Thursday, March 14, 2013

Deconstructing Hit-Girl

Hit-Girl from the film "Kick-Ass" is probably my favorite costumed hero in film. While Hit-Girl from the comic book was also excellent, she lacked the solid grounding of the character that actress Chloe Moretz gives her in the film (mostly because Mark Millar's characters are almost always borderline sociopathic by default).

With the trailer for "Kick-Ass 2" hitting the Internet, I thought it would be fun to go deeper into why I love the character of Hit-Girl as much as I do.

A lot of people seem to have issues when it comes to Hit-Girl. In a way, she's a very simple character, but also incredibly complex, and I think that creates some cognitive dissonance for people. However, in that cognitive dissonance lies some very interesting subtext regarding the young sidekick trope, violence in general, and feminism.

Warning, this contains spoilers for the first "Kick-Ass" miniseries and film, as well as spoilers for "Django Unchained", "Harry Potter", "Hunger Games" and the recent "Batman" comics (specifically regarding Damian Wayne).

Oh, and trigger warning for violent images involving children (though I don't show any children on the receiving end of this violence if that matters to you).

Who Is Hit-Girl?

For those who are unfamiliar with the character or the story she's from, a brief summary.

"Kick-Ass" was a comic book miniseries created by Mark Millar, which was eventually turned into a film. It followed the exploits of a high school student named Dave Lizewski who is a comic book fan. One day he wonders why superheroes don't exist in real life. If not superheroes with actual powers, why not superheroes like Batman? So he decides to throw together a costume and give it a try.

Lacking any real training, his first outing gets him stabbed, hit by a car, and left for dead.

After a great deal of intensive surgery and physical rehabilitation, he decides to give it another go. This time, he actually manages to do some good and becomes known as Kick-Ass.

As his exploits become more well-known, he meets two other apparent superheroes named Big Daddy and Hit-Girl, real names Damon and Mindy Macready. While Damon is an adult, Mindy is an eleven-year-old child and Damon's own daughter. Unlike Dave, they have training, a backstory, better equipment, and they are far more brutal and effective, killing mobsters and targeting crime bosses with a larger purpose.

The comics and the film diverge a bit after this.

In the comic book, Big Daddy is just an asshole who abandoned his wife with his child to go pursue a life of crime-fighting funded by his comic book collection. He makes up a story about his wife dying and ropes his kid along in their shared delusion. Personally, I find this revelation to be really stupid. Partially because there's no way a comic book collector could make that much money from any collection you can fit in a briefcase, and partially because I just don't buy that a normal guy could effectively train himself and a child as well as he does. Only a character written by Mark Millar can be this spectacularly unbelievable.

In the film however, Big Daddy's backstory is actually true. He was a cop who got framed and thrown in jail. His wife committed suicide and when he got out, he decided to get vengeance. He trains his daughter as well partially because he felt she was also deserving of vengeance and partially so that she could continue to stay with him while he pursued this path. While Big Daddy still uses comic book imagery to manipulate his daughter, his motivations are more understandable. As a trained cop, he's capable and experienced. Also, the fact that he kills drug dealers and mobsters explains where he gets the money to pay for his activities. He's far more believable and actually surprisingly likable in spite of what he puts his daughter through.

Either way, you end up with an eleven-year-old girl who believes that her father is a superhero, that she is his sidekick, and that they fight to protect their city and get vengeance for their loved one.

What makes Hit-Girl particularly unusual, however, is that she is the most capable individual in the series. She trains the hardest, wholeheartedly believes in the mission, and does not act like a child at all. She curses like a sailor, murders criminals without hesitation, and mocks Dave's trepidation regularly.

In short, she behaves like a typical over-the-top action hero not unlike Jason Statham, except she is an eleven-year-old girl in a costume and a purple wig.

At the end of the first series/movie, Big Daddy dies, but she finishes his mission and goes into retirement, attempting to lead a normal life.

I haven't read the second miniseries, mostly because I prefer the film and would rather see the sequel to the film unspoiled. But judging from the trailer, it seems that in their retirement, Hit-Girl trains Dave to actually be a competent fighter and eventually comes out of retirement when supervillains start to show up.

So that's Hit-Girl. A foul-mouthed, psychotic, prepubescent machine of death and justice.

Now let's get to the deconstruction.

Hit-Girl As Commentary On The Sidekick Trope

Sidekicks have been around for as long as masked heroes have been around. It's not difficult to understand the appeal. Some masked heroes have very few flaws and have powers and abilities few could fathom obtaining for themselves. This can make it difficult for an audience to connect with them. A sidekick, however, is often flawed, relatively normal, and very reverent of the hero in question. Not only are they easier for the audience to project onto, they humanize their heroes by showing a more personal side of them and by often acting as a weakness when they get in over their heads.

It's no surprise, then, that a great number of sidekicks started out as kids. Robin, Aqualad, Speedy, Kid Flash, you get the picture.

But fans of comics will note that Marvel Comics never really employed young sidekicks with one notable exception: Bucky. However, Bucky was killed in 1968, effectively giving a reason for why no one else has young sidekicks in the Marvel Universe. It's said that Stan Lee wasn't fond of the trope, and it's worth noting that Marvel characters tend to be very flawed and have many personal relationships, so a sidekick character was rarely deemed necessary.

