On Pixels (Chris Columbus, 2015), Race and Gender in Hollywood

It has been with a depressing familiarity that Hollywood has got itself in a mess this Oscar season about the lack of racial diversity in its nominees. Not only is this the second year without any non-white nominees for the key awards, it smacks of the same attitudes present since Hattie McDaniel accepted her Oscar in a Whites Only hotel for a film that painted slavery as not that bad and a nice backdrop to the problems of wealthy white people. Meanwhile the argument about equal pay for women goes on, spearheaded by Jennifer Lawrence, and the startling lack of  female directors is still to be noted (it’s worth listening to this excellent interview with Lexi Alexender on the topic) while male directors with a history of failures keep getting work.

All this came together in my mind while watching the execrable Pixels directed by journeyman Chris Columbus who has had some success (most notably with the first two, most boring, Harry Potters, Home Alone and Mrs Doubtfire) and some sizable flops (the $100 million Bicentennial Man being the most offensive). That Columbus gets a budget of $88 million for this dross when directors like Kathryn Bigelow and Mary Harron have barely made any films in the past 10 years shows how much the gender problem lingers throughout the Hollywood system. God knows how much Adam Sandler got for his lazy performance, but I’ve no doubt he probably made double the money that Michelle Monaghan received. Worse still this film puts a capable actress through the indignity of playing an horrific male-fantasy of rebound MILF; the sort of woman who goes for men who basically harass her when she’s in a fragile emotional state. Watch as Sandler, playing a TV repair guy, literally says “Wow” as she enters and then proceeds to explain that he’s shocked that any man would leave her because she’s so hot! Instead of, like a real person, phoning his boss and getting him sacked, she tolerates this eventually deciding that the schlub has potential. The rest of the film is lazy as hell, and continues to demean women throughout, seeing them exclusively as the reward for male effort – including one character having a threesome arranged for him by the President because he helped save the world. In a kids movie. It’s also an incredibly white film, with non-white characters limited to support (in fact the only two significant non-whites, both male, need to be rescued by our white heroes in the film’s tepid denouement). The only engaging character in the film is Q*bert, an animated sidekick – and even he is transformed into a sexy-hot-female-warrior so one hero can live his weird cyber-sex fantasies. Did I mention it’s, y’know, for kids?

Generally considered as a flop Pixels managed to drag in $244 million globally, meaning it probably covered it’s costs. But it stands as an excellent expression of all that’s wrong with Hollywood – a story conceived around a cool idea, but one that no-one thought through; misogyny from the get go (the cast has two characters called Cyber Chick #1, and Cyber Chick #2); lack of diversity; and a horrible view of its audience.

Yes the Oscars are an affront. Yes the pay-gap is wrong. But the problem will not be solved by a few awards, or a few pay rises. Until it hits the execs who put this tripe together, who treat their audience as a bunch of idiots with the emotional intelligence of zero, nothing changes. Please stop spending your money on this stuff – seek out the work of female directors, make an effort to watch films made by, and for, diverse people. Otherwise there’s another 100 years of this.

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