On a rainy Sunday afternoon, I found myself in a dilemma. I needed to complete a movie watching assignment for class, but I was suffering from a concussion and was highly sensitive to loud noises and bright flashing lights. What was the sensible conclusion? Obviously to watch G.I. Joe: Retaliation… with sunglasses and ear plugs, of course.
I need to get that out of the way, because, let’s be real, under those circumstances any movie watching experience was going to be bad, and it should be known that I was justifiably sour. However, I don’t want that to discount the exact level of terrible that this movie manages to attain. Don’t see it. Don’t. You will miss nothing. It’s bad. It’s hyperviolent mindless drivel with a script that isn’t willing to laugh at itself. Well, there is a pretty cool ninja battle about halfway through. Otherwise, it’s just a lot of guns and explosions.
But from my experience, I’m guessing that actually sounds really good to a lot of people. Actually, I tried to see this movie three times. Twice on Saturday and then I finally got in on Sunday, because it was sold out at literally every showing. A fact which blew my mind until I remembered that Transformers 2 was one of the highest grossing films of 2009, and I quickly put together that I am obviously not the target audience for most Hollywood films. Nor am I probably the audience for movie theaters in general. I actually very rarely go to see movies and was pleased that I was finally able to use the free movie voucher that I received when a popcorn machine lit the theater on fire during the midnight premier of Avengers (which is an infinitely better movie than G.I. Joe, BTW).
As I was entering the theater, I was shuffled by the concession stand where I could still see the burn marks on the popcorn machine that is apparently still being used. I decided to get a small coke, which must actually be something like 20 oz., and then go find a seat in a place that seemed to be marginally quieter than anywhere else in the room. I then watched as the room slowly filled up with mostly Black, mostly male, mostly young adult attendees, decked to the brim with popcorn and candy. I don’t know if any of them were queer, but I would put money on none of them being femme queers, at the least. You could almost smell the testosterone. Well, I’m getting cynical again, but these are all pretty accurate descriptions, and they shouldn’t totally surprise. The theater I went to is located in West Philadelphia, so that could describe a good chunk of the population at virtually anything… less so the distinctly masculine part, but I blame that entirely on explosions and action figures. Incidentally, the area also has a history of gun violence, which actually prompted the theater to change its name at one point so that it would stop being associated with all of the shootings that happened inside of it.
I do also just want to put special emphasis on the candy and popcorn. I understand that as a vegan, I have an unusual diet, but I really had no idea that people ate so much of that stuff. There really was hardly anyone in the theatre without something from the concession stand outside, even I had a coke on my armrest. Considering the movie costs ~$10 to begin with, adding on massively overpriced junk food makes every movie outing roughly $20 per person. It becomes more and more clear to me why I pirate my movies most of the time.
In any case, when the movie started the crowd got… mostly quiet. At different points in the film, mostly around significantly more violent or erotic scenes, people in the audience would shout out different things, from a satisfied, “oh shit!” after a bad guy got his comeuppance, to a painfully horny, “oh shit!” when we got a sensationally sexy shot of Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki). In other news, I’d like to see Flint (DJ Cotrona) put into some of Lady Jaye’s or Jinx’s (Elodie Yung) battle positions for the Hawkeye Initiative. They do an impractically good job of dismembering their enemies while still highlighting their digitally enhanced feminine curves. Interestingly, the brief scene in which DJ Cotrona appears shirtless, presumably to show off the new, highly advanced and durable body armor known as his abdominals, was actually cut from the film. Womp womp. Luckily, there were no ladies in the audience to be disappointed about this, but I was positively livid, of course.
On the subject of ladies, let’s talk a little bit about femme fatales. Actually, this move has very fatale femmes. They kill, like, hundreds of people each. Jinx is basically a fembot. She lacks distinctive character traits beyond some sort of troped idea of what lady ninjas are supposed to be like (see Psylocke from the X-Men if you are looking for further character study into this phenomenon), and she has no really identifiable feminine traits other than boobs. Lady Jaye is a little different, among the central trio of Joes, she is ostensibly the “smart” one, because in this universe one is considered to be of exceptional intelligence when they can deduce that something is wrong when the president decides to replace the nation’s military with the most high-profile terrorist organization on the planet. Brilliant. As the head of intelligence for the Joes, one would think that she might employ some of the typical femme fatale tricks of getting what she wants, but she’s also the team’s gun expert and spends the majority of her time emasculating the men around her with impossibly huge rifles. The myriad scenes in which she is dressed provocatively are primarily for fanservice, and not to reveal any type of social truth about the objectification of women.