However, it's also worth noting that the 60's-70's saw the rise of comics beginning to subvert the limiting Comics Code Authority. They began to deal with more topical and mature themes, problems became more realistic, heroes became less perfect, and the stories felt less disposable.

As time went on, sidekicks felt more and more out of place, particularly very young ones. In some cases, they might have been accused of being bad influences for kids. As comics began to get darker, they no longer seemed like a place that was safe for crime-fighting children.

I think it hit its peak in the late 80's when DC Comics killed off Jason Todd. Robin was always the quintessential sidekick, so his death (which also happened to be very brutal) carried a lot of weight. Even though Jason Todd wasn't all that young compared to some Robins, the classic team-up just seemed peculiar in the more modern ages of comics.

But really, nobody paid much attention to the ethical questions regarding young sidekicks. If young sidekicks fell out of fashion, it probably wasn't because it seemed wrong to put children in those sorts of situations, but more because it seemed hokey or ridiculous.

Case in point, the most recent Robin, Damian Wayne (who also recently died) was the youngest one yet, but by making him sociopathic, very mature for his age, and trained by the world's greatest assassins, they were able to side-step making him seem hokey or silly. They also managed to side-step the homophobia surrounding the Batman and Robin team-up by making his Bruce's biological son. If comic fans had a problem with Damian, it was that he was too dark and serious, not that he was too young.

But really, when we stop and think about it, this is truly fucked up. A man who faces life-or-death situations on a daily basis decides to take a kid (and in the case of Damian, his kid) along, even though it could (and has) easily lead to the child's untimely death.

One of the more interesting things about empowered children in mass media that aim at widespread appeal and garner phenomenal popularity is that adults tend to enjoy them just as much as (if not more than) the children that are presumably meant to relate to them. Just look at the recent explosion of popularity of movie franchises like Harry Potter and Twilight. A lot of adults look back on their childhoods with a sort of empty regret. Even people who didn't necessarily have a particularly enjoyable childhood will wish that their childhoods were maybe more interesting and that they had done more. So the idea of children whose boring lives are interrupted by the fantastic is potentially interesting to audiences of all ages.

However, there's a fine line that such characters tend to walk when they are expected to lead to million-dollar franchises, lest ye risk offending the adult audience that pays for the ticket. While YA in books are full of excellent characters with depth and realism, the stuff that gets picked up to be turned into blockbuster film franchises tends to wind up with a lot of arbitrary "conventional wisdom". Young characters can't use foul language, young characters can't die, young characters can't have sex, young characters can't kill people. Even within YA novels, some parents set arbitrary standards for what kinds of novels they let their children read (in this day and age, I'd just be glad kids are reading anything). Back when Borders still existed, I once overheard a mother asking a clerk about a YA novel (I can't remember which), expressing her concern about whether the content was appropriate. She stated that she was OK with "Twilight" and used that as her baseline for what was acceptable. I couldn't have rolled my eyes harder if I tried.

These are the "standards" that prevent the mountains of good works from being adapted for mass audiences without having their guts ripped out first. It essentially boils down to "whatever makes the adult in the room feel uncomfortable." But why? What is it about treating younger characters like actual people that puts so many presumably level-headed adults on edge?

Well, the knee-jerk answer is that it is inappropriate. If a popular work is directed towards children, it can be deemed as a bad influence and angry mothers will try to get it banned. If the popular work is not directed towards children, it can be accused of being perverse, as though the author enjoys talking about underage characters behaving like adults. Even in the case of "Kick-Ass", one critic presumed that Hit-Girl was meant to be fetishistic, which was such a ridiculous leap of illogic that it led to him getting pummeled by the Internet.

But if we're being honest, the big underlying reason adults get up in arms over kids behaving in certain ways on film (even if the film is in no way directed towards children) is because those aspects tend to spoil our fun.

We go to the movies expecting a laugh, and then we get this cool action scene, but instead of a balding 40-year-old man brutally killing waves of nameless drug dealers, we have an eleven-year-old doing the same thing and then ALL OF A SUDDEN we're expected to think about our feelings and that makes us very cross indeed. So generally, the sorts of films that tend to garner widest appeal often try not to step outside anybody's comfort zone.

I mean, let's look at one of the most popular franchises ever (for both children and adults), Harry Potter. Harry is ripped away from his life (granted it was a shitty life, but the point stands) so that he can run off with a strange man who tells him he's special. He goes to a school where they don't teach math, literature, or social studies, he's separated from his dissenting and abusive parental figures, separated from the harsh real world, discovers he's a god at this sport that requires no real training or teamwork (at least not for his position), and he's put in perilous situations where he emerges victorious over terrible evil. At the age of eleven.

Is it really any wonder why Harry Potter is so popular? How many kids wish school was actually that awesome? How many adults wish that they discovered they were special when they were young? Wish that they had had more agency during that part of their life?

