[SPOILERS] Ruby Sparks and Hurting the Manic Pixie Dream Girl

By Gillian Daniels, Editorial Assistant
For the uninitiated, film critic Nathan Rabin coined the term “manic pixie dream girl” to describe a female character whose only concern is to entertain, inspire, and charm the male protagonist of a work of fiction. This character’s flaws, no matter how self-destructive or misguided, are quirky. If she has a back story, it’s tragically endearing, diminished by charm.

She has appeared, to varying degrees, as Kate Hudson in Almost Famous (2000) and as Natalie Portman in Garden State (2004), cheering a lost young man onto enlightenment. This isn’t to say both films don’t have redeemable qualities, but their female leads are more muse than woman, human in shape but bubbly, ethereal, and inconsequential in action.

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Compliance: A Hard-to-Watch Movie that’s Worth Seeing

By Jonah Comstock, Editorial Assistant

Dr. Milgram

In 1961 at Yale, Stanley Milgram completed a series of experiments that would become among the most famous in the history of psychology. Studying obedience to authority, Milgram staged scenes where subjects were instructed to deliver what they believed to be painful electric shocks to strangers. Milgram found that 65 percent of subjects were willing to let obedience to the lab-coat-wearing authority trump their innate morality – though some begged and pleaded to be allowed to stop, they never refused to comply and they all administered the highest shock the machine gave out – 450 volts.

I’ve known about the Milgram experiments for many years, but, as chilling as they are, I’ve never lost any sleep over them. This was just an experiment in a lab, I told myself, not the real world. In real life, surely fewer people would succumb to the pressure. Psychology Today recently co-hosted a screening of Craig Zobel’s acclaimed film Compliance. The film is an examination of a real-world Milgram experiment, conducted not in the name of science but as part of a sick criminal act.

In the film, a man calls a fast food restaurant in a rural town and, pretending to be a police officer, tells Sandra, the manager, that young, female employee Becky has stolen money from a customer. In an escalating series of lies and instructions, Sandra is convinced first to take Becky’s clothes, and then to call her fiance, Van, and leave him alone in the room with Becky and the phone. The caller convinces Van to rape and assault Becky before a daytime employee finally puts a stop to the madness. The filmmaking is close and raw, the performances jarring and real.

The film is incredibly disturbing to watch, and at the screening it elicited a certain amount of incredulity – not only “nobody would do that” but also “nobody would believe that.” But at the Q&A it became clear that a certain amount of that resistance is wishful thinking – it’s much preferable to believe the film was badly made than to believe the truth. This could happen. This did happen. The events of the film are directly based on a 2004 crime at a McDonalds in Montana. Prior to that incident, which eventually ended in an arrest (although, appallingly, not a conviction), over 70 similar phone calls were reported that led to some kind of humiliation and/or assault of an employee or customer.

 After the film, Psychology Today Editor-at-large Hara Estroff Marano moderated a panel with Zobel, actress Ann Dowd, and two psychologists and Psychology Today bloggers: Stanton Peele and Nando Pelusi. The discussion was short, but it was heated and emotional. Dr. Peele asked the audience to raise their hands if they thought they would have succumbed – and nobody did. But Marano pointed out that prior to the Milgram experiment, 100 psychology students and faculty at Yale said the same thing: they predicted hardly anyone would go along with it. The only characters in the film who really stood up were the screw-ups, the ones who never had much respect for authority at all. And even they only went as far as refusing to participate.

 Dr. Peele pressed even harder, asking why, if we all found the movie so disturbing, we didn’t just get up out of our seats – whether maybe some sense of what we were supposed to do overrode what we individually might have wanted to do, just as a sense of “supposed to” overrode the morality of the film’s characters. It’s a weak parallel in some ways – watching a movie doesn’t hurt another person – but it captured the brilliance of the film: it made us uncomfortable because it put us into the character’s situation.

 It’s not a fun movie to watch, but it does something that art should – it makes us think about a part of our history and a part of ourselves that we would much rather avoid. And forcing ourselves to think about this disturbing aspect of human nature could be very, very important.

