30/04/2010

Why Chris Tookey is wrong about Kick-Ass

This post will include some major spoilers about the movie and comic books of 'Kick-Ass', if you want to enjoy either without knowing what happens, skip the post. Oh, and skip it if you don't like swearing. I can take it.

Chris Tookey was always going to hate Kick-Ass. A film based on a comic-book about young people including horrific violence and the sweariest of swearing was guaranteed to have him leaping on a chair and hitching up his skirts, especially as the film was co-written by the wife of Mail hate figure, Jonathan Ross. I normally wouldn't have bothered reading the thing so foregone was the conclusion, but I couldn't resist once I heard how weird a review it was; the weirdest things being the press-ganging of the Jamie Bulger case, the insistence that the young girl in the film was somehow supposed to be sexy and linking the film to child pornography. Oh, and that his final verdict was simply 'evil'.



It's unsurprising that such an over the top review of a popular movie would earn Tookey an internet pasting. It's even less surprising that he would want to defend himself, given that some of the commentary was further over the top than the original review, accusing him of paedophilia at times.

He's defended himself twice - once in an Afterword to the review on his website and once in an article with an edited version appearing on the Mail site. The thing to remember though, is that the horrible insults he refers to came in response to Tookey saying of one of the film's main characters, Hit-Girl, "Paedophiles are going to adore her," his assertions that she is made to look 'seductive' or 'sexy' and his odd conflating of the film with the child porn industry - along with all that implies about those who enjoy the movie.

Those were the assertions that made me most uncomfortable as someone who had loved the comic-book, and I have to say that one of the first things I did upon leaving the cinema after seeing the movie was to tweet "If Chris Tookey thought Hit Girl was sexualised, it says a lot more about him than the film," because I really didn't see how we were supposed to see her as seductive or sexy. I was trying to see where Tookey picked his ideas from when I watched the film, and I couldn't.

I didn't blog about it at the time because I thought Andrew Collins was spot on in his review 'Kid-Ass' when he said:
The fact that she’s 11 is the point; she’s not sexual. Or at least, not to my eyes. But to Tookey’s, she is.
Tookey says very little to back up his idea that Hit-Girl is supposed to be sexy in his original review. He makes some unfounded assertions of her being fetishised 'in precisely the same way as Angelina Jolie in the Lara Croft movies, and Halle Berry in Catwoman,' (trust me, she's not - there are no lingering close ups of skin tight costumes here) and says:
As if that isn't exploitative enough, she's also shown in a classic schoolgirl pose, in a short plaid-skirt with her hair in bunches, but carrying a big gun.
Which begs the question - why would you think that a school aged girl in school uniform is meant to be sexy, even if she's carrying a gun?  Interestingly, the large picture of Chloe Moretz in her uniform with gun that originally illustrated the review is long gone.

The closest the original review comes to actually backing up the claim is to point out that one of the teenage characters 'acknowledges that he's attracted to her'. Trouble is, Tookey doesn't bother to mention that the admission is met with a howl of derision from someone pointing out how young she looks, and the audience is invited to empathise with the person doing the howling.

Given that there are two defences of the original review, it's surprising that all Tookey does is restate that Hit-Girl is supposed to be sexy without saying explicitly why. Sure, he offers some defences of why he thinks the violence is sexualised and why he thinks it's disturbing that Hit-Girl uses such bad language, but not why the audience is supposed to think the child is 'seductive' or 'sexy'.

The defences that do exist are pretty weak, pseudy, cod-Freudian references to phallic imagery and one startlingly naive idea of what kids might know and say.

The first of Tookey's responses to critics, in an Afterword to the original review on his website, mentions the phallic symbolism of Big Daddy shooting his bulletproof-vested daughter to prepare her for getting shot in a real fight.

The trouble with phallic symbolism is that it's in the eye of the beholder. Freud himself said, "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," and Tookey doesn't always regard shootings as phallic. He gave a positive review to the middling Harry Brown (the review that most people have noticed parallells with the one for Kick-Ass) without mentioning homoeroticism or how much he enjoyed watching an elderly man use his weapon on younger men - because he wasn't watching for anything he could attack for being sick filth. If you want to see people being shot eroticised, watch the final scene of Bonnie and Clyde. Seeing Hit-Girl knocked immediately flat couldn't be more different.

