Sunday, August 15, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

The most interesting question raised by Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is why it left me feeling delighted rather than quivering with feminist rage. I bounced hard off the first volume in the film’s source material, a six-volume comic book series by Bryan Lee O’Malley which follows the titular twentyish slacker as he battles the seven evil exes of his beloved, Ramona Flowers, in order to be with her.  I couldn't get over the way Scott treated his teenage girlfriend Knives Chau, lying to her, neglecting her, and letting her fall deeper in love with him even though he’d already fallen for Ramona, all because he could’t face the onerous task of breaking off their relationship. Even the assurances of my friends, who are fanatic lovers of the comics and have been anticipating the film and the final volume in the series with bated breath, that O’Malley does eventually acknowledge the creepiness of Scott’s behavior, wasn’t enough to bring me back. Wright’s film, meanwhile, shies away from such an acknowledgment.

To the horror of my friends when I told them about it, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World deviates significantly from the comics, especially towards the end of the story where most of Scott’s soul-searching happens.  Even outside of Scott’s self-absorbed point of view, the film's treatment of its female characters leaves much to be desired. Ramona is a near-blank whose attraction to Scott never really makes sense. Knives’s growing attachment to Scott, and her anger when she realizes he’s fallen in love with Ramona, are portrayed alternately as funny or pathetic, at least until the end of the film when she forgives Scott, helps him to defeat his last opponent, and urges him to make it work with Ramona. The fights between Scott and Ramona’s exes are explicitly described as duels in which Ramona is the prize, as opposed to the fight between Ramona and Knives, which is about Knives’s hurt feelings, without any expectation that the winner will get Scott. The only other person that Ramona fights is her female ex--otherwise, she stands back and lets Scott take a pummeling. Finally, Ramona’s behavior in the film’s last act is inexplicably out of character, and turns out to be the result of mind-control, a condition whose significance the film all but ignores and which is resolved with no fanfare whatsoever. Walking out of the theater with a big smile on my face, I couldn’t help but feel that, like Todd, the evil ex whose superpowers are revoked by the Vegan Police after Scott tricks him into drinking half-and-half (Brandon Routh, in a performance so deliciously hammy that it’s impossible to believe he made such a lackluster villain in this season of Chuck), I should be deprived of my feminist credentials.

So, assuming that I'm not simply a Bad Feminist, what is it about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World that made it so easy for me to ignore the shitty way it treats its female characters?   The most obvious possibility is that the film is Just That Good, and there have been other cases where I've allowed the quality of a work to obscure its more problematic aspects (The Lord of the Rings, Anathem, various Pixar films).  But that's really not the case where Scott Pilgrim is concerned.  The film isn't so much good as it is very, very fun.  The comic's central gimmick is that the story is constructed like a video game, with Scott battling Ramona's exes and gaining points and experience as he defeats each one, until the final boss battle with her most evil ex Gideon (Jason Schwartzman).  The film takes to the video game idiom so naturally that it's hard to believe that the story wasn't created for this medium, effortlessly combining a naturalistic setting with cartoonish violence, and adding to both the visual tropes of a comic book--split screens, titles that introduce characters or announce location changes, spelled-out action noises. 

This could have all resulted in an unholy mess, of course, but Wright, who as the director of Hot Fuzz is no stranger to cartoonish, over-the-top comedic action, handles his material beautifully.  He establishes the ground rules of his world with a scene in which Scott and Knives play, in perfect synchronization, an arcade game that is a cross between Mortal Kombat and Dance Dance Revolution, then starts delivering the action scenes, which are sweeping and exhilarating, and the jokes, which are frequently uproarious.  This cartoonishness is offset and grounded by a strong cast who help us care about all this candy-colored action--Michael Cera is recycling the same performance that he's worn nearly to the nub in a mere half-decade in film, but it suits the character of Scott Pilgrim so well that one might almost imagine that the comics were written with him in mind for the role; Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives Ramona heft, ably conveying the character's understanding that both the people around her and the story she's in think of her as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and her exasperation at this; Kieran Culkin is a delight as Scott's roommate Wallace, who vacillates between trying to steer Scott towards better, more mature choices and taking a childish pleasure in the trainwrecks that occur when Scott fails to do so, and nearly steals the film in both capacities; everyone else is underused, but the only sour note is Schwartzman, who isn't nearly as charismatic or as evil as the build-up to Gideon's introduction leads us to expect.

Fun, however, is not quite the same thing as good, and as much as I enjoyed Scott Pilgrim, it does outlast the exhilaration created by its innovative format and Wright's sharp direction.  The problem here, clearly, is the necessity of cramming a six-part story with a cast of dozens into a two-hour, three-act film.  It's obvious even to someone who hasn't read the comics that the majority of the cast are being seriously under-served, their plotlines reduced or entirely redacted, but their presence means that the film feels overpopulated, and by the its midpoint I was getting a little tired of the frenetic pace at which Wright was throwing characters and plot twists at me.  And if, when it came to secondary characters, Wright had some wriggle room, the story's central premise was untouchable, even though Scott Pilgrim would probably have been a much tighter film with only four evil exes for Scott to battle.  Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, and Mae Whitman are all good as exes 2-4, but between them they slow the film's pace, and it would have been better to keep only one of the three.  Meanwhile, exes five and six are so unimportant that they don't even get lines or a close-up, but they still warrant a long, explosive fight scene, which is fantastic in itself but which, coming so late in the film, only stalls the story, delaying Gideon's introduction, Scott's one moment of character growth, and the climactic battle.  I was thus ready for Scott Pilgrim to end a good ten or fifteen minutes before it actually did. 

Besides these structural problems, however, there is the more crucial flaw that Scott Pilgrim doesn't really know what to do with its main character.  Scott defeats Gideon by, as the film puts it, gaining the power of self-esteem (which is represented by a sword), but it's not as if a tendency to be self-abnegating or retiring was ever this kid's problem--if anything he's overconfident, taking it for granted that his selfishness and failures as a boyfriend will be shrugged off and forgiven--and the character's final triumph thus rings a little hollow, more like the standard Hollywood template of what character growth at the end of a summer blockbuster should look like than anything relating to who Scott actually is.  In the original comics, I'm told, there is a character called nega-Scott who forces Scott to face up to his self-serving recollections of his past relationships, and to the hurt he's caused the women in his life, which is more like the kind of growth this character needs, but in the film nega-Scott is done away with with an (admittedly quite funny) gag.  None of these are fatal flaws, and the film's energy and inventive look are more than enough to carry it through its rough patches, but taken together they do keep Scott Pilgrim from the greatness that might have justified, or at least made it easier to ignore, its misogyny.

