her own guilelessness to make them uncomfortable or lure them into underestimating her.  The doorman doesn't let her in to screw her, he lets her in so she can use his phone to find her mommy and daddy. They don't want to do her, they want to pat her on the head and give her a cookie, or shoo her away. She doesn't count, until she's stabbing them.

Back to a prior talking point, she enjoys violence, something girls, especially little ones, aren't supposed to do. People are up in arms over a little girl using that language and liking weapons and being violent, but to be honest, I think that's better than the picture she herself painted (over sundaes with her dad at the bowling alley) of an alternate 11-yr old's reality. One where she wants to own and idolizes Bratz dolls, and is taught through Miley Cyrus videos that the best thing to be is sexy and available to boys. A girl is just as likely to become a hooker from playing with Bratz dolls as she is a serial killer from playing violent video games- in fact, the social imperative to bombard girls with images that tell her she is supposed to be hyper sexualized make the former a much more likely prospect than the latter.

Album cover
and Nickelodeon

I've been babysitting a girl from age 7 to age 9 and I have tremendous difficulty dealing with that aspect of her world. That said, while, yes, killing people is bad, in the grand scheme of morality, I sorta think it's cooler to be killing violent drug users in your teen years than getting pressured into having sex or doing sexual acts with boys. ...have I mentioned lately that I'm completely well balanced and normal? I am. I swear.

Interesting fact 3: She hasn't been sexually abused. In WESTERN cinema, I would challenge you to find a young girl fighter character, particularly one who ever dons a school girl uniform to kill people, who wasn't either sexually abused or the object of sexual desire for her mentor. Yes, Hit-Girl has been abused, by having her childhood replaced by grueling, painful, dangerous training at the hands of an obsessed father. However, he has real affection for her. They drink hot chocolate with marshmallows. And he isn't sexually interested in her. Leon in the Professional is kind to Mathilda, but wants her, though he is a moral enough person not to act on the desire. Big Daddy does not think of Mindy in those terms, which is a revolutionary aspect to that character outside of, well, Japan, and even Japanese school girl killers are largely fetishized (see: Kite).

The biggest problem with the character is that the film is constructed in a way that has the audience too busy cheering her on for anyone to mourn how tragic she is. There just isn't time, and even if there were, it's all a bit candy colored and kinetic for it. A half a scene with her ex-legal guardian telling Big Daddy something we already know- this isn't a childhood, and Mindy deserves one- doesn't quite do the trick. We're watching a little girl who's been turned into murderer hack'nslash her way across the kind of ordinance Spike Spiegel would have had difficulty with. But I was reveling in the action of it, not heartsick over what she was going through. So it's an interesting push and pull.

Ultimately, Hit-Girl has created a template for future girl fighters- ones that aren't being grabbed, groped, oggled. Ones that don't kill men after they've attempted rape, but just because it's their job, or their opponent is a bad guy.  It may be charged with all kinds of controversy, but the fact that Hit-Girl's character, power, and appeal doesn't revolve around her or anyone else's sexuality is in fact the biggest step a female action hero (or anti-hero, or participant, in the least) has taken in some time.

Stop back in three days, when we talk about why The Losers was fun but Aisha was a wasted opportunity.


Unknown said...

I mourned! ...a little bit. I think I just internalized what her ex-legal guardian said and then my brain pulled it up during the warehouse scene, when she was over her head and getting instruction from Big Daddy. I do agree, though, that the movie itself didn't make it express enough; it's notable, however, that her happy ending is to essentially give up the life, sequels notwithstanding.

But with the skills such that she doesn't have to take shit from anyone. She's... a victim of her father's obsession, perhaps, and thus her ending is to be neither a victim of that or of the casual bullying that deepens as one ages?

Also I think it bears noting that many of the arguments against her bring up her language, and it was indeed startling to me when I read an interview with Matthew Vaughn in which he pointed out that in the entire movie, Hit Girl swears twice. It's just that we attach a lot of note to those occasions.

Dan said...

