Tuesday, September 30, 2014

We Are Groot: Ecofeminism in Guardians of the Galaxy

"Learn your genders, man!"

Rocket Raccoon
the Guardians of the Galaxy

A Galaxy without Women

As a surprise powerhouse of the box-office throughout the Summer of 2014, the Guardians of the Galaxy proved that you could revamp many of the charms of the 1970s and '80s, while bringing with it many of the imagined gender norms along for the ride. Boasting a soundtrack nostalgic for another time, "Guardians" follows a plucky young man plucked from 1980s America and thrown into a space adventure where he grows up to be an interstellar plunderer without losing the humor and chauvinism that marks memories of the lost decade. 

A successful blend of Han Solo (Star Wars), Malcolm Reynolds (Firefly), and Andy Dwyer (Parks and Recreation), Peter Quill is a goofy, trigger fingered ladies man known across the galaxy more for being a sexual predator than for his exploits under his self-aggrandizing title, "Star Lord." Performed by Chris Pratt, an otherwise obnoxious and all too formulaic bad boy is likable despite the role set for him. Indeed, Guardians director, James Gunn, has been upfront in stating that he cast the role with the desire that Pratt would bring much of his puppy-dog self into the role. If a latent chauvinist is going to be your protagonist, making you smile while you shake your head is a good move, especially when it is going to be shaking no matter what.

Despite a likable leading man, however, chauvinistic undercurrent of the nostalgia driving Guardians runs wider and deeper than its main character. It is not news to report that Marvel Studios and comic book culture in general, has been slow to adapt stories populated by leading women, and Guardians is no exception. In the comics, a few significant shifts have taken place to attempt to answer these critiques, especially with the significant re-casting going on across the Marvel universe (the mantle of Spider-Man and Captain America now rest on the shoulders of men of color, Captain Marvel and Thor are now women, X-Men comics follow an all female core-group). Yet in the Marvel films, the central action occur primarily in a universe populated by men. When the Guardian's cast and character list was posted, there were a few surprises, with actors of color featuring key roles, but in secondary positions where the run the risk of becoming token characters; able to be pointed at for the perfunctory gesture towards diversity but not allowed to affect the mainline, able-bodied, hetero, white male plot.

Walking out of the movie theaters after my first viewing of Guardians, I was pleasantly surprised by the humor, writing, acting and careful attention to tone, but still unimpressed as a gender studies critique. Gamora, the green-skinned assassin played by Zoe Saldana was woefully underutilized. While she was set up as "the deadliest woman in the universe," she is brought down within minutes of her first on screen battle with an ease that plays into the comic tone of the film. As the plot progresses, her power seems to erode further. Her life is saved several times by the bumbling and combatively unimpressive male lead, to whom she later shows signs of falling under the force of his kingsized libido. Finally, in the rising action, when Star-Lord's life is in danger (a perfect opportunity for her to show herself his equal or superior in the role of savior), Gamora is easily restrained by a coupe of space-pirates whose upper body strength and gentle hold of her do not seem on par with the nominal threat she is supposed to offer. Indeed, the Marvel team seems to have forgotten, or never seriously considered, Gamora as a strong player.

No single woman can or should be expected to hold back the waves of patriarchy in a comic and film culture providing a short-list of non-male alternatives. In this respect, I was ready to give Gamora her due for at least carrying a sword as opposed to the bow and arrow (or pistols) that seemingly every sci-fi/fantasy female lead seems to be given upon conception. Before I could write off the Guardians for defending a galaxy without women, it was pointed out to me that another player may add feminist reinforcement to the conversation. "What about Groot?" they asked.

Who is Groot?

At first I was drawn into the habit established by the comic and film of referring to him as another "he," but why be so quick to go with the seminal flow of the film (that literally paints walls of the movie)? If plants do not so easily fall into the sexual binary of male and female, then presumably neither does Groot. While the pronoun "he" may impart more subjectivity to Groot than "it," it might as well have been "she." The default masculine identity seems to be a biproduct principally of long tradition (stemming back to St Augustine) of taking the male case  when the gender of a character is indeterminate. Despite the pressure to take the lead of the men in Guardians, as a favorite of movie-goers across the board, many fans are reading Groot "against the grain" as female, queer, or trans.

Several fan sites (especially those devoted to fan-fiction and erotica) have already noted that Groot's gender performance intermixes cultural signs from many different recognizable categories. On the one hand, Groot is a walking, talking, punching hunk of wood. His shape and tendency to grow larger when excited makes him perhaps an over-determined phallic symbol. On the other hand, Groot is recognized as one of the more gentle and nurturing characters in the series, characterized by a scene where he grows a flower out of his hand and gives it to a small child. If his tall and narrow form represents the masculine, then the climactic scene where Groot sacrifices himself/herself by becoming a kind of womb to protect to other Guardians, answers back with a strongly charged symbol of femininity. Borrowing from traditional markers (wood/flower) and characteristics (violent/nurturing), Groot freely intermixes them. Beyond mere symbols, the growth of flowers, luminescent spores, and extra limbs, the vegetal fluidity of Groot's body points to a sexual indeterminacy common among plants. In the case of this sentient tree, however, the degree of speed and self-control over a fluctuating form demonstrates a more queer or trans relation to embodiment than a fixed gender type.

