The Great Feminist Cinema that is The Wolverine

“Feminist cultural criticism has ruined me,” I sighed to my boyfriend yesterday. He had just excitedly shown me the new trailer for Prisoners, the Jake Gylenhaal/Hugh Jackman/Terrence Howard/Paul Dano film:

It looks like it could be a great movie. I don’t know. But all I could think while watching the trailer was, “MEN! Men jumping! Fighting! Shooting! Being police officers! Being suspects! Woman crying. Girls getting kidnapped. MEN GETTING SHIT DONE!” It’s a Story About Men, just like pretty much every big Hollywood movie, despite the fact that women are pretty much evenly distributed all over the world with men.

That’s why we have ideas like the Bechdel Test, which asks you to consider whether a film features at least two named female characters who talk to one another about any topic other than a man. Last week I saw Pacific Rim, after which I mentioned to my boyfriend that the film failed the test hard enough to have to consider applying to a safety school. At the same time, I acknowledged that the sole female character in the film was great: Mako Mori, an Asian woman who had her own story arc and who was not sexualized at all, which is astonishing considering that she forms a deep bond with the male lead.

I’m not the only one to take note of this. In fact, feminists have been discussing the importance of having a woman – particularly a woman who isn’t white – having a lead, stereotype-defying role in a blockbuster film. Some are suggesting a Mako Mori test to accompany the Bechdel test when examining a film:

The Mako Mori test is passed if the movie has: a) at least one female character; b) who gets her own narrative arc; c) that is not about supporting a man’s story.

Last night, we finally went to see The Wolverine, also starring Hugh Jackman. I was prepared to love the movie, because I love and will always love the character of Wolverine, but I was prepared to love it in spite of the fact that it was probably going to be a shallow, testosterone-fueled Story About Men. Instead, it was so great in its portrayal of women that I’m surprised it’s not mentioned in the posts I link to above that love Pacific Rim so much because of Mako Mori.

Here’s a trailer:

The Wolverine has a large cast of Japanese actors, and most notably features two Japanese female characters who:

1. Have names (Mariko and Yukio)
2. Are best friends
3. Talk about something other than a man
4. Have their own narrative arcs (mostly Mariko)

and furthermore:

1. Kick ass
2. Save themselves and others
3. Don’t get into a jealous fight over bedding the leading man

Plus, The Wolverine’s villain is (slight spoiler here) The Viper, a woman who is a chemist who uses her evil venom power to debilitate a dude on the street who offers her money for sex and who at one point implies she’s a lesbian.

The movie isn’t perfect by any stretch, and since this is also a science and skepticism blog I feel it necessary to point out that the only good science in The Wolverine is the fact that the Earth continues its daily rotation just like in real life.

But when it comes to the characters, my only complaint about the movie is that they actually made Logan too stupid. Fans of the comics know that he lived in Japan long enough to speak fluent Japanese and learn the customs. In this movie he doesn’t speak a word of Japanese and comes across as a bit of a dunce considering he’s 100 years old or so.

Anyway, my title is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I really do think it was a fun movie with an overall positive portrayal of women, and I Can. Not. Wait. for the next X-Men movie, based on Days of Future Past.

Speaking of nerding out over Wolverine, I’ll be at DragonCon in a few weeks and I will cosplay as Wolverine one of the days. I’ll also be doing my regular Quiz-o-Tron Friday night at 11pm in the Skeptrack room. Hope to see you there!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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  1. Interesting. I haven’t read any feminist assessments of Pacific Rim, but it irritated me to no end that Mako Mori’s importance was established through her relationship to Stacker and validated by Raleigh’s romantic interest in her, as well as her having to be rescued and protected by these two men many times over. It could have been a great film with a kick-ass female lead, but it fell short in my opinion. I enjoyed it in the moment–giant robots vs. aliens is undeniably awesome–but the damsel-in-distress thing irritated me for days after.

  2. Oh MAN. I cannot WAIT.

    Here’s the thing.. I’m an X-men fan from 1982… a newbie…but still. And I love LOVE LOVE Wolverine..always have.
    But I was fixin to not see this. Why? Because Hugh Jackman did a Walmart appearance and an annual meeting… Now am I pissed because it’s Walmart? Naw….I mean that’s just actors/Hollywood/whatevs… I was pissed because he announced on stage that actually his kid was appearing in his/her first school play and he was missing that to be at the Walmart thing… ick.

