People are angry about Pacific Rim. Maybe “angry” is too strong of a word, but there’s definitely a fair amount of disappointment going around. At the risk of sounding block-headed and completely naïve, I was shocked (yes, jaw-droppingly so) when I read the Internet rants, disapproving of the way women were portrayed in the film. Usually my feminist radar is fine-tuned and rearing to go off at the slightest hint of dehumanizing or anti-feminist tropes. Even my favorite films will usually trigger my radar enough for a laundry list of gripes. So why didn’t my radar alert me when I saw Pacific Rim?
The film takes place in the not-too-distant future, where the world has banded together to fight giant monsters (kaiju) with giant robots (jaegers). Each jaeger must be piloted by a team of two, and in order to successfully control the man-made wonder, the pilots essentially meld their minds to act as a single unit, letting the other pilot peek into all their thoughts and memories. It’s pretty intense, to say the least. Our two main characters are Raleigh Becket, famed kaiju killer, and Mako Mori, novice but enthusiastic pilot, whose adoptive father has only just recently and reluctantly encouraged her to take the jaeger helm with Raleigh.
In this high-concept, action-packed film, the biggest complaint from my fellow feminists is that there’s a lack of female characters and lines. One of the main characters is a woman (Mako) and there’s a nameless Russian woman who pilots another jaeger, but that’s not to say that these complaints aren’t well-founded. It’s easy to see that the film definitely fails the Bechdel Test. “Only three lines are spoken by a woman in the entire first half-hour of Pacific Rim,” says an article from Vulture. An article from Kulture Keeper adds, “The only two actresses… barely register as characters. They’re more like plot-objects in the shape of female bodies.” Ouch. The women in this film are products of a writer and director who brought us full-fledged and interesting female heroes in films such as Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, so there must be more going on here.
While Raleigh certainly has more lines, he’s not necessarily a more interesting, likable, or full-fledged character than Mako. It’s true that Mako doesn’t talk much—she has a quiet and thoughtful disposition. However, she gets a large chunk of screen time. The film shows her quiet strength, her sharp-eyed observations, and her kick-ass fighting skills. Many shots show Mako’s reactions and point-of-view. What’s more, she’s not quiet out of shyness. On the contrary, Mako speaks her mind very directly when she chooses. When Raleigh asks Mako if she thinks he’s the right man for the job she says, “No,” and adds that he’s too unpredictable and flippantly puts people in danger. Mako doesn’t hesitate to tell him exactly what’s on her mind: she freely and assertively gives her opinion. It seems her quietness does not equal weakness. Just to drive the point home, she also bests Raleigh in a one-on-one fighting match without donning high heels or leather—just baggy, high-waisted cargo pants and a tank top.
The viewers aren’t the only ones to read Mako’s choices as powerless. Growing up, Mako yearns to become a jaeger pilot, but she heeds her father’s warnings that she isn’t suited for the job. When Raleigh asks her why she’s so blindly obedient, Mako corrects him: “It’s not obedience, Mr. Becket. It’s respect.” Misunderstood by an outsider observing her situation, Mako emphasizes one of the major concepts from the culture in which she was raised as a young girl: respect, especially for one’s elders. The film makes a point to show that her actions are deliberate and calculated, not oppressed.
When Mako finally becomes a pilot, my heart leapt as I realized what it meant for her to pilot a jaeger with Raleigh. Mako and Raleigh form a neural bridge with which they become one with the jaeger. This means seeing, feeling, and experiencing each other’s thoughts and memories. It may seem negligible, but I was struck by the idea that a man and a woman could share a brain and a body so seamlessly and harmoniously, and the film did not make a big deal of this point. Think about the implication. They would know every detail of each other’s sexual encounters. Mako would know what it’s like to be a testosterone-crazed male teenager. Raleigh would know what it’s like to have his first period. Both of the pilots would have to be self-assured enough to lay themselves open, without dwelling on any embarrassments or fears, lest they get lost in the neural drift. This would be the epitome of both self-confidence and empathetic understanding.
The whole concept of a man and a woman sharing a body and brain is rather progressive, especially since current cultural cues reinforce the differences between genders. Many sitcom episodes and romantic comedies showcase men not “getting” women or women not “getting” men. And you know what Pacific Rim says? “Fuck that.” We’re not so different. In fact, we’re so alike—men and women—that we could actually traipse through each other’s thoughts and emotions and it wouldn’t really be new territory, or anything to comment on. That’s not to say men and women don’t have their differences, but they simply can’t label one another as an Other that we’ll never fully understand.
What’s more, there’s something that this movie lacks, which I celebrate. Let’s call it a romantic side-plot. Almost all films focus on a romantic relationship with some kind of intimate scene. While Pacific Rim features two main characters that arguably may or may not have sexual chemistry between them, it’s not overt, and it’s certainly not part of the plot. Most films love ending with a ride into the sunset, the cusp of a new relationship, a kiss before the closing credits. Shying away from this cliché, Pacific Rim features no physical romantic interaction between Mako and Raleigh. This may not seem like a big deal. Granted, if there’s a sweet kiss in a mutually respectful relationship, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that. However, focusing on a romantic relationship in a film often flattens either the male or the female as the object of pursuit. Putting distance between Mako and Raleigh (not to mention Mako’s modest attire throughout the film) means that Mako never becomes that object of sexual desire.
Weaving throughout Pacific Rim is the simple, yet compelling, message that people are just not all that different, and we share a potential for understanding and togetherness. Just as men and women can share a mind without balking at gender-specific thoughts or images, so can different cultures and races from around the world work together without throwing around blame or culturally-insensitive slurs. Easy-to-spot examples of this global harmony are the labels used by everyone in the film: “kaiju” (a Japanese word meaning creature) and “jaeger” (a German word for hunter). The film even goes so far as to say that, given the opportunity, we could even understand the thoughts and feelings of kaijus—that as living beings, there is something binding us all together, no matter what world or dimension we’re from. That kind of deep understanding and empathy is what we’re all working toward when human beings are at their best. I’m crossing my fingers for more films to portray such a positive message, but they’re few and far between.