In a similar vein, he says:
The link between violence and sex in Kick-Ass should be obvious to anyone – especially professional critics - aware of the fact that most films have what academics call “a symbolic structure”. The imagery in Kick-Ass is blatant in its use of phallic symbolism, with guns, knives and even bazookas all carrying crudely sexual overtones. Anyone who tries to persuade you otherwise, and pretends that the film is innocent, is either naive, or having you on.
One problem for Tookey - Hit-Girl isn't the one using bazooka to blow up the big villain.

In any case, let's look at his claim about blatant symbolism in terms of another film, and not Harry Brown this time. In Revenge of the Sith the fighting is done with weapons more phallic than a gun or bazooka - lightsabres, which are long, hard, and actually penetrate the victim. Rather than be outraged at the sexual, mostly homoerotic nature of these fights, Tookey calls them 'terribly repetitive' in his review.

In one scene - which is probably the best in any of the Star Wars prequels - Yoda has an awesome lightsabre fight with Count Dooku (who Tookey misnames 'Dookus'). Yoda's there, symbolically swinging his big green dick about, but I don't for a second imagine that Tookey thinks the audience is supposed to find him - or the violence - sexy.

One cue to the audience that they're not supposed to find Yoda 'seductive' is that he's a little green alien bloke and not a muscled hunk with his shirt off. One cue to the audience that we're not supposed to find Hit-Girl sexy is that she's a little kid. If anyone finds her sexy it's because they find little kids sexy anyway, not because the writers want them to. See Andrew Collins' comments above.

The closest brush with actually explaining why he thinks we're supposed to think Hit-Girl is 'sexy' (and it's not that close) is:
Who do the fans think educated this little girl with her sexual knowledge, and why do they think she says that the Mayor knows how to get in touch with them, by projecting on to the clouds an image of a giant penis? Do these people really think these are just normal words and ideas for an 11 year-old to come up with?
You know what? I do.

Anecdote time. I first used the word 'cunt' when I was six years old, after seeing it scrawled on a toilet wall (spelled with a 'k') at my primary school. I went home without knowing what it meant, and shouted it at my older brother. He grassed me up, despite me begging him not to because I didn't know what it meant. When I did find out, very shortly after, I used it all the time. It was excellent.

I also grew up opposite a primary school (not the one I went to, bizarrely). Two things I clearly remember are sitting watching telly on a couple of afternoons with the same older brother when I'd grown up, and hearing the lunchtime clamour of the playground peirced once by some kids chanting, "Darren is a wanker!" and another time by a kid yelling, "Aaaaah! Ya fuckin' old dick!" Calling someone a dick isn't a secret taboo that no kid knows about, and that's why Hit-Girl says the mayor knows how to get in touch by projecting a picture of a penis. She's calling the other characters dicks. It's an insult.

Last anecdote. I promise. In my first year of secondary school, in my class's first ever sex education lesson, we reduced the newly qualified female biology teacher to tears by asking all sorts of explicit questions, some of which she didn't know the answer to. "What's a backshot, miss?" "What's a vibrator?" "What's a blow-job?" "Have you ever done a blow-job?" "Have you got a dildo?" We were the same age Tookey thinks Hit-Girl is supposed to be. I was even a bit younger, being born in the summer.

Despite what Tookey later says, I was never 'groomed', and we did this all in the days before the internet made such knowledge a click away.

While Tookey's naive misconceptions about what rude words and concepts kids are aware of might go some way towards explaining why he thinks Hit-Girl is 'sexualised', it doesn't even begin to explain why he thinks we're supposed to think she's sexy or seductive.

There are two main reasons for Tookey's original review and subsequent defences being so spectacularly wrong. The first is that he just doesn't get it.

He says:
It starts as though it's going to expose the huge gulf between comic strips and reality, but ends up reducing the real world to the most morally fatuous kind of comic strip.
You see, that's the main bloody point of the film! It's made even more obvious in the comic-book, which reveals that Big Daddy's reasons for becoming a superhero are made up, and he was just bored.