So, if Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is not a searing masterpiece for the ages whose quality overwhelms any and all problems with its politics, why was it so easy for me to ignore those problems?  Another possible answer is that the film is too silly, too steeped in and conscious of its unreality, to take seriously enough to criticize.  This is probably closer to the mark, though not for the obvious reason that Scott Pilgrim is a semi-cartoon about people who fight video game battles in real life.  Rather, it's because of the way the film depicts romance and sexual attraction.  The male gaze is almost entirely absent from Scott Pilgrim.  Its female characters are not sexualized or fetishized--most of them spend the film covered from head to toe and muffled in heavy coats, the better to protect themselves from the snowy Toronto weather that is almost its own character.  Scott, meanwhile, is almost asexual.  He gets a huge kick out of modest intimacies such as holding hands or cuddling--or rather, he doesn't.  His excitement at these acts is emotional, not sexual, and the sexual component of his desire for Ramona and Knives gets almost no play in the film.  This approach has the effect of making the film and its characters seem innocent and childlike.  Scott isn't a manchild; he's just a child.  It's easy, therefore, to disassociate his behavior towards the women in his life from the familiar figure of the entitled nerd/gamer/musician/hipster who believes that having been the target of bullying absolves them from ever examining their behavior towards others--the same figure that, as I understand it, the original Scott Pilgrim was created to examine and, to a certain extent, decry.

To this mitigating factor I'd add another, which is that the film offers other pleasures besides the romance between Scott and Ramona.  In fact, I would go further and say that, unlike (500) Days of Summer, a film that it resembles in several respects, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World doesn't really try to hook its viewers by getting them to root for the romance or feel a vicarious infatuation with the object of the main character's affection.  Instead, like the best computer games, the pleasure of the film is rooted in the quest itself--defeating the seven evil exes--rather than in Scott's pursuit of Ramona, who is literally his reward.  This is, of course, risible, but it also means that there are aspects of the film one can enjoy without buying into a poorly conceived, unconvincing romance.  In fact, at the very end of the film Scott and Knives team up again to fight Gideon, mirroring their game session at its start, and do such a good job that even Ramona comments that they make a good team right before walking off because she thinks that there is too much drama in her relationship with Scott.  For a minute it seemed entirely possible that the film would end by pairing up Scott and Knives, or leaving Scott on his own but more confident, and so uninvested was I in the relationship between Scott and Ramona that this seemed like an entirely reasonable and satisfying ending (it helps that Ellen Wong's effervescent performance as Knives is so much more accessible than Winstead's, whose work is mostly done below the surface).  So on the one hand, Scott Pilgrim is a romance that pays very little attention to the female half of its central couple, but on the other hand, it doesn't force its viewers to buy into that couple, or even pay it a great deal of attention, if they want to enjoy the film.

Let's be clear--the mitigating factors I note here are not intended as a defense of the film against the accusation that it is misogynistic.  There is no such defense.  This is a misogynistic film.  It's also a fun one.  When it comes to Hollywood blockbusters, that's often the best one can hope for, and Scott Pilgrim might almost be described as a better sort of misogynistic film because if offers distractions from its misogyny rather than foregrounding it as so many others do.  But especially given that, according to my friends who are its fans, Scott Pilgrim the comic is a story that tries to combat much of the misogyny that underlies Scott Pilgrim the film and other works of its ilk, it's a shame that this is the best Edgar Wright could come up with--a film that uses flashing lights and bright colors to distract its viewers from the unpleasantness at its core.  In an aside to a blog entry from a few months ago, Sady Doyle discusses consuming pop culture while feminist, and touches on a lot of the issues I tried to raise in this post last year, doing a much better job at articulating the frustrations I tried to express in it.  How firmly, Doyle asks, should we cling to our feminism goggles?  Is it right to always filter art through a political stance?  Is it right to let that stance take a back seat to artistic appreciation?  Scott Pilgrim vs. the World raises these questions from a direction I wasn't expecting--is it OK to enjoy a silly, frivolous piece of art even though you can clearly see that it is toxic?  I'm not sure what the answer is, or whether it even matters--it won't change the fact that I enjoyed Scott Pilgrim, and I'm not so masochistic as to wish I'd suffered through it for the sake of ideological purity.  What I do wish, however, is that I lived in a world in which the choice between the two was not forced upon me quite so often.

55 comments:

Niall said...

gaining the power of self-esteem (which is represented by a sword)

In the book, this is the power of understanding. That seems to sum up the problems with the adaptation quite neatly.

Matt Hilliard said...

Hopefully it's obvious but I'd like to note that imposing ideological purity tests ultimately leads to talking to a very small set of people and ignoring both the vast majority of people alive today and pretty much everyone from the past. A bad idea, in other words.

That said, I'm not sure it's accurate to say that Scott Pilgrim is advancing an ideology and thus would fail such a test. I haven't seen it yet but it sounds like it is a symptom of cultural biases and not a cause. Unlike, say, the way Hero seems to make a strong argument to lie down in the face of tyranny, I don't think Scott Pilgrim is trying to actively argue a point about the place of women in society. I think this makes it much less dangerous. Yes, it is subtly reinforcing harmful aspects of western culture, but in that respect it's a drop in the ocean.

The way I'd phrase this issue is whether or not we should watch films that are not edifying. I think most modern people would make fun of the old religious attitude that all books or movies that do not actively instruct their audiences in the ways of righteous thought and behavior are wastes of time at a minimum and (because the baseline culture is corrupt) corrosive in most cases. In the US there is a vast media archipelago of Christian book stores with Safe Books, Christian radio stations with Safe Bands, Christian television stations with Safe Shows, and so on, all to help people perform this kind of filtering. I suppose something similar can be done with feminist principles, and the Internet allows a geographically distributed community to talk to itself and ignore everyone else.

