Gender in Pacific Rim: The Mako Mori Problem

So I watched Pacific Rim last night. I know, I’m a year late to the party, but that’s what happens when you have two young kids. I finally watched last year’s robots versus monsters blockbuster because of an article, and subsequent discussions elsewhere, about Strong Female Characters written by the very thoughtful Tasha Robinson for The Dissolve.

See, Tasha uses Pacific Rim’s leading lady Mako Mori as an example of strong female characters done wrong. Her specific criticism is that Mori’s character is one of a recent spate of movie women who are literally “strong” but still problematic in all the old ways. What was particularly interesting was that in certain corners of the Internet, people were adamant that Tasha’s thesis was good, but that her use of Pacific Rim as an example was not. Leave Mako Mori alone, they protested.

In fact, some went so far as to propose a “Mako Mori Test” as a supplement to the well-known Bechdel Test (which asks a movie only to have two female characters who have a conversation with each other that is not about a man). The idea being that the Bechdel Test must be incomplete if it can fail a movie so feminist as Pacific Rim.

With that on my mind, I was very curious to get to know Mako Mori’s character. I’ll cut to the chase. Tasha Robinson is a hundred times right and the Bechdel Test needs no supplement. Mori’s character is strong, yes, in the sense that she’s good in a fight. And she has a well-developed backstory, which is nice, and manages to keep her clothes on for the whole movie, which is even nicer. But still, she exists only in relation to the men. Her role is to give each of the two male leads a turn rescuing her. If she were deleted from the movie, the only thing that would change would be the running time.

We can do so much better. Sure, Pacific Rim is just a big budget Hollywood action film. It shouldn’t have to be a ground-breaking feminist beacon in science fiction. I mean, it would be nice if it was. But what’s really troubling is that it is held up as such. It makes you think that that’s the best we’ve got.

This is just a reminder that we should expect more. We should expect more Ellen Ripleys and, for that matter, more Susan Calvins. Asimov famously said that he didn’t know how to write women, so he just wrote them as though they were men. It’s far from perfect, but it would be a breath of fresh air to see more writers at least using that as their starting point. Watching Anita Sarkessian’s Tropes Versus Women videos, which target sexist portrayals of women that are so standard in video games that they become almost invisible, it’s very easy to spot all the same problems in science fiction.

So what can we do about it? We can ask more of our stories. We can forgive them less. But most importantly, we can work to bring new voices into science fiction. Susan Connolly is running a series over on Clarkesworld currently called “The Issue of Gender in Science Fiction.” Using data from many magazines, including AE, Connolly considers the gender imbalance among creators. Roughly 70% of the stories published in AE are by men. That’s almost certainly far better than the magazine market was fifty or even twenty years ago, but it’s still a fair shot from parity. The other side of the coin though, is that roughly 70% of the stories submitted to AE are written by men.

So, if I got one thing from my Pacific Rim it’s this: We at AE need you, our female readers, to start telling us your stories. We want to print them.

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