Feminist Film Review: Fantastic Mr Fox

Everything Ruined

I really love this film: great animation, great artistic style, wonderful soundtrack, quirky humour. This film could be SO DAMN GREAT. So tell me, why the fuckity fuck does Wes Anderson have to go RUIN it by inserting anti-equality bullshit into the storyline, of what is already an outdated but classic story?

I’m about to argue that this is not really a film for kids, which is strange and counter-intuitive, since the book upon which it is based is undoubtedly a book for emergent readers. This is a film for adults who loved Roald Dahl as kids.

As is often the case with films, the screenplay is freely available online.

MOVIE POSTERS

Movie posters are important because they form a medium in their own right. In the first one below we have The Smurfette Principle at work with ten male characters to one female (Mrs Fox). I can’t even say that Mrs Fox is a ‘female feisty’. She’s being led by her husband, leaning back in classical dance style, safely in the arms of her husband. While a sophisticated audience will know after watching the film that this is an ironic take, since Mrs Fox is more sensible and moderate than her hair-brained husband, this is not apparent from the poster alone. Is ironic sexism suddenly not sexist? I always argue no.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox movie poster

So is the one below any better? With Mrs Fox almost hidden by her husband? Maybe, since the gender imbalance is at least halved: the ratio is now four to one.

The-Fantastic-Mr.-Fox-1

The French decided not to bother with Mrs Fox at all. This is perhaps more honest, since Mrs Fox exists only as a minor character, with speaking roles to match.

fantastic_mr_fox_ver10_xlg

Here’s a snapshot of all the posters from a series, in which girl viewers are reminded that girls can be anything, especially if their brains are hidden behind those of a man.

fantastic-mr-fox-character-posters

It’s easy to miss how few female characters exist in stories ‘peopled’ with animals. As Janet McCabe wrote after a large scale count of gender representation in children’s literature:

“The persistent pattern of disparity among animal characters may reveal a subtle kind of symbolic annihilation of women disguised through animal imagery.”

CHARACTERISATION IN FANTASTIC MR FOX, THE MOVIE

The first page of a screenplay is especially telling because these blueprints offer a thumbnail character sketch, and offer up what the filmmakers feel  are THE most important points about the characters:

page-one

Reading the script, I notice something I didn’t when watching the film (which I’ve seen a handful of times now): That Mrs Fox wears men’s trousers. Why is that? Why is it important?  Someone at the Overthinking It blog makes a very good case for Fantastic Mr Fox being all about penises. Strange as this sounds at first, BY DICK, THEY ARE RIGHT! It’s important that Mrs Fox wears The Pants because Fantastic Mr Fox is feeling emasculated.  But here’s the thing: I’m not sure WHY Mrs Fox has to be wearing the man pants. I’m not sure why at all, because as you can see from the get-go, Mrs Fox shrugs and agrees to do as her husband tells her. This relationship continues most the way through the story, until the fairly mild berating scene after Mr Fox actually endangers the lives of the whole community by being a stupid dickhead. Mrs Fox makes Mr Fox feel important. That’s her role in the relationship. On the very next page Mrs Fox asks Mr Fox, ‘What is a squab?’ Mr Fox replies ‘You know what a squab is. It’s like a pigeon, I suppose. Anyway, it’s a type of bird we can eat.’ Mrs Fox asks the questions. Mr Fox does the explaining. Throughout the script, Mrs Fox is ordered to do a lot of shrugging whenever her husband suggests something dangerous or unlikely.

The sophisticated viewer understands that this is a good example of what pop-culture has come to describe as ‘mansplaining’. It’s a poke of fun at Mr Fox, who doesn’t even know what a squab is himself, despite his insistence on explaining it to his wife. But what of younger viewers? What would they make of Mrs Fox’s constant submission to her husband?

