Sunday, 25 August 2013

What do Praying Mantises and Angelina Jolie have in common?

I think it's about time we sit down and talk about the elephant in the room - the elephant in question being Angelina Jolie. Anyone who has read Beowulf (or those who sat in lectures pretending to have read it - I'll admit, I was one of them. And now look at me!), and who was expecting the sea-hag-witch-of-the-sea-demon (I was also once one of these people), was probably thinking "Really? Did these assholes even read the godamn poem?"...It would have been a lot more fitting if Angelina Jolie and Brendan Gleeson's roles were switched, right?

Well, as it turned out, I was wrong. Well...sort of anyway. Angelina Jolie is actually a lot more suited to play Grendel's Mother than any CGI monsters! However, it must be stated that this Grendel's Mother also raises other issues, which we will get to.

Before we continue with Angelina Jolie, I think it's good to look at one of the most cringy adaptations of Beowulf ever made. You may know it from the techno soundtrack, Beowulf's peroxide locks (it was the 90's, and Beowulf wasn't getting left behind with the fashion!), the extremely high rate of back flips, and its impressively low 3.8 IMDb rating.

I'm bringing up this embarrassment of a film because of its very own Grendel's Mother...Layla Roberts. Who knows what Graham Baker was thinking when he decided "Yes, a playboy bunny, that is exactly who I need to play Grendel's Mother! And you know, hey, seen as she is involved in that whole industry, we may as well add in some soft porn scenes!". They even crimped her hair, to make sure that in years to come we could look at this film and shout "the nineties!". And yet, this film seemed to be a huge influence on Zemickis's 2007 version - with regards to nudity and storyline. Danél Griffin thought that many scenes in the film seemed "so absurd and outlandish that we wonder if the writers, Mark Leahy and David Chappe, have even read the poem." I'm with you there, man.

Hrothgar, you dog!

Despite all the negativity directed at this film, this, along with Zemickis's version, gives Grendel's Mother a much larger role - she gets a god amount of screen time and she can speak! She doesn't appear to us as an irrational beast, like in Grendel, Grendel, Grendel or Outlander, or in Beowulf and Grendel (to a slightly lesser extent) - she appears as intellectually powerful, even if it is in a manipulative manner. A big thing for me was that she appeared to us in a human form (me being with the "Grendel's Mother is a Human too" campaign), but alas, this is too good to be true, and she is revealed to be a giant praying mantis (in Baker's) and that Alien-esque style creature in Zemickis's.

I don't think it's any mistake that Layla Roberts turns into a praying mantis - the praying mantis, along with the black widow spider and the Venus fly-trap plant, and poison ivy etc etc etc, are often associated with the 'seductress' woman, and sometimes with women more generally. Anita Sarkeesian argues that these insects and plants have become "the inspiration for a whole trope of sexy female characters", seemingly stemming from a misconception about female praying mantises biting their male counterparts heads off - as it turned out, this was indeed a misconception, yet unfortunately the myth lived on in the belief that sexually powerful women are dangerous. Sarkeesian calls this trope the:
evil demon seductress... a supernatural creature usually a demon, robot, alien, vampire most often disguised as a sexy human female. She uses her sexuality and sexual wiles to manipulate, seduce, and kill, and often eat, poor hapless men, by luring them into her evil web ("Tropes vs. Women #4)

Layla Roberts really pulling off a praying mantis

In both films, Grendel's Mother fits this description. She seduced Hrothgar, most likely for producing a son who will later attack Heorot and be the rightful king. In the 2007 version, this is taken a step further, and Angelina and Ray Winstone give birth to a beautiful baby dragon. So, despite the good news that Grendel's Mother gets more airtime, the films have the extra issue of demonising women. These films portray women as manipulative and controlling, using sex to fulfill ulterior motives. The use of Layla Roberts or Angelina Jolie only adds to the sexism - as Sarkeesian states, "when an evil demon seductress is on screen, men get ot objectify her while having these sexist preconceived notions that women are in fact manipulative and deceitful", and as Bill Schipper tells it, "nothing terrifies a male audience more than a physically and sexually powerful woman"

David Marshall states that Beowulf (2007) attempts to criticise the masculine power system and its inability to control desire. Both Hrothgar and Beowulf cannot resist Angelina Jolie's golden breasts. Furthermore, Heorot appears to us as some sort of Anglo-Saxon frat-boy party house, where Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) encourages "fornication" and praises Unferth (John Malkovich) as "violator of virgins". All the men appear to act on physical whims, whereas the women of the film, like Grendel's Mother and Wealhtheow act on reason. Unfortunately, the film kind of fails in this criticism when they decided to turn Grendel's Mother into a digitally enhanced, naked, golden Angelina Jolie, whose body "caters to the same hyper-sexualised function of masculine desire that drives Beowulf in Zemickis's film" (Marshall). In the end, the only character who gains our respect is Wealhtheow, who also preserves her chastity, whilst Grendel's Mother's powerful sexuality is made unnatural and monstrous. 

In the writing of this post I also found out that someone on Youtube has a pet praying mantis named Angelina Jolie. I wonder if they realise the depth of that choice.

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