Saturday, April 3, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon: the queerest manifestation of heteronormativity

First thing's first: despite some harsh words later on in this post, I completely adored How to Train Your Dragon. Continuing the upward trajectory that Kung Fu Panda started, Dreamworks has finally produced a movie worthy of their longtime rivals at Pixar. Gone, for the most part, are the uninspired character designs that remind one more of the worst of Saturday morning cartoons rather than Disney, replaced by characters dripping with charisma and personality. Though a few of the dragon designs miss the mark, the main character really steals the show; while initially seeming mundane, Toothless eventually exhibits more charm in an unvocal character than we've seen since Wall-E and Eve. It's a bit predictable, as most children's movies are, and the jokes, while rarely failing to produce a laugh, can sometimes feel a bit pedestrian and formulaic. Still, the chance to see the dragons caper around on-screen, and the exhilaration of the flying scenes, which put even Miyazaki to shame, are worth the price of admission. It's been a long time since a movie has so brightened my day and let me go about the rest of my business with a sense of wonder; I haven't really felt it since Spirited Away. I very seriously considered sticking around in the theater afterward to catch a second showing. Don't miss it.

The film is, on the whole, spectacular about gender and sexuality issues, making the few missteps all the more nettling. Most of the queers in the audience will probably be able to empathize a lot with Hiccup, our oddly named protagonist. He has serious problems conforming to his society's expectations of masculinity, as his slight build and bookish demeanor make him unsuited to killing dragons, the only source of respect in his Viking society. Like most of us, he vacillates between envy and emulation of his more manly and respected companions and acceptance of himself ("y'know, there are a lot of great Viking warriors, but not many great Viking smiths or farmers,"). Eventually his less aggressive nature wins both his own respect and the admiration of society; while every other Viking would have killed the dragon when he had the chance, Hiccup's refusal to kill it, and eventual befriending of it, are key to resolving the costly war. He achieves self-actualization in his gender variant behavior, and his lack of aggression and intelligent use of tools are acknowledged as admirable traits in their own right by his peers. And, of course, Hiccup's relationship with his dragon, though not even remotely sexual, bears more than a superficial similarity to other taboo loves.

The way in which Hiccup's newly won respect is expressed is somewhat problematic, specifically the poorly executed romance subplot shoehorned in at the last moment. It's a testament to the film that I can't even wholly condemn the rewarding romance; Astrid, the object of Hiccup's affections, is far from a wilting damsel. In fact, she's Hiccup's rival in their dragon-slaying classes, and is generally portrayed as the best of the class, though frequently upstaged by our protagonist and his superior understanding of the creatures won from interacting with one of them.

Yet it is just that: a reward. Astrid and Hiccup's relationship exists only to symbolize Hiccup's newly won status. The admiration of society is symbolized by the adoration of a girl. It falls into the same trap all too many low-status males do, of viewing relationships (and sexuality) as a way to prove their worth. In other words, it exhibits a transaction model of sex.

Still, if that's the only complaint I have against the movie, compared to the mountain of hegemonic masculinity most of Hollywood's efforts are mired in, it's doing something right.

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