 Milgram took a lot of heat for his experiment on the grounds that the emotional trauma he put his subjects through was unethical. But his subjects themselves responded to a survey, and over 90 percent said they were glad to have participated. One subject wrote Milgram to tell him that experience had given him the strength to be a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War – that is, to stand up for his own morals in the face of the authority of the whole United States of America. That’s what we can hope to gain by making ourselves sit through this uncomfortable film; by putting ourselves in the shoes of Sandra and Becky. We each hope we’re in the minority that would stand up for what’s right, and we each hope we’ll never have to find out if we are. But perhaps by confronting the dark conformity of human nature through art, we can be more prepared if we ever meet it in life.

A version of this post also appears at Psychology Today.

Zen and the art of time travel: Safety Not Guaranteed

By Allison Novak, Staff Writer
The time travel story is a common and popular one, and it always runs the same way. A person unwittingly goes back in time, wants to have fun, discovers something only they can fix, and becomes a quiet hero, returning to their own time. Whether it’s Doctor Who, Back to the Future, or any other number of pop culture items, they all stay on the same path. Safety Not Guaranteed is a story that takes the idea of time travel and adds to it an understated importance of what it means to be able to travel back in time. It balances the desire of time travel with an almost zen about what time travel would realistically mean.

Safety Not Guaranteed follows three writers from Seattle Magazine Jeff, Arneau, and Darius who set out to Seaside, Oregon to investigate a personal ad placed: “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed.” The three set out to find the writer of the ad, which is Kenneth, a cashier who believes he has discovered how to time travel. 

Safety Not Guaranteed does not promise us a story about a future self traipsing through the past; instead, it is a look from the outside in of someone who wants to time travel. We follow Darius, Jeff, and Arneau as they try to figure out if the would-be traveler, Kenneth, is for real — does he really think he can time travel? Is he crazy?

Before the movie can stray too far into trope territory, we learn that that’s not the important part. Darius goes undercover to try to discover if Kenneth is for real, and quickly changes from reporter to interested and willing participant in the time travel. Kenneth asks her what her ‘mission’ is: the reason she wants to go back in time. There’s an understated love story for her and Kenneth that comes from the shared bonds of their ‘mission.’ This drives the story as the focus becomes less time travel and more a contemplation on what to do with that power.

This is what separates Safety Not Guaranteed from other time travel stories; there is a purpose. Darius and Kenneth want to go back for very specific reasons, and it’s their sadness that drives their desire. The story is mirrored as Jeff tries to locate his teenage girlfriend, who is is trying to reconnect with. In this, we learn that time travel can be metaphorical as well. It’s this juxtaposition of desire and longing on both levels that drives the story. We don’t get caught up in how time travel works, or if it’s possible; we learn only bits of the story before the conclusion. Many times we see the longing of the past with the desire to live in the moment, whether it is Darius and Kenneth trying to achieve time travel and ultimately a romance, or Jeff and his former girlfriend. Arneau, the shyest of the bunch, is forced by Jeff to take chances and to ‘be young’; he forces Arneau to try to live the life he wants to recapture.

There is a general sadness that pervades the movie, despite the hope to change the past. Just like Jeff and his would-be girlfriend, happy endings are not guaranteed.

Most time travel movies draw the viewer in with action, dramatic scenes, and the prevalent question of whether they’ll return to the present, but in Safety Not Guaranteed, we’re drawn in with the very human emotion of what you would do if you were able to go back in time — and why you would. It’s a new side to the trope, and one that Safety Not Guaranteed does well; the viewer is more concerned with the characters’ inner journey than the obvious literal journey through time. For instance, when Kenneth and Darius discover they have feelings for each other, and he ultimately decides to go back in time for her ‘mission’, not his, it becomes a grander gesture than the time travel.

Safety Not Guaranteed never shows us what happens once Darius and Kenneth seemingly accomplish their task; that’s not the important part. Unlike many others on the same path, we don’t need to see if they’ve accomplished their mission, or the past through the eyes of the future. This is an important distinction — instead, the journey is worth more for the characters. This may seem like a cliche, but Safety Not Guaranteed doesn’t try to answer all the questions it sets, and it doesn’t really seem to care. We don’t know what happens to Darius and Kenneth, or with Jeff, or even Arneau, who Jeff is trying to live vicariously and recapture his youth through. This is a meditative story on time travel, one that seemingly advocates living in the moment while desiring to change the past.

