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Female Characters
in Michael Bay's Transformers

By Inflatable Dalek


 
"I'm not one of these sexist comedians... I've actually got a friend who's a woman.
And I firmly believe women should be treated AS IF they were as good as men."

—Richard Herring, mocking the ways people try to present their views as reasonable
 

To say Michael Bay and his film-making style is controversial amongst both fans and Serious Film Analysts (though much less so with more general stuff-blowing-up movie fans who don't go to see a Bay film to think) would be something of an understatement. There are many aspects of the three films that tend to rub people up the wrong way that one of these features could look at. The shaky cam, the alleged racism of the twins, the misinformation campaigns many fans were initially smug about until they wound up being fooled... and no doubt many more. But what we're going to look at today is the perceived sexism of the three films.

But first, some ground rules. I'm not going to compare the treatment of female characters to previous versions of Transformers because, frankly, with few exceptions, that's an easy victory for Bay. For films made in the 21st century to be less sexist than The Girl Who Loved Powerglide, a piece of television that makes a Jim Davidson stand-up show look like Germaine Greer, isn't something to be proud of, it should be the absolute minimum requirement.

Secondly, I'm not going to appoint blame or wave fingers at anyone for faults I do find. Film is a collaborative medium and a great many people worked on these pictures in major capacities. A poor choice by one person — even low down the chain — that slips through can completely change the feel of a scene or character.

The early Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Code of Honor is a fine example of this. It's not an especially good script, but the writer, main cast and producers hadn't intended on the unfortunate implications made by the director casting the entire backwards alien species with black actors. Gene Roddenberry apparently sacked the director, but too late in the day for an hour of television he was in theory in final control of coming across as incredibly racist. So, without access to detailed behind the scenes knowledge of who made what decision, I'm not going to specifically berate the director, writers, actors or tea boy. As a collective they share both blame and credit together.

One sad thing to note is the generally poor treatment of female characters in action cinema in general, even in the more family orientated end of that market that Transformers at least in advertising terms belongs to. At the time of writing A Good Day To Die Hard has just been released, and includes a scene where a 57 year old Bruce Willis has a good old leer at a woman a third his age stripping out of a skin-tight catsuit. In a franchise in which the first instalment ensured it has the broadest demographic of just about any big silly action series ever (seriously, Die Hard is the perfect example of how to make an action film people who don't like action films can enjoy, there's something for pretty much everyone.)

Of course, there are recent exceptions, films that do a lot better. Dredd — or if we're going to give it its full annoying title, Dredd 3D — has two of its three main characters women, neither of whom is a love interest for the lead, both dressing sensibly for their job and neither needing to be rescued at any point (indeed, the film plays with the conventions of female characters in such films by having Anderson free herself after she's captured, before going on to rescue Dredd.)

So where do the Bay films fall between these extremes? Surprisingly, they don't fare too badly. Each of the films has three prominent female characters, at least one of whom is over that little-seen age (in this genre) of 40 and not intended to be a lust object for the audience. Dark of the Moon, which otherwise comes off worst of the three, goes further with two of the three being middle-aged.

As a point of comparison, The Avengers — directed by a man widely feted for his strong female characters — only has two main female characters. Both young, both in catsuits (which in the case of Agent Hill makes no sense as — just in the film and regardless of what she is in the comics — she seems to be doing a similar job to the suit-wearing male Coulson, that being Nick Fury's assistant.)

Indeed, even though the cameo-making (and inherited from Iron Man) Gwyneth Paltrow is coming close, the only speaking role for a woman over forty in the entire film is Jenny Agutter's incredibly small Evil Government Official bit part and, much like Helen Mirren, Agutter tends to be regarded as a pensioner it's socially acceptable to lust after.

The most interesting thing to note about the first two Bay films is how proactive a character Mikaela is compared to Sam, the supposed lead. He's twice sucked into a situation he really doesn't want to be in, and basically spends both of those films desperately trying to get out of it.

Mikaela, on the other hand, could in theory get the hell out of Dodge any time she felt like it. There's no threat that would follow her if she ran, but she constantly works to help protect Sam and do what she can for their Autobot friends, even at the point they've barely met. The second film even has her going across country into danger. There are actually no equivalent moments of Sam choosing to be the hero when he doesn't have to — there are moments where he does something brave when the alternative is death, but no direct "stepping up to the plate" moment as there is for Mikaela.

She's also impressive as a female action film character in that there's no point at which she's captured by the villains to become the damsel in distress that the hero will rescue as part of his reward. There are times where she and Sam are captured together and have to be rescued by the Autobots, but she herself is never put into that position alone.

Countering that, there is the way the camera enjoys the view of her far more than it should. This works effectively during the leaning over the hood scene in the first film as we're seeing it through the POV of a hormonal 16 year old boy, but the hot-pants-on-the-bike scene in the second film is more than pushing it.

Though it is also worth noting that there's plenty of male objectification in the films. Anyone who likes men in uniform getting all sweaty will find far more to deposit in their wank bank than Megan Fox fans (as a random piece of anecdotal evidence, there's a woman I work with who regards the films as the Josh Duhamel in Fatigues trilogy and finds all those robots getting in the way of the view very annoying.) And that's before noting there are as many fans, particularly teenage girls, who lust for LaBeouf and his 21st century Michael J Fox ways as there are fans of the various female characters.