I don't know what the answer is, but the simplest course is to continue engaging with popular culture but think critically about it and discuss it with other people. What you already do, in other words.

Andy M said...

Let me preface this by saying that I consider myself a fledgling feminist, not an expert, so I may have missed what got you so riled up in this movie. I also haven't read the comics, so I don't have a frame of reference for comparison.

As I was watching the film, I was a bit uncomfortable with how gender was portrayed, but the post-death story beats set me at ease. Beat after beat seemed to connect directly with some of the issues you discuss — the realization that he has treated both Knives and Ramona poorly and his admission of guilt, his (all-too-quick) reconciliation with Kim, and his willingness to not "claim his prize" after defeating the exes, but rather treat Knives and Ramona with the honesty and humanity he lacked before.

I felt that there were several story beats that rub against an attempt to characterize the film as straight-up misogynist. In the final tally, it may still be transgressive, but it seemed that there was at least a fair effort to undercut the blatant misogyny of the fight-for-the-female-prize premise.

-Andy

jackdavinci said...

I think she's confusing intentional immaturity of a character for the purposes of growth during the arc of the story, for misogynistic intent of the author.

Yes Scott makes some bad relationship choices. But the point of the film is that he is called out for it, learns his lesson, and makes up for it.

I think it's more biased to say that someone is strictly misogynistic simply because they are heterosexual. Scott is not mistreating women - he is mistreating the people he's dating. Which has everything to do with the dynamics of dating relationships and nothing to do with how he treats women in general. If he were to discover he was gay (not a big stretch for the Scott Pilgrim universe), he would then be treating his male objects of affection exactly the same way (or not, after his character growth).

So Abigail, I call your dubious misogyny and raise with your own heterosexism!

Tom Dickinson said...

The fights between Scott and Ramona’s exes are explicitly described as duels in which Ramona is the prize

This is simply not true.

Scott is already romantically involved with Ramona before the first punch is thrown. The fights are not obstacles in his pursuit of Ramona, but rather consequences of the fact that he's already dating her.

In other words, it's not so much "Scott, if you defeat us all, then you can get with Ramona," it's more, "Hey, this asshole's dating Ramona. Let's kill him or drive him away from her, because she doesn't deserve to be happy." A subtle difference, but certainly a meaningful one. Ramona isn't the prize. She's the target, and Scott is caught in the crossfire.

I think this is made clearer in the comics than in the movie, because in the comics, Scott and Ramona do have a real relationship shown over the course of a year, whereas in the movie these fights all happen within a couple days of his meeting her.

Additionally, a lot of critics seemed to have assumed that these evil exes are Scott's competitors for Ramona's affections, which is clearly false--none of them are interested in getting back with Ramona, only in making her miserable.

The exception is Gideon, the one fight in which Ramona is explicitly acknowledged to be the "prize" of the fight. But, of course, when Scott is given the chance to do the fight over, this is redacted, because he realizes what an ass he's been to both Ramona and Knives.

I think you make a lot of really good points, most of which apply to the film and not the comic. Your discomfort with Scott's treatment of Knives is explicitly addressed on multiple occasions in subsequent volumes and forms an integral part of both of their arcs. By the end of the comics, Knives has realized that Scot was "a terrible boyfriend, in retrospect," and Scott realizes the same. I think Scott's memory problems (which don't seem to exist in the movie) also partially explain in the comics why he "forgets" to address his relationship with Knives once he meets Ramona.

Interesting post, though.

Simon said...

I can't find the comics anywhere, so I don't know how the characters are protrayed there, but in the movie, I was kind of rooting for Knives.

Anonymous said...

I much much prefer how the first half of v6 specifically deals with Scott's being a huge asshole <> At the end of v5 Ramona disappeared without explanation, the band broke up, Kim moved away and Scott has shut himself in for months playing video games all day. Wallace suggests he starts sleeping around to get over Ramona. At a show, Scott clumsily propositions Knives (who has just turned 18) but she tells him that he was a bad boyfriend and she's moved on, learning to like herself. Later Scott talks with Envy, and we find out the drunken argument that led to their breakup hurt her just as much as it did him. Scott then goes north to make amends with Kim, he tries to kiss her but she reminds him of the times he was an asshole in high school. He had never told her he was moving to Toronto, and we find out that the River City Ransom style flashback from v2 was Scott being an unreliable narrator (He had remembered punching a nerdy kid who held hands with Kim as fighting his way through a high school to save the chained Kim) Nega-Scott attacks Scott, a physical representation of all the asshole memories he blocked out, almost killing him, but Scott merges with the Nega-Scott, coming to terms with his past.

Anonymous said...

The whole point is that Scott is an idiot and a loser, so although women aren't treated well by him, I think the females win in the end. (Maybe he is perceived as less loserly because cera is cute, but in the book he is a total loser in my ...opinion...) He follows a vapid, self-obsessed girl around who has no reason to love him: how long is the relationship going to last? Not so sure its happily ever after, especially not in the book. knives wins for dodging a bullet (what kind of 22 year old wants a particularly childish 17 year old anyway?): kim wins by getting over scott: his sister wins for being smarter. Also, really, instead of making up for not having read the book by referencing it, go read it... It'll open the whole story up.

Lovecraft In Brooklyn said...

I'm 100% in the target audience (male, play in a shitty band, like videogames) and loved the film but i still found the ending a bit misogynist - especially that image of a brainwashed Ramona being fought over by Scott and Gideon

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Interesting: unless I'm mistaken in my guess about the anonymi, all the commenters here have been men.

Niall:

Yes, that's a major difference, and even in the film, which as I say downplays Scott's unpleasantness, would have made a great deal more sense for the character.

Matt:

Ideological purity test? Seems like a slightly loaded way of putting it.

I certainly agree that Scott Pilgrim's misogyny is a symptom of the culture it was made in rather than an active choice by Wright et al, but that's true of most popular culture - on the contrary, it's usually artists who are trying to make a stand against misogyny or racism or homophobia who are that conscious of their motivations. But we know that pop culture is self-enforcing - that the images it propagates help to determine real-world prejudices, both external and internal. So I'm not sure why the fact that Wright may not have intended to make a misogynistic film, but just fell into those traps because of a lack of awareness, should mitigate his falling into those traps - the ultimate effect of the film on its audience will be the same. It may be a drop in the ocean, but that ocean won't dry up unless we decry every drop.