[SPOILERS] The Women of "The Dark Knight Rises"

By Gillian Daniels, Editorial Assistant
The chief virtue of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films is not the plots (the pace is often plodding) or the characters (most if not all already invented by the comic).  It’s the way it redresses a fanboy fantasy as a serious adventure, in this case with damsels who aren’t quite in distress.

In few heroes is the power fantasy more potent than in Batman, a playboy billionaire in public and a brooding, me-against-the-world Phantom of the Opera orphan in private. It’s a cool idea and one of the most thinly-veiled testosterone-laden daydreams in popular media today. Nolan challenges some aspects of this middle school fantasy in The Dark Knight Rises, but at the end of the day, of the main female characters introduced in the movie, Bruce Wayne becomes involved with both. Batman, it seems, remains a fantasy still largely for and about men.

Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) and Miranda Tate/Talia (Marion Cotillard) remain largely defined by the men in their lives within The Dark Knight Rises.  They’re able to challenge their roles to some extent but they never quite subvert them.

The role of Catwoman is a classic femme fatale. With her as a rival, she’s the one who somehow brings Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) out of his Howard Hughes-style funk. Hathaway’s character would be the spitting image of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl if she didn’t steal from Bale and beat him up in their first scene together. For most of the film, she questions both Batman and Wayne without appearing to like either very much.

It’s eventually revealed Catwoman’s looking for a new start in life. Even before Batman shows up, she’s a villain trying to make good. An important plot point in Nolan’s film is that Wayne is willing to help delete Kyle’s cat burglar history from every police file on the planet and allow her to start fresh, holding the key to her redemption. Catwoman’s affection for him dovetails with her redemptive arc as if only Batman could bring out the good in her. By the end, they’ve become involved.  It’s not bad that they’re involved but it’s questionable that she needs to fully rely on him for her salvation.

At least Nolan’s Catwoman is set up to be Bruce Wayne’s equal. Only she can maintain his interest and only he can maintain hers. This was certainly the goal of Batman: The Animated Series(1992) in which Batman discovers “the new cat burglar is a woman” (episode 15, “The Cat and the Claw Part I”) and spends most of the series chasing after her, both for reasons of justice and romance. In his pursuit, he tries to redeem her multiple times. The structure of their relationship is ostensibly the same except that, before meeting Batman, Catwoman has no desire to change. It’s only Batman who plants the idea in her head, turning her story into a redemptive arc. Anne Hathaway and Nolan’s Catwoman, however, has enough agency that she’s already made the decision to change and doesn’t need the main character to put her on the path to redemption. It’s a small — very small — but important improvement in the move from small to big screen. Catwoman’s story is helped along by Batman, but she’s still largely the one driving the change

Talia al Ghul has a similar story arc to Catwoman in the cartoons and comics. Batman also attempts to seduce this–gasp!–loose woman away from evil after a lifetime of working for her immortality-seeking father. Talia, like Catwoman, is unable to access her morals by herself. Unlike Catwoman, though, this is because Talia is lured repeatedly back into helping her father, Ra’s al Ghul.

In The Dark Knight Rises, this is very much the same. Miranda Tate, in revealing herself to be Talia, shows that she seduced Wayne, tricked him into building a bomb, and has had the entire city threatened for months, all in service of getting vengeance for her father. Even her dying words relate to Ra’s al Ghul and his rivalry with Batman, his role as her father and Bruce Wayne’s antagonist defining Talia in her last moments. She’s a woman used by a man to get back at another man.  A child seeking vengeance for her father isn’t a bad story line, but it’s problematic that we never get any reason for her goals beyond genetics.  Talia feels like a tool used to get back at the main character.

The biggest difference Nolan has worked into the movie, though, is including Talia’s backstory. While Cotillard’s character eventually comes to be defined by her father and then Batman, Nolan makes sure to detail her childhood and the person she is before becoming entwined with the destines of both. Talia’s escape from her circumstances is emotional and riveting, and while Bane (Tom Hardy) takes part in her escape from the prison in which she’s raised, Talia’s agency drives her to run away and find an escape route where no one else could before her. She’s an awesome female character.

