Scott Pilgrim vs. Good Taste and Political Correctness

I may have to turn in my nerd membership, because I thought Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was absolutely God-awful. Not just because the plotline was pathetically thin, or because the fight scenes were dull or the characters two-dimensional — the problem with Scott Pilgrim wasn’t even the fact that Michael Cera still hasn’t learned a second acting technique apart from affably confused. No, I realized I was in a really bad movie after two troubling scenes at the very start.

The first is when Ramona Flowers (Mary-Elizabeth Winstead) roller-skates through Scott’s subconscious before he meets her, making her literally the girl of his dreams and, essentially, his creation. And then, a little later, the scene in which Scott prepares to battle Ramona’s first “evil ex” named Matthew Patel, picture above, who breaks into a Bollywood number before fighting Scott because he is, after all, East Indian and has magical powers. Not kidding.

Even that might not have been so bad if the film had in any way given a fair shake to any skin color other than white. But, as Sean Stangland at Daily Herald Blogs argues:

I realize that every “good” character, for lack of a better word, is white. The other prominent Asian characters in the film are Scott’s clingy, borderline crazy Chinese girlfriend, Knives Chao (Ellen Wong), and two of Matthew’s fellow evil exes, Kyle and Ken Katanagi (Keita Saitou and Shota Saito). Latinos are represented by Clifton Collins Jr. as a vegan cop, and blacks are represented by … uhh … hmm … no one. So perhaps the criticism that the film was made for and by white hipster douchebags carries a little more weight than I thought.

The fact that Knives is Chinese is brought up many times in the movie, and the suggestion is that Scott is only dating Knives because she’s one of those sweet, easy-to-please Chinese schoolgirls. Apart from being obsessed with Scott, Knives doesn’t really do, say, or think much.

Stangland then quotes MaryAnn Johanson’s (a female film writer) take on the film:

“All the style is nothing but a would-be ‘sweet’ metaphor for men treating women as property… and woman acquiescing to being treated that way.”

First, we’re treated to several instances of the male gaze in which Scott spots Ramona up against a wall at a party, and then later stumbles into her bedroom while she’s changing. Ramona, naturally, far from being upset, kisses Scott and removes her skirt. There is also a scene near the end where Scott has to rescue Ramona from her final evil ex and she is kneeling in front of him and wearing a collar. I so wish I were joking. Even Woody Allen doesn’t go that far in his misogyny.

Now obviously these chivalric hero quests have been around since the dawn of time, but isn’t it about time that we start updating them? And I don’t mean the way this year’s Robin Hood did, by having Cate Blanchette storm into battle on a horse, only to still need rescuing when she accidentally falls off into the ocean (Lady drivers, amirite?). Or, at the very least, don’t leave it all up to Angelina.

What was frustrating about Scott Pilgrim, though, was not the fact that these age-old tropes were present, but that they were presented so gleefully, and as comedy. One of Ramona’s exes is a woman, and Scott refuses to fight her, so Scott has to use Ramona’s hands to fight so the KO still counts. Because hitting girls is wrong? Because a woman couldn’t possibly handle the full brunt of Michael Cera’s power? What exactly was the message of that scene supposed to be? Or any of the scenes mentioned?

Scott Pilgrim was bad no matter how you looked at it, but especially if you look at it from the perspective of anyone who’s not white, male or 23. And people wondered why it flopped.

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28 thoughts on “Scott Pilgrim vs. Good Taste and Political Correctness

  1. I thought the movie really flattened the graphic novels into nothing more than a giant “look at this clever reference.” It’s like Family Guy’s lame attempts to be funny when they do the “Remember when pop culture reference A ran into improbable set-up C and generic result #4 happened?” That’s what Scott Pilgrim felt like. Plus, Cera annoys the crap out of me. He’s a terrible one-note actor and I’m tired of him.

    More importantly, though, even in the graphic novels, Ramona is kind of a passive vessel for all her exes and, of course, Scott. I like where MaryAnn Johanson refers to Ramona as a blank cipher, which does put her in the same category as Bella from Twilight. They are characters who are supposed to make us feel that they are empowered women when really their entire existence is directly related to the men (and woman in Ramona’s case) in their lives.