Besides which, I think the very fact that Wright took what, by all accounts, is a deliberately anti-misogynistic work, a story that takes the trappings of a very familiar and very toxic story and turns them inside out, and transformed it into a film that is that familiar and toxic story, is telling. It reveals just how deeply ingrained the misogynistic instinct is in our culture. That's worth noting.

Andy:

The film's ending does make some efforts to rehabilitate Scott, but these seem rather thin. Nor do they change the fact that Ramona's motivations are opaque, that Knives exists solely to forgive Scott and nudge him and Ramona together, and that the entire mind-control plot point seems to exist solely in order to justify nonsensical behavior on Ramona's part.

jackdavinci:

Well, points for originality, I suppose.

That Scott would have been equally self-absorbed as a lover of men is undeniable. He is not, however, a lover of men, and that's a conscious choice by O'Malley and later Wright (who also chose what to keep in his adaptation of the story and what to leave out, and put Ramona's personality in the latter column). O'Malley, by all accounts, did so because he wanted to comment on a particular sort of man, who treats women as disposable objects of his affection.

Tom:

"If you want to be with me, you may have to defeat my seven evil exes." I may be off on the phrasing a little, but that's the line, right there in the trailer. Whether or not the exes intend to fight Scott for Ramona, the film is constructed so that he is. And surely the fact that the exes' anger is so rarely expressed while Knives explicitly makes her fight with Ramona about that anger contributes to the sense that Ramona is a prize to be won.

It may not be that way in the comics, but this post is about the film.

Anonymous said...

Jeez, Could you at least put a spoiler warning on the top of the page? Some of use haven't seen the movie yet.

Christian O'Brien said...

Scott gains the power of self-respect, not self-esteem. Big difference. Devin Faraci puts it pretty succinctly in his review:
"There's a remarkable emotional maturity at the center of the film, with the idea that self respect is intimately tied with personal responsibility, which is a prerequisite for any relationship to take hold."

Also, apparently in the original cut of the film, Scott does wind up with Knives at the end!

Tom Dickinson said...

Abigail, I just don't see it that way. During the second fight, doesn't Chris Evans's character spells out that the "League" is a coordinated effort to harass Ramona by alienating or killing her future romantic partners? It's not so much that Scott is fighting for Ramona, or for the right to be with her, or for her love, but rather for his own life, which is threatened by crazy people who hate his girlfriend.

Metaphorically, these fights are meant as demonstrations of the fact that adult relationships are fraught with struggle, in this case "baggage" from past relationships. In this case, the "struggle" is literalized as cartoonish video game duels. This is held in direct contrast with Scott's relationship with Knives, who adores him and everything he does automatically and with no effort on his part.

But I don't think there's much in the film supporting the reading of Ramona as a "prize" for victory in these duels. She is, as far as I recall, only ever considered in this way by Gideon (whom we are meant to despise), and briefly by Scott (who thereafter utterly recants this point of view).

I'll certainly admit that in the finished film this isn't anywhere near as clear as it should be. Wright should certainly have spent some time addressing feminist concerns with the premise. I think these concerns are based on a misuderstanding, but it's a very easy misunderstanding to make, and one that is certainly supported by the film's trailers. Perhaps you allowed the trailers to color your interpretation of the film.

Or, on the other hand, perhaps I allowed my familarity with the comics to color mine. In any case, I understand that this is about the film and not the comics, but I feel compelled to defend the latter for the obvious reason that they share the premise in common, and also because I sincerely hope you'll give them another chance.

Alasdair said...

Haven't seen the film, but from what I've read about it, it sounds like it makes some subtle yet crucial changes from the comics. In the comics, Scott Pilgrim is, basically, a loser who thinks he's cool; by the end of the story, he's learned that he's not as great or as nice as he thinks he is. In the end, he has to confront his past mistakes and understand them before he can move on with Ramona.

In the film, it seems to be the other way around: Scott Pilgrim is a cool guy who thinks he's a loser, but learns to respect himself and gain self-esteem by the end. That's a fine story, but it's not the one Bryan Lee O'Malley was telling, and it's one that's been told in too many films before (not least in Michael Cera's previous films, Superbad and Juno).

The point is illustrated by the review I've linked, which states 'Scott Pilgrim Vs The World hasn’t the slightest idea its main character is a pathetic buffoon.' In the comic, O'Malley certainly makes it clear that Scott is a pathetic buffoon, and we're supposed to laugh at him, not think he's cool. It sounds like somewhere along the way the film just turned into male geek wish-fulfilment fantasy.

I feared it would turn out like this when Cera was cast, but it's disappointing to have those fears confirmed.

As for the concerns over misogyny: I understand the problem. I've often found myself enjoying a film, then thinking 'hang on, this is just reinforcing offensive stereotypes!' (James Cameron's Avatar comes to mind). Unfortunately, with our culture being what it is, there isn't much in the way of film or television that's completely unproblematic; sometimes, you just have to accept that a film contains misogynistic or racist undertones, and try to enjoy it nonetheless.

Tom Dickinson said...

Just to clarify: I totally agree that the female characters (Ramona especially) are done a massive disservice in this adaptation. All I'm really objecting to is the statement I quoted in my initial comment.

Anonymous said...

Do you have an example or two of movies about guys pursuing heterosexual romantic partners which are free from misogyny, in your view? I'm having trouble distinguishing it from poor character development, which was my only complaint with the film.

From my point of view, Tom's analysis is spot on.

John M Osborne said...

I saw it as living in Scott's head. Scott is a chauvinist that doesn't realize it - a fact more obvious in the film than in the comic books. He sees the world in 16-bit, and the video game is a very immature medium. The point I got from it was simple - video games are the romantic mythology of this generation. Indeed, it borrows completely from them - Knights and Plumbers kill turtles to save the Princess in the end, and this is the world Scott Pilgrim relates to.

The ending of the film really 1-up's that, that he isn't a video game hero on a quest for a prize - and therefore ignoring his friends, seeing them as quest items and quest givers rather than 3-dimensional people. He's an immature young man coming to grips with taking responsibility for himself and his actions, literally coming to peace with himself in the end.