Yet the price of admission for a main female character still seems to be sleeping with the cool male lead. It’s a pessimistic point of view, but Officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) probably doesn’t have to sleep with Bruce Wayne to become his protégé. To my knowledge.

Probably one of the most innovative aspects of the movie having to do with gender is the female cops in the background when Batman first returns to Gotham. They seem to disappear during the stadium cave-in, though, and are, to my knowledge, largely absent when the cops descend once more to the streets. They are still women in casual roles who do not appear to have a romantic interest in the protagonist or are defined by their father’s whims.

In a story like Batman’s, where the main character is simultaneously a Lothario and a loner, it’s difficult to create a female character outside these parameters. Nolan manages to make due with the material he has, though, showing that “fanboy” doesn’t have to be an exclusive label. The Dark Knight Rises still disappoints, however, by keeping its otherwise kickass female characters defined by the men in their lives.

Art Finds A Way: A reflection on film re-circulation

By Marten Dollinger, Movies Section Editor

Steven Spielberg’s classic blockbuster Jurassic Park came out when I was only six years old. Spielberg said that he wouldn’t let his own children watch it, so naturally my parents weren’t about to let me enjoy it in theaters at such an impressionable age – I had to wait until I was seven and my grandmother bought it on VHS. Have I made anyone feel old yet? Despite not having that big theater experience, JP was a staple of my childhood, and as bad as the third one is, I still love it simply because it has dinosaurs. So naturally, when Jurassic Park is on the bill for a local theater showing old classics, I jump on what was once a missed opportunity.

Barring a huge budget for a home entertainment system, a movie at a theater is nearly impossible to recreate. The big screen and complex sound system is, after all, the medium for which it is designed and when filmmakers ply their craft, it’s with these considerations. No where else are you completely in the dark, next to immobile in your chair, free from distractions and completely immersed in what the director wants you to be. Cheap and convenient as it is, watching it at home could be considered akin to looking at pictures of famous paintings on the internet. I may know what the Mona Lisa looks like, but I don’t know what it feels like to be in the same room as something created by Leonardo Da Vinci. Until now, I knew the fear that came with that water rippling in that cup, but I had not experienced the roar of the T-Rex shaking my entire body. Luckily, old prints of films are easier to circulate than other priceless works of art.

There are also social aspects to consider. Watching a film is a shared experience, but that experience is shared in different ways in the theater. At home, it’s perfectly acceptable to comment or speak the lines as they come, depending on who you’re watching with and how likely they are to throw things at you. In the theater, at best you’ll earn dirty looks and at worst you’ll be thrown out. There’s a ritual associated with watching films that is far more universally defined in the theater than at home. The silence isn’t simple politeness, it guarantees that everyone sees the same movie. I not only had the opportunity to see Jurassic Park on a big screen myself, but with someone who hadn’t seen it at all. Hard to believe, right? In the theater, I knew she was seeing everything that Spielberg wants her to see. In a way, so was I, since I had only seen it small up until then.

The circulation of old films is an important aspect of recognizing the medium as a form of art, rather than a piece of entertainment to simply consume. It allows more people who appreciate film to enjoy it in its designed medium, and preserves it for future generations. There remains a question of what makes a movie worth preserving, but I think the social aspect of film answers it for us. A film should be recirculated if it still resonates with an audience. This isn’t simply a matter of what can make money, mind you, it’s a matter of what people will still watch and experience and understand. Shakespeare’s works remain popular because they still resonate with the human experience. And just as I can still watch a classic play as it was originally performed, I can enjoy my animatronic dinosaurs terrorize people in the way Spielberg intended.

Dark Shadows and Edward Scissorhands: Sympathy for the Devil

By Gillian Daniels, ACP Editorial Assistant

A man, played by Johnny Depp, is viewed by the world at large as a monster. His story, however, is really that of a misfit condemned to walk an unusual path.

This summary is an apt description of many of Tim Burton’s films, including the excellent biopic Ed Wood (1994) and the less excellent but still intriguing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). There always seems to be an individual, often an artist, against a world that has difficulty understanding exactly who he is and what he’s trying to accomplish. Even Pee-Wee’s Big Adventures (1985) follows this trajectory to an extent, swapping Johnny Depp for Paul Ruebens.

