Feminism Didn’t Arrive at the Oscars


I’ve been doing more than a little thinking about Oscar movies this year. It turns out I’ve seen quite a number of them and had something to say. Well, today the thing I want to talk about is Arrival, both shockingly and remarkably a feminist movie. It made nearly $100 million in America, so it’s made a splash, and then it was nominated in eight categories, only to leave with one measly technical award. Maybe it’s a complete bust and will soon be forgotten as most things are. I’m told it lacked the deep concern with human individuality of the big winners. But there is something to respect in its feminist outlook and so I’ll talk to you about that if you have the time.

These days, it seems like women are protagonists in science fiction stories. That’s a sign of the future, at least in the sense that men have been the protagonists up to now and there has to be some change for there to be a future. Arrival is the rare science-fiction story in which the woman protagonist is actually important because she is a woman. There are both obvious and subtle effects of this new-found womanhood: in the story on which the movie is based, the protagonist is male. Movies may be more progressive than books, I suppose.

The story is this: one day, aliens arrive unannounced in weird-looking ships suspended over various parts of the world, twelve in number, like the Apostles of Christ or the months of the year, depending on how you think about it. They are incommunicado. Men must make the effort to overcome their shock and reach out of their silent awareness that they are not, after all, alone. That’s what really scares us, I suppose, loneliness. The two protagonists are both quite lonely and, being man and woman, eventually learn to put two together. Don’t credit the aliens with teaching people how to make children too soon, however, because this story has a twist.

My friend who works for Boeing in Seattle who told me about this movie says, it’s good, he liked it, it’s interesting, but it’s a chick flick. Why the dissatisfaction? Well, not a lot happens. Most of the stuff is not done by people, but rather it happens to them. This lack of action is one sign of the feminine outlook. This makes you ask about the actions and the answers are startling: the people who do act in the story are almost always men, always crazy, and usually working for the government. We’re going to need a list just to catalog all the faults of men, as women sometimes do:

  1. A man refuses to accede to Louise’s—the protagonist’s—desire to know more about the aliens. That wastes a lot of time and he comes back to her, because let’s face it, she’s not only unique, but also irreplaceable. That’s what men are like–they think they have options, so they’re going to fuss before they accept the inevitable. The woman, for her part, has the peace of a saint and is not incensed or mean about the man’s inconstancy.
  2. The choice of linguist turns out to be about how wrong men are: A man is so foolish as to think war is about arguments. The woman wisely knows war starts because of a desire for more cows. It is implied that only men are stupid enough to kill each other for such.
  3. Men are so foolish as to break every military oath there is in an insane attempt to blow up the alien ship while murdering their fellow soldiers, fellow Americans. This is part of the hysterical politics of the movie, which you might or might not take as a feminine view.
  4. Men are also so foolish and paranoid as to think that it’s best not to communicate with strangers or foreigners—the movie is all about the evil, unjust, violent rule of scared government spies over thoughtful, self-sacrificing scientists who want to form a community, but happen to be helplessly weak.
  5. The men running the government are also so bad at communicating that they can only start–or fail to stop–national panics and awful protests, riots, and sprees of looting, which one assumes are also the work of men. Most of this is explicit, but the implicit stuff comes along naturally by that point in the story.
  6. Let’s go back a step: why were the soldiers turning murderous? Because of pundits—men—who talked paranoid nationalism. I bet you didn’t see that coming. The politics in the movie feels a lot like you’re about to see a Christian pastor doing terrible things. The wonder of it is, that scene never comes. I guess, thank God for small mercies.
  7. Then there’s international stuff going on: the Russians and Chinese are, if possible, even more bellicose than the Americans. Their men also do evil things, though not quite as stupid as the Americans, and ultimately a Chinese general sees the light: the only man who matters who listens to what a woman tells him.
  8. Finally, a man divorces his wife and abandons their child, although they saved the world together, because he’s too much man to have learned, as she did, to stop worrying about the future.

I may have left out some minor wrongs committed by men; it’s even possible men ever do anything right except by obeying Louise, our heroine, but I cannot quite recall. So it’s not a surprise my friends raise an eyebrow at the chick-flick aspect of it all. But what does it mean? Why is the story slanted this way? Well, the most important thing is, women are collectively pacifists, at least compared to men. That may well be true and it was certainly the opinion of ancient and modern comedians like Aristophanes or Shakespeare. Women as a group do not think war has any dignity, it would seem. This is why the story has no problem depicting America’s political classes, in relation to national security and defense, in such a terrible light, and this was before Mr. Trump was elected! You could say this is a liberal v. conservative issue, but it might not be. It might just be the slant necessary for this kind of story. If you think communication can solve the important problems, then this is inevitable. If you think experts–linguists–are worth anything to diplomacy or politics, then maybe this makes more sense… This also points out that people who dislike this preening pacifism of the intellectuals might believe, deep down, that the really important problems are solved through violence.

