Counterpoint: The Women in Pacific Rim Problem

There aren’t a lot of women who look like me leading summer Hollywood blockbusters.

I liked Pacific Rim a lot. Much of my appreciation is tied to the fact that a woman of color plays a prominent role in a Hollywood genre film.  The reviews of Pacific Rim left me feeling a little unwelcome in my response to the movie.

Many of the feminist (or feminist-leaning) critiques were quick to point out the movie’s failure to pass the Bechdel test and having few named women with speaking roles. Our own Alyson’s review of Pacific Rim addresses these concerns. While this is a valid and legitimate criticism, I’m not sure what to do with this when complicated by the visibility and character development of women of color in the film. This seems even more complicated by visibility of all women in Sci-fi/Action genre films.

(Note: this review will contain lots of spoilers for Pacific Rim.)

All of the characters in the film are drawn with little detail at best. Arguably, Mako Mori (played by Rinko Kikuchi) has some of the more developed backstory of the lead characters: a young woman orphaned in the kaiju attacks who survived the trauma of the attacks and who grew up under the care of her adoptive father to become a highly skilled (“the best and the brightest”) recruit in her own right. Her adoptive father, Stacker (Idris Elba), is also portrayed as a highly trained, seasoned military official.

Once we plod through the ten years of exposition, the majority of the film takes place in a matter of days in the very near future. This may seem like a rather superfluous fact, but it is part of the reason why actions aren’t explained, why people are willing to make rash decisions and why emotions run high. The film is racing against the (war) clock to save the world. Mako is placed in the high-stakes role of being one of nine people who can save the world on what is essentially her first day on the job. On my first day at my job, I merely worked my way around campus to learn about the systems used, visited other offices we work with, and read through several handbooks.

For those of us who rarely see women who look like us portrayed as physically strong and emotionally complex characters, it feels like a dismissal to be told time and time again that characters like Mako are flawed and therefore unfeminist. Or rather, that because the film fails in other areas, this character is now excluded from any conversation about strong women in film. The two are not mutually exclusive.

In many reviews, there seems to be an expectation that Mako be a certain type of woman (maybe an infallible warrior type). The reviews don’t acknowledge that her being an Asian woman means that societal expectations and her identity have different meanings. She has linguistic challenges that others don’t. She has the racial politics of her self-identity, with the additional burden of her multiracial adoptive family. Mako sexually objectifies Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) and in turn is not sexualized herself (which is important especially because she is a woman of color). She has a romantic interest, but she is also an active participant in the relationship. Similarly, she wants the leadership role, but finds this complicated by her deference to her father’s wishes. The idea that she is spoken down to or treated like a child is partially because she is actually someone’s child. Mako and Chuck (Rob Kazinsky) deal with paternal obligation and deference in their own ways. While Raleigh clearly sees Mako’s retreat from demanding her role as his partner as obedience and subservience, Mako very clearly states, “It’s not obedience. It’s respect.” It’s respect for her father and for her military superior. This line can also be read as a nod to stereotypes of the subservient Asian woman. Rather than placing Mako in a passive role, Mako is instead active in this decision. She may not agree with Slacker, but she understands and respects his position.

Yes, it would’ve been nice to see more women in the film. It would’ve been great to see female scientists and give more development to all of the characters. We need visibility for all women. However, we’re not there yet. While the film doesn’t quite succeed in all areas, it does present us a flawed, strong woman of color in a lead role, which is still something of a rarity. She is not, and will never be, Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor, but she doesn’t have to be.

As a woman of color who is a huge movie fan, and a huge fan of sci-fi and fantasy, it’s sad but true: I’m more often than not just happy to be included. In writing this article, I tried hard to list the major women of color characters in film who aren’t Uhura. We need to keep asking how women are portrayed in film, but we also need to be willing to see the complexity of all women in all roles.

In the next few weeks, I will explore the various roles for women of color in sci-fi and fantasy, hopefully to both understand why as I fan, I still feel sidelined, and also celebrate the characters that may not been seen as mainstream role models for all women.

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Karishma

Karishma is a twenty-something living in New York City and is trying her hardest to live out every cliche about Millennials. This involves eating her feelings, drowning in debt and mocking infomercials. She likes sociology so much that she has two degrees in it, and is still warding off her parents' questions about a real career.

5 thoughts on “Counterpoint: The Women in Pacific Rim Problem”

  1. I had thought that Mako even existing in the movie was a step forward, but reading your article, I didn’t realize how much. I’ll be interested to read future articles on this subject.

    On another related note- I didn’t even really see any romantic relationship within the movie. In fact, GDT went on record saying he didn’t want it to be a romance. I think you could take it either way, which is a breath of fresh air. Usually women in general in sci-fi/fantasy are there for the romance, and to be the damsel in distress. This happened a teensy bit, but overall I think it was down played. It was nice for her to be there because… well, she was meant to be.

    Absolutely we should be asking for more women in movies like this. But it doesn’t also hurt to recognize that in some ways this was a step up. :)

  2. It’s …

    On the one hand we should just go WOOHOO because 1) woman, 2) POC, 3) more than a love interest and 4) KICK ASS FIGHTING
    That doesn’t mean we should stop asking for more of these parts and a variety of them (because no, copy pasting one awesome part doesn’t make you more progressive, Hollywood).

    Most important to me was that Mako felt human to me. Yes, maybe there were things that made me scratch my Western head, but she has a different background, it happens. Doesn’t mean she’s less awesome because I don’t recognize each and everyone of her motivations.

    1. I wrote this because I felt that the overall criticism of the lack of female characters completely overshadowed the positives of this character. Most of my friends and the people I interact with are women of color, who voiced how they felt ignored or somehow wrong for their admiration of Mako. I agree we need more characters like Mako and all complicated and flawed women. I also loved how human Mako felt, like someone I knew who didn’t always make the decisions you wanted her to make.

      I don’t think asking for more characters is completely separate from celebrating the ones who exist.

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