By Teresa Jusino
Imagine a world where a little girl isn’t afraid of anything. Where she isn’t told that she’s too weak, or too small, or too, well, feminine to do anything. Where her father assumes that she will become a part of the “family business”, rather than begrudgingly “allowing” it. A world where watching a fight between two able-bodied young men dressed as superheroes is not nearly as interesting watching the fight in the next room between a young girl and an older man.
This is the world of Kick-Ass.
Kick-Ass tells the story of Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), a high-school kid who is so boring he doesn’t even warrant getting picked on by bullies. As he says in the film, like most kids, he merely “exists.” And, like most comic fans, he wonders why no one in real life has ever attempted to don a costume and fight crime. The difference between him and most high-school age comic fans? He actually does it, and becomes Kick-Ass, real-life superhero and internet sensation. However, when he gets in over his head in an attempt to stand up for the girl he’s crushing on, who rushes to his aid? An eleven year old girl named Mindy who goes by the name of Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), slicing and dicing her way through a group of men three times her size.
I’m a huge fan of Mark Millar and John S. Romita Jr’s Kick-Ass comic, and I was worried when I saw the trailers for the film. It looked too candy-colored, too MTV. It looked too slick to do this dark, gritty comic justice. I had nothing to worry about. The film, like the comic, perfectly balances the humorous with the grim. Yes, there are changes in the story, but nothing that detracts from the original source material. If anything, the changes – like how Red Mist (McLovin! I mean, Christopher Mintz-Plasse) comes to be and his interaction with Kick-Ass, for example – enhance the story in this new medium, which is exactly what screenplay adaptations are supposed to do. Best of all, Hit-Girl was left totally intact. Her story wasn’t softened, and neither was her character, which is wonderful, as it’s her story that makes Kick-Ass not only a great film, but an important one.
Hit-Girl and Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) have one of the most fascinating father-daughter relationships in film. Yes, Big Daddy is training her in violence, and is a bit Ahab in his obsession to kill the crime boss (Mark Strong) who was responsible for his wife’s death, but there is never any doubt that they love each other. What’s more, he isn’t forcing her to do anything she doesn’t want to do. It isn’t your standard story of a child being coerced into living a parent’s dream. Hit-Girl never at any time tells her father that she wishes that she had a life like normal kids. She actually enjoys her training, and even jokes about wanting a Bratz doll for her birthday just to get a rise out of her dad. She’s taken under her father’s wing in a way that Chris/Red Mist never really is by his father. She is a little girl who doesn’t value what little girls are supposed to value.
And I think that’s a huge reason why Kick-Ass bothers its detractors so much.
There is a long history in film and literature (as well as in actual world history) of young boys being raised to do battle alongside their fathers. Lone Wolf and Cub was the first thing to pop into my head. There’s also a history of older men taking young boys under their wing to teach them how to do fight evildoers in the name of Good. I’m thinking here, of course, of Batman and Robin. In Lone Wolf (probably better known here as Shogun Assassin), Daigoro, the son of the titular Lone Wolf, chooses a sword over a ball at only three years old, and so his father makes the decision to train him as a ronin. In the case of Batman and Robin, Robin is only about twelve when his family is killed, and he joins Batman to be trained to fight criminals. In the current Batman & Robin comic being written by Grant Morrison, Batman’s son, Damian, is the new Robin, and he’s ten! It’s never questioned when a young boy is taught to shoot a gun by his father, or taught to prepare for war. Why, then, is it so shocking that Hit-Girl, at eleven, is being trained to fight mobsters to avenge her mother’s death?
The only difference between her and the widely-accepted examples I cited above is her ovaries.
When people see stories about girls and women who do battle, it is expected that it will be seen in the context of a girl taking on male traits, or a girl being forced to live in a way that’s not natural. They never assume that, sometimes, these stories aren’t cases of girls taking on male traits, but simply stories about how some girls are. Believe it or not, there are girls who enjoy fighting, who aren’t afraid of taking a blow to their pretty faces if it means successfully defending themselves or someone they care about, and I think that for a lot of people, this is a hugely frightening thought. It means the whole world is in disarray! It means their entire world-view and the gender roles firmly lodged therein might be wrong! It means that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, because women have become something they’re not. What they fail to see is that this is what many women have been all along. If there’s anything unnatural going on, it’s that girls and women are trained to not acknowledge the strength and forcefulness that comes naturally to them, and if a woman displays such strength, she’s seen as an aberration.
Then, there’s the matter of Hit-Girl being a child. Again, the boys in the examples I cited above are never criticized for being too young and helpless for what they are told/called to do, so there’s still the gender-based double standard to deal with. However, we work so hard to shield all children from all harm, that we forget that we also need to give them the tools they need to deal with harm. How can a child ever learn to win a fight if never allowed to experience one? How can a child learn to figure out solutions to problems if their problems are always solved for them? We forget that children deal with a lot more every day than we choose to acknowledge. Every day at school brings a new opportunity for danger, heartache, bullying. With every trip to the park, every walk home, there are opportunities for danger. Children walk beside us in the world. They are people, too. They see what we see, no matter how much we try to shelter them. So, we have a choice. We can choose to put what they see in context, dealing with harm and pain head on, or we can ignore it, and be Shocked and Outraged when they are exposed to things that are harmful, don’t know how to deal with them, and get in trouble because of it. The latter seems to be the popular choice for adults these days, and frankly, I think that does children a disservice. It’s the reason why the children of abstinence-only education have the highest teen pregnancy rates. It’s the reason why both inner-city kids and sheltered kids in the suburbs bring guns to school. Adults pretend that childhood is this idyllic time where problems aren’t that big and can be dealt with simply by being ignored and holding on until adulthood. They refuse to remember childhood for the brutal, lonely battlefield it often is. In the interests of “protecting them”, adults leave children to fend for themselves, then wonder why the kids aren’t all right.