But most of the books jump through a few hoops to make sure we don't feel guilty about vicariously enjoying Harry's perilous situations. All of the adults try to make sure that the children don't get involved with the serious shit (though they do anyway). Harry is still expected to face consequences when he misbehaves or disregards rules. When Harry defeats a villain, it is typically through something defensive. In the first book, Harry doesn't KILL the evil Professor Quirrell, Professor Quirrell gets himself killed by touching Harry. In the second book, Harry may kill the basilisk, but the basilisk is not only a ruthless killing machine, it is an animal and therefore doesn't feel "wrong" to stab in the face. Then when he defeats Voldemort's horcrux, all he does is stab a book. In the sixth book, Harry finally directly harms someone with magic, and it is (understandably) treated as this truly horrific and awful thing. In the final book, when he faces Voldemort, again Voldemort essentially just gets himself killed. The only truly evil thing Harry does that goes unpunished is when he uses a forbidden mind-control curse on a goblin at a bank who is basically just doing his job, but that is easy enough to miss or overlook.

It seems to me that J.K. Rowling did her best to try and avoid forcing her readers to ask any hard questions about her characters or have her characters deal with some of the more complex aspects of growing up, especially when it came to sex. Sure, characters hooked up and they talked about snogging an awful lot, but that's always where things ended. When she released "The Casual Vacancy", which dealt with many more sexual themes, in an interview she talked about how she felt those aspects were not appropriate for fantasy, and she's entitled to her opinion, but I'd say George R.R. Martin would have some pretty major objections to that consensus.

Another good example of this tendency to keep things morally simple is the "Hunger Games" film adaptation (I've only seen the movie, so forgive me if this doesn't accurately reflect the book or the series as a whole). I would like to point out that I actually really like the movie and think that it's success will change a lot of the "conventional wisdom" I'm talking about, but I couldn't help but find it odd that in a film that bravely deals with a society that routinely pits children against one another in brutal death matches, the main character of Katniss rarely ever actually kills anyone. She releases a nest of homicidal super-bees, which directly kills one person, but Katniss herself is also stung and it causes her a great deal of pain. It was an act of desperation, it was indirect, and she was still punished anyway.

The rest of the story practically conspires to avoid forcing her to kill anyone. She allies herself with the young Rue, and not once do they address the very serious truth that the best-case scenario is that they are the last two standing and would then be forced to kill one another. What would Katniss do in that situation? Allow Rue to kill her, leaving her sister without anyone and forcing Rue to live with the knowledge that she's guilty of a friend's death? I was actually really involved with the implications of this alliance and how it would test Katniss as a character. Unfortunately, she is saved from having to make that decision as Rue is tragically killed by some other asshole.

Additionally, the presence of the "careers", the children who are trained to be ruthless killers specifically to win the Hunger Games, also serve to absolve Katniss of tough ethical decisions. While Katniss is hiding and taking care of Peeta, the "careers" are killing all of the innocent children. By the time Katniss finally has to kill someone, there's only one "career" left, and since he's been gleefully killing people left and right and is about to kill Peeta, we don't really feel bad for him and we feel Katniss is justified. At the very end when they finally force Katniss to kill Peeta, they make a suicide pact to force the people running the Games to keep their word, but if they hadn't changed the rules in the first place, that tactic probably wouldn't have worked.

As horrifying as the "careers" are, the story would have been far more horrifying if they didn't exist at all. What if none of the kids were trained to take part in this? What if all of the kids followed Katniss' strategy and just waited in the forest. Eventually, someone would have needed to kill someone else. Eventually Katniss would have had to kill someone who was no more deserving of death than she was. Possibly someone not unlike the sister she was putting her life on the line for. I'm not saying the story would have been better, the "careers" make sense within the context of the story and provide a very powerful sense of danger, but their evil allows Katniss' actions to seem comparatively good so that she can remain likable, at least according to "conventional wisdom".

We don't make things easy for these characters because it would be otherwise inappropriate. We do it because we want to enjoy ourselves. Forcing Katniss to murder Rue or Peeta might have been too dark and ruined our fun. Making Harry cast Avada Kedavra to take down Voldemort would not have seemed very heroic. We don't want these kids to feel seriously emotionally scarred simply for doing the things we want them to do.

A common trope in these sorts of films is when an authority figure underestimates the younger protagonist and is then inevitably saved because the protagonist acted in spite of their wishes and was able to do something the older authority figures could not have done themselves. It's ironic, then, that we decide to be very specific about what those young protagonists can and cannot do within that rebellious streak.

Disobey rules? Sure. Speak their mind? Of course. Stand up for naive moral absolutism? Definitely. But kill someone? Nope. Have a lapse in moral judgement? Nah. Express any kind of romantic desire that's at least partially sexual in nature? Never.

This brings us finally to Hit-Girl.

Hit-Girl is damn near impossible not to love. Even if you find the use of the character reprehensible, the main reason you feel that way is because you care about her. She's strong, but she had to work for it. Her dad encourages her and takes an interest in spending time with her. She's flawed, but admirable. She's young, but sharp as a tack.