So if Mr Fox is feeling emasculated, his very own submissive wife has nothing whatsoever to do with it. Why the ‘men’s trousers’? Might it be because wives are blamed for men’s feeling powerless… whatever they do? Just by their very existence? To a sophisticated audience, this husband/wife relationship is exaggerated and silly; of course we understand that Mrs Fox is the one who really wears the pants. This is why we saw her wearing the pants in the opening shot, naturally. But a younger audience? No, all they will see is a power imbalance. As highlighted by the script Mrs Fox’s man-pants are indeed very important to the story, but the audience would have to be familiar with the phrase ‘wearing The Pants’ to understand the symbolism.

anachronistically OLD-FASHIONED GENDER ROLES

Part of me is willing to let this slide. Roald Dahl had this book published in 1970. But a sign on a windmill reads ‘Bean Inc (since 1976)’ and makes me wonder when this film is set exactly. Gender roles were already shaking up even in 1976, so creating a 1950s world genderwise is an unnecessary anachronism. This world is a divided one, in which men do almost all of the talking, making all of the decisions. When women appear at all, it’s only because a gender segregated milieu dictates their existence.

From the script:

‘Fox and Mrs Fox dart through a hole under a painted fence; race along a thin trail next to the garage; crawl beneath a window where a blonde woman serves an early dinner, dealing hamburgers like playing cards to three little, blond children…’ [because women serve dinner] Twelve fox years later, ‘Mrs Fox stands at the counter-top stirring something in a bowl with a whisk. She is dressed in a paint-splattered, cream-colored, Victorian-style dress’.

Badger, Beaver, and Stoat L.L.P are a law firm of three men.  The secretary is an uneasy female otter who peers in at the men’s conversation from the outer office. I find this symbolic.

My question is this: When film makers have the leeway to create AN ENTIRELY FICTIONAL WORLD, why do girls so often get the short-shrift? In an ENTIRELY FICTIONAL WORLD, POPULATED WITH TALKING ANIMALS, why can’t girl viewers see woman-animals as lawyers? Why do lawyers’ female secretaries still have to peer in at the action from the other side of the door?

perpetuation of rape culture

Are you for reeeeaaallll???? Yes, I know. Stay with me. Or maybe I can let the script speak for itself:

slut-shaming

That, folks, is what you call ‘slut-shaming’: basing a gag on the idea that it is insulting to a man to insinuate that his wife had sex with lots of partners (‘the town tart’) before marrying (like a good girl should). ‘Let’s not use a double-standard’, Fox reminds the sleazy rat, in a self-conscious, ironic nod towards the fact that this is a sexist insult. He doesn’t get to finish his sentence however, as he tries to explain that his wife ‘marched against the’ (unspecified feminist issue, we’re to guess). As I will keep saying, every time I watch a film that is ostensibly for kids or young adults, ironic sexism is STILL SEXISM.

So how is slut-shaming part of rape culture? I’ll leave that to Jessica Valenti of the Nation to explain:

‘What kind of world do we live in when young men are so proud of violating unconscious girls that they pass proof around to their friends? It’s the same kind of world in which being labeled a slut comes with such torturous social repercussions that suicide is preferable to enduring them. As a woman named Sara Erdmann so aptly tweeted to me, “I will never understand why it is more shameful to be raped than to be a rapist.”’

Sex and shame is the reason why revenge porn sites exist.

Having a high partner count is an asset for a man. Whether most women will admit this or not, a guy’s perceived sexual experience is attractive to them. While many a woman might act shocked at a man’s admitted number of lovers, secretly she’s pleased. His “vast” sexual history tells her that he has been heavily pursued by other females. Intra-gender competition kicks in. If she can tame him, she has defeated all the women who have come before her.

- Role Reboot, The Difference Between Bad Girls and Bad Boys

See also: One woman’s Crusade Against Revenge Porn in lieu of actually visiting a revenge porn site. Note that there is a proliferation of revenge porn sites showing pictures of naked women, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a revenge porn site showing pictures of naked men. Because for men, having sex is not shameful. It’s manly. Ergo: no revenge.

In case being a 7th-grade girl wasn’t traumatic enough, now there’s a ‘12-year-old sluts’ Facebook page.

Back to the film in question, although increasingly unnecessary and anachronistic, it IS okay for big-budget stories about men, featuring powerful men in traditional manly roles to exist in this modern world. BUT NOT AT THE EXPENSE OF WOMEN. And certainly not in films based on children’s books, in which it’s easy to assume THAT THIS FILM IS FOR CHILDREN. Which it is, of course. It’s a family film. Real cuss words are replaced with ‘cuss’. There’s no sex. There’s comic violence.