    I am of the Nintendo generation, but I don’t like the assumption being made that including 1 UPs and comic book paneling is going to distract me from the fact that this entire plot is disturbing and overdone. Plus I hate Michael Cera. It annoyed me in the way JUNO did. Juno’s dialogue was so improbable and somehow Juno was supposed to be an empowering character? I still don’t get that one.

    • And. . .I just watched Kick-Ass and it was entirely a white movie with the exception of one African American cop. And. . .I think all Michael Cera movies are blindingly white. Maybe that’s why he pisses me off so much, he’s become the emblem of white culture–bland, breathy, wishy washy, and utterly blind to all that is not him.

  2. I enjoyed the movie, especially the fact that he won’t punch a girl. Yes, she is trying to kill him, but he’s the ‘good guy’ in the movie and for his character to punch her would have made him the ‘bad guy’. Ramona did have “white” boyfriends, too.

    I think it was more of a romantic comedy for guys. Girls are exposed to much worse in a so-called chick flick.

  3. I did not watch the movie and probably will not unless my boyfriend (who thinks it looks pretty cool) really wants to. I’ve made him sit through horror movies way to much to not return a favor.

    It is funny how people are complaining about Cera not punching the chick. I bet if he would have women would have been in uproar about how it promotes violence against women…

  4. I constantly explain to my male friends that I could easily kick their asses if I wanted to because I’m a girl, and they’re not allowed to hit back…does that make me a crummy feminist?

    And I totally agree with eurogirl…if he hit the woman, people would be ranting about how the movie promoted violence against women. It was a lose-lose scene in my opinion..

  5. He still punches her, just using Ramona’s hands. It’s the game “Why are you hitting yourself?” It’s infantile and it highlights Ramona’s non-role in the entire movie.

  6. wow. i thought the movie was entertaining. which is what movie are supposed to be, would putting in a token black person have made it better? probably not.

    i think it’s pathetic that people watch movies just to point out that there’s “not a single (insert ethnicity) in this movie!” there was a lesbian who kicked ass (and also seemed to have magical powers, but when lesbians have magical powers it’s not racist, i guess, so it’s ok).

    i really like to read this site but sometimes it seems the articles are just some random person’s stolen insights from another random person who also updates a blog. especially this one… because abusing women is wrong in some articles on this site, but this one seems to promote it? having known quite a few abused women, i’m going to go ahead and say it’s great that “scott pilgrim” refuses to hit a lady. now if he just got a job, he’s be all set.

    • To be clear, even if the movie hadn’t been misogynistic and racist, I still thought it was bad. Just story-wise.

    • I agree with you about the “token” black person. It’s ridiculous; how diverse of an ethnic dating background does one girl have to have?? I’ve never dated a black guy; this doesn’t make me racist or mean that I find black people unattractive. It’s more that there are probably about 10 black people in Montana. It’s not a huge population.

      Besides, the fact that Ramona dated white people, Asian people, and a chick isn’t good enough?

      • I’m not talking about Ramona’s personal lack of racial diversity — clearly she has plenty of diversity in her dating life. I meant the film’s lack. Toronto, where the film is set, has a huge African-Canadian community, and none of it was represented.

  7. After watching (and really enjoying) the movie, I Googled “Scott Pilgrim” and “racist” to see if people thought the depictions of Matthew Patel, Knives, and other characters was, in fact, racist. Answer? Some people did, and of course some also thought the film was misogynistic. The post above conveniently ignores that not only does Knives get to kick ass by the end, she also becomes tremendously less clingy, even sending Scott off with Ramona at the end. She grows up, and to some extent so does Scott, and so does Ramona.

    Yes, having the Indian-American character perform a Bollywood number isn’t PC, but one write-up pointed out that neither Brits (director Edgar Wright) nor Canadians (it’s based on a Canadian comic and set in Canada, and several Canadian bands have cameos) are as PC-obsessed as we are. People also complained because Scott defeats the female ex by finding her behind-the-knee erogenous zone (death by orgasm?), and while that’s very silly, I’m not sure how offensive it is. I also agree that the “to hit or not to hit a girl” question is a no-win. (One of Ramona’s exes, Todd, hits Knives, and that proves he’s a bad guy.)