As Chris Straayer points out, “despite her sexualized image, economic ambitions supplanted her [the classic femme fatale’s] libido and violence displaced sexual pleasure. The classic femme fatale was known for her trigger-happy killings, not her orgasms.” Lord, that could not be more accurate for these women (well, technically, Jinx uses a sword, but whatever). The problem here is that good femme fatales, well-written femme fatales, express these traits because they live in a world that is so overwhelmingly dominated by men that this type of sexuality-fueled homicide is the only way that they can reasonably exert similar power to the violent men around them. In G.I. Joe, these women are violent for the sake of violence. Additionally, classic femme fatales are punished, “her narrative options were numbered: she either died, reformed, or turned out not to be a femme fatale after all.” Jaye and Jinx do none of these things and are actually commemorated as heroes. And so it raises this question of, how femme are these women really? The answer is very little. They are either feminine in this kind of robotic male fantasy sense or feminine in the everything about them is a man except for the boobs way, neither of which are actually feminine. They say the best woman is a man. There are no women in this film.
When people talk about films like this, and characters like Lady Jaye, there is a strong tendency to refer to them as “strong female characters,” which implies a certain feminism to it all. In response to that, another highly violent, but probably actually feminist film series The Millennium Series she be used to contrast. However where in that series, violence is perpetrated against women and Lisbeth Salander is forced to enter the system of violence in order to become safe and happy in a world that is so fundamentally geared against her, in this series, there are highly graphic scenes of women committing violence against others for little point other than to further the objectives of their male superiors. As Jack Halberstam points out, a strong female character is not all that it takes to really be a feminist character. “The feminist component to the [Millennium] trilogy rests partly with the character of Salander and partly with the complex plotting which repeatedly links family violence to larger systems of political and economic violence and which implies that any resolution to the plot has to seek social justice by connecting the intimate and personal politics of the home to the public and transnational politics of the economy.” G.I. Joe kind of maybe satisfies the first half of that in strong female characters, which we’re going to give credit to, because maybe you don’t agree with me that they shouldn’t really even be considered women. It completely fails when it comes to the second point, though. In the G.I. Joe world, women are equal, I suppose. Certainly nobody is getting raped, and the concerns of women when Cobra takes over the world are hardly the first priority. Everything is driven by men, for men, and the women in the film are expected to be equal in all aspects to their male counterparts, which is a very different thing than saying that the men should be equal to the women. Unlike what you’re algebra teacher told you, in social justice, equality is not reflexive. The answer to LITERALLY EVERY problem in G.I. Joe is more violence. And it’s expected that women are just totally on board to be blowing shit up, because obviously they benefit from that as well, instead of maybe recognizing that violence disproportionately affects women and that contributing to a system like that actually makes things even worse for women and totally reinforces the patriarchy and all of its fucked up rape culturey politics.
But really, it’s G.I. Joe. If you were expecting a feminist opus, you were not going to this movie. Again, unsurprisingly, there were not a whole lot of women in the audience.
The general consensus after seeing the movie from the people exiting the theatre seemed to be that it was pretty good. Plenty of teenage boys imitating the action sequences (or, at least the guns) and talk of cool explosions and ninjas. The women in the audience seemed maybe less amused, but there was little distinctly negative opinion from anyone that was willing to vocalize it. Mindless action wins out again, and the system perpetuates itself for more mindless action in the future. America!
My other option was Tyler Perry’s Temptation, if you’re wondering why I chose G.I. Joe.
Halberstam, Jack. “The Girl Who Played With Queer Utopia.” 2010. 2013. <http://bullybloggers.wordpress.com/2010/08/06/the-girl-who-played-with-queer-utopia/>.
Straayer, Chris. “Femme Fatale or Lesbian Femme.” Women in Film Noir. 2nd Ed. Ed. E. Ann Kaplan. London: British Film Institute, 1998. 153-161.