Double Standard Alive & Well in Views on Promiscuity from Psych Central

women are decorative, AND INTERESTED IN THE SUPERFICIAL

We have only Mrs Fox to run with, because there are no other female characters in Fantastic Mr Fox who say more than a few lines. So all of the messages about women must come from her.

Mrs Fox is there to give the okay to the floral curtains that Mr Fox holds up for her approval, after buying a new house without her. She’s interested in keeping things clean. We see her vacuuming in the background of the action. ‘Oh no, Foxy. It’s filthy,’ she says much later, of a metal ladder.

When Mrs Fox is not cooking, clearing the table or hoovering the floors, she paints landscapes. Because women are arty. ‘Fox looks at Mrs Fox’s canvas. It is a picture of the pond and landscape ahead, but in severe weather with black clouds and lightning bolts. It is signed Felicity Fox. Fox raises an eyebrow. Fox: ‘Still painting thunderstorms, I see.’ A sophisticated audience will understand that Mrs Fox’s depiction of a thunderous landscape, over and over again, is a metaphor for her warnings which continue to go unheeded by her reckless husband. She paints because she has no voice. A younger audience might see only that painting is for girls. Or worse: that girls are only good for painting.

Mrs Fox has ‘beautiful’ fur. She glows when she is pregnant (a gag because it is literal).

Except every now and then Mrs Fox gets another role. She gets to be ‘the voice of reason’. Decorative female in movies often get to be the voice of reason, but don’t let that fool you into assuming she gets heard. Because she doesn’t. Instead, she gets to say [coldly]: Lower your voice, Ash, while her husband gets the funny, ironic, satirical lines. Straight woman, funny man. A familiar trope. (Mrs Fox is looking ‘coldly’ more than once. While Mr Fox is ‘pained’ and ‘surprised’ and otherwise animated, the script dictates that Mrs Fox says things ‘coldly’ and ‘quietly’.)

Throughout the story, Mr Fox lies to his wife about his chicken-stealing adventures.

MRS FOX: Where’d you get this chicken?

FOX: (shrugs) I picked it up at the Five-and-Dime last night on my way back from–

MRS FOX: It’s got a Boggis Farms tag around its ankle.

FOX: (hesitates) Huh. Must’ve escaped from there before I bought it.

It’s clear that Mrs Fox knows what’s going on. But is there a bust up, eventually? A confrontation between lying-husband and ever-patient wife? Yes, thank goodness. What does she do, though? She scratches him in the face. This should be somewhat cathartic:

MRS FOX: Twelve fox-years ago, you made a promise to me while we were caged inside that fox-trap that, if we survived, you would never steal another chicken, goose, turkey, duck, or squab, whatever they are. I believed you. Why did you lie to me?

FOX: (simply) because I’m a wild animal

MRS FOX: You’re also a husband and a father.

Except I’m reminded that in real life it’s still women who are so often blamed for/expected to ‘tame’ their ‘wild’ men by expecting them to live up to their roles as reluctantly responsible husbands and fathers. I’m not sure why this scene irritates me, but I think it’s because this false gender dichotomy so often forms the basis of nagging-wife gags.

And it might be funny, if all were right with the real world. Felicity Fox’s calm throughout the confrontation is a typical demonstration of her stoicism. But aren’t interactions like that a little too close to home, in a world where women are still so poorly represented at decision-making levels? After all, Mr Fox goes on his merry way, continuing to cause mishap after mishap, running the show even after it has been demonstrated that the sensible, calm and collected wife should be allowed to take the lead. A sophisticated audience understands the parody. Meanwhile, I wonder what messages a young, female viewer might walk away with.

Later, in dire straights, Mr Fox addresses a mixed crowd:

FOX: Gentlemen, this time we must dig in a very special direction.

… Everyone starts digging, slowly but intently.

Did you notice how EVERYONE starts digging, but Mr Fox addressed the group as ‘gentlemen’? Would the opposite happen, anywhere? In which a mixed group of characters is addressed as ‘ladies’? Not to mention that men are for doing the useful, heavy work.

A sophisticated audience knows that Mr Fox is old-fashioned and benevolently sexist, not to mention completely self-absorbed. (‘I’ve done it! he shouts when everyone helps to dig them to the surface.) The unsophisticated audience understands (unconsciously, no doubt) that men are the stars of the show. Women may help, but only in the background. “Who knows short-hand?” Fox asks, after his amazing idea. Linda does, his otter secretary. Linda says two words, over and over again. ‘Got it’.

