Friday, February 17, 2012

Resident Beauty: Alice Through the Looking Glass

In Naomi Wolf's groundbreaking book The Beauty Myth she wrote: 
       The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and   cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us... [D]uring the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile, eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest-growing specialty... [P]ornography became the main media category, ahead of legitimate films and records combined, and thirty-three thousand American women told researchers that they would rather lose ten to fifteen pounds than achieve any other goal...More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers. 

This old thing? It's my zombie outbreak number.
 I don't know if we're "worse off than our unliberated grandmothers". From what I hear from my mother my grandmother was pretty liberated. But I do know that it is hard to deal with not being pretty. Whether  you  are deemed beautiful or not or whether you are in fact "beautiful" or not can have a significant impact on one's self-esteem. If only we lost 10 pounds, our nose was different, our profile was better... we'd survive the zombie outbreak, right? RIGHT?! Ok, maybe not a zombie outbreak but we'd get that job, we'd be asked out or we'd just be happier. For this week I thought the Alice character , specifically from the first Resident Evil film, would be worthy of an closer look. Alice does not have the academic following that a Ripley or even a Laurie Strode has. There is very little written about her in terms of analysis because she is simply an under-developed character in an underdeveloped series. However her "coding" (images and visual phrases that help us as an audience understand her) is ripe for analysis and Resident Evil is nothing if not overly ripe.

I wish IKEA made these beds easier to assemble.
I have actually written about this character before but as I even admit in that post, it has more to do with my love of Milla Jovovich (Leeloo FOREVER!) than perhaps the actual movie. The first film is a sinful guilty pleasure and I think both Jovovich and Michelle Rodriguez give strong performances with an okay script. (I think everyone would still like to have seen what Romero would have made out of all of this). But as the films lurch on, the barely-there humanity in the first one all but flickers and dies out as the plot of the films outruns the story.

But let's talk economics. This film was made for very little in the action movie world and it made (relative) buckets of money upon it's theatrical and DVD release. As the sequels fell into place so did a rash of pseudo sci-fi-comic-booky-with-a-familiar-female-lead movies (Aeon Flux, Elektra, Bloodrayne) but all of them crashed and burned pretty spectacularly. (and the Underworld series is much less successful than RE) So why has Resident Evil jumped from one successful film to another? Because beauty sells. And not just this beauty:
but the overall aestheticization of violence. Violence, like women in these movies, becomes a fetishized commodity. The audience is allowed to participate in an indulgent fantasy wrapped in the end of the world where the character we identify with is the most sought after, beautiful figure imaginable. Alice is tough, strong and completely unique and we are with her pretty much all the time. In the sequels if we are not with Alice we are with an equally beautiful-tough woman.

In order for Alice and Rain (Michelle Rodriguez) to be accepted as members of the team with value they must take on masculine qualities. Rain is a butch female soldier (one would imagine her as the long lost daughter of Vasquez) and Alice assumes a leader role after 'One' (seriously, that's the character's name) the leader who leads them for the first 20 minutes is turned into meat cubes by the Red Queen. They assume power by taking command like a man, by behaving like one. "Even though the films feature female leads, they do so by endorsing patriarchal attitudes about masculine prowess and  violent privilege." (Benshoff)

Because women are looked at as passive and men as active these action heroine women are looked upon as obtaining agency by imitating men. Indeed, Alice becomes more masculinized as the series progresses. Alice , and characters like her, are never just strong and skilled, they are super-humanly strong and gifted. Her costuming also suggests a view for the male eye with an unseen force only leaving her a skimpy red dress to wear through the film. Her attitude, manner and means code her to an audience as a dominatrix, an agressive force allowed to transgress social "norms". We immediately understand Alice to have agency because of her manner. She has become a masculine assailant while still maintaining her sexual appeal.

Alice is positioned throughout the film as a force providing order to a now unstable society caused by zombies. (you could easily sub-in werewolves, vampires etc... the uncontrollable) While Alice and characters like her (most notably Selene in the Underworld series) share traits with the Final Girl archetype they are not the innocent girl next door. They are an unknown force that battles infringing entities while maintaining a more important social order. 

I do not know what or how these films should be changed but I know that in order to give the fans of this series the films they deserve the creators need to take some risks and break out of the stereotypical  horror-action film BS. Even if an ambitious, challenging film fails I guarantee that it would be more entertaining than the half-asses, lackluster, boring films that are now, like clockwork, rolled out every few years.

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