In a way, she's the perfect sidekick. She's a very simple analogue for the audience, she has an interesting, fulfilling, and exciting life, she's likable, she's capable, and she brings a lot of heart to the proceedings. But she also kills with no moral repercussions, she uses foul and sexually-explicit language frequently, and she lives a life where she is essentially being exploited and warped by her father.

So in a way, she embodies both the things we love about young heroes while also embodying the aspects of young heroes we tend to filter out for our own comfort.

The cursing isn't so awful. Children swearing is usually hilarious. Most adults aren't actually offended by curse words, they're only offended if there's a chance children might hear them. Honestly, it would be easier if we all just stopped caring.

But the physical and psychological violence? That is where a lot of us draw the line, which brings me to my next point.

Hit-Girl As Commentary On Violence In Entertainment

Roger Ebert is one of those critics who will completely shut out a movie if it offends him in a way he feels is gratuitous. That doesn't make him a bad critic, in fact I'd say his subjectivity is what makes him a great critic. But it does often lead to him disliking or liking movies for relatively silly reasons.

One of his "blind spots" is children. While he has no children himself (at least I don't think he does) he's always come off as very fond of children. He gave both horrendous "Garfield" films favorable reviews from the position that kids ought to love them.

When it came to "Kick-Ass" his entire reason for hating the movie was that Hit-Girl killed people with little to no regard for human life. In his own words:

Big Daddy and Mindy never have a chat about, you know, stuff like how when you kill people, they are really dead. This movie regards human beings like video-game targets. Kill one, and you score. They're dead, you win. When kids in the age range of this movie's home video audience are shooting one another every day in America, that kind of stops being funny.

One can't really disagree with this observation. The movie does dehumanize the mobsters that are killed and glorify those who kill them. And in a world where there are school shootings and child soldiers, it's hard to deny that violence perpetrated by children in the real world is particularly revolting and dark. As such, I can understand people who cannot enjoy watching children take part in the battles of adults.

However, what I find interesting is this other tid-bit from Roger Ebert's review of "Superman Returns":

Now about Lois' kid. We know who his father is, and Lois knows, and I guess the kid knows, although he calls Richard his daddy. But why is nothing done with this character? He sends a piano flying across a room, but otherwise he just stares with big, solemn eyes, like one of those self-sufficient little brats you can't get to talk. It would have been fun to give Superman a bright, sassy child, like one of the Spy Kids, and make him a part of the plot. 

So apparently Roger Ebert is actually fine with fictional kids putting themselves in harm's way. In fact, if they don't, it appears to be a negative trait of a film to him. His only requirement is that it's safe and family-friendly, as in "Spy Kids". If a kid is shy and doesn't want to fight, he's a brat and a detriment to the plot.

OK, so maybe his problem is just that he doesn't like glorified violence in films. Yeah, that's understandable too. Sometimes over-the-top violence just pushes things too far for some people.

Then again, he really liked "Inglourious Basterds", which definitely glorified violence in a spectacular fashion.

OK, well, maybe it's just brutal violence that offends Roger Ebert. The kind of violence that is over-the-top and ridiculous, but really uncomfortable to watch due to the context. I can understand that too. After all, not everyone is cool with movies making them uncomfortable, even if it's for the purposes of satire.

However, this bit from his recent review of "Django Unchained" offers an interesting exception to this:
Because "Django" is so filled with violence and transgressive behavior, he told me something that day [at Cannes] that's worth remembering when discussing "Django:" "When I'm writing a movie, I hear the laughter. People talk about the violence. What about the comedy? 'Pulp Fiction' has such an obviously comic spirit, even with all the weird things that are happening. To me, the most torturous thing in the world, and this counts for 'Reservoir Dogs' just as much as it does to 'Pulp,' is to watch it with an audience who doesn't know they're supposed to laugh. Because that's a death. Because I'm hearing the laughs in my mind, and there's this dead silence of crickets sounding in the audience, you know?"  
I sorta know. There were however some dead crickets in my mind during the scene in "Django Unchained" where we visit a Southern Plantation run by a genteel monster named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who for his after-dinner entertainment is having two slaves fight each other to the death. It's a brutal fight, covered with the blood that flows unusually copiously in the film. The losing slave screams without stopping, and I reflected that throughout the film there is much more screaming in a violent scene than you usually hear. Finally the fight is over, and there's a shot of the defeated slave's head as a hammer is dropped on the floor next to it by Mr. Candie. The hammer, (off-screen but barely) is used by the fight's winner to finish off his opponent.  
At this point in the film I found myself mentally composing a letter to Quentin, explaining why I stopped watching his film. The letter went unwritten. There are such scenes in most Tarantino films. Do you remember Michael Madsen cutting off the cop's ear in "Reservoir Dogs?" When QT begins a movie, I believe, his destination is to aim over the top. The top itself will not do.  
Consider the fight scene I described. Where is the comedy? Tarantino says he hears laughter in his mind. Why? I suspect it's because this entire film takes the painful, touchy subject of slavery and approaches it without the slightest restraint. At some point in the scene, QT's laughter may be because the audience expects to see violence but doesn't expect to get it a such an extreme; he's rubbing it in. 
That I find absolutely fascinating. In spite of finding the Mandingo fight to be absolutely horrible to watch for its ridiculous violence and brutally racist context, he sees the satire in it and uses it to justify that context.