    Regarding the notion that Scott might be dating Knives because she’s a Chinese girl who goes to a Catholic school… I think that’s both mocking men’s ridiculous fetish for Asian women and Catholic schoolgirls and also acknowledging that actual, immature 22-year-olds have those fetishes. “Scott Pilgrim” walks the fine line between saying things that are uncomfortable but true and being offensive. Much comedy over the years has. I think it’s usually a question of individual taste as much as, if not more than, some objective measure of what’s offensive and what isn’t. Re: Ramona kneeling in a collar, she ends up kicking ass later, too. Her being submissive clearly isn’t part of her normal personality, which is why it’s so weird that she’s under Gideon’s thumb for a while there. We’re supposed to realize, based on everything we know about her, that something fishy is going on. And it’s not like being zapped with a mind-controlling collar is some moral failing on her part.

    Finally, when I look at Zelda Lily, sometimes I see ads that say: “Want a girlfriend?” The woman pictured is thin and conventionally attractive, and she’s obviously being displayed as a lure to get whatever straight men might be reading to join the dating site in question. That’s sexist, too, kids. Not saying you can’t write anti-sexist movie reviews, just saying your ads are sexist sometimes, and you might want to consider what message that editorial-advertising combo sends. On a purportedly feminist site.

    • Neal, I agree with most of what you said. To clarify a bit about the ads – most sites use an ad service. The ads are based off of the cookies in your browser, if I understand how it works correctly (Sasha or Sara?). As an example, my ads are usually for Saks, shoes or handbags.

    • As someone who lives in Canada, and has done so for most of her life, let me assure you that Canadians are just as conscious about being PC — if not more so — than Americans. In fact, Canadians often try to argue that they are far less racist and far more racially sensitive than Americans.

    • This is a movie based on a comic book where the characters are somewhat pre-established. I do not believe that the director or author were trying to blatantly create a racist misogynistic massively politically incorrect movie that would offend all of the United States and beyond. It’s a quirky plot that tries to do no more than entertain even if its trying waaaay too hard. Even though I love Zelda Lilly and a lot of the articles bring excellent modern feminist issues to the forefront, I think there is a tendency to create issues out of essentially nothing. The plot of this movie is pure fluff and not intended to be taken seriously in the least bit and its not going to win an oscar for best movie of the year. How about you discuss movies that try to appear diverse and politically correct yet still manage to demean and stereotype the minorities they were supposedly trying to empower – The Blind Side for instance…

  8. 1. He’s East Indian and has magical powers? They ALL have magical powers… And non-whites are still pretty badass in the film.

    2. The only person I saw as really evil in the movie was Gideon, the one who created the “evil exes” league. He’s the one who manipulates them and turns them evil – and he’s white.

    3. The whole “Knives Chau is a backup girlfriend” thing I think is much more of a dig at her age than her race. If she perpetuates any stereotypes it’s the stereotype of high school girls without any experience with relationships who turn obsessive and do crazy things.

    4. The point of the Ramona kneeling at Gideon’s feet scene is that he’s controlling her via a chip in the back of her head. She’s not doing it by choice. I think she’s a pretty strong female character overall.

  9. Blurry, if you’re right, why do I currently have a “Soccer Talk Live” ad up? :-)

    Just to further clarify MY remarks, I don’t think “Scott Pilgrim” is free of sexism, just as I don’t think “Lost in Translation” is free of racism. I honestly can’t think of many cultural products that are free of -isms. Why? Because the -isms saturate the culture and affect everything it makes. As the writer of the post acknowledged, she didn’t really like the movie in any case, and while she may or may not be able to separate her cinematic taste from her political sensibility, it does make a big difference. Because I liked “Scott Pilgrim,” I’m willing to take the bad (the -isms) with the good (for me, the movie’s sense of playfulness, sweetness, nostalgia for classic video games, and wit). The blogger also fails to mention Wallace Wells, one of the better gay characters I’ve recently seen in movies. Sure, his part isn’t huge, but he comes off as 1) non-stereotypical, 2) a pretty developed character in a movie that isn’t exactly full of them, and 3) a pretty believable gay twentysomething. The casualness of his threesome is both funny and kind of awesome, when you think about the history of gay cinema and mainstream cinema, and their sometimes uncomfortable overlap. “Scott Pilgrim” would be an easy target if all it presented was -ism after -ism with nothing redeeming to counterbalance the bad stuff. But that’s not what the movie is, in my opinion.