This uses magical realism to great extent, and I love how it works.

So, in short, I agree with you, but women aren't portrayed this way because this is what they actually are, but it's how the immature Scott Pilgrim sees them.

Anonymous said...

The difference between the "power of self-respect" and the "power of self-esteem" is pretty significant--it's the "power of self-respect" in the film. Yeah, Scott is overconfident, but he is also utterly incapable of being anything on his own, without a girlfriend (this is clearer in the comic)--frankly, in both the comic and the movie, I wanted him to end up alone and have to take time to truly come to terms with himself. The fact that Scott comes back to fight for himself--a silent acknowledgment that he does not have the RIGHT to fight for Ramona--is at least a fair compromise for me.

I really enjoyed the film. It was certainly not any more misogynist than its source material, which was mostly successful at satirizing insanely jealous ex-boyfriends and the kind of guy who's easily on his way to becoming one of them under the wrong circumstances (Scott). Even the books have their problems, though, from a feminist standpoint--but I think the movie actually resolves these.

Ashley Lynch said...

My first thoughts as I walked away from the movie, aside from the spectacle, were that neither Scott nor Ramona were very endearing characters on a romantic level. They both end up revealing themselves as people I'd never want to get involved with because of all the ridiculous drama they would drag behind. Even Wallace, a character who often represents a sense of conscience and rational thought for Scott, is seen in the first act stealing Scott's sister's date.

It made me think back to when I was in my early twenties and all the geeks/nerds/hipsters I hung around with. Real relationships were absent, we acted like total narcissistic assholes and we thought we knew everything about how the world worked. The movie actually does a good job of recreating that arrogant nature of being a young hipster that can bounce off the walls and land back on your feet ready to go again.

Jesse M said...

Nobody in the film adaptation is well-developed. While Ramona's interest in Scott seems like pity, and isn't otherwise explained, Scott's interest in Ramona just seems like juvenile obsession... and their first encounter is a non-sequitor fantasy sequence. In fact, Ramona's character is the most developed in the whole film. The movie is, after all, a drawn-out exploration of her romantic past: comic book flashbacks of her original meetings with some of her exes; her admission of her own obsession with Gideon. Knives is also among the three most developed characters, because her trials have implications of first love, jealousy, and personal growth throughout the movie. Far from ignoring the females, it's actually a story ABOUT the females, albiet told through Scott's lovestruck eyes. Reminiscent of The Virgin Suicides.

And Tom and Andy M are spot-on about Scott's final character developments. His "second life" was the climax of the film, and the turning point for his character: from laziness and chauvanism to personal responsibility, and to seeking forgiveness for his actions (saying sorry to Knives, willingly giving up his place in the band to someone better).

You objections are answered in these comments. Let's turn our thoughts to a more truly misogynistic text. Isn't there a Katherine Heigl movie out there that hasn't been analyzed?

Bry Bry said...

I honestly don't understand how the film was misogynist. Just because the main character was terrible to women= doesn't mean the work itself is misogynist.

It's like saying Ibsen's "A Doll's House." isn't feminist because Torvald treated Nora like a child.

There was a point to Scott Pilgrim treating his girlfriend's like crap. In the end, he realized how terrible he was to them, and apologized.

In another note, I didn't like the actress who portrayed Knives. I felt she overdid her character. This might be because Knives was my favorite character in the series.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Christian:

You're sure? I had remembered self-esteem pretty clearly. I agree that there's a difference between the two, and that self-respect suits Scott's issues better than self-esteem (though still smacks more than a little of the character failing to overcome his narcissism, and isn't nearly as good a fit as the comic's power of understanding). But I don't see the film arguing Faraci's point that respect for others is rooted in respect for the self - the build-up doesn't seem to be there.

I'd heard about the original ending. An interesting choice, though one that suggests that Wright was willing to break significantly with O'Malley's original, which only makes me sadder that he stuck to the seven exes format. I'm not sure I would have liked the film better that way - I agree with Knives that she is too cool for Scott.

Tom:

I don't recall Chris Evans telling Ramona that they plan to torment her, though I could be wrong. At any rate, the very fact that Knives so explicitly expresses her pain at Ramona for the loss of Scott, while the exes all express anger at Scott that feels a great deal less focused on Ramona, creates a distinction that I think is telling. I take your point about the metaphor of the exes as baggage (though in that case Ramona's passivity while Scott deals with that baggage is even more objectionable), but I think it's disingenuous to argue that in a film structured as Scott Pilgrim is, there isn't an implicit statement that Ramona is the prize for Scott triumphing over the exes (she's also the prize for his personal growth, but that still makes her a prize).

Anonymous:

Do you have an example or two of movies about guys pursuing heterosexual romantic partners which are free from misogyny, in your view?

The first example that comes to mind is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which Scott Pilgrim may be referencing with Ramona's frequent hair-color changes. The female lead in that film strongly cautions her suitor that she isn't a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, someone who will bring excitement and meaning to his life. She is, she tells him, just a screwed up person like himself, and he has to accept that.

More generally, I'd say that if poor character development is concentrated on the female characters, that's a pretty good indication of misogyny in itself.

John:

As I said to Tom, it seems disingenuous to argue that Scott Pilgrim invites us to question its title character's take on the world or even his coolness. In the film, Scott is the hero. We're encouraged to desire his triumph, both martial and romantic. The pleasure in the film comes from rooting for Scott. I don't think that this film expects us to question him as much as you're doing here, or as much as the comics apparently do.

Jesse:

Ramona's character is the most developed in the whole film. The movie is, after all, a drawn-out exploration of her romantic past

Of course! A woman's personality and her romantic past are one and the same!

You objections are answered in these comments.

If it's all the same to you, I think I'll be the judge of that.

Let's turn our thoughts to a more truly misogynistic text.

I have a better idea: I'll do whatever the hell I want, and you'll stop posting condescending comments on my blog.

Bry Bry:

I honestly don't understand how the film was misogynist. Just because the main character was terrible to women= doesn't mean the work itself is misogynist.

As this is not one the complaints I had against the film, I can't help you with your quest for understanding. May I recommend that you read my post again, or possibly for the first time?

