‘The Lego Movie’ was all about a utopian alternative to the scrappy march of advanced capitalism we currently find ourselves caught up in. It pitched a world of uninhibited creativity against one of moribund business. The allegory is not new, but in this instance the message was simply and delightfully expressed: imagination trumps stagnation, vibrant communities can win out over their rigid, officious alternatives.
And yet viewers of the film – which really is a joy to watch in so many ways – might have been troubled by something, particularly as it’s something that stands in tension with “The Lego Movie”‘s “always innovate” ethic. This was another apocalyptic story, full of all the standard world-ending tropes, including that very familiar duo of Evil Male Overlord meets Inspiring-yet-Ordinary Male Hero. For all its innovation, ‘The Lego Movie’ did nothing to upset this most entrenched of story-telling binaries: there are men with the power to destroy the world and men with the power to save it.
This is not to say that ‘The Lego Movie’ was without some excellent female characters. They were there. Wyldstyle was as fleshed out as you can hope for from animated plastic. (Though do still note that a main strand of her storyline revolved around her relationship with Batman, the world’s premier asshat.) Still, notable male characters outnumbered notable female characters 13 to 4. Suddenly a movie which is about resisting conventions is looking a little conventional.
But from the sounds of a recent interview, it looks like this might all change in the sequel. Newly appointed director Chris McKay – who was co-director of the first Lego film – has come out with some insights into the direction of the second. The biggest message is: there will be more female characters and they will have better roles.
Here are 5 key quotes from the interview and my 5 takeaways from them:
1. The Bechdel test gets people thinking
“I’m not sure our movie passes the Bechdel test entirely and I think that it’s important”
I’ve discussed the limitations of the “Bechdel test” for thinking about the representation of women in film before. It’s not the answer, at least not completely. But it’s interesting to hear that it was one of the things that brought McKay to the realisation that he and his team need to do a lot better in LM2. Frameworks like Bechdel – by necessity somewhat crude and reductive – can also be helpful. This is also, of course, why we need always to be working on how to improve them (thank goodness so many wonderful people are).
2. You need women in the room
“For us we have a lot of producers that were female who had concerns and we were always constantly saying to ourselves: ‘Are we just a bunch of white guys sitting here making this movie from our own myopic point of view? We were constantly responding to that question and that helped us make Wyldstyle a better character and Unikitty a more interesting character. ‘I think it’s forcing us to look at how we make a sequel and turn that into something that’s more powerful and special.”
For so many reasons we need more women in the room. In this room, that room, all the rooms! This is because when a film doesn’t have any women in it, they can say “put some women in it. And give them agency and dramatic struggles and richly-drawn, nuanced lives”.
3. Recognising sexism exists is a pretty important step in general…
“Sexism is something that’s part of our culture and something that we need to adjust”
I almost feel embarrassed including this. I’m sorry. It is partly because I wanted 5 things rather than 4. But here’s the thing: whilst I might not need to say this to you boy do you need to say it to some people. We do need more clear public statements like this from people in positions of influence. They refuse to cede the ground to those who fill comment boards with conspiracy theories where feminism sounds like an ideology perpetuated by hate-fuelled lizard people intent on crowding out the world with their reptilian spawn.* Rather than, y’know, the radical notion that women are human.
*Pat on the back to the first commenter who makes a hilaarious sexist joke out of this one. I look forward to that lesson in wit.
4. …and for filmmakers in particular
“People, when they make movies, they have a responsibility to at least examine that [sexism]… That’s the thing we’re not doing enough as filmmakers.’
McKay is clear on a point I feel very strongly about: we need always to be examining the stories we tell more rigorously than we often do. These are questions central to the very best film-making: Why this story? Why this way? What am I shedding light on that no one else is? Of course some films will have story-lines where women are silenced, cast-aside or without agency, because that might be true to what those filmmakers are trying to expose. But filmmakers need to be in control of this, it needs to be purposeful rather than an unthinking reflection of their own biases.
5. The message about agency is starting to filter through
“Obviously you have to look at the kind of story you’re trying to tell and the theme, but people don’t underestimate the value of hard, cool female characters who have their own agency.”
Elsewhere in the interview McKay also referred to “strong” female characters. This way of putting things is a bit problematic from some perspectives. But women with agency of their own is not. Melissa Silverstein and Inkoo Kang ended last year with a great piece on both sides of this this over at Women in Hollywood. And it’s wonderful to see it being given a platform by McKay. Now he just has to turn this good talk into even better action in “The Lego Movie 2”.