    Long story short…I am SO going to see this movie…my scruples be DAMNED.

  3. Monica: It may be me projecting things, but to me it seemed Raleigh did not have any romantic interest in Mako at all. They don’t even kiss at the end.

    1. That’s fair. Though his initial interest is obviously professional, they developed a much more intimate relationship by the end of the film, which I interpreted as romantic perhaps mostly because Hollywood rarely offers deviance from that theme. Oh darn, I’ll just have to watch it again. :P

      1. Monica, I was ecstatic with how their relationship played out. It was not a professional relationship, but I was okay with that since the other pilots all seemed to require a deeper bond (except Pentecost, maybe, for reasons never explained but vaguely referenced.) I liked that their relationship was more representative of real relationships.There is room for a platonic, romantic, and/or sexual relationship in the future, but the lack of a kiss at the end or any kind of explicit recognition in their interactions, the narrative, etc. didn’t define their relationship in Pacific Rim or Mori as a love interest from the get go. I totally expected her to be one though, which kind of pulled me out of the story a bit at times.

        1. …or, I guess, read some of their interactions as implied sexual/romantic. I need to go see it again. It sucks that the lack of a kiss could be so pivotal for me, but after seeing so many kids movies like that…. I don’t know. UGH.

  4. If you fancy putting a bit of science under your thinking here you might want to take a look at this paper by Christopher J Ferguson (Texas A&M):

    Ferguson, CJ (2012) “Positive Female Role-Models Eliminate Negative Effects of Sexually Violent Media”, Journal of Communication.- http://www.scribd.com/doc/158723940/Ferguson-CJ-2012-Positive-Female-Role-Models-Eliminate-Negative-Effects-of-Sexually-Violent-Media


    Much debate has focused on the potential negative role of sexualized violent media on viewer attitudes toward women. One potential issue in previous literature is that depictions of sexuality and violence were confounded with subordinate depictions of female characters. The current study addressed this by randomly assigning young adults to watch either neutral media or sexually violent media with either subordinate or strong female characters. Women who watched sexually violent media were more anxious, and males who watched sexually violent media had more negative attitudes toward women, but only when female characters were subordinate. Sexual and violent content had no influence on viewer attitudes when strong female characters were present, suggesting these are not the crucial influence variables.

    In deference to Chris’s work and as a matter of prior art you might wish to consider changing the name of the “Mako Mori Test” to either the “Buffy Test” or “Olivia Test” – Ferguson used Buffy and Law and Order SVU in his study to supply the strong female role models for his study – but otherwise the science suggests you may be on to something useful here. ;-)

    1. One of my friends actually called it the “Princess Leia test”, because before the prequels demonstrated what a misogynist George Lucas can be, the only Rebel politicians we’d met were all women, but Star Wars clearly fails the Bechdel test, though the cartoon series naturally has women talking about things other than men, since most of the women in the cartoon series (including kid-appeal character Ahsoka) are warrior nuns anyway.

  5. *WARNING: spoilery spoilers ahead*

    I really liked all the female characters but I thought that Hollywood’s insistence on matching women with women really got in the way of satisfactorily wrapping up the various subplots. We are shown conflict between Yukio and the father character and between black clan dude and evil chemist lady, yet the final fights are arranged so that Yukio fights evil chemist lady. If those were all male characters the final fights would have matched the earlier interpersonal conflicts. The movie is a step in the right direction, though.

  6. Awesome.

    Actually, the X-Men series has a history of leftist politics, though this caused trouble when they decided not to cure the legacy virus until AIDS was cured…then went off and cured it anyway, long before Timothy Brown. In the films, only First Class struck me as overtly political; Xavier’s a milquetoast in the ending. (“Erik, they’re just following orders.” I guess a trigger warning would be anachronistic, but no, you don’t tell a survivor of genocide that someone is “just following orders”.) Though Draco in Leather Pants has always been part of the fandom’s reaction to Magneto.

    I’m still pissed they’re considering Booboo Stewart for Warpath in the X-Force movie. Admittedly, X-Force is the Enterprise of the franchise, but Stewart is particularly interesting because he’s tweeted about how dare we question the choice of Johnny Depp to play Tonto?

    I actually don’t worry about the science in comics. The original X-Men included two psychics and a dude who shoots free energy from his eyes.

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