Dave Lizewski tries to attempt the stuff he sees comic-book characters try and is stabbed almost to death for his trouble on his first attempt. In his third, he gets so close to becoming horribly murdered that he needs to be saved by a character that could not possibly exist in reality and would only spring from the pages of a comic book.

Tookey says:
Our hero learns nothing, except that extreme violence against criminals is cool, which is something he thought in the first place.
Of course, he didn't think that in the first place. He uses blunt weapons and a taser at the beginning. What he learns is that violent criminals are not as nice as they are in comic-books and any attempt at super-heroism would get you eaten alive.

What we learn, as we watch Kick-Ass firing gatling-guns mounted on the back of a jetpack in the final scene is that only comic-book fantasy could make such a set up work. There is a shift that happens in the very scene in which Hit-Girl first appears that swaps the real world for a comic-book fantasy one and makes you wonder whether the world at the beginninig was real at all.

What Kick-Ass satirises are comic-books and movies that attempt to examine what would happen if people tried to be superheroes in 'the real world', or if people rose up to become ruthless vigilantes. These guys could not exist in the real world. They'd be quickly stabbed, shot and left for dead.

Yes, the idea of Big Daddy initiating his daughter into a world of horrible violence is disturbing. It's meant to be - but that's not because we're meant to see him shooting Hit-Girl and think 'ah, that phallic symbolism suggests something sexual', or 'phwoooar!'. We're meant to think 'Christ that's harsh!' Because in actual comic-books, kids who have been trained as violent assassins aren't that unusual. We have the new Robin, Cassandra Cain as Batgirl and X-23 to name but 3.

The scene is a signal that we're not dealing with reality here, and it shows us that any set up that involved a child being trained to kill would be unbelievably horrible. The chirpy way she deals with it brings us out of the 'real' world we have thus far been immersed in. Is there also an implication that exposing children as audiences to this sort of violence in movies might be a bad thing too? I think there probably is.

The second reason Tookey is wrong is that I think he's looking for reasons to hate the movie. Whether that's because of the hype, the Mail's editorial line on Jonathan Ross or just because he finds a kid engaging in over the top violence disturbing isn't really clear.

Having read both Tookey's defences properly, I don't think he's creepy or has issues with finding Hit-Girl attractive. I think he's been desparately scraping the barrel for nasty things to say about the film, and accusations of trying to make a child sexy are the nastiest. The only way he can attempt to back these things up are pseudo-Freudian references to phallic imagery that are curiously absent from other film reviews. Harry Brown is not spoken about in terms of the man on man shooting action, and neither are any of the Star Wars movies.

In fact, his earlier criticism about Kick-Ass not learning anything except that extreme violence against criminals is cool could just as easily apply to Harry Brown, which he instead says:
...is not a great film, but it is an important one, with messages we ignore at our peril.
An important film. Of the sort that Kick-Ass satirises.

Perhaps he just hates seeing the sort of film he thinks 'important' having the piss taken out of it, but perhaps not. I'll leave the pseudo-psychology to Tookey, but it is telling that he uses a likely piss-take comment from a man who says he took his three kids to see the film and takes some cherry-picked comments out of the thousands on YouTube to actually be from paedophiles rather than people taking the piss to defend himself with. These things and the original review suggest he clearly has irony issues.

In his first defence, Tookey mentions other critics spotting paedophilia in Bugsy Malone and Graham Greene mentioning Shirley Temple's sex appeal, and in the newest article he quotes other critics who talk about Hit-Girl being fetishised. He resembles these far less than he resembles Fredric Wertham, author of the infamous Seduction of the Innocent, which blamed juvenile delinquency on comic-books and declared Batman and Robin's relationship to be homosexual. When Tookey says:
The imagery in Kick-Ass is blatant in its use of phallic symbolism, with guns, knives and even bazookas all carrying crudely sexual overtones. Anyone who tries to persuade you otherwise, and pretends that the film is innocent, is either naive, or having you on.
he's not a million miles from Wertham's:
Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and of the psychopathology of sex can fail to realize a subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures of the mature 'Batman' and his young friend Robin.
Both use the same rhetorical trick - 'only stupid people wouldn't spot this'. Tookey takes it one step further down sinister avenue by implying that someone who'd dismiss his assertion is 'trying to have you on'. Why would someone try to pretend there are no sexual overtones to the violence involving a small child? Is he implying what I think he is?