The sympathy for a much more literal monster is portrayed in the films Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Dark Shadows (2012). One features a Frankenstein’s creature of a man constructed by Vincent Price while the latter involves a rich gentleman, Barnabas Collins, cursed into a vampire by a witch.

Burton’s most recent cinematic offering is his attempt to stamp his style onto a supernatural soap opera from the 1970s. In many ways, Dark Shadows‘ story of an outcast is identical to Edward Scissorhands. Dark Shadows fails, however, when it comes to the sympathy Burton tries to create for his main character.

Both films, for example, have Johnny Depp disoriented by the contemporary world. But where Edward has been locked in a creepy house on the hill for all his unnatural life, Barnabas Collins has been trapped inside a coffin for centuries by an evil witch, Angelique (Eva Green) that he wronged romantically. Depp plays Edward as a nervous waif, a victim of circumstance. Collins, meanwhile, is a stubborn gentleman with an active part in ensnaring himself in misfortune, romancing Angelique and then spurning her for another.

When made mobile, Edward and Barnabas stumble through the artificiality of contemporary life. The polished sensibilities of Barnabas Collins rankle at the libertine 1970s. He’s a snob awash in one of the most superfluous periods of pop culture. He’s an amusing snob, at least. Edward, in comparison, is a lonely goth kid in a black cat suit adrift in the pastel of the suburbs. Each clash of artist vs. the outside world provides some of the most amusing scenes of their respective movies.

They both find their place in this world, at least. Edward finds solace in making his monstrous shear hands useful in shrubbery and hair cuts while Barnabas Collins rebuilds the family fishing business his heirs have been unable to maintain.

Despite their efforts, in the third act, both Edward and Barnabas come to be terrorized by the foolish town folk. Their movies are clever reversals: instead of the monster terrifying the innocent mortals, the monstrous mortals terrify the innocent monster. The deviant artist has proved unfit for the rest of society. Edward has found himself at the wrong place at the wrong time, accidentally fulfilling the vision of the villain held by the folk in the suburban sprawl.
The idea of innocence in Dark Shadows, however, is much more problematic. Barnabas Collins, a vampire, really has killed more than a few people to sate his thirst. The townsfolk are perfectly justified. It’s not really his fault, the narrative claims, he was cursed by Angelique. Barnabas is far less innocent than Edward Scissorhands, though, and certainly made the choice to lead the evil witch on romantically in the past. He didn’t make the choice to turn into a vampire, of course, but in the movie’s present, we watch him snack on one human after another with little hesitance.

Tim Burton, in 2012, has given us a hero devoid of heroism. Barnabas Collins isn’t just a monster, he’s the villain. I’m unsure if the movie or its marketers know this. Maybe Tim Burton does, though.

Edward Scissorhands is not only superior in its protagonist but in the personal quality of its story. Burton’s gentle-hearted monster is a reflection of all artists and, thus, a direct reflection of the director. It’s autobiographical in a spiritual, “me against the world” perspective, if anything else.

If Edward Scissorhands is Tim Burton, then, I believe, so is Barnabas Collins.

Tim Burton, when he came into the mainstream in the 1990s, was just the right amount of stylish and strange. Now the director has turned his brand of gothic storytelling and design into, well, a brand. It’s hard to blame him, though. With his name on any feature, it’s pretty much guaranteed to make money. This concept isn’t new. Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas wasn’t actually directed by the ambitious gentleman, after all, just produced by him. His name is associated with a certain look and feel.

Barnabas Collins is a reflection of the present day Tim Burton. While Edward Scissorhands created art by hand, Collins turns his skills to reclaiming the honor of his name and maintaining the family business. Both are honorable professions, but the latter is a direct reflection of Tim Burton’s attempts to maintain his commercial empire. Once he saw himself as a gentle outcast, quietly making his art in solitude. Now, I wonder if Burton sees himself as a lord and profiteer, put upon by those around him and now more interested in having his fun where he can.

Or maybe he just wanted to remake a soap opera from the 1970’s because it sounded like a cool idea. He’s using the common plot thread of man vs. society, sure, yet this isn’t the sort of plot Burton needs to confine to a single film. I hesitate to call him a sell-out, because that’s not a fair description of an artist’s development especially when priorities change over the course of a career. Burton is looking to impress with image and visuals, these days. Like Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory before it, Dark Shadows is a movie of style.

