Fighting Giant Monsters, But Not the Patriarchy

Oppositional Gaze Blog

I had seen Pacific Rim twice before, both times for a class. Now, on the third viewing, I think it speaks to my commitment to my academic work and to feminist film theory that I would choose to sit through this film again. However, this is also an example of the power of the oppositional gaze to distance the spectator from the dominant ideology that steers the content of a mainstream Hollywood movie. Pacific Rim does provide the viewer with what Annette Kuhn, as quoted by bell hooks, calls “the pleasure of resistance, of saying ‘no’: not to ‘unsophisticated’ enjoyment, by ourselves and others, of culturally dominant images, but to the structures of power which ask us to consume them uncritically and in highly circumscribed ways” (123). Looking at Pacific Rim with an oppositional gaze reveals the ways in which it operates within patriarchal ideology, the products of which imperceptibly strip power from the female lead and position her as Other while purporting to present her as a powerful, developed character.

In an interview with Peter Howell, director Guillermo del Toro said of Pacific Rim:

I was very careful how I built the movie. One of the other things I decided was that I wanted a female lead who has the equal force as the male leads. She’s not going to be a sex kitten, she’s not going to come out in cutoff shorts and a tank top, and it’s going to be a real earnestly drawn character.

As a director, del Toro is known for his passion for films and his devotion to his craft. I do believe that his intention was to create a “real earnestly drawn character” for Mako Mori. However, this makes the depiction of her character especially unfortunate because the majority of viewers will accept her as an example of a realistic, strong female character. Del Toro is a talented filmmaker and knows how to use the medium to encourage viewer identification with characters.

The film gives the illusion of character depth by literally getting inside Mako’s head, plunging the viewer into her most tortured memories. The intensely emotional sequence of Mako as a child tugs on heartstrings and very effectively aligns viewers’ sympathies with her. This emotional investment in her character prevents viewers from seeing her two-dimensionality. Although she is a weak character, the sentimentality of her story makes her a strong object of identification.

The audience pushes for her success, and in their eyes, she achieves it. At the end of the film, she has achieved her goal of piloting a Jaeger, helped defeat the Kaiju, come to terms with her past traumas, and most importantly, ended up with the male lead, the real hero. This is an impressive list of achievements, indeed far more than comparable female leads in other films. However, she achieves none of it without the help of a more powerful male character leading her gently by the hand. It may seem to most viewers that Mako overcame her past, but it was really Raleigh that pulled her out of her memories (see image below). He was the one who pushed her to achieve her goal (if the word still applies with no motivation behind it) when she would not have taken action on her own. Raleigh stands up to her father on her behalf, when she says nothing. Her happy ending obscures the problems with her characterization and provides a counterpoint for accusations of sexism.

Screen shot 2015-02-16 at 1.28.50 PM

Because we are given an emotional side to her character in the story of her childhood, it becomes the main aspect of her character. Raleigh had a similarly traumatic experience, but his temporary emotional vulnerability only adds to his existing strength and righteous determination. Mako’s emotions take over, and while the audience feels for her, this constructs her as a purely emotional character. The male character is able to avoid this fate by virtue of “the basic opposition which places man inside history, and woman as ahistoric and eternal” (Johnston qtd. in McCabe 19). Raleigh can assimilate his emotional experiences and use them to progress; he has a personal history. He is a character who has emotions, while Mako is her character’s emotions. For the viewer, the difference between the two is difficult, perhaps impossible, to see in the dominant reading.

When Mako first meets Raleigh, she is introduced as “one of our brightest” and the person in charge of the program that brings him to Hong Kong. From the stunned look on her face (in response to his good looks), it doesn’t seem like she could be in charge of anything (see image below). It is too easy to forget that she holds a position of power; her body language is submissive and nervous, and her soft voice does not help her equally powerless words to be heard. She may be intelligent (which we know only because we are told, not because of anything she does), and she may be a talented martial artist, but she is unable to put any of her strengths to use without a male character giving permission and pushing her.

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The film has a consistent military-chic-meets-futuristic-dystopia aesthetic of dark colors, concrete and metal, and clean lines. The costuming follows this look admirably, except for one scene in which Mako wears a light tan cardigan embroidered with fall leaves (see image below). Surrounded by images evoking strength and dominance, Mako’s image here is soft and delicate. This choice emphasizes that she does not belong and separates her from other characters and their world with a distinctly feminine article of clothing. This is an example of “the repressive textual operations of patriarchal ideology that define woman as Other” (McCabe 17).

mako leaves sweater

In one scene, another pilot taunts Raleigh about his “little girlfriend,” saying that “one of your bitches needs a leash,” to which he responds with a fist to the face. The two fight as Raleigh demands that the other pilot apologize to Mako. We could say many things about the power dynamic of this scene, notably how Mako has none. This scene is an excuse to show how noble and good our brave hero is, and in its preoccupation with the male lead, the film seems to be forgetting that Mako is supposed to be the head of the project of which both the pilots are a part. They show her no respect, and she demands none. She watches the scene without moving as the display of masculinity draws the camera’s attention. Throughout the film Mako’s female passivity obscures aspects of her characterization and role in the plot (including her explicitly stated position as project head), “stripping the sign ‘woman’ of its primary (denotative) meaning and substituting it with a symbolic (connotative) one” (McCabe 19). In other words, the film prevents her from being a developed, active character because the woman exists in film as a structure, a fixed sign.

After Raleigh defeats multiple male opponents in a compatibility test, he challenges Mako to take a turn. Her fighting skills are impressive, more than matching Raleigh’s; when the fight is called off, Mako has the advantage. This seems like an example of female physical strength, discipline, and skill, but once again, our heroine is cut down by the specter of sexism that hides in the details. During the fight Raleigh performs a spectacular series of complex moves, all the while keeping his composure and not making a sound. Mako’s admirable performance is undermined by her vocalizations and strained facial expressions that lend a lack of control and a sense of panic to her movements. Although she is more skilled than the defeated male fighters, she is the only one who appears to exert any effort, which results in her looking weaker.

If I have learned anything through studying film, it is that everything matters. With major financial backing, a generous production timeline, and an experienced director, it is a fair assumption that anything in the movie was meant to be there. This is how I channeled my use of the oppositional gaze; in my analysis, I paid special attention to the small details and moments when sexist stereotypes crept into the text unquestioned and unnoticed in the dominant reading, because they are so deeply embedded in the ideological system in which the film operates. When del Toro explicitly tried to create a strong female character, he could not counter the existing sexism in dominant cinema. The power of patriarchal ideology is that it “make[s] its signs appear part of the natural order” (McCabe 17).

To be fair, Pacific Rim is not meant to be a profound reflection on the complexity of the human condition. I found all of the characters in Pacific Rim difficult to identify with because they lacked depth; this made it very easy to look at the film with an oppositional gaze. Mako’s lack is the most problematic, because the film suggests that this is considered an adequate characterization of “a female lead who has the equal force as the male leads.” The brave, independent, driven heroine the film leads us to think we are given is really nothing of the sort. Additionally, she is the only female character in the film (besides one other pilot whom we see briefly and who does not speak). While there are numerous male characters who display different personality traits, implying that variable presentations of masculinity exist and are acceptable, there is only Mako to represent the entire state of femaleness.

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