Oh, but I probably should mention that Badger’s wife get to be a pediatrician.

THE FEMALE CHARACTERS EXIST TO PROVIDE AN OTHER: MEN ARE MEN BECAUSE THEY ARE NOT GIRLS.

BEAVER’S SON (to Ash): We don’t like you, and we hate your dad. You’re too snazzy. You dress like a girl. You’re creative. Now grab some of that mud, chew it in your mouth, and swallow it.

A sophisticated audience subsequently sees Krisofferson, the super-talented cousin stand up in the face of bullying. The sophisticated audience recognises bullying, for starters. The unsophisticated audience may get this, may not, but definitely understands that being called a girl is an insult and NOT A GOOD THING. Of course, this unsophisticated reading is reinforced by every single bit of imagery, and by the fact that girls don’t actually get to do anything throughout… except pine over boys.

Female characters are referred to in relation to their husbands. Mr Fox is referred to as ‘Fox’ throughout the script; Felicity is ‘Mrs Fox’. That’s nothing special. That’s how society works. But what about:

FOX: Go to the flint-mine. Tell Mrs Badger, Rabbit’s ex-girlfriend, et al. that help is on the way.

As you can see from the dialogue, Rabbit’s ex-girlfriend doesn’t even get her own name.

As an aside, I’m wondering why the character Kylie is named ‘Kylie’. IMDb reveals that the rather hapless creature who becomes Mr Fox’s ‘secretary and personal assistant’ is named after a real person in Wes Anderson’s life — a man called Kylie — and I don’t know if it’s just because I live in Australia, but Kylie is a distinctly feminine name to me. Is this why they chose it? Is an opposum with vacant eyes who is scared of thunder funny also because he has a feminine sounding name?

Kylie tries to bite the chicken on the neck. The chicken is unharmed. Kylie shrugs. Fox kills the chicken with one quick flick of the jaws. Kylie looks horrified.

I’d be interested to hear from people living in America, even though opossums are associated with Australia, and possibly therefore with Kylie Minogue. Maybe in other countries Kylie is a unisex name. But BabyNamePedia tells me that ‘Kylie has in the past century been predominantly given to girls.’ And we all know that when male characters are compared to weak, ineffectual girls, that’s funny, right? And so easy! Ba ba boom! Instant funny.

UNQUESTIONABLY A MOVIE FOR SOPHISTICATED VIEWERS

Common Sense Media offers insightful commentary on age-appropriateness.

Parents need to know that director Wes Anderson’s dry, offbeat adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s story Fantastic Mr. Fox is fine for most grade-schoolers but also has some themes and humor that will go over kids’ head.

But I’m at odds with this. Fast-paced dialogue may well go over kids’ heads, granted. And the slut-shamey gag is certainly fast-paced. At the same time, aren’t we constantly being told how impressionable kids are, that their minds are like sponges? I’m constantly reminded by my own kid that they absorb way more than we think they’re absorbing.

We’re at a strange point in history re family films. The best ones appeal to both kids and adults. Dual audience is often achieved through multi-level humour, and this humour so often relies on ironic whatever, in this case ironic sexism. The very problem with ironic sexism is that, to the younger viewer, it’s not ironic at all. I believe hipster sexism is happening with such reliability in family films because there’s the idea that women are equal now, that all the gender thingos have been fixed, so now we can poke fun at the past, in all its sexist ridiculousness. In truth, the world is nowhere near equal. Not in any way, shape or form.

This family film is basically good. But truly great filmmakers know how to crack a sophisticated joke which does not exclude half of its audience. A great filmmaker refuses to keep alive unhelpful stereotypes, perpetuating them for its young, knowing what to omit and what to keep in the adaptation of a classic.

***

In case anyone’s still interested in Wes Anderson: Illustrated Floor Plans of Wes Anderson Films. (The fourth one is for Fantastic Mr Fox.)

The Center Compositions Of Wes Anderson from Film Maker IQ has started a spoofing trend (from Filmmaker IQ)

And you know how people keep saying that watching too much TV will turn your kid into a jerk? Well, I don’t think that’s the appliance’s fault.

Comments are closed.