Am I advocating teaching kids violence? Of course not. But what I am saying is that seeing someone like Hit-Girl on screen isn’t going to make a child violent. What’s more, it can provide them, particularly girls, with a character through whom they can live vicariously, and perhaps *gasp* think better of themselves. Let’s remember that an R rating on a film means that it is Restricted without a parent or guardian. It doesn’t mean children shouldn’t see it. It means that children shouldn’t see it without an adult they know, love, and trust, walking them through it and explaining it to them. It’s so interesting that, rather than take an R rated film as an opportunity, a vehicle through which they can approach the more difficult subjects with their children, parents use an R rating as a Keep Out sign. Because it’s far easier to not go to a movie at all than it is to sit next to a child squeamishly in a film where people might have sex, or might kill each other, and actually, you know, TALK to them about it.
Roger Ebert’s review of this film got a lot of attention this past week, and so after seeing the film myself, I finally got around to reading it. While I’ve always respected his opinion as a critic, I don’t understand his harshness toward this film. He faults Kick-Ass for being “morally reprehensible.” Really? As opposed to Kill Bill, which he gave a four-star review and has about fifty times more killing? What upsets me is that the part he finds “morally reprehensible” is the part where Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl are violent. He says nothing about the gangsters and coke dealers they are trying to STOP. So, it’s OK for mobsters to be mobsters in film, but it’s not OK to ever let children have their Howard Beale moment? I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore! Again, children are people. Yes, they need to be guided, but they also need to be allowed and encouraged to stand up for themselves. Ebert goes on to say that “Big Daddy and Mindy never have a chat about, you know, stuff like how when you kill people, they are really dead.” You know what? That’s a conversation that real daddies should be having with their real children. That’s not the film’s job. It’s a film’s job to tell a good story, which Kick-Ass does, and to convey whatever message the writer and director intend. And the way I see it, the message of Kick-Ass – film and comic both – is that even average people, even kids, without superpowers or lots of money, can stand up for themselves, fight for what’s right, and not stand idly by while others are being bullied around them. That’s it. The ultra-violence and moments that require suspending your disbelief (like a girl of Hit-Girl’s size being able to punch with a certain level of force) are all conventions of the genre. The underlying message, however, remains a good one.
Also, I think Ebert might have missed something else. The fact that once all the violence is over, Hit-Girl learns to let her guard down and trust, to reveal her name, and learns that there’s MORE to life than revenge. I think it’s important that she doesn’t learn that the way she is is wrong, but rather, learns that she can use her skills and interests differently. She finally has a chance at a normal life, while still remaining entirely herself – and she will NEVER be bullied by ANYONE. While I would never want a child of mine to be sanitized to violence and think taking a human life is OK, I certainly wouldn’t mind my child emulating Hit-Girl’s confidence, or her fearlessness in the face of a threatening adult, her knowledge that if an adult is doing something wrong, it’s OK for a child to call them on it, or do something about it. Children are always taught to respect their elders, but I think it’s high time that more adults learn to respect their children. This doesn’t mean letting them run around doing whatever they want. This means respecting them enough to know that they can handle more than we think. Children aren’t drones, they’re people, and they’re more resilient than we give them credit for, and they’re more observant than we’d probably like to admit.
So let’s think about this scenario: Let’s say a mother or father takes their daughter to see Kick-Ass, despite its R rating. If that little girl is anything like I was when I left Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when I was little, she’ll be bouncing around wanting to nunchuck everything in sight! What if instead of telling her to stop it right away, they let her bounce around the house doing that for a while, letting her be puffed up and powerful in her fantasy life for a minute? My parents did. And what if after that, they sit her down and talk to her about the differences between violence in a movie and violence in real life. And what if they emphasize the other things that are cool about Hit-Girl – like the fact that she knows a lot about surveillance and how her weapons work (which could lead to a conversation about engineering or computer programming), or the fact that she isn’t afraid to face adults who are doing something wrong (which can lead to a discussion about reporting abuse) – and talk to their daughter about how she can be better at those things? And if, after all that, the girl is still showing signs of wanting to nunchuck everything in sight, what if her parents enroll her in a martial arts class, where she can actually become good at what she’s pretending at? This girl will grow up knowing that her parents take her seriously, and that her thoughts are important. She will be given tools to make decisions for herself, to protect herself. She’ll be that much more prepared for the world, and less tolerant of anyone who would take advantage of her. All of our daughters should be so lucky.
And I’d love to live in a world in which they are.
Teresa Jusino was born on the same day that Skylab fell. Coincidence? She doesn’t think so. She is a contributor to Tor.com, a website that covers sci-fi, fantasy, “…and related subjects.” Her work has also been seen on PopMatters.com, on the sadly-defunct literary site CentralBooking.com, edited by Kevin Smokler, and in the Elmont Life community newspaper. She is currently writing a web series for Pareidolia Films called The Pack, which is set to debut Fall 2010! Get Twitterpated with Teresa, Follow The Pack or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.
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