Thanks for this: I immediately linked to your terrific piece in my own blog article in defense of the film ( I wonder though whether the relationship between Léon and Matilda is as simple as your words make it out to be: isn't it the case that he initially approaches her and takes her in as a pre-/asexual girl, only to see his feelings for her grow more complicated as she starts presenting herself to him as a strongly sexualized female figure (from her Monroe impersonation onward, he grows increasingly uncomfortable with the situation and its possible sexual implications).

Anonymous said...

Very well put. We have all these "parents" out there who are screaming that this was in poor taste and yet they are the ones allowing their children to shop at places like Hot Topic and other shops that basically dress them up to be nothing but what Hit Girl was. At the same time, why do we even bother listening to some of these parents as most of them are the ones buying their 1 yr olds onesies that portray images of pin up girls.

EruditeChick said...

@Scott- I love you.

@Dan- That's very true, and The Professional is a beautiful, intelligent, mature, complicated film. Since Hit-Girl is getting boiled down to tropes and I didn't want this to be a 3000 word epic, I boiled the other characters mentioned in it down to tropes as well. But I agree with your view of Leon and Matilda's relationship, absolutely.

EruditeChick said...

@Spawny- Or more importantly, allow their kids to shop at places like HT and Abercrombie&Fitch and dress to emulate hyper sexualized idols, when that's what Hit-Girl is NOT. Yet they are offended by her use of violence and language. Because those things are way worse than turning your preteen into a ho.

Mike White said...

I didn't think Hit Girl needed defending, especially since she can take a bullet pretty well. ;)

david said...

i love EC like the Sun loves the Jin, but i have several problems with this article, but with its thesis as well as its examples.

to begin with the latter... that her sexuality is not explicitly referenced does not in any way make hit girl a revolutionary character - progress by omission isn't progress at all. now... as far as i'm concerned, the only reprehensible bit about the character is how painfully dull and undeveloped she is (a boring character in a boring film), but if i were to give the film the benefit of my attention, i would conclude that she's a far less empowered or socially advanced character than most women in recent filmdom, and certainly less than Leon's mathilda (more on this later... and that's not to suggest that Leon owned mathilda, but that i prefer to think of that film as its international iteration, titled Leon. cause it's a much better movie). cause, see, she was completely brainwashed - and thus forever robbed of her own psyche and agency - by a dominating paternal figure... condemned to do a male's bidding without being any the wiser that there are alternative paths being denied her. it's her ignorance and therefor her unwillingness to fight back that typifies this typical gender dynamic. she's a terrible, terrible tragic character, and every time a girl cheers for her, in my estimation it sets you guys way the cuss back, cause she's a swearing, stabbing celebration of female subservience (she's the primary victim, and the sex of her victims in the film is irrelevant).

if the point of the character is to satirically suggest that we are so quick to celebrate and cheer for wanton violence even as we remain paralyzed by sexually confrontational representations, then the film's success is predicated upon hit girl being as tragic a character as possible... the more she is a negative representation of everything beyond violence, the more interesting her character. she's a truly awful depiction of girls and women and women-warriors, as she is worshipped by men because she relentlessly does a man's bidding in what's depicted as a man's world (her ultimate triumph is therefore a man's triumph). she's a celebration of the male-controlled ILLUSION of female empowerment that is rather flagrantly only for male gratification (mike is enamored... dude watching her on tv wants to marry her)... she's a male fantasy, and never acts in her own self-interest because thanks to her father she has no self-interest in which to act. it's a sexually rounded construct that is at the very essence of hit girl's character, and just because she's not walking around like the chick in the amazing last reel of Orphan doesn't mean that her character and our relationship to her isn't ENORMOUSLY informed by socio-sexual codifications. that being said, even if she existed in a sexless world (in which gender were still an issue), it would still be a tactless representation, as she exists as nothing more than a tool in a world dominated by men... and kick-ass is most definitely a man's world, and all of the women therein are either tools, trophies (mike's girlfriend, for whom he has to disempower himself by abandoning his prized heterosexuality) or paper cranes (the bad guy's wife). my point is that i think that hit girl is explicitly sexual, but even if you disagree, she is such a terrible depiction of women on so many other fronts (whether deliberately or otherwise) that she can't possibly be misconstrued as progress... and that - cynically - i have to think that it's a subversive patriarchal victory to have women celebrate her because the film appears to omit one standard means of depicting women... i'm trying to think of the right analogy or maxim here, but it's like they're robbing Peter to Pay Paul, except they're stealing an iPad from Peter and giving Paul a Zune.