X. Trapnel said...

I'm really glad to have read this review. Thanks!

Tom Dickinson said...

I don't recall Chris Evans telling Ramona that they plan to torment her, though I could be wrong.

He doesn't say it to her (I think we assume she's already aware). But I think he does explain it to Scott. I might have misremembered what he says, but I know he introduces the League and its purpose.

the exes all express anger at Scott that feels a great deal less focused on Ramona,

You've said this a few times, but I'm not sure I agree. In a lot of cases the "anger" seems more like it's circumstantial to the fact that they're fighting (ie, "You'll pay for that, Pilgrim!"). For instance, Lucas is pretty dispassionate in his aggression (which is played for laughs), and Todd attacks Scott on Envy's behalf. Roxy is the only one who seems to have anything personal against Scott. But, as before, my understanding of these characters might be skewed by my existing familiarity with them.

I think it's disingenuous to argue that in a film structured as Scott Pilgrim is, there isn't an implicit statement that Ramona is the prize for Scott triumphing over the exes

I definitely see your point. But at the risk of sounding like a broken record, that implicit statement is eventually made explicit, and it is rewarded with a sword through the gut. Scott's victory against Gideon is entirely contingent upon his rejection of that very statement. As I said in my previous comment, I think Wright could and should have gone a lot farther (for instance, let's at the very least get Ramona's perspective. Does SHE feel like she's being treated as a prize?) but impaling your protagonist with a glowing sword and scrawling the word "DEAD" next to his corpse with an arrow pointing to him is one hell of a statement.

(she's also the prize for his personal growth, but that still makes her a prize).

I'll admit I hadn't thought to look at it that way. I'm not sure, though. Does Scott and Ramona's mutual decision to try again really make her a "prize"?

Personal growth is a rewarding pursuit, and chief among those rewards is an improvement in one's ability to form meaningful relationships with other people. Ramona's willingness to give Scott another chance seems to me like a fine way of representing that.

st said...

it seems disingenuous to argue that Scott Pilgrim invites us to question its title character's take on the world or even his coolness

I just don't think this is accurate, even sifting out my impressions from the comics. Remember the line from the trailer? "Scott, if your life had a face, I would punch it." The first ten minutes or so of the film are all about his friends and sister conveying to him that they think he's a loser for dating a high-school girl. Most of it is very deadpan, but it's not that ambiguous. Scott lives in a crappy basement studio apartment that belongs to someone else; he doesn't even have a mattress of his own; and if you pay attention to the apartment pop-ups, they make it clear that he's basically got nothing to his name except a coat that is worse than Wallace's. He hasn't even managed to move off the street where he grew up. He's perpetually unemployed. He was ditched by a girl who went off to superstardom (this is made more clear in the books, where she actually kicks him out of the band, but it's certainly present in the film, where he's plainly still stuck on her over a year later). He left his own drummer with a permanent scowl on her face, and one character's whole shtick in the film is to tell him in great censored detail what an asshole he is. He's not even the best bassist in his own band!

Scott's the protagonist, sure, and is sympathetically cast, but the whole point of the movie is that, despite whatever innate talent or appeal he may have, he's leading a loser's "precious little life" and needs to grow the heck up--gaining the power of self-respect (very different from self-esteem).

I think one of the problems critics of a certain cultural milieu have with this movie is that it may be presenting information to them in a way that is difficult for them to parse on one viewing, especially in such a visually busy environment.

Jean said...

I love this comic, and am eager to see the movie. But wow, it's ridiculous how defensive the fans can be.

The question you raise in the last paragraph, about viewing media through a political lens, is one I've also been struggling with lately. Honestly, if I limited myself to only enjoying films that were blamelessly feminist, and then of those only films that had a good representation of people of color, it would take most of my top 20 favorite movies out of the running. In the end, it just makes me irrationally angry at those privileged enough to enjoy problematic media without feeling left out, insulted, or like a traitor to the cause.

Tom Dickinson said...

Yeah, funny how when fans read statements like, "There is no such defense. This is a misogynistic film," they get all... defensive.

Crazy, huh?

Anonymous said...

Yes, a bit crazy, since Nussbaum is talking about the film and not the fans. But this is notoriously hard for people to separate. :-)

Tom Dickinson said...

I am fully aware that Ms. Nussbaum is talking about a film I like and not about me. But when she says it cannot be defended, and I'm pretty dang sure it CAN be defended, I'm going to defend it, naturally.

Robyrt said...

"Poor character development" can probably be applied to Ramona, but Knives is the most sympathetic character in the entire film. In a movie with about 5 too many characters, Knives gets an awful lot of positive screen time, goes through considerable character development, and is handed the official verdict of being cooler than the hero. She even gets to be a better fighter than most of the cast. So no, I don't see a pattern with the women in the film.

James said...

Anyone quibbling that Ramona is not presented as Scott's prize - on the bus, he outright asks her "so I have to defeat your seven evil exes if I want to keep dating you?" "Yes". Pretty conclusive, gang.

Abigail: It's definitely Self-Respect rather than Esteem, but you're right that there's not enough in the film to support a "you've got to learn to love yourself before you can love another" thesis. I wasn't too hot on the book's Power of Understanding, either, but that might just be because I thought Scott already HAD understanding up until his hateful antics in book 6 (plus it just seemed like an arbitrary way to give him another sword so he could have a movie-worthy end battle).

Scott's a better person in the movie, on the whole. His redemption is rushed and thin, and comes just as the script chucks Ramona's character out a window (the movie doesn't give us any reason for her to go back to Gideon that isn't insanely misogynist, and the mega-cheap fantasy explanation doesn't help at all). BUT: Scott never sinks to the depths he does in the books, so... that's something?

It IS an incredibly fun film despite everything, anyway.

Oh, and this is a great essay, by the way. Art vs. Politics of said Art is something I wrestle with constantly.

Martin said...

So no, I don't see a pattern with the women in the film.

One counter-example doesn't refute the general pattern. Yes, Knives is relatively well developed but - with the possible exception of Stacy who is a minor character anyway - she is the only one. Ramona, Kim, Envy, Roxy and Julie are all significantly less developed than their male counterparts.

