Video games, in general, have always had a complicated relationship with gender. So perhaps it was natural then that a movie like "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World," which is heavily influenced both in style and in substance by the video game genre, would as well. And perhaps it’s also natural that I as a woman and feminist but also a lover of video games and nerd culture would find myself having complicated feelings about this cult classic film.
The movie opens with Scott revealing to his fellow band-mates that he has entered into a relationship with Knives Chau. A high school girl. An underage high school girl. A Chinese underage high school girl. A Chinese underage high school girl who goes to Catholic school. If this seems unnecessarily repetitious, you probably tuned out for the first ten minutes of the movie, which are dedicated to making sure we as the audience understand each and every facet of the above, and that every character understands as well. This pretty much sets the tone for how Knives is treated throughout the film.
The fetishization of her character is pretty blatant; Knives wears Catholic school uniforms, is too shy to hold hands, and is hopelessly devoted to her boyfriend—a pretty straight innocent schoolgirl fantasy. The fact that she’s underage and in a relationship with an adult only makes it more egregious. She quickly becomes a hardcore fan of Sex Bob-omb, and her teenage infatuation with them is a running gag for much of the film. Her Chinese heritage is also constantly emphasized, leading to some casually racist questions—such as if she is allowed to date outside her race or if her family dinner party will serve Chinese food. As the movie progresses, Knives becomes more and more obsessed with Scott, to the point of stalking him and attacking his new girlfriend. Beyond her relationship with Scott and obsession with his band, there is very little to her character presented in the film.
And to a certain extent, this seems pretty natural. Almost every character in the film is played as some type of caricature—whether it be “holier than thou” vegans or nosy little sisters or prima-donna movie stars. So it doesn’t seem totally unreasonable that there would be screaming fangirl type as well. It fits within the established universe that the film takes place in. The question then becomes: are there stereotypes that just shouldn’t be portrayed, even as a parody?
Many female characters in works from all genres are given no character outside of their relationship to male characters. In comedies this can often lead to the “clingy ex-girlfriend” cliché where a woman is presented as needy and even stalker-like in her obsession with a man who has dumped her. There is also a long tradition, in cinema and other forms of media, of portraying Asian women as meek, timid and pining after white male characters. Almost all of these tropes can be directly seen in Knives’ character. Whether an Asian woman fawning over a white man is played straight or done tongue-in-cheek, the fact remains that at the end of the story, she still has had little to do but fawn over a white male. Ultimately, it’s not very progressive to rely on tired stereotypes of female characters, even if it’s done self-knowingly. The tropes that comprise Knives’ character are ones that are rooted in sexist and racist philosophies; it’s good that the film recognizes that it is depicting absurd and extreme caricatures, but at the end of the day its still adding yet another name to the list of characters who have suffered from these bigoted clichés.
The female lead, Ramona, doesn’t fare much better in terms of treatment. Ramona Flowers is treated as the height of cool and has the distant, uncaring attitude to match. While her dry sensibilities make her interactions with the earnest Scott amusing to watch, Ramona is given very little emotional range outside of these parameters. Her actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead brings some nuance and conflict to the role through her facial expressions and body language, but the character overall is very understated. Her reactions are often non-reactions, which seems to fit with the overall passive role the character occupies in the story.
From her first appearance, Ramona is pursued and even stalked by Scott in his awkward attempts to woo her. She is unenthused but eventually relents under pressure. Ramona allows him to take the reins in their relationship, even though Scott is still largely star-struck by her. Despite several of her exes directly speaking to her or engaging her, she almost never interacts with them, but allows them to battle Scott without her inference. Her only two fight scenes are with other female characters and occur within the context of fighting over Scott, a typical male fantasy. When the male villains are engaged, Ramona sticks to the sidelines or even runs away from the battles.
It’s never made explicitly clear what would happen to Ramona if Scott were to lose to one of the exes. Would she be forced to get back together with one of them? Would she fight them herself? It’s hard to guess, given how Ramona seemingly allows her life to be dominated by the League of Evil Exes with very little push back. Even her eventual break-up with Scott and reconciliation with Gideon is revealed to be due to a form of brain control, rather than any decision of her own. She is treated like an object by almost every male character and does little to resist her being fought over or passed around.
That’s not to say, however, that Ramona is afforded no agency at all. One of Scott and Ramona’s most interesting scenes occurs early in their relationship. She and Scott kiss for the first time and are on the verge of having sex, before Ramona, without warning or preamble, changes her mind and tells Scott she no longer wants to have sex with him. Scott accepts her decision almost immediately, not bothering to question her reasons or attempt to change her mind. He stops the moment she tells him to and does not make a big ordeal out of it. This is an almost picture perfect example of what consent looks like, and how partners should react to having it withdrawn. In a time where crimes of rape and sexual violence, usually enacted on women, seem to be increasing in numbers all the time, it is important to have positive examples in the media that give a model of what consent is and how to deal with being told no. Through just this one scene, Ramona is given a form active control that is rarely depicted in females in the media.
Additionally, both Ramona’s entrance and exit from the storyline are driven by her longing to break away from her past and have a new, fresh start. This wish for a blank slate is something she references throughout the film, especially after discussing or being confronted with the baggage from her previous relationships. Her yearning ends up being so potent that Ramona is more than once willing to break away from the places she lives and the people she knows. It’s clear she has her own desires and aspirations, even if the story is limited about the extent to which they are allowed to be expressed or have bearing on the plot.