With this in mind, let's go back to his review of "Kick-Ass" for a moment:

Shall I have feelings, or should I pretend to be cool? Will I seem hopelessly square if I find “Kick-Ass” morally reprehensible and will I appear to have missed the point? Let's say you're a big fan of the original comic book, and you think the movie does it justice. You know what? You inhabit a world I am so very not interested in. A movie camera makes a record of whatever is placed in front of it, and in this case, it shows deadly carnage dished out by an 11-year-old girl, after which an adult man brutally hammers her to within an inch of her life. Blood everywhere. Now tell me all about the context.

With "Kick-Ass", he acknowledges it as satire, but absolutely refuses to give the film a pass. While "Django" gets a perfect score, "Kick-Ass" gets a failing grade.

He's fine with kids putting themselves in danger, in fact he seems to insist on it. He's fine with foul-mouthed characters who murder without mercy. He's fine with brutal and offensive violence used as satire.

He just apparently has a problem when all three are used at the same time.

Now, I love Roger Ebert, but I don't always agree with him. In this case, I think that he's unable to admit his own hypocrisy. He is capable of enjoying violence, but when that violence is perpetrated by a child, he's suddenly confronted with the fact that violence is a bad thing. He asks himself if he ought to be enjoying Hit-Girl killing people, and he tells himself that he shouldn't. So he makes the conscious decision to dislike the film.

Here's a newsflash: Violence is a bad thing. Always. When Brad Pitt kills dehumanized bad guys, he's not "allowed" to do it because he's an adult male or because it's a war movie. Killing is bad. There's a law against it and everything.

And yet, we are capable of enjoying violence in media. In fact, most people enjoy fictional violence quite a bit. Action films are by far the most popular and successful films in the industry.

Why is that? Well, there are a number of theories on the subject, but the one I mostly subscribe to goes something like this:

Human beings are capable of telling the difference between the real world and fiction.

Just look at that. Let the ridiculousness of that scene sit in your brain. Do you believe for one second that Roger Ebert saw that and the first thing that came to his mind was Columbine? That he genuinely worried that a 6-year-old would see this and think that's something they'd want to try?

I for one don't think so. I mean, let's get real. When I was a kid, movie violence that involved blood terrified me, and I think that's fairly common. Even once I got used to it, it was never really ideal. Blood meant that something became dangerous. I could enjoy it, but I would never try it.

I think that what Ebert actually thought was, "Having a child behave this way in the real world is wrong. Therefore, I have to reject this movie and mark it as reprehensible in order to seem like a decent human being. I'd rather be square and morally superior than have fun and feel like a bad person for enjoying myself, even if it is meant to be satirical."

And that's just human, really. Sometimes we feel guilty about the things we like, and sometimes we feel like we aren't allowed to enjoy something for that reason. But it is possible to acknowledge something as problematic while still enjoying it. We are not robots. We can live with contradictions.

Hit-Girl being a child doesn't make her actions any more or less terrible than if they were done by Clive Owen. But her being a child does actually serve to remind us that the actions are horrible. In a movie that asks the question, "Why aren't there superheroes in real life?" Hit-Girl provides the answer, "Because that would be horrifying." And we acknowledge that and understand that, but even once we understand that we think, "But it would still be pretty fucking cool."

This actually mirrors Dave's entire journey. He asks that question, gives it a try, and nearly dies almost immediately. Yet he still gets back into it. It speaks to our stubborn and borderline masochistic nature as humans when it comes to our obsession with finding our own reason for living.

Hit-Girl As A Strong Female Character

Comics and movies have issues with women.

Still, any fan of comics and film will be quick to say that there are plenty of strong female characters, and they are not wrong.

However, if you ask those people to name strong female characters who aren't sexualized or at least portrayed in a traditionally feminine and attractive manner, or in the case of film, cast specifically with women who are generally considered attractive, you might find the list gets a bit shorter.

Then if you ask for strong female characters who aren't sexualized or deliberately designed to look more masculine or traditionally "ugly", you'd have a much shorter list.

Then if you take that list and ask for characters who are primary or secondary protagonists, you'd probably be left with an even shorter list.

But on that list, you'd find Hit-Girl.

Hit-Girl does not hide or reject her femininity. She does not act like her gender is a burden. She does not dress in a deliberately traditionally masculine manner. She is a girl. It's even in her name.

One problem with female characters in the media is an obsession over their appearance. If character designers or casting directors aren't obsessing over developing an image of a character that's very attractive, they are deliberately trying to avoid doing that. But when you decide you want to make this female character dress like a guy and have tons of muscles and much harder features specifically to avoid making a traditionally feminine character, you're still obsessing over their appearance.

With male characters, this almost never happens. While it's true that a lot of male characters are also designed to be attractive, this is not always reflected in their appearance. Some male characters look fairly average or overweight or deformed, but they might still have an attractive personality by being humorous or charismatic.