Many of the other female characters don't do too badly either, Sam's mother being a constant throughout the trilogy and treated at the same level as her husband — there to provide both deeply silly comic relief and a solid centre for the family relationship.

In the first film, Maggie is a strong character suffering from being stuck in an irrelevant sub-plot (but then, John Voight is stuck in there with her so that's hardly a sexism issue) and for the second Alice, whilst certainly the weakest secondary female character in the trilogy, is still a pretty decent villainess and you can readily assume a lot of her Sexy Spring Break routine is at an intentional piss take once it turns out she's a monster.

Charlotte Mearing in Dark of the Moon is easily the best of the second-tier female characters. Firstly, because she starts off as a straightforward replacement for Galloway from the second film, meaning it's a role in which gender isn't actually that important to the part. Secondly, though Sam makes some rather pathetic sex based quips to her face (in keeping with his character of doing things like making insulting comments to the policeman who interviews him in the first film: basically, Sam is a dick), she's ultimately vindicated in her fears about Sentinel and letting human civilians hang about with the Autobots.

Then, unlike Galloway, she adapts to the new situation as the film goes on and winds up taking overall command of NEST's operations and therefore being vital to the good guy victory (a civilian Presidential aide shouldn't realistically be doing what she does, of course, but that's reality bending that also extends to Simmons and Dutch helping out with tech support — the climax of the film basically assumes NEST is 70's era UNIT with only three people working for it, so outsiders have to help out.).

The icing on the cake is that rather than her potentially clichéd love interest with Simmons being played straight, it's instead turned quite effectively into a send up of stock action film relationships (the dramatic kiss as the film ends) with her very much getting the upper hand. Mearing is arguably the most positive female character in the whole trilogy, unless you really object to her providing a lot of comic relief in a series that's hardly ultra serious to start with.

But mention of Dark of the Moon brings me to what I would regard as the real weakest and most sexist link out of all three films: Carly. I think there's one big problem with Carly: the script feels like it was written with Mikaela in the lead female role, with barely any rewrites happening.

The biggest clues are that her job with Gould involves a lot of classic cars and that Megatron remotely cares what this stranger thinks (if that scene was between him and someone who was directly responsible for his life being so screwed up, him paying attention would make more sense), but generally throughout the film there is very little done to define her as her own character.

The script basically assumes the role is filled by someone the audience is already familiar with and that work doesn't need to be done to establish her. That leaves her a virtually blank slate in a way Mikaela never was. The one real insertion to give her a personality and a through-line is the back story with her brother... which then effectively gets no resolution (or at least it's hard to see how the events of the film could make her overcome her fear of committing to someone who could be killed in combat.)

A major theme of the film being the evolution of Sam from a reactive to a proactive character has a significant impact on Carly. The entire two hours is basically about him choosing to get involved directly even though he doesn't have to. With him being so much more proactive it would be hard for his girlfriend to be as strong a character as Mikaela was in the first two, since the person in that role no longer has to be carrying the burden of effort for both of them.

I do however genuinely think the same script would have been stronger with Mikaela in it; a character already defined as strong isn't weakened by others becoming as strong. She'd probably even have survived with dignity the sequence that most undermines Carly: being held hostage and used as the "reward" for the hero completing his quest.

Again, a character already established as capable in her own right can get away with being a hostage as an exception; every character, regardless of sex, can be the victim at some point, as long as that's not all they are. Carly never had the chance to be anything else, and — allowing that the lack of Rosey Huntington-Whiteley in any TF4 information doesn't totally rule out an appearance of some sort — probably never will. The character's not getting to be anything other than a body makes the lingering shots of her far more uncomfortable that those on Mikaela in the first two films (Nick Roche's description of the shot that introduces Carly as "gynaecological" in a recent Moonbase 2 podcast seems entirely fair.)

Though yes, cards on the table, if it weren't already obvious — and I'll let you, gentle reader, decide if and how this affects my bias — I do find Megan Fox to be the better and more personable (in that she can display personality) of the two actresses. She'll never win an Oscar, anymore than LaBeouf will, but she can emote and I for one am looking forward to seeing her April O'Neil. That's not a euphemism.

To sum up: is there room for improvement in the treatment of women in the Transformers films as a whole? Yes.

Are they still generally more fair and even-handed in their treatment of female characters than many contemporary action films? Yes.

Are a lot of flaws in the female characters *cough*Carly*cough* simply down to bad writing that also affects the male characters (there's no female character in the entire trilogy more pointless and badly written than Leo in Revenge of the Fallen)? Yes.

Effectively these are films which are by no means perfect in their equality, but equally are by no means close to being as bad as many like to claim.

And as a final thought... for all the lingering close ups on Mikaela and Carly's buttocks, there's one person who displays more arse flesh than any other and who we actually get to see in a thong: Simmons. If nothing else, the films are happy to provide lustful shots for every possible taste.

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