    P.S. Watching Scott’s ex, Envy Adams (Brie Larson), sing and dance seductively in the full-length video of her performance with The Clash at Demonhead is interesting, because she’s doing what the singer of Metric, the real-life band that wrote the song she’s singing, does onstage. Larson is sexing up the singing a bit more, but the stage stuff is pure Emily Haines. This kind of tension — a lead female vocalist (yay!), but one who performs provocatively (boo?) — also seems connected to the movie’s mixed attitude towards women. It’s interesting, too, that Ramona changes her hair color frequently, which is both sexy and a reason for Scott to suspect that she’s fickle.

  10. Oh, and another thing: The movie-star ex is there to mock conventional masculine bullshit, and the vegan ex is there to mock veganism. For better or worse, what a lot of un-PC comedies do to justify their un-PCness is to be “equal opportunity offenders.” Thing is, macho guys and vegans aren’t historically oppressed minorities, so it doesn’t sting as much when they’re made fun of.

      • Except that in most cases, you don’t go to see a movie you know you’re not going to like. I had high hopes for Scott Pilgrim, and not only did the film not deliver, but I found it offensive. This concept of “If you don’t like it, don’t look at it” is extremely dangerous when you think about it.

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  12. If you actually watch the movie, Scott doesn’t fight the female evil ex with Ramona’s hands, but in fact it is the other way around. Scott doesn’t want to hit a girl, so Ramona fights her using Scott’s hands and feet.

  13. Huh. I’m white, male, and twenty-three, and that sounds just awful. I write (though I am not yet published), and I cannot image sitting down to write those scenes. Except for the Bollywood dance number, because that honestly sounds a little hilarious.

  14. Although I do agree with all of the things in this post. I tend to find discussions about feminist movie critiques(and most other types as well) end up being circular or no 3-4 opinions agreeing and after reading most of these post it still holds true.
    .-On critiques in general.-
    Critiques should be to keep us all aware of whats hidden out there, because sometimes we can become blind(or become numb) if we do not keep a firm watch. Critiques take scenes in movie and pull them apart so we can see whats underneath within the term of a particular topic(religion, politics, racism and sexism). This allows people how have gone to the strait and narrow of their beliefs to better follow them. And the people who like the occasional “guilty pleasure” to identify them as such.
    I cannot say however if this movies was good or bad as I have not scene it.
    -I however would like to comment on a particular topic within this post.-
    I happen to be an African American and tend to weigh in on the “token black guy” topic.
    I have done quite a bit of studying on writing methods(and a lot of this holds true for art as well). When a person writes,anything, they tend to use the personality types they see, meet or hang around as characters in their writing. I don’t expect an African tribe to write a play about White Americans if they don’t know any. Movies written by African Americans often do not contain many Caucasians either.
    That being said, I’m all for a new production of anything art, comic, writing or music at the start saying lets include the minority. But, if Bryan Lee O’Malley didn’t write any black people into his comic because he only knew one or two very well. That is fine.
    I happen to know a comic artist and I was the first black friend he has and the only black person he knows well. When he draws, I or members of my family are the only African Americans that ever appear. I am in essence, his writing and arts’, token black guy. And you know what…that is fine.

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  16. Totally agree with the review. I walked out of cinema within the first 30 minutes, as I found the racist protrayals highly offensive. And as I understand life a little more now, I found the storyline appalling too. Movies like this can kill people’s intellect and moral values, though I am glad to see that I am not the only person on the net expressing disatifaction with cultural rubbish like this. Glad it tanked at box office too.

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