The next strange thing that’s tied up with the feminine-pacifist perspective has to do with communication. What you do expect to get out of talking to aliens? It’s not hard to say, looking to sci-fi: cool gadgets, new powers, and all sorts of remarkable stories and adventures. That’s a boyish attitude, of course, but I’d say that’s what makes the economy work, not an affectionate willingness to communicate. Sci-fi used to try to predict things like satellites, super-computers, to say nothing of space travel… From a man’s point of view, aliens might just be the negative form of a positive desire, to get some things done in a world that now seems made to prevent any new things from happening. You have to be from outer space to even think you could change something in America for the better!

Well, the woman is not invested in technological advance. She learns more from the aliens than anyone else and what she learns is to stop thinking of time as past-present-future. Why do we do that in the first place? We do it because we are mortal and have limited powers. We perceive the world through our senses and, in limited ways, we remember our past and expect the future, in fear or hope. Does the woman-protagonist hope communication makes for immortality? No, that hope is the hope of the manly striving that leads to wars, but also to the inventions meant to fend off death and suffering. The suggestion seems to be that men really want to be Jesus Christ, conquering death, all the while certain that there’s a beginning and an ending to things—they just do it in this life rather than the next. In that sense, scientific-economic progress is Christianity for atheists.

What’s the alternative? Our woman protagonist does the most shocking thing you’ll see at the movies. I’m not going to spoil it for you. But remember that in Interstellar, everyone worth watching was busy quoting Dylan Thomas about raging against the dying of the light. That was all about striving to save mankind and therefore investing mankind’s dignity in intelligent, loving adventuring to save people. In this case, there’s something similar, mankind is saved, but only from itself, and the protagonist is not at all invested in the future. There’s no space adventure, the aliens come to you, and you don’t have to risk your life in a rocket ship to the stars. There’s not much place for manliness, therefore. You could say the protagonist is not some kind of apocalyptic Christian, but what Hollywood might think of as Buddhist, at heart.

The woman lacks a taste for conflict. In fact, without conflict her life seems rather empty, not to say meaningless. She does not ever seem to get a sense of what might change that. She is alone and does not seem happy. But then again the adventure of a lifetime does not make her happy, exactly. There is too much suffering involved. What seems to distinguish her from the other characters is the mood of fear. The men almost always become bellicose. This is what Americans might call a high-testosterone environment. Lots of guns. She rather seems to be ok with fear–she lacks the manly claim to self-control, self-possession. Her dignity is not tied up in confronting things. It seems like the audience is very much unlike her–very much like the men–people rather love the dangerous stuff, at least to watch. The story of the egg-shaped ships with the mind-defying powers seems designed to make men worthless. When you have to move forward in weakness, the protagonist might be a woman.

Louise is asked by her daughter why she is called Hannah. The mother says to the daughter, it’s a palindrome. This is tied up with the riddle of the girl’s life. But the name, whence we get Anne, is Jewish—Samuel’s mother is named Hanna—it means favor, taken to mean that God favors the woman with a child. The linguist mother presumably knows the etymology, but she does not mention it. One wonders whether fertility really matters if you think that knowledge is so important.

I’ll try your patience with another Biblical story by way of conclusion. In the garden of Eden, Eve, before thinking about children or anything like that, wanted knowledge. Now, she can have it and eat it, too, so to speak.

There are 69 comments.

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  1. Valiuth Inactive

    Online Park (View Comment):
    P.S. It looks like Titus and others are up posting all night long. Has Trump started a new trend?

    Titus has the luxury of living GMT+2 hours ahead of us. Right now he is probably sound asleep. We here at Ricochet have spread out across the globe such that you can expect fine conversation at any hour of the day because someone is always up. Which is always nice if like me you find yourself on here at 2AM.

    • #61
  2. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera

    I also have the luxury of doing too much writing on ephemeral subjects. So here’s my next piece, a companion piece, about manliness, which was also bust at the Oscars.

    • #62
  3. Skyler Coolidge

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    The man can neither help feeling protective, nor help feeling betrayed.

    The man felt his emotions too powerfully, and condemned his wife because she knew the pain that was coming and yet didn’t stop it.  She felt the pain, but put priority on the joy preceding it.  And then there’s the whole time issue of whether she could have prevented the pain.  By seeing all time, does that allow her to have free will?  Was her decision a timeless decision, made as she became aware of the choice or was she simply sanguine to accept what was happening and since she can perceive all time simultaneously, she can simply dwell in the good times?

    Space ships and squids were just the vehicle.  This had nothing to do with feminism.  The space ship backdrop was a caricature of war of the worlds, to serve man with a cook book, and Klatuu and any other story from the genre.  As such, it followed the pattern, lulling you into that pattern, that bland, boring cliche from the 1950’s repeated so many times.

    The role of the viewer was to finally see the cliche and look past it to the fundamental questions being posed.  I think you just missed the whole thing, Titus.

