Sulagna Misra’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
After I saw Mad Max: Fury Road, I was less preoccupied with jumping into a mental whirlpool of “whether the movie was feminist or not” than I was in examining the trope I saw emerging, as highlighted in this Tumblr post:
Pacific Rim: Well written and developed female character fights aliens with her golden retriever
Winter Soldier: well written and developed female character fights the government with her golden retriever and bird
Mad Max: Several well written and developed female characters fight everything with their confused golden retriever
Sure, it’s only a few movies, but as I thought about it, I could see the comparisons: The “golden retriever” action movie trope is so called because of the main male characters’ cooperative, trusting, and loyal nature. This is a change-up from the regular lone hero — or the anti-hero, or the chosen one, or the subversive spy — because of the focus on trusting another person, with that trust leading to cooperation and then actual results. Because cooperation is tantamount, the male characters’ stories don’t overshadow or subsume space for female characters’ stories, which flourish in tandem with theirs.
Compare this to Ant-Man, an enjoyable movie but exactly what the golden retriever trope is not: The female character’s story is shunted aside; no one trusts anyone till the end, after a series of mistakes and missteps; and the two male main characters are framed in terms of their own personal genius rather than how they work with others. I also noticed this in The Lego Movie, The Matrix, and Star Trek, among other films, because the women in these movies don’t really get their own personal story arcs separate from the hero — even while using their own particular skills — partly because their male counterparts barely listen to them, or believe they don’t need to.
It’s not that those films need to be anything more than they are — it’s that it’s just so incredibly rare to have a trusting or trustworthy nature be a defining characteristic of a male movie character. Suspicion is often rewarded in characters like Sherlock Holmes, Batman, and James Bond. The only way this is overcome is usually through a man’s romantic interest (or, depending on the time span, his sexual interest) in a woman.
In contrast, the golden retriever trope highlights the idea of cooperation, especially men cooperating with women — not to show off or to save them, but as the way they’ll succeed. Women aren’t important to the story because the male character is interested in them; women are important to the story because they are vital to the plot and the plan against the enemy. The characters don’t always immediately trust each other, but they do have to put their trust in each other within a short amount of time — and what’s rare about the male “golden retriever” characters is that they do this without questioning the female characters’ skills. Each relationship grows as a result of that initial trust when they go into action: Raleigh and Mako trust the newfound connection they have, Cap trusts Black Widow and goes on the run with her, and Furiosa trusts Max to drive when she yells “Fool!”
But why does it matter when male movie characters are trusting, especially of women? Why does it resonate so much, especially on Tumblr, that although Winter Soldier has been succeeded by several Marvel movies, it’s still on top of the movie fandom metrics week after week? Why was this one shot of Tom Hardy reacting to an odd question about the female presence in Mad Max shared with a feverish exuberance? (The asker of the question even noted that his poorly worded question was meant to be anti-sexist, and added, “I think a lot of male stars might have objected to this, but Hardy is of a special breed.”)
The golden retriever trope speaks to people on a personal level because so often, we’re used to not getting that reaction, that which that should be so clear as to go unmentioned. And as we saw in Jess Zimmerman’s piece on emotional labor, and the Metafilter comment section, there are echoes of this lack of parity in real life. In fact, “women’s work” is often denuded as unnecessary, or so invisible that it’s said to be disposable.
Black Widow’s skills in Winter Soldier are subtle and quiet. My favorite example of this is the scene at the mall: while Cap is coordinating a plan of action against the Hydra agents, she simply tells him to duck his head and laugh, which works. Mako Mori’s strengths are in her engineering and construction of the jaeger she and Raleigh use, which means they are already prepared when they reach a moment of desperation. And after their initial fight, Furiosa simply knows well enough to ask Max if he “wants that thing off his face,” which brings them from enemies to a wary alliance. It reminds me of Eavan Boland’s poem, “It’s a Women’s World,” which subtly suggests that this “women’s work” percolated change even while hidden beneath history:
as far as history goes
we were never
on the scene of the crime.
Of course, these golden retriever movies aren’t perfect, and they’re not the stories about women we need — the ones about women as champions and geniuses and superheroes and leads that don’t need to rely so heavily on men. Pacific Rim and Mad Max: Fury Road both start with voiceovers from the male main characters. The titles Mad Max: Fury Road and Captain America: The Winter Soldier bear the names of their male main characters. CATWS and Pacific Rim have only a few female characters, with only one getting her own arc. Now whenever I see men and women together in an action movie, my brain puts it against the algorithm: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. seems to fit, while Jurassic World deliberately places the characters at (mistrustful, disparaging) odds in the beginning. And if the new Star Trek doesn’t work, will the new Star Wars fit the bill?
But these movies aren’t trying to be those movies, the movies about women we really need, nor should they be misconstrued as them. Those movies need to run the gamut of stories: woman against man, woman against nature, woman against herself, women in groups, women by themselves. They need to be action movies, adventure stories, post-apocalyptic, futuristic, historical, funny, dark, frightening, worrisome, quiet, loud. As long as we have so few movies that give women their own space to have their own story arcs, their own special skills, their own personal triumphs, we’ll be hungry for more.
But stories that focus on cooperation and show characters succeeding because they trust one another are still important, and can even be revolutionary. Taking down a patriarchal tyrant, breaking down a powerful government structure, destroying a global menace that’s been devastating the world for years — these stories are about changing the way of life as we know it so something new can grow. The characters are able to do that because of their faith in one another, a faith based not on precedence, but on the ability to see past ego to true worth, to acknowledge that they can’t do it alone. And they don’t have to.
Sulagna Misra writes about the weird things that pop into her head when she's not paying attention. She's on Twitter so she can not pay attention more effectively.