david said...

also... your Leon example strikes me as a too convenient assumption. for one... methinks you misread Mathilda's relationship with Leon. as one commenter pointed out, Mathilda is already a victim of her pre-pubescent sexualization before she ever encounters Leon, and he does her a tremendous service by showing her that people can care for her naturally and without manipulation. in fact, it's the exact opposite journey that hit girl endures in kick-ass. that movie was 16 years ago. kick-ass was a giant step backwards. for women, for girls, and for filmmaking.

p.s. having said all that... your point about bratz and the like being celebrated rather than condemned while kick-ass is greeted with a very mild amount of controversy is valid and well taken. that stuff is evil. but with such a property it has to be so visible because - unlike kick-ass - bratz's target audience isn't expected to understand subtext and nuance. which is not an excuse, of course... but it makes bratz and co. that much more dangerous because people are that much quicker to ignore unhealthy depictions if they lack the brazen visual cues so replete in over-sexualized kids fare.

Anonymous said...


These are the logical issues I have with your extremely interesting take...

"progress by omission isn't progress at all."

I don't believe that's accurate. Omission of hate or bigotry would be considered progress. Progress, by definition, is simply moving forward. You can add, subtract, omit, ignore, or whatever, but your statement is void of logic. If I omit getting speeding tickets I'm progressing as a driver. If the question "what race are you?" is omitted from the standards for voting, this is progress by omission. In your world, what would have been progress?

"painfully dull and undeveloped"

This is clearly an opinion, and thus not beholden to logic, but not one that everyone (or even the majority) agrees with. I'm not trying to outvote or outlegistlate you here, but most did not find her dull or the film boring. Writing with gusto isn't quite the same as making sense. Furthermore, giving the film the "benefit of your attention" is why you started commmenting in the first place. You needn't re-justify it 25 percent of the way in.

"she was completely brainwashed - and thus forever robbed of her own psyche and agency - by a dominating paternal figure... condemned to do a male's bidding without being any the wiser that there are alternative paths being denied her."

No, she was poorly parented. If she'd have been a boy he would have trained her the same way. He's a bad parent, but he's not a sexist one. Her plight is the plight of a child that's being taught the wrong lessons, irregardless of gender.

"she's a swearing, stabbing celebration of female subservience"

Again, she'd be stabbing regardless of gender. If anything this is treatise that you can get your child to believe anything, right or wrong.

"in what's depicted as a man's world (her ultimate triumph is therefore a man's triumph)."

No, her triumph is her father's triumph, which is, yes, an awful one, and not one she should be subjected to. But again, and with empathy, if you were raised this way you wouldn't know any better. She's not being raised in "a man's world" she's being raised by a man who lost his wife, her mother. This is a damaged man. His views can't be then tied to our culture as a whole, can they?

"kick-ass was a giant step backwards. for women, for girls, and for filmmaking."

I don't think you can have it both ways here. Either the film was 1) not well attended, as less than 3 million people purchased tickets to a Rated R feature on a weekend, making it's overall impact null OR 2) It's such a powerful piece of art that it will affect our culture in unexpected ways. If the former, your point can't be, as the shockwaves won't be great. If the latter, you've got to salute the art itself as at least being effective. It can't be dull, poorly thought out, AND a giant step backwards in terms of influence.

Hit-Girl was essentially a child doing the "right" thing for entirely "Wrong" reasons, and in the "wrong" manner. But back in real life this does happen. Children do, sadly, fight in wars. And even though they haven't the emotional or intellectual tools they certainly are capable of handling weapons. It's a tragedy. But it doesn't make it anti-female or boring. It just makes it different, at least as far as the movies we usually get. Kick-Ass takes a chance in a risk-adverse studio culture and you're hammering them for it. Is "The Back-Up Plan" really the answer instead?

david said...


as you saw with what i posted this morning, given the speed at which typing allows my thoughts to come out, things tend to get a bit jumbled and (deliberately) hyperbolic if i don’t break ‘em down into bite-sized bits, so forgive me.

