Sunday, July 30, 2006

Random Thoughts in the Movie Theater, Part 2: Monster House

WARNING: Spoilers to follow.

It's troublesome being a feminist at the movies. I'm used to seeing sexist plotlines and underdeveloped female characters, but I keep thinking, "hey, it can only get better. I'll try again."

And Monster House is a cute movie. The basic plot is that the house across the street comes to evil life, and the three children - DJ, Chowder, and Jenny - who are the main characters know this, but of course, none of the adults believe them. Two windows in the front of the house become it's eyes; the doorway is the mouth, with a long runner snaking out to grab unsuspecting victims. (Everyone who gets eaten manages to survive at the end of the movie, which makes it palatable for older kids.)

But there are two major problems with this film. First, although it is two boys and a girl who fight the house, DJ and Chowder do the work while Jenny mostly just comes along for the ride. While Chowder is driving a steamshovel, simultaneously battling the now-mobile house and leading it to a strategic point under a crane, DJ and Jenny are scaling the crane, DJ with explosives in hand that he will drop into the house's chimney, blowing it apart. Jenny has a minor role in this - I can't remember the exact sequence of events, but it's something like, DJ stumbles and drops the dynamite, she grabs it, throws it to DJ, and he drops it in. It was all so predictable - and so unnecessary. Why couldn't Jenny have dropped it in? Why are girls almost always accessories and rarely the heroes? Allowing Jenny to be the one to finally drop the dynamite would have made it a group effort, rather than a boys' effort with a girl tagging along. (Sound familiar? It's the same tired pattern we see in most adult movies.)

Second, and perhaps more disturbing, is the house itself. It has an insatiable appetite. It swallows balls, kites, people: anything and anyone who trespasses on its lawn or front walk. DJ and pals assume that the house becomes haunted with the ghost of it's recently departed and extremely cranky inhabitant, Mr. Nebbercracker, who has for years confiscated toys and frightened children that wander onto his lawn. But as they learn later, it is in fact haunted by the spirit of his wife, Constance, who was accidentally killed and buried when the cement floor of the basement was poured. Not coincidentally, Constance was a circus fat lady who had been terrorized by the public and who, embodied in the house, attacked anyone who came near.

As the house, Constance is therefore enormous, insatiable, crazed - just as she was in life. Mr. Nebbercracker, in contrast, is small and skinny, the one who placates her great rage. This portrayal of a fat woman as out of control with huge appetites (whether for food or for sex) - as, literally, a maneater - is unfortunately all too common. In fact, the very difference in size between a large wife and a smaller husband, whether in literature, film, or real life, communicates the message that she is the dominant partner. These stereotypes of fat women are particular to fat women - the reverse wouldn't work. There are no cultural figures of fat men whose appetites must be controlled by their skinny wives.

Further, the house is only silenced when it is destroyed, at which point we see Constance's ghost dancing with Nebbercracker before swirling off into the sky. Nebbercracker then breaks down in relief that he and Constance have finally been set free. Thus, it is only through Constance's destruction that her appetite is forever controlled.

What's wrong with this picture? Monster House doesn't merely reinforce negative stereotypes - it depends upon them. There would be no plot if not for the purposefully grotesque figure of Constance. Further, as the film makes clear, DJ and Chowder are just entering puberty, and so their interaction with Jenny is one in which they must be heroes in order to impress her, while her role is simply to be impressed. Given the target audience for this film, that means that the film models for children "appropriate" gender roles: good boys are heroes. Good girls are observers. Bad woman are fat, hungry, and out of control. Bad men are skinny and small. Balance can only be attained through the destruction of bad women.

Only a movie? Perhaps. But these notions about men's and women's appropriate sizes and behaviors are real, not imagined, and ingrained in our culture.

If you doubt me, try this: ask the heterosexual women you know - especially the tall ones, the fat ones, and/or the athletic ones - if they date men who are shorter than they are. Then ask them how it makes them feel when they are taller or bigger than their dates.


Carrie said...

It's funny you should bring this up because I just went to Monster House and I remember thinking at the end when DJ and Jenny were at the top of the crane and he said, "I can't do this!" I thought, great, I'm sure Jenny can. I fully expected her to snatch up the dynamite and save the day. When instead she started playing cheerleader to DJ it seemed completely contrary to her character development up to that point. That part was stupid.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for so clearly articulating what is wrong with this movie. I just watched it for the first time and I was highly offended by almost everything but particularly the Constance character--not only was it beyond bizarre, it was sad and critical of fat women as you so clearly described.

Plain(s)feminist said...

Thanks for the comment. It's too bad - the movie had a lot of promise, and I wish it had been better.