In their first scene, Groot is chastised by his partner, Rocket Racoon for needing to "Learn your genders, Man," when Gamora is grabbed instead of Star Lord. Despite being passed over as a joke, what can Groot's indeterminate gender and seeming disregard for the gender binary teach us as viewers about the queer undercurrents of the masculine galaxy the Guardians unconsciously occupy? Genders for bodies and words may be a naturalized feature of English and many romance languages, but for non-human, non-native speakers, the cultural assumptions that inform the use of gendered terminology are as strange as the words themselves. Like Drax the Destroyer, who does not understand metaphor, what may be read as a passing joke about the mental impairment of a slow, hulking character with a limited vocabulary, may instead be read as a critique of the ideology of gender and disability ungirding language. If Groot himself/herself did not develop in the context of a gender binary, why be so quick to adopt a seemingly arbitrary and over-simplifying division of bodies? Reading Groot's relation to gender pronouns as a resistance rather than a failure to the language of difference opens up more possibilities than the joke about stupid aliens might gather in laughs.

Return of the Earth Mother

In a space adventure, set among all steel interiors and austere star-lit backdrops, having a character that represents the fecundity of nature sets a nice contrast. In this way, by casting Groot as the mute assistant to an interstellar scoundrel (Rocket Racoon), Guardians follows the lead of Star War's duo, Chewbacca and Hon Solo. Beyond the trope of the funny and the straight man comedy relief, Groot's leafiness and Rocket's furriness work together to balance out the tech-heavy galaxy around them. This tension adds humor and a sense of danger, as the pair sticks out in a crowd of iron-clad humans. What underlines this difference is the long tradition in literature of providing this contrast along gender lines. According to the narrative of civilization vs nature, the harsh metallic culture is marked as masculine in contrast to the gentler blooming wilderness. Thus, whether or not Groot is anatomically female, he is identified by the genre as occupying the feminine position as representative of the Earth Mother in journey through the stars and planets of Father Sky.

Collecting tropes from across literature, Groot becomes characterized by signs and narratives typically given to goddesses of the woods. Like Hestia, wherever Groot goes, plants spring to life. Like Diana, Groot is quiet and virginal, or at very least capable of reproducing (himself) asexually. Like Hecate, Groot has changing faces, shapeshifting as he moves a collected mystical calm and emitting sharp offshoots during violent outbursts. According to Jungian psychoanalysis and structuralist anthropology of the early 20th century, the Earth Mother is constituted by a variety of faces that cycle through different aspects of nature. As such a synthesis, the Earth Mother is considered the feminine counter-part of the masculine Father Sky. These broad categories have been used to explain the dual nature of humanity as Mother Nature represents the material and primal desires while Father Sky represents the spiritual and rational. As the mysterious shapeshifter, Groot taps into these reservoir of feminine chaos to show that whatever the artificial social constraints established, life will find a way. Indeed, this chaotic vitality is critical to the plot, as Groot sees the Guardians out of several impossible situations (typically imposed on them by technology, e.g. prisons, guns) by taking on a new surprising shape that allows the plot to keep moving.

Perhaps the most powerful narrative of the Earth Mother folded into Groot's story is the story of Mother / Crone / Maiden, Fall / Winter / Spring, or Life / Death / Rebirth repeated throughout (especially religious) literature. When we meet Groot, he appears as a hulking adult of considerable size and maturity. Although his intelligence is sometimes questioned, there is no doubt cast that Groot exists in his species' equivalent of the young adulthood of the other main characters. In fact, according to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Groot is one of its oldest characters, both in the years he has been alive and his publication date. At this point, he exists somewhere between the status of Fall/Mother and Winter/Crone. When Groot puts it self up for sacrifice by growing into the shape of a cage surrounding the other characters to protect them from an explosion and fall when an enemy ship is being destroyed, one cannot miss how he has turned himself into a synthesis of a (Mother's) womb and a (Crone's) tomb. The way these two status's mirror one another is not missed in mythology and psychoanalytic readings that see the Earth Mother as the place from which life emerges and where one goes upon death. After considerable damage and presumed death, when Groot emerges from a fragment of his former self as a baby sapling (Spring/Maiden), he concludes a cycle of regeneration represented by the feminine figure of Nature. A critical eco-feminism draws power from the literary tradition of the Earth Mother figure by emphasizing the interweaving of change and disparate embodiments. Groot demonstrates that women and nature are never singular nor restricted to one form.

"We Are" Feminism

As a phallic signifier of masculinity, Groot may embody the Cartesian sentiment at the root of modern individualism in stating ad infinitum,  "I am Groot." Yet as the voice actor of Groot, Vin Diesel, argues in many of his interviews, each time one thinks they hear "I am Groot," the intonation is subtly different and reflects a contextually unique thought. Groot is a creature constantly changing his form and signification yet bound together under a single figure. The assertion "I am" is then not simply a philosophical assertion of particularity, but of a spectrum of being. In this sense, we can approach Groot's surprise statement as he envelops his fellow Guardians in a protective womb made of his own body, "We Are Groot" as not a radical departure from his relation to himself but an clarification of what it means to be Groot. To state "I am Groot" points not towards the self-reliant mountain man in a log cabin, but to the eco-feminist collective that looks to transform power from a centrally located and policed perimeter into a dynamic ecology of distributed being and power.

To be Groot is to be the many in the one, a monumental figure that can be broken and yet regrow to full height if ever one of his splinters are nurtured. In place of the single male hero, on whose lone shoulders the success or failure of a political movement depends, here we see a representation of collectivity. Yes, the group can be broken, but never destroyed. While Groot is seemingly annihilated in the process of protecting his community from the violence of a lone male figure bent on dominating the galaxy, Groot regrows when Rocket Raccoon picks up on the fragments of his friends, plants it in dirt and waters it. Slowly this piece responds to the resurgence in care being coming to life in time to perform a dance for the audience as the credits roll. A collective can be broke but will return again and again with new life so long as the many parts that may it up are given resources and support. Indeed, Groot's future is assured because he protects the members of his community, e.g. Rocket Raccoon. In this respect, it is not merely the parts that have a responsibility to the collective but the collective is dependent on its parts. One never knows knows from what parts destruction may arise not where new life may spring.

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