I finally saw Pacific Rim and, alas, it’s not a major triumph for women’s representation by any means. But it did make me come up with a new theory relating to male and female character backstories in action/war movies.
Mako Mori and Raleigh Becket both have backstories. Mori’s starts when she’s a little girl, as she’s chased by a kaiju which is killed by Stacker Pentecost, who then adopts and raises her. Becket’s begins when he’s already an adult and a Jaeger pilot. It shows him piloting with his brother, who is killed in combat. There are similarities–both have family members killed by kaiju–but the differences are notable. Mori’s backstory primarily addresses the question “Why does she want to be a Jaeger pilot?” On the other hand, Becket’s backstory primarily addresses the question “Why does he have emotional damage?” His backstory doesn’t explain why he wanted to fight the kaiju; he’s already fighting them when we first meet him.
These differences suggest a larger trend rooted in cultural ideas about men and women. A woman fighting giant monsters (or fighting anything) is an aberration. It requires explanation. “She wanted to” or “she was good at it” are insufficient; there needs to be some major event that caused her to abandon the “normal” stuff that women are supposed to like and to choose to do something as unfeminine as kicking ass.
A man in combat, on the other hand, doesn’t need any explanation. Why did young Becket want to fight giant monsters? Well, why wouldn’t he? On the other hand, a male character having emotions does require explanation. Men are expected to be stoic or aggressive, but if they’re going to be emotionally fragile and express more femine-coded feelings like fear and sadness, they need some event to justify it.
Of course these rules aren’t hard and fast. Superhero movies typically include backstories explaining how their heroes got into that role. Many backstories, such as those in the revenge genre, explain both the characters’ will to fight and the characters’ emotions. But even these are likely to put more weight on the former if the character is female and the latter if the character is male.
Anyway, that’s the theory that Pacific Rim inspired. I haven’t done any quantitative analysis to see whether it holds up in movies in general, so feel free to suggest examples that either fit or deviate from the theory.
Image found here.