Anyone quibbling that Ramona is not presented as Scott's prize - on the bus, he outright asks her "so I have to defeat your seven evil exes if I want to keep dating you?"

But that's not quite the same thing, is it? He has to fight to win the right to date her, not her herself. Admittedly it is clearer in the comics because it isn't so rushed and compressed.

With the fights Lee O'Malley is literalising the idea that he needs to defeat her memories of her previous boyfriends. So it is less that the boyfriends are fighting amongst themselves for ownership of Ramona - if Matthew Patel won the fight would Ramona have taken him back? No - and more that he has to prove to Ramona that he is better than them, that he is worth dating. Which is why he can only defeat Gideon onces he gains the understanding that he's been a total dick. And even then he needs her help because she needs to get over her relationship too. (Obviously the film completely ruins all this.)

James said...

Martin: Sorry, I can only see a semantic difference between winning Ramona and winning the right to date Ramona.

Martin said...

The former denies her agency, the latter does not. If Scott wins her, she becomes his property; if he wins the right to date her, Ramona can still tell him she doesn't want to date him any more.

James said...

I guess, hypothetically. But she won't, because she's a stock leading lady for our guy to "get", so the image ends up being of her as a prize.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Long overdue replies:

Tom:

Scott's victory against Gideon is entirely contingent upon his rejection of [the statement that Ramona is a prize to be won].

I don't think I'd go that far. Scott triumphs over Gideon because he's fighting for his self-respect rather than the right to be with Ramona. That's an important growth milestone for Scott, but it really has nothing to do with how the film views Ramona, who is still a mostly passive participant in these proceedings.

Does Scott and Ramona's mutual decision to try again really make her a "prize"?

Given how flat and unexplored she is, I think it does.

st:

I think one of the problems critics of a certain cultural milieu have with this movie is that it may be presenting information to them in a way that is difficult for them to parse on one viewing, especially in such a visually busy environment.

And by 'critics,' do you mean me? If not, then I don't see the relevance to this discussion, and if so, why are you being so passive-aggressive about it?

At any rate, I had no problems with the film's idiom, and I do understand that Scott is supposed to be a loser at its outset. What of it? Most male protagonists of genre/action films start out their stories as losers of one stripe or another. By the end of the film, Scott has triumphed over seven cool, tough guys, and gotten the hot hipster chick. Let's not pretend that we're not supposed to root for him or rejoice at any of these triumphs.

Robyrt:

As Martin points out, Knives is the only reasonably developed female character in the film. More importantly, her development is meant to bring her to the point where, only moments after learning about Scott's infidelity, she philosophically forgives him and urges him to make it work with Ramona. In the original version of the film, apparently, it was meant to bring her to the point where she was cool enough to be with Scott.

Martin:

As James says, the fact that the film gives us no sense of who Ramona is or what she wants - to the extent that her choices in its final act are only explainable through the introduction of a mind-control device that disappears almost as soon as it's mentioned - rather belies the notion that she has agency of any sort. Yes, in theory Ramona can refuse to be with Scott even after he's defeated the exes, but does anyone watching the film seriously think that she will?

Martin said...

Yes, in theory Ramona can refuse to be with Scott even after he's defeated the exes, but does anyone watching the film seriously think that she will?

Well, yeah. Like you say, it does seem entirely possible Scott will end up with Knives. I've read the comics and my wife hasn't and we both thought that (in many ways it would have been a better ending for the film). But even if Ramona doesn't refuse him immediately after the fight, that doesn't mean she won't in the future; Scott has won the opportunity to start a relationship, not a successful relationship itself (although I will admit the film frames it a lot more like he has "got the hot girl").

I should have said at the beginning that I think your review is spot on. On this one issue, I don't think there is anything conceptually wrong with the idea but I agree that the film muddies it and makes it more problematic by the way it treats Ramona.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

OK, fair point. It still feels to me, however, that the choice isn't Ramona's (or even Knives's). To put it another way, the flatness of Ramona's character makes it very obvious that she is being directed by a writers whose concerns are Scott's growth and Scott's triumph, not Ramona herself.

Tom Dickinson said...

That's because Scott's the main character and Ramona isn't. Is that a problem?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Given that:

a) The comics apparently spend a lot of time developing Ramona's character while the film doesn't
b) Ramona isn't a secondary character but a love interest, and as such it would be nice if she had enough of a personality to make us believe that she was choosing Scott rather than ending up with him because he's the hero
c) Knives is a secondary character and yet her development far outstrips Ramona's

I'd say that yes, it is a problem.

Tom Dickinson said...

Still, I think the movie's choice to focus more on Scott than on any other character (even his two love interests) is a pretty smart storytelling decision. Given how frenetic the film is, focusing on Scott and Scott alone grounds it and keeps it from sliding into chaos.

The fact that Knives gets more development than Ramona is indeed a flaw in the film. We know why the film ended up with this flaw, but I'll agree that we can't forgive the flaw just because we understand why it happened. Still, I don't think the gulf between Knives and Ramona is as large as you make it out to be, and it's certainly not as wide as the gulf between Ramona and... well... everyone but Knives and Scott. In fact, given the enormity of the cast and the level of development that everyone else gets (practically none), it's impressive that Knives and Ramona are as well-developed as they are.

And I still think you're misrepresenting the ending. The film does not ask us to accept that Ramona definitively "chooses" or "ends up with" Scott. Only that she offers him a second chance. This is reinforced by the film's closing image: a "CONTINUE?" screen with a countdown, which in gamer parlance translates to "you screwed up but you get a do-over." Personally, I think it's quite believable that Ramona would choose to do this now that she is free to pursue a relationship on her own terms.

A. Hsieh said...

I only just saw Scott Pilgrim vs the World--extremely late, I know, but I had a busy summer--and though my friends told me it ended better than in the comics, I still finished watching the film with a bad taste in my mouth.

I should say, though, that I've got kind of a different reason-- being a Taiwanese American male, deeply invested in Asian American actors in Hollywood (this sounds ridiculous and kind of pretentious, but I once harbored dreams of becoming an Asian American actor in Hollywood), I was actually quite saddened by the way Knives Chau is and was continuously developed as a sort of infantile, pitiful character. I feel as though the fact that she appears in the end still abnormally infatuated with Scott, and then suddenly lets him go, is a bit unrealistic, not to mention rushed, though I guess that's the code word of the movie. (You mentioned this was a philosophical moment-- I suppose it is, but mere minutes earlier Knives tries to kill Ramona with twin sai.) And while we're at it, hey, why even include the Katayanagi twins if they're just going to stand there and not talk?

