When Pacific Rim came out, many sources praised it for its progressive representation: The presence of non-American, non-white characters in heroic roles and, in particular, Mako Mori, a Japanese woman, getting to play a central, active role in the story. Mako Mori even inspired a new feminist film test:
The Mako Mori test is passed if the movie has: a) at least one female character; b) who gets her own narrative arc; c) that is not about supporting a man’s story.
But in many ways, Pacific Rim doesn’t seem very progressive at all, certainly not groundbreakingly progressive. The protagonist and narrator is still a white American guy, the cast is still vastly male-dominated, and this is not the first action-hero Asian woman with a pageboy and colored highlights ever to grace the silver screen*.
So is Pacific Rim a progressive example of minority and female representation or not? I’m going to take the middle position here: Pacific Rim‘s characters are progressive relative to cinema as a whole. But that’s not because Pacific Rim did anything terribly right, but because the rest of cinema does representation so terribly, terribly wrong.
So yes, the Jaeger pilots who aren’t white Westerners (or their love interests) have no arcs, scarcely any lines, and they all get killed off in the first battle without accomplishing anything. The Chinese triplets are treated as literally interchangeable. Meanwhile, the white supporting cast pilots get to live through the battle; one survives to the end and the other plays an important role. But in other hands, we might have had an entirely American fighting force composed of only white dudes. Progress.
And yes, Mako Mori doesn’t even show up until 20 minutes into the movie and we only see her backstory quite literally through the eyes of a white guy. She also gets far fewer lines than any of the other main characters and never talks to the other female pilot (whose name is Sasha Kaidanovsky, by the way; don’t pretend you knew that without looking it up**), who herself only gets two or three lines before getting killed, and aside from them, there’s only one unnamed female extra who gets a couple of lines in a crowd scene. But neither of the women is sexualized, kidnapped, or rendered helpless by being grabbed by the upper arm, and there are two of them, which is one more than you’d find in most movies. Sasha even looks old enough to drink. Progress.
And as for GLBT characters, there’s…um…
Well, you can’t expect progress on all fronts.
*I have nothing against any of these attributes and will continue to be delighted by characters that fit this profile. But acting like Mako Mori is revolutionizing cinema is ignorant of film history and discourages further progress.
**In fairness, I had to look up Raleigh Beckett’s name, too.