I mean, just think about the women you know in your day-to-day life. How many women like that do you see as characters in film? Now think about the men you know in your day-to-day life. How many men like that do you see as characters in film? I don't know about you, but it seems like there are a much wider variety of male actors than there are female actors, and the reason is that male characters don't generally have to be "the whole package" as it were.

With female characters, you can make them strong. You can make them kick ass, you can make them independent, you can make them powerful, you can make them assertive. But you still need to make them sexy. Or if you don't make them sexy, they have to be self-conscious about their appearance.

This isn't always done deliberately. After all, a lot of artists might go about this with good intentions. They see that there aren't a lot of good female role models, so they create a character that is over-the-top powerful. But then they worry that if they don't make the character attractive, they create this subtext that says that you can either be powerful or attractive, not both. But in obsessing over that, they then create the message that if you are powerful, you also ought to be attractive. That appearance still matters regardless of your other qualities. That you still need to form a romantic relationship to be happy.

Hit-Girl, being an eleven-year-old girl, pretty much can't be made deliberately attractive or unattractive. She can't form a romantic relationship. She's just a normal girl who also happens to be an incredible crime-fighter.

Now, given Mark Millar's track record, I'm inclined to believe this might have been kind of an accident much in the same way that Frank Miller's Carrie Kelley was a strong female character until she grew up and then Frank decided it was OK to sexualize her like he does with all of his other female characters. But whether or not Millar intended it, Hit-Girl is a great example of a strong female character in comics and action films in spite of being young and scrawny.

On the other hand, Hit-Girl is initially problematic in that she is basically being manipulated by a man into pursuing his selfish and dangerous delusions. However, after his death, she basically takes her life into her own hands. In a way, she graduates from being sidekick to being the superhero and Kick-Ass becomes her sidekick. In both the comic and the movie, Hit-Girl saves him, takes the lead, does almost all of the work, and all Kick-Ass does is take on the equally untrained Red Mist and save Hit-Girl's life at the end. All of that is pretty much par for the course for a sidekick.

Hit-Girl is allowed to not be perfect. She has issues and her life is far from healthy. She has impressive strength, but it comes at a cost. And yet she is still driven to do good. While her perception of the world is warped, her intentions are pure. She is defined by her actions and motivation, not by her power set and appearance.

Additionally, her use of language is interesting. She often uses gendered insults (i.e. "cunt", "pussy", etc.), which generally make a lot of people cringe (myself included) when directed towards individuals, but since they come from the mouth of a little girl and are often directed towards men, it comes off as rather brilliant. She effectively strips the gendered insults of their intended misogyny and throws them back without a hint of irony.

An easy criticism is that Hit-Girl is not the sort of character that anyone should aspire to be. I would completely agree. No child should ever want to be like Hit-Girl and no adult should vicariously fantasize about having a childhood like hers.

But one of the biggest problems facing female characters in fiction is that nearly all of them are expected to either be a role model or a clearly reprehensible villain. Either an example of what a woman should be or an example of what a woman shouldn't be. While this is understandable considering the general lack of positive role models for women in fiction, I still find this tendency severely limiting.

Deadpool is not a role model. The Punisher is not a role model. Spawn is not a role model. But they are still fascinating and easy to enjoy or relate to in certain ways.

Male characters aren't typically designed to be role models and that allows them to be complex and interesting and various. If we treat every child character and every female character like they have to live up to some sort of ideal, then we are just imposing those ideals on children and women. We are saying "this is how you ought to be".

I'm not saying role models don't have their place. It's good to have ideals to live up to. But when that's all you have, it stops being an ideal and becomes an unreasonable standard.

Unsolvable Puzzles

When all is said and done, I love contradictions in fictional characters. I've said before that my favorite superhero in comics is Deadpool. I suspect that if he was faithfully brought to film, he would be my favorite superhero in film instead of Hit-Girl, but that has yet to happen.

What I love about Deadpool is that on the surface, he's just a really funny and incredibly talented mercenary. He's fun to read on the most basic level. But underneath that surface is a great deal of complexity and horror.  Behind the mask is a person with deep-seated issues. He is entertaining on all levels, but those levels often seem at odds with one another. He will seem careless and amoral in his actions, reveling in the carnage for its own sake, but beneath that there is a sense of larger purpose and personal failing to live up to it. He actively chooses to be careless and silly as a defense mechanism. I find it utterly fascinating.

And I find that he has a lot in common with Hit-Girl. Hit-Girl is a lot of fun on the surface level. She's hilarious, direct, clever, and wonderfully brutal. But the parts that make her who she is are fairly disturbing. Like Deadpool, her character engages us on two levels that seem to contradict one another. On the one hand we feel bad for her, but on the other hand, we love to see her do what she does best.

I like it when fiction makes me think and characters like these are puzzles that cannot be solved. They force us to ask questions about ourselves while always keeping us guessing about what they might do next.

Their existence seems to be insular. They don't exist purely for our entertainment, though we may find them entertaining. They don't exist purely to make a point, although they certainly do. They exist because they exist. And that's a rare trait for a character in a world ruled by brands and characters created through coldly calculated marketing strategies.