I think Edward Scissorhands is the film with more substance. It feels like a more personal effort. Dark Shadows is personal mainly in the fact that it’s from the director’s own childhood. It’s a lumpy movie compared to others in Burton’s filmography, a story that could have done well to celebrate the heart beneath the monster rather than celebrate the monster itself.

Brave: This is what a real strong female character looks like

By Nathan Comstock, Television Section Editor

I’ve seen a lot of people lately talking about Pixar’s newest animated adventure Brave. The fact that the film features a tomboy princess who’s goal throughout the film is not to marry a Prince has caused Disney to receive a lot of points from the feminist community. Add in the fact that most of the film resolves around her relationship with her still-living and well meaning mother, it can be hard to believe we’re watching a Disney Princess film. But the fact of the matter is, we’re not.

When Disney acquired Pixar, one of the specifics of the contract was that they weren’t going to have very much control over their projects. So to however tempting it might be to compare Brave to the Princess films of the past, one must do so with a grain of salt. Merida is not a tongue-in-cheek internal deconstruction of the Princess archetype like Giselle from Enchanted, nor is she an attempt at correcting previous sins of political incorrectness, like Tiana from The Princess and the Frog or Rapunzel from Tangled. She is a character in the Princess mold, but one created by a company who has never used the Disney Princess plot conventions at all. 

Not to say previous Pixar films have a wonderful feminist track record. I haven’t seen Ratatouille, so I can’t comment on that one, but other than that the only Pixar film with enough female presence to pass the Bechdel test on anything but a technicality is The Incredibles. So Brave, which puts the relationship between two women constantly front-and-center, is still a breath of fresh air. But what really impressed me about the film was how Merida’s exploration of gender and identity was treated.

In some ways Merida is the opposite of Disney’s Mulan. While the latter was required by the plot to learn soldiering and present a masculine front, she had no longing to do so, and seemed content to return to a subservient, female role after the crisis had passed. Merida is painted as a tomboy right from the get-go. From the very beginning of the film we see her training with her swords and her bow, and having a much stronger relationship with her vulgar, warrior father than her diplomatic, prim-and-proper mother. Merida’s story arc is primarily about learning how brute force isn’t always the best way to solve a problem, and as the film goes on it is the diplomacy she refused to learn from her mother, not the swashbuckling she happily absorbed from her father, that ends up being required to save the day.

“Wait,” you’re saying. “Brave is about a girl who expresses her gender in a nonstandard way and ultimately learns not too? That’s a terrible message to be sending kids!” And you would be right. But Merida’s isn’t the only one with a character arc. Her mother also has to learn things as the story goes on, and without giving to much away, she comes to see the value of her daughter’s approach to life. The real message of the film is about communication, and learning to see other people’s points of view.  In order to overcome the film’s challenges, Merida and her mother each have to learn to be a little more like the other one.

Such an authority figure.

On more point – the Scottish-inspired fantasy kingdom in which Brave takes place is clearly patriarchal to some extent. But the men in the film are shown to be largely incompetent at everything but warfare, and most are inadequate even at that. It’s very obvious that Eleanor is the one who actually knows how to govern the kingdom. In one scene, the leaders of three rival clans all brag about their military accomplishments, which are clearly completely fabricated, in an obvious satire of male posturing. Meanwhile, the action of the film follows the women. In a subversion of just about every movie, only Merida, her mother Eleanor, and the Witch take actions that really drive the plot – the men are mostly there to serve as comic relief, mostly by fighting amongst themselves and failing to understand what’s going on.

Despite what reviews and analyses going around would seem to imply, gender is not the focus of the film. And ultimately that’s what’s remarkable about the movie’s approach to these issues. Brave has a lot of major themes, like communication and family, which take front and center, and lets the messages it sends about gender resonate from the background. It’s a movie about growing up, and becoming the person you want to be. And that’s why it’s so important that Merida is allowed to be the person she wants to be, a girl with some “masculine” traits, without that fact taking over the movie. Or a simpler way of putting it, both of the protagonists are women and that isn’t seen as a reason for them not to do things.