Ultimately, the way Ramona, Knives, and every other female character is permitted to behave or not behave has its roots in the story’s reliance on a basic patriarchal and heteronormative tale—a straight white male must fight a series of villains in order to be with his lady love. Video games have a long history of treating female characters like prizes or objects to be fought over and rescued; the plot of this film similarly relies on that trope. The movie tries to be self-aware of this aspect, as it does with many other elements of its story, and even subvert it at times.
While Scott’s primary motivation in most of his fights with the evil exes is to win Ramona’s hand, during his final battle with Gideon, the head of the Evil League of Exes, the film tries to posit that he should in fact be doing it for himself, not Ramona. What exactly this means is never really clarified or explored, but it is notably this element that allows him to defeat Gideon. Yet afterwards, when Knives encourages Scott to pursue Ramona one last time, she tells him he was fighting all along for Ramona, and Scott makes no correction or argument. Certainly the movie is marketed as a straight up “fight for love” piece than a journey in self-discovery. It seems as though the film recognizes treating a female character as a prize is tired and outdated and wants to challenge this notion … but only when it’s convenient for the plot, and not in a way that is reflected in the overall story structure.
Still, by making all of the villains in the story exes of Ramona’s, there are some patriarchal notions challenged. Women generally are seen as less desirable the more partners they have had, but Scott’s love for Ramona is not at all decreased by the knowledge that she has had many romances. He does, nevertheless, make a few snide comments about the number of her exes, despite the fact that some of them trace all the way back to middle school. Scott also shows some considerable alarm at the idea that she was always the one to end each relationship. Ramona even concedes that she used to be a “bitch” when he points this out to her. She is the one framed as being at fault, even though all of these exes proudly label themselves as “evil.” However, Scott is also noted to have several ex-girlfriends, most of whom he is implied to have treated poorly. At one point Julie even forbids Scott from flirting with Ramona, because she knows how terribly he treats his girlfriends. Scott eventually recognizes the double standard he has in place and realizes that both he and Ramona have baggage from their past. This is implied to be one of the reasons he is willing to embark on a fresh start with Ramona, in addition to his feelings for her. While perhaps faltering a little in some places, the movie makes a genuine attempt to show the absurdity of expecting a woman to be single until the she finds “the one,” and the male hypocrisy that is often present.
The film also deviates from the heterosexual-norm some by making one of Ramona’s exes a woman. Scott, in the first half of the film, uses the phrase “ex-boyfriend” interchangeably with “ex," despite Ramona’s insistent gender-neutral terminology. This is a subtle but accurate reflection of how many LGBT+ people have their sexual orientations subtly erased by heteronormitivity in conversation. However, when Roxy actually appears to confront Scott, Ramona is quick to denounce their relationship as merely a phase and something that she was curious about. Roxy is angered by Ramona’s comments and refutes them, but given that she is self-admittedly “evil,” it’s hard to know how legitimate her claims are.
The asides made by Scott and other males about how “sexy” it is make sure to tie this back into the heterosexual male fantasy (it’s worth noting that a girl-on-girl fight, another scenario that is often sexualized, occurs in this same scene and is remarked upon in a similar manner). A woman who experiments with other women for male enjoyment, but ultimately only truly falls for a man is commonplace in male power fiction. The man is allowed to fantasize about women engaging in a relationship, while still ultimately being confident that only he can truly satisfy her. Indeed, the way Roxy eventually ends up being defeated is for Scott to touch in a spot that causes such intense sexual pleasure she orgasms to death. Quite aside from the disturbing fact that the only female villain is defeated through sex, having the male lead enact this on a LGBT+ character runs awfully close to the narrative that lesbian women just haven’t found the right man who can sate her yet. While there is no exact science to measuring whether representation of a marginalized group is good or bad, it’s easy to see how these factors complicate the discussion and make it hard to consider Roxy and Ramona’s relationship a slam-dunk for LGBT+ people, despite the film’s tentative steps towards challenging heteronormativity.
Look, rarely in fiction is something wholly problematic or completely faultless. And hopefully, we as nuanced human beings ourselves can learn to accept this. What’s important is to have an active discussion and to make sure no work is exempt—both the good and the bad need to be looked at and acknowledged if we’re serious about moving forward with progressive and inclusive fiction. "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" fails its female characters on several levels, but there are important ways in which it succeeds or challenges the norms in ways as well.
And at the end of the day, I’m not trying to convince anyone that they must feel a certain way about the movie as much as I’m trying to convince people that it’s something we should have a discussion about. Cult classic films like "Scott Pilgrim" often get treated as untouchable and become “required watching” for those entering geek culture. As a nerd, I can enjoy and appreciate just how important those experiences can be in a young fan’s life. But we can’t let ourselves get to the point where we don’t look at or examine the politics of the movies we cosplay at cons—we’re dooming ourselves to stagnation otherwise. So talk about "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" and gender. Talk about race in "Blade Runner" or sexuality in "Monty Python." Just don’t let those vintage DVDs you have placed in your protector case actually become untouchable.