I can't say anything on the topic of feminism, being less than a novice on the subject, but when it comes to Asian representation in the movies-- well, like another reviewer said, so much for inclusion.

A. Hsieh said...

Oh, and before I disappear into the Internether, I just wanted to say this was a great essay, provoking some quite excellent discussion in the comments. It may or may not be premature to say this, but this site harbors the most interesting discussion on Scott Pilgrim and social issues (read: feminism) that I've read.

Anonymous said...

While your analysis of Scott Pilgrim is well-crafted, I have to disagree with it. Just like in Hot Fuzz, Wright's style is jarring and obnoxious... The pacing seems to be deliberately calculated to startle the viewer out of immersing in the flow of dramatic events. It strikes me not as creative or groundbreaking, but self-conscious and pretentious in a look-at-me-being-clever, Quentin Tarantino way. Personally, I need a movie to be more than just witty to hold my attention.

VfV said...

Thank you for a great, insightful post, and a very challenging discussion.
My only question that would add to this would relate to the fact that women do not simply contend themselves with being passive observers, but get their fair share of fighting within the movie (Roxy vs. Ramona, then Knives vs Ramona, and Knives/Scott vs Gideon). The Roxy/Ramona scene is especially interesting in that regard, since Ranona not only defeats Roxy by herself, but then actually controls Scott's movements. It's one element that hasn't been commented on in this thread, and would seem at odds with an entirely misogynistic interpretation of the movie. Thoughts ?

JulieG said...

I've never read the comics, but am encouraged to give them a try after reading some of the comments here.

When I saw the movie, I had interpreted the battles as fights to win Ramona (which made me uncomfortable) until the scene where Scott and Ramona have an argument in the bar just before the Roxy battle. In that discussion, Scott whines about the fights, and Ramona more or less says that she's got baggage, and she's allowed to have had previous relationships, and that if he doesn't like it he can walk. I think she also points out that he's got baggage too. After that I saw the fights more metaphorically as being about dealing with the previous sexual experience of your girlfried.

I agree with you though that more characterisation of Ramona would have been an obvious way of making the movie better. I'm still not sure what she saw in Scott, except that he was marginally less annoying than her previous exes, perhaps.

JulieG said...

Hmm - I want to reword that a bit. It's less "dealing with" someone's previous sexual experience, but "getting over it". It happened, there are consequences, but if you can't get past that then you're the one who's been defeated.

Keegan said...

I know its been a while since this was posted on at all... But I just want to see if you can help me understand something.

I'm not going to say the movie didn't treat women wrongly. It did, and beyond just being rude to the females or misleading them, there were several instances where the "guys" were just talking about the girls like objects.

However, the main point is that Scott has to fight in order to continue dating her. Ramona offers it up to Scott as a challenge. Not a hey, you do this, you get me. It was more of a hey, I like you, you like me, however, you've got some work to do. He (Scott) not only deals with coming to terms with his own errors, he gets to deal with hers (Ramona's) as well. Further, when Ramona reveals details concerning her relationships with the evil ex's, it turns out that she seemed to be somewhat of a flake. She would be with someone for a week or so, and then move on, having grown tired of the boy she had been with. She even went so far as to date twins at the same time.

To me, this seems to portray Ramona as a demanding, controlling character, which is at odds with her passivity through out the film. The only time she really becomes involved as a character beyond her usual BLEH of a response is in the fight with her old female partner. So, I wouldn't say that this show just treats women incorrectly, but it also treats men injustly as well.

I think this show is more about viewing the world through very immature eyes, where everyone is just out for themselves, with the exception of Knives, but where by the end, they come to the realization that they need to work together and stop treating the opposite sex as objects to be picked up and dropped at will. To me, thats the point, that the world can be and often is seen through a skewed perspective, but that we need to grow.

Anonymous said...

You do love the pejorative labels.

If by misogynist you mean, told from a dumb male point of view i.e Scott's, than I would agree.

Everything else is spot on. - KeeperOTD

Julie said...

I couldn't exactly read the whole description because my mum is yelling at me to...nevermind. but scott pilgrim....is my FAV MOVIE

Anonymous said...

i smell a sequel...or maybe a prequel perhaps. thoughts?

Unknown said...

A. Hsieh: Most of the characters were in their 20s. Knives Chau was a 17 year old girl. She is immature because she's a teenager. That should NOT be a problem.

Genderless said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Genderless said...

Assuming I take no sides in whether or not Scott Pilgrim v.s. the World treats women fairly, both men and women are fought over in the film. This whole film is chalked full of jealousy, fighting, and immaturity. These same qualities of the film made it very successful. The tittle of the film is Scott Pilgrim v.s. the world, not "Scott Pilgrim fights for Ramona" or "Scott Pilgrim Warrior of Love" Scott is at first love stuck by Ramona, like an immature teenage boy. Later he questions his love for her. Then near the end he understands that he was fighting for the wrong reasons. I think that he understands that none of his previous girlfriends (i.e. Envy Adams and Kim) worked out because of his lack of self-respect. After achieving self-respect and understanding his past by his encounter with Nega Scott, Scott is able to pursue his love life without being rude, obnoxious, or without acting fake, like when he thinks he needs a hair cut.

This essay was written very well and obviously worked on extremely hard. I enjoyed the how you voiced your opinions without being too harsh about it. It was very fun to read and think about too!!

C said...

"Ramona is a near-blank whose attraction to Scott never really makes sense."

I disagree. In the film at least it is made perfectly clear that Ramona is drawn to Scott for the same reason that Scott is drawn to Knives: it's "something simple." She even says so. It's a rebound relationship with somebody more innocent while trying to forget a "big ex."

There is nothing MPDG about Ramona. She is tortured herself and for the most part self-interested. She only happens to redeem Scott (and herself) as a side effect of a relationship in which they both meet a version of themselves and are hurt by each other.

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