By the time the movie Kick-Ass opened in theatres this past weekend, the discussion surrounding it had already erupted into a debate over the portrayal of one specific character: Hit-Girl. For those who haven’t seen the film (a satire of the superhero, action genre), Hit-Girl is an 11-year-old assassin, prone to cursing, murdering drug dealers, and wearing her hair in adorable pig tails. She is meant to shock us, and, apparently, she has succeeded — some people love her, others are upset and disturbed by her, and still others feel conflicted. My own reactions to the character — and the film as a whole — fall into that third category.
In many ways, Hit-Girl is an empowering character for young girls. She is the sort of role actress Chloë Grace Moretz had always fantasized about playing, and the idea of superhero and action movies creating space for girls to play aggressive, powerful characters is innovative and refreshing. My overall feeling once I left the theatre, however, is that Hit-Girl was a feminist character trapped in a dreadfully anti-feminist film. The character is wonderful and progressive, but because she is operating in a gender-essentialist environment, she can’t help but be problematized.
Analysis (containing spoilers) below the jump.
As one might expect from a film that features a gun-toting adolescent girl busting up drug dealers, Kick-Ass relies heavily on shock value. Which explains why most of the Hit Girl’s critics are troubled by two things: the violence she perpetuates and her use of the “c-word.” Roger Ebert, perhaps the film’s most vocal critic, is particularly disturbed by Hit-Girl’s violent actions:
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.
I understand his point (I don’t especially care for the degree of violence in movies today, particularly given the amount of actual violence that takes place every day in the real world), but neither the violence itself nor Hit-Girl’s involvement in it particularly bothered me. To me, seeing a young girl hold her own in a fight against adult men is rather empowering. It’s a message I’m far more comfortable with a film sending to young girls over, for instance, the images of troubling romantic relationships projected by the Twilight movies. I am also not particularly offended by Hit-Girl’s use of the “c-word.” It struck me as a moment of reclamation — instead of allowing the men she fights to use it as a slur against her, Hit-Girl stops the anti-feminist verbal abuse before it can even begin by reclaiming the word and using it against her opponents. The word isn’t feminist (and neither is physical violence), but the context and Hit-Girl’s use of it arguably is.
What did bother me about Hit-Girl was her complete lack of self-agency. When we are first introduced to her, we see her father training her how to react to being shot (while wearing a bullet-proof vest). As the film progresses, we learn that Hit-Girl’s father (also a superhero, operating under the alias “Big Daddy”) has trained her since the age of five to become an assassin, with the ultimate goal of avenging her mother’s death. It quickly becomes painfully clear that Hit-Girl didn’t become an assassin because she wanted to be one — she became one because, since she was a small child, her father trained her to be one. Killing is all she knows, so it is not surprising that it’s the life path she wants for herself. It doesn’t make it an inherently bad or wrong choice, but it does make it less feminist. Instead of becoming a superhero because she idolized superheroes since a young age, or resorting to violence as a way to defend herself against misogynist attackers, Hit-Girl becomes a superhero because her father made her become one. So much for choice.
As I watched Kick-Ass, I kept thinking back to the Quentin Tarantino movies that feature strong, violent, aggressive women — Kill Bill, Death Proof, Inglourious Basterds (and, presumably, Jackie Brown, though I’ve yet to see that film and therefore can’t speak to it). What elevates those films above Kick-Ass, for me, is that the violent female characters are acting entirely on their own free will. The character who Hit-Girl reminded me most of was Kill Bill‘s O-Ren Ishii, as both O-Ren and Hit-Girl begin their assassin careers as children. But from a feminist context, I much prefer O-Ren’s assassin origin story over Hit-Girl’s. Though Quentin Tarantino isn’t necessarily known for his groundbreaking gender politics, and though Kill Bill is problematic and flawed, I love how O-Ren’s story demonstrates how a child can become an assassin purely on her own volition. Nobody told her to seek revenge — she chose to do so herself. That act, that choice, is what makes the character feminist. I wish such a choice had been available for Hit-Girl.
The supposedly shocking elements of Kick-Ass — the violence and Hit-Girl’s foul language — did not bother me as much as subtler moments did. I was disturbed by Big Daddy’s control over Hit-Girl. I was disturbed by Hit-Girl referring to another superhero’s taser as “gay” and countless male characters calling each other “pussy” — words clearly not meant to be as shocking or offensive as the “c-word,” but words that are upsetting because we have already become desensitized to their usage as slurs. I was disturbed by the constant “othering” of Hit-Girl in the superhero world — while the male characters, such as Kick-Ass and Red Mist, have gender-neutral names, Hit-Girl’s name is a constant reminder that she is different, an outsider in a man’s world. I was disturbed by the film’s racial politics — the only non-white character who isn’t a drug dealer, thug, or mob boss is a police officer who never has an opportunity to take an active role in the story. It’s the moments that we aren’t supposed to notice, because they are so commonplace in film today, that bothered me most. The “shocking” elements may have been the most feminist and progressive parts of the film, and they are watered down by constant reminders of the anti-feminist status quo.
Despite the fact that Hit-Girl is the most engaging character in Kick-Ass, she is not the central focus of the film. And, by the sound of it, the sequel being developed will not focus primarily on her character, either. I hope that will change. Far more than Kick-Ass 2, I am interested in seeing a movie all about Hit-Girl. I am interested in a movie that lets Hit-Girl be a superhero and defeat the bad guys, and I want to see her do so for her own reasons, on her own volition. That’s a feminist film I would enjoy.