  1. - Out of the Easy -
    In 1950s New Orleans, Josie Moraine struggles with loyalty to a prostitute mother as she schemes to get herself out of the Big Easy and into a reputable college - until a murder in the Quarter drags her back and puts everything she's dreamed about in jeopardy.

    - Dualed -
    A nineteen-year-old fighter confronts the question of identity and self-worth in a world where the only way to live past your twentieth birthday is to kill the clone that shares it.

    - No Safety in Numbers -
    Four teenagers try to cope with being on quarantined lockdown in a busy suburban mall after a biological bomb gets set off in the air ducts, facing down spreading illness, dwindling supplies, and adults who have lost control.

    - The Hunger Games -
    When Katniss Everdeen puts herself on the line to keep her sister safe, she accidentally becomes the symbolic leader of a rebellion that will destroy her life and take many of those she cares about most with it.

    - Ordinary Magic -
    The Ord are the unmagical, those without powers in a world where power is everything. Branded bad luck and quite possibly a danger to society, the Ord are sold, kicked out, killed, or abandoned - it's only the lucky ones like Abby that get sent to schools where the Ord are taught to live with magic while not possessing it themselves. But with kidnappers waiting and monsters attracted to those with no abilities to speak of, Abby may not live long enough to graduate, let alone make a place for herself in the world.

    - White Cat (The Curse Workers trilogy) -
    Cassel comes from a family of curse workers—people who have the power to change your emotions, your memories, your luck, all by the slightest touch of their hands. Since curse work is illegal, they’re all criminals. But not Cassel. He hasn’t got the magic touch, so he’s an outsider — the straight kid in a crooked family — as long as you ignore one small detail: He killed his best friend, Lila. Now he is sleepwalking, propelled into the night by terrifying dreams about a white cat. As Cassel begins to suspect he’s part of one huge con game, he must unravel his past and his memories. To find out the truth, Cassel will have to outcon the conmen - his brothers and the mobsters they work for.

    - Percy Jackson and the Heroes of Olympus -
    A group of teen and pre-teen demigods routinely save the world while struggling with dawning disillusionment over the realization that not only will few of them live to see their twentieth birthday, most will never live a normal life.

    - The Ill-Made Mute -
    In a world where creatures of legend haunt the lands of men, and to be caught outside after dark means almost certain death, the inhabitants of Isse Tower are amazed when a mute, starving foundling is discovered outside their gates. With no recollection of her name or past, the girl soon realizes that her only hope of happiness lies in distant Caermalor, where a wise woman might be able to restore her memories.

    1. I did nothing for this response, literally nothing, but walk over to my shelves and start pulling from the ranks of titles I've recently read or plan to. Even if I did not disagree with ninety-nine percent of what you say about Harry Potter, even if I did not disagree entirely with everything you say regarding The Hunger Games, the idea that YA fiction is some mewling neuter form of books for Grown Ups is insulting and entirely ludicrous and if you read any of them you would know that.

      I didn't think I was actually angry at this post. I brought up my issues with the presentation of Hit-Girl - I love the character herself, but as you know I have creative and feminist bones to pick with her context. But the more I thought about it, the more the phrase naive moral absolutism nagged at me like a jingle from a commercial for a soda I don't like, the angrier I got.

      If you want to speak as an authority on any subject, make yourself at least passingly aware of that subject before you open your mouth or your laptop. There is no excuse for ignorance these days except pure and willful laziness, which whatever. It's fine if you're chatting about things with friends or arguing with strangers on a message board. But if you want to speak in any kind of public forum as any kind of knowledgable individual without getting torn to ribbons by people who actually know the subject than remember that Wikipedia and Google are the careless researcher's friends and peruse the articles they might provide.

      Otherwise you will, at best, be lambasted, and at worst will pass on bullshit to someone who actually cares.

    2. I'm really sorry that even after the changes I made, my post still comes off like I'm attacking YA or criticizing it as a genre.

      As you easily pointed out, YA has a plethora of excellent examples of great work that treats its characters like human beings, regardless of age, race, or gender.

      Even the examples I examined have their own aspects that I love. Even the "Hunger Games" film that I was briefly critical of has had an overwhelmingly positive effect on the genre in film.

      I think my error was that "mainstream YA" is still way broader a term than I realized.

      What I was attempting to examine was the incredibly popular examples within the genre that manage to reach the level of "phenomenon", because those are the stories that reach the mass media (i.e. film and TV) and act as the dowsing rod for the narrow-minded executives who decide what is "marketable". My aim was to try and explain why the actions of Hit-Girl in a wide-release film are remarkable and were met with a great amount of discomfort in the mass media.

      Obviously, my attempt was an abject failure since using the term "YA" most directly relates to the genre within books and is rarely, if ever, applied to film, which is really what I'm trying to get at here.

      I'll edit the post further to remove the term "YA" as it clearly sends the wrong impression.

      However, I do stand by my points regarding "Hunger Games" as a film. As I stated in the post, I have only seen the movie and I know little of the plot beyond that (and wish to keep it that way until the next film comes out). And judging just that film on its own merits and its own contexts, I think my points stand. I very much enjoyed the film and look forward to the sequels, though I do hope the sequels feel they have the freedom to delve into deeper and riskier ethical challenges for Katniss.