    • #63
  4. Bob Armstrong Thatcher
    Bob Armstrong

    Interesting take on things @titustechera, but as a correction the protagonist in Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life”, upon which the movie is based, was the same Louise Banks (not male). The physicist’s role in the short story was more substantial than in the film, but the short story is told in first person from Louise’s point of view.

    As I knew the story going in to the movie, there was no twist, but rather the interesting sensation of watching the narrative outside of linear time. Which, of course, was the entire point (the structure of languages limiting how you can think). I suspect one may get a different story upon a repeat viewing.

    I do agree that it is more Buddhist than Christian in perspective.

    • #64
  5. Ray Kujawa Coolidge
    Ray Kujawa

    The way I see it, the aliens in this movie have to make a choice. If they actually want the human species to be around for a while for whatever reason, they’re going to have to become an intermediary between men and women to resolve their differences — and help the men start acting somewhat sanely. Because in this world, with men so stupid, there will be hardly any procreation, and the human species is doomed to self-destruction. On the other hand, if they actually want to see the humans waste away, all they have to do is pull up a chair and get out the popcorn. They’ve already got a front row seat.

    • #65
  6. Pugshot Member

    As with @jameslileks and @skyler, the film put me in mind of “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” I was very impressed with the cinematography, special effects, production design, and sound engineering. The acting was good. The plot disappointed me, and upon reflection, I think it did largely for the reasons @titustechera lists. The one particular thing that bothered me is that Jeremy Renner’s character is presented as supportive to Amy Adams throughout the film – but only with respect to dealing with the aliens. When it comes to raising their child – and particularly with dealing with her death – he is completely absent. The only reference I recall is that he left because he was angry with Louise for not telling him (or something to that effect). So, ultimately, as a man and a father, he’s a complete disappointment. He is presented as abandoning the child he has created because his wife (whom he supposedly loves) has not told him she can see into the future and knows the child will die as a teenager? How shallow can he be? I hate having to get into Hollywood’s identity politics here, but think about it. Renner’s character turns out to be a complete disappointment. The CIA guy is a bad egg (big surprise!). The troops guarding the site become so unhinged they try to sabotage (and blow up) the whole mission. The Chinese general is presented as a warmonger (until he receives a call from the heroine and is charmed by her). Where is the “good” man in this film? Forest Whitaker comes closest, but essentially he’s still just a man doing his job and he’ll carry out his orders even if it means closing down the operation and, one assumes, ordering his men to attack the spaceship if that’s what the world’s governments decide to do. And the aliens – they’re smart enough to have conquered interstellar travel (and perhaps time travel), but they leave it to the humans to figure out what they’re saying? But for Louise, there would have been no understanding achieved. These aliens are so smart, and they need humans for help with a future (unrevealed) problem, but they have no plan to assist us backwards yokels to understand their complex language. In fact, but for Louise everyone else is mis-interpreting their language and moving toward a cataclysm. We’re rescued because, instead of shooting up the place (like all the men have decided to do), the one woman who is involved wants to talk. And, of course, though the aliens are given men’s names, they are completely non-sexual; we don’t know if they’re “male” or “female” or asexual (or maybe, given Hollywood’s newest cause, transexual). In the end I’m left with appreciating the technical aspects of the film and little else.

    • #66
  7. KiminWI Member

    My husband and I both liked it, but he did keep asking me at the end, “So,what was that about?”

    Two keys to Louise and Ian’s relationship stood out.  One, she comes to the end of one of her visions murmuring that she remembers why he left her and the in real time Ian says something like, “so you were married!”  At that point she hasn’t been married yet, but “remembers” explaining to her daughter that she shared something she knew that she should have kept to herself.  Presumably, she told Ian that their little girl was going to get sick and die in pain and he flipped out that she knew, or that she knew and still chose to go ahead. He would have done something about that dilemma had he known. But he didn’t know until he could no longer make that choice.  That would be very hard to bear in an already unbearable situation.  I understand both.

    The second insight was when he puts his arms around her and she says “I forgot how good this felt.”   Feeling immersed in that relationship and love and joy isn’t something she would want to put brakes on. She chose to let their life play out because it was beautiful, even if it included pain. If Ian hadn’t known that she could foreknow the pain, he may have been able to deal with it with more grace himself. Maybe.

    • #67
  8. Skyler Coolidge

    Pugshot (View Comment):
    But for Louise, there would have been no understanding achieved.

    This is true but it wasn’t a thousand women against a thousand men.  Only one person understood the translation and that person had an even chance to be male or female.

    If that one person instead of being a translator was instead the only one with the brutish strength needed to best the aliens, then I would think the feminist/anti-male accusations would be merited.  As it is, I think the complaints by Titus are over blown.

    • #68
  9. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera

    My last movie essay is now up, on Loving, the most beautiful American story nominated at the Oscars.

    • #69
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