Another piece of fiction that has an infamous alleged homosexual subtext is The Lord of the Rings. Tookey gives all three movie adaptations ten out of ten and never mentions homosexuality. I'd be incredibly surprised if he accepts the subtext is even there. (I don't strictly either, but that's by the by).

It's a pity that Tookey doesn't get irony, because if he did, he'd love this. Kick-Ass wouldn't exist today if Wertham hadn't written his ridiculous nonsense back in the fifties. Seduction of the Innocent led to the effective banning of undesirable comic-books with the introduction of the Comics Code Authority, whose approval led to stocking on newsstands and in shops in the US. Without the approval of teh Comics Code, comics just wouldn't get stocked.

Whole genres of comics disappeared from sight, and only the least 'offensive' were kept, which meant that even superhero stories were toned down, and post Sedcution of the Innocent the superhero genre was pretty much the last one left.

By the late seventies and early eighties, there was a demand to reverse this and make comic-books more believable and socially relevant. The Dark Knight Returns and The Watchmen were to of the first of these attempts to ground superheroes in some sort of reality, and it's precisely these sorts of book - or at least the ones written by people influenced by them - that Kick-Ass satirises, along with films like Death Wish and Harry Brown. Without the Comics Code Authority toning down the already not very gritty superhero books of the fifties and the removal of violent horror titles from the market, there would probably not be the desire to de-infantilise superheroes thirty years later.

Tookey asks why the opposition to his review was so vicious, given that other critics gave the film a bad review and others mentioned Hit-Girl being fetishised.

Heres why.

None of those reviewers co-opted the cases of James Bulger and Damilola Taylor to make their point. None of them likened the film to the apparently multi-million dollar child porn industry. None of them were so completely overblown with shrill hyperbole. Most importantly, as far as I can see none of them conflated the audience with the paedophiles who would apparently love Hit-Girl, calling the movie 'sick' and 'evil' and suggesting the audience might think underage sex is a laugh.

And none of them came from a critic who writes for a paper that says of a three year old:
In mini heels and grown-up clothes, she often seems a little older than her inconsiderable years.
and:
The vampish shade [of lipstick] was at odds with her demure yellow hairband and cardigan - and was not a colour that every mother would choose for their daughter's dressing-up box.
and:
The youngster was dressed in her gold heeled ballroom shoes once again, and carried a gold bag which presumably carried the lipgloss she was applying.

She wore an above-the-knee summer dress, dangly clip-on earrings and a flowery hairband.
None of the other critics' papers compared a thirteen year old girl with topless pictures of her mother, and none of them said, of a twelve year old girl:
The gangly 11-year-old of last year had turned into a groomed, sleek young adult as she cast a spell on fans with her pink taffeta dress and strappy shoes at the star-studded event.
If Tookey is really so concerned with 'paedophile overtones', would he really be writing for the same paper as the one that published those articles?

I don't think so.

2 comments:

George B. said...

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Tim said...

Excellent demolition of Tookey's dishonest defences. Very intelligent.

I've not read more than one or two reviews of Kick-Ass, so I daresay this has been covered already, but I think what they did (if at all?) with any "fetishisation" of Hit-Girl was fairly clever. It is absolutely not the case that they were genuinely or seriously sexualising her: there was never any flesh on display, no tight costumes or lingering camera angles. None whatsoever, and like you said, to compare Hit-Girl with Jolie et al. is deceptive. But there is also no denying that plaid-skirt schoolgirl uniforms, and the type of manga-y look she had when dressed as Hit-Girl, do both have connections with fetishisms. I think this probably was being alluded to, presumably to mock any tendencies within comics or films to portray young people in this way. I'm not very familiar with the genre though.

Whether that's the case or not, I do not think their doing that is at all paedophilic. There is a danger, when parodying something, you end up just imitating it, but I am firm in my opinion that they never strayed into actual sexualisation of an 11-year old. The entire character does a very good job of being provocative (language, violence), but taking honest offense from it probably misses the point a bit. It's a delicate tightrope to walk, but I would say they pulled it off.