the progress by omission bit has to be read contextually. certainly, if we move forward as a species and “omit” racism from the human palette, that’s progress. but in a film with a finite running time that i’d argue makes reference to a few abhorrent notions about gender dynamics, omitting one element in the interest of better exploiting others is not progress. moreover, i actually go on to argue that hit girl’s character is indeed explicitly sexual, as her subservience speaks to a tired male fantasy that i fear sparked mark millar to create the property in the first place. dude wrote Wanted... so it’s hard for me to put anything past him.

the film being dull or boring... well, it’s like, my opinion man. as you said. and i suggest never bringing the supposed majority into anything... sometimes the majority gets lucky, but they’re not to be used as a divining rod. and - though i certainly can’t expect someone i don’t know to appreciate this - my concern really is first and foremost with engaging in a fun dialogue with my friend’s article... when EC writes passionately about something, i tend to get riled enough to rise out of my perma-stupor, even if i agree with her. in my heart of hearts i truly feel this movie is a complete waste of time in every which way, but that hasn’t stopped me from talking about anything before.

i gotta argue with your “poorly parented” rhetoric. i mean... yes, she was poorly parented. but she was also conditioned to be a sociopath... her education was so complete and expansive that other avenues were never available to her. and yes the outcome would have been the same if she were a boy... but she wasn’t a boy. as a fictional construct, her gender is not an accident. whether intentional or otherwise, the fact that she’s hit girl rather than hit boy is significant, especially when seen in context with the legitimately powerful characters in the film, all of whom are men. and really... the girlfriend character is the worst of the lot... and i’m truly surprised and a bit disheartened that no one i’ve read has taken the script to task for her.

the almighty nic cage does indeed play a damaged man, but it doesn’t distract from the origin of this post, which is that ultimately hit girl does is merely a tool in a man’s battle... a pre-sexualized fantasy of what the ultimate girl would be, and one defined by her absolutely unblinking subservience. it’s like celebrating a female suicide bomber working at the behest of a male-run organization because she was suckered into becoming a weapon. this is not empowerment... it’s dominance, and i was worked up into responding only because i think it’s dangerous to celebrate this character as a step in the right direction. hit girl is a warning... or at least she should be. she should be a chilling reminder that blind indulgence in wanton violence and the appreciation of something just because it looks cool has sinister undercurrents and repercussions... but the film just never seems so interested or self-aware. Power is not empowerment... because as the film jokingly echoes spider-man, “with great power comes great responsibility,” and hit girl only embodies the former.

david said...

... of course kick-ass isn’t reeealllyyy a giant step backwards for anything... that’s me being silly. if the film had been more successful or better-appreciated, perhaps it could be... i don’t think the character of hitgirl is innately improper just by virtue of the fact that she’s young as Roger Ebert seems to, but i do think that for the film to handle her so poorly, and for even people for whom i have a tremendous respect to read her as a positive female warrior of sorts... that i’m not so sure i can abide. at least not without whipping up a few ATF comments first. i believe that there’s a sad and serious irony in strong women celebrating a character as weak and subservient as hit girl... they’re being thrown off the trail. there ARE better examples in american cinema... even commercial american cinema. let’s not cheer about this one.

pinklady said...

I liked the movie. I liked Hit Girl. I'm not so sure what Bratz dolls or A&F have to do with this movie. For every outfit, toy and movie, someone will dislike it or think it not appropriate. On the same note, I don't see how violence is any better than sexuality. To not complain about how horrible it is to slice and dice so many human beings and to complain about A&F clothing on children is very odd for me. Wearing a mini skirt is more vial than killing? Miley Cyrus is a worse example for kids than a murderer? We have issues in the USA if that's the case.

Olivia said...

I so agree with this.
The portrayal of a young girl using language and engaging in violent acts as a hero is so refreshing. I think we've all seen enough roles of young girls using language and engaging in violent acts as a victim.( maybe not as young as hit-girl but still)
This movie is empowerment.
I think her language is a symbol of how kids these days(and I'm 17) have to grow up way too fast. However, the movie says, "Hey, little girl! You angry? You confused? Well go out there and KICK ASS!!!"
This movie shows a girl using her situation effectively.
The image of young females of America is better for it in my opinion.

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