      I also believe it is relevant to the discussion as it is the most recent example I can think of of a very popular wide-release film that involves young women using lethal force against other people in a realistic context. I think that the comparisons drawn between the context of Katniss' acts of violence and Hit-Girl's manages to illustrate why Hit-Girl's acts of murder come off as more amoral to many audiences for what I consider to be fairly arbitrary and, in the case of Ebert, hypocritical reasons.

      I feel that the popularity of "Hunger Games" was an overwhelmingly positive thing for the medium, not just because it was good, but because it disproved a lot of the "conventional wisdom" I'm talking about in this post. The idea that you can't make a film about kids killing each other that isn't niche or directed squarely at adults. The idea that you can't have a film starring a young woman whose challenges are not squarely built around her romantic entanglements. The idea that such a film certainly can't be a genre action film. All of this "conventional wisdom" got thrown out the window when "Hunger Games" broke box office records, and hopefully we'll start to see more of the great works from YA that you mention brought faithfully into film and the mass media, but I don't think I'm wrong in saying that what we've gotten so far has either been selected from a very short list of "safe" material or has had a great deal of its edge dulled down...

    3. That's what I meant when I used the term "naive moral absolutism". When these films make their young characters as simple as possible by making their opposition as plainly evil as possible, making the moral and ethical choice also the most expedient choice, rather than a choice that requires serious personal sacrifice. Doing the right thing is often hard, and we rarely see that in the sorts of films I'm talking about where characters are allowed to keep the moral high ground but are rarely forced off of it by the plot or antagonists. It's when our convictions are truly challenged that they matter most, and too many films are just interested in making their audience feel comfortable.

      Anyway, I'm again really sorry that I carelessly made sweeping generalizations that inexplicably involved YA, which I truly do have deep affection for and have nothing but disdain for the kind of people who act like it is a disposable genre, largely BECAUSE of the kinds of errors made by the people who translate the genre to mass media, so I totally get why you're upset, and I hope you'll accept my apology as well as my attempts to set the record straight.

  2. I think Ebert's concern is a more straight-forward one. He doesn't want kids to see other kids with guns. You're right that this is moderately hypocritical in that violence is glorified in film everywhere, but the assumption is (whether or not it is a correct one) that children don't identify as closely with adult protagonists: Clive Owen and Bruce Willis might as well be Superman or God. There is a palpable worry that a child will see another child with a gun and this will lower the perceived accessibility of irresponsible gun-use. The suspension of disbelief for being a mass-murderer with the aid of guns is not as great as for being Superman's son and helping him on adventures.

    There are a lot of questionable assumptions in the above paragraph, to the extent that I don't agree with it at all, but I think Ebert's motive is a little more socially-conscious than the fallacy "this kid makes me realize that violence makes me uncomfortable, and so this must be morally reprehensible because a kid is doing it."

    The satirical and deconstructive approach to Hit-Girl wears off pretty quickly after her introduction; by the time we get to the action sequence you excerpted, she has graduated to full-fledged underdog action hero and I expect that's largely what makes her so refreshing. The complication here is that she is still fetishizing violence, though no more than any other action hero. In mainstream films, glorified violence translates to character empowerment, that's just part of the cultural vocabulary (and that doesn't really bother me). But Mark Millar's original approach actively meant to discourage this attitude toward Hit-Girl by underlining her manipulation because the shock of her being a child wore off too quickly: the audience needed to be reminded that violence is still terrifying and that Hit-Girl was a child. The impact of the reveal didn't really last, because then we got more fun super-violence sequences, but "Kick-Ass" as a comic had a rough time balancing its contradictory goals. "Super" did a better job getting this sort of message across, that violence has horrible consequences and the people who employ it successfully are still very broken, even if it's fun to watch. In film, "Kick-Ass" followed a more traditional heroes' journey formula.

    The fact that Harry uses unforgivable curses without tangible consequence still bugs the hell out of me. Unless there was a scene somewhere I'm forgetting where he told someone he at least felt bad about it. I did not buy Bellatrix's "righteous anger" bullshit that was meant to downplay Harry's amoral cruelty, even if it was contextually appropriate.

    Everybody needs to read Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality right now.

    The bit about adults liking stories with child protagonists vicariously reminded me of an essay by Chuck Klosterman about time-travel as wish-fulfillment. That is, we want to visit the past so that we can relive our childhood with the knowledge we have now. On that note, Disney's "The Kid" was a weird movie.

  3. The new international trailer for Kick-Ass 2 sells her pretty heavily as the main character, which I think is pretty great. Let's hope it's not misrepresentative.

  4. "Hit-Girl, being an eleven-year-old girl, pretty much can't be made deliberately attractive or unattractive."

    It seems a lot of guys found her really attractive, even if it's not PC to admit it because she's so young.

    Remember the whole debate that started after the movie about if she had been sexulized or not in the movie, wearing the schoolgirl outfit etc. That debate started simply because a lot of people found her sexy.

    And she was sure was! Smoking hot!