Monday, November 21, 2016

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them

SPOILER ALERT: if you intend to see Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, do not read this post first! However, if you have seen the film, here are my reflections on it. What do you think?

At its heart, Fantastic Beasts is a delightful Rom Com: two sisters falling in love with unlikely beaus; the two couples also held together by the budding – and equally unlikely – friendship between the men.

At its heart, Fantastic Beasts is a Tale For Our Times, albeit a fairly clunky one:

calling into question the morality of choosing to segregate ourselves from those who are different to us, with whom we perceive greater difference than what we share in common;

exposing the hypocrisy* of Privilege painting itself as victim because it has been asked to curtail its freedom for the good of others;

and exploring the different options of isolationism, competition, and cooperation;

not to mention speaking to our thoughtless attitude towards the survival – indeed, flourishing – of non-human animals, and the evil of trafficking.

At its heart, for all its clunky worthiness, Fantastic Beasts is a lot of fun.

All of which only makes it more frustrating that, while confronting some male stereotypes, it so strongly reinforces female stereotypes.

In a culture dominated by post-truth Alpha-males, Fantastic Beasts presents us with the man who is quite shy, academic but in a hands-on practical way, who never quite fitted-in at school but will go on to write a text book that will inspire generations of children.

In a culture that demonises the working class, Fantastic Beasts presents us with the man who, despite being both overweight and a factory worker, has the vision and energy – though not the financial backing – to do something creative and life-affirming, who has a vocation to bless people through the simple happiness of pastry.

And alongside these stereotype-confronting men, Fantastic Beasts gives us:

the Determined Young Lady, who has contained her femininity and adopted a more-male wardrobe – not only of clothing but of inhabiting that costume – and become a shadow of a man, only to be looked through by men;

the Blonde Bimbo, who knows exactly how men look at her, and colludes with them;

the Excessively-Controlling Mother;

and the black President, who, in the context of the above – not to mention the conspicuous absence of other black characters (the singer in the speakeasy is a black woman – itself another stereotypical role, and hardly the Harlem Renaissance) – seems a very token gesture.

I want to love Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them. It is beautifully filmed, and beautifully acted, and it is in many ways a welcome extension to the wonderfully imaginative Harry Potter universe, being set seventy years earlier and on a different continent.

But it is hard to love a film when my wife is underwhelmed, and asks, ‘Really? Strip away all the CGI, and we’re still telling the same old story, with the same stereotypical roles for women?’

It is hard to love a film, set in a universe my children love, when the roles and opportunities it presents my daughter with, and the lenses it holds out to my sons through which to see women, are so short-sighted.

We know the stereotypes already. We know that they are an exaggeration of actual types – whether exaggeration by turning characteristics into caricatures, or exaggeration by over-representation. But surely it is time for some new stories, ones we aren’t over-familiar with? Ones, indeed, we are not familiar enough with, and need to hear, role-models we need to see?

Perhaps the purpose of any given story is not to address every issue facing us. Perhaps the fact that watching Fantastic Beasts with others has raised the issue of how women are represented, and indeed how people of colour are not represented, is enough?

I don’t think so. How long can we keep making those excuses, passing the buck to some unspecified time in the future that never arrives?

*literally, unmasking; or revealing.

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