From the previews, you’d think Kick Ass is going to be a goofy teen-movie with some sex jokes and embarrassing coming-of-age experiences. You know, basically a Seth Rogan movie. McLovin is in it, right?
Although the 18A rating is well deserved (and here in Canada we rate our movies higher if there is more violence, unlike the States where a dick trumps horrifying violence and spawns outrage).
As a friend put it, “Kick Ass is exactly what you would expect in real life if a teenager tried to be a superhero. He gets his ass kicked.”
Through the title alone and through marketing of the film, we’re led to believe that Kick Ass himself is the focal point and the protagonist of the story. But he’s simple – an over-ambitious character who actually would fit right into American Pie, but with an extra dose of idiocy and a death-wish. Which is where Hit Girl comes in, and where the movie adopts a dark underside that is, despite the surrounding plot lines, the focal point of the film.
Hit Girl is the product of an ex-cop father who, after being framed and put in jail and holding a grudge against the city’s most violent leading mob don, trains his child to become a ruthless killer. Hit Girl is a bit of a paradox. She’s at that age that people get really, really uncomfortable dealing with – she’s 11 or 12, on the verge of puberty, and very clearly ignorant of her budding sexual appeal, but nonetheless oozing it. One character remarks he is “in love” with her, and his friend responds with semi-disgust since she is a kid, and he claims he will “save himself” for her. There is no mistaking that this barely-pubescent girl has been endowed with a sexual and violent power and prowess that is meant to make an audience uncomfortable. She uses highly adult language, swearing with the confidence of an arrogant twenty-something, and at one point calls her attackers “cunts.” And you’d think abusing children would remain taboo in the popular American cinema world (unless it’s an independent film, off-screen/implied, or supposed to be ‘deep’), but Hit Girl gets shit kicked by an adult man who holds a fucking gun to her head, ready to pull the trigger.
So Hit Girl is this empowered yet enslaved by-product of at once her father’s vigor for trained violence and her own mature self-awareness.
I don’t think we need to go into the phallic symbols of guns too much – suffice it to say the near-final scene with the mob don holding his gun to hit-girl’s head is, at best, blatantly a metaphor for rape and the violent silencing of children’s sexuality, identity and voice.
Hit Girl’s sexuality is rampant. She still retains a vestige of childhood, but it is clear she is much more grown up than her body suggests. She’s a bit of an unexpected Lolita – she isn’t naive or vulnerable (nor does she chose to act naive or vulnerable unless it is a gateway to slaughter), and she doesn’t put up the front. She’s dangerous, and even though she’s a bit of a wet-dream for younger men and pedophiles, she is terrifying and will fuck you up. So there’s something going on here about allowing young women to explore and own their sexuality, but giving them a very real power and confidence to protect themselves. Essentially, Hit Girl’s father gave her an awareness that other girls her age would not be privy to, which has allowed her to bloom without gender restrictions or the guilt of giving a shit what society at large thinks about your sexual appeal.
Hit Girl donning the boner inducing “school girl” look, complete with Britney Spears circa 1990′s pigtails
The relationship Hit Girl has with her father is unconventional, precisely because he is not a protective parent in the sense that he wants to shield her from the ills of the world. Our first introduction to both these characters and the first impression of their relationship is Hit Girl being shot in the chest while wearing a bullet-proof vest by her father so she “knows what it feels like” if some crackhead ever pulls a gun on her and tries to gun her down. Her father isn’t the type of “I’ll tell you when you’re older” dad. He has a straight-up, open dialogue with his daughter and treats her as an equal while still retaining a fatherly role. Not to say their relationship isn’t dysfunctional. But on a metaphorical level, there is a commentary about parenting and the empowering of your child. And Kick Ass chose an uncomfortable and unconventional way of showing this. This isn’t your average Are You There God, It’s Me Margret shit. This isn’t Dad awkwardly telling you about periods and telling you to be wary of boys in an awkward, bumbling way because he can’t say the word “vagina” to his own daughter without feeling like a pervert and wanting to cry. This is a relationship of mutual openness, and a relationship that nurtures mutual protection and respect. Hit Girl doesn’t have a vampire stalker watching her while she sleeps and emotionally abusing her. She is independent, clever, and capable.
Hit Girl’s identity is interesting. She never seems to be, like other super heroes, completely disconnected from her costumed role. Costumes and masks in general operate as phalluses, which basically means signifiers or metaphors for power. In How to Read Lacan, Zizek explains:
“Why is the phallus for Lacan a signifier and not simply the organ of insemination? In the traditional rituals of investiture, the objects that symbolize power also put the subject who acquires them into the position of exercising power – if a king holds the scepter in his hands, and wears the crown, his words will be taken as royal. Such insignia are external, not part of my nature: I don them; I wear them to exercise power. As such, they ‘castrate’ me, by introducing a gap between what I immediately am and the function that I exercise (I am never complete at the level of my function). This is what the infamous ‘symbolic castration’ means: the castration that occurs by the very fact of me being caught in the symbolic order, assuming a symbolic mask or title. Castration is the gap between that I immediately am and the symbolic title that confers on me a certain statues and authority. In this precise sense, far from being the opposite of power, it is synonymous with power; it is what gives power to me. So one has to think of the phallus not as the organ that immediately expresses the vital force of my being, but as a kind of insignia, a mask that I put on in the same way a king or a judge puts on his insignia – phallus is a kind or organ without a body which I put on, which gets attached to my body, but never becomes an organic part, forever sticking out as its incoherent, excessive prosthesis.”
So, according to Zizek on Lacan, Hit Girl should be “castrated” of her power once she leaves her costume behind – most other superheroes are, fundamentally, no longer “above the law” once they return to their regular identities. But Hit Girl essentially remains hit girl the entire time. For many superheroes, the argument can be made that their hero identity is actually their “true” identity whilst their “average dude pretending to be super average” identity is actually their disguise. In a sense this also applies to Hit Girl, but when she ends up at a new school and is bullied for her lunch money, she doesn’t roll over and play the sweet little schoolgirl. She breaks some arms.
In a fundamental Freudian sense, Hit Girl has never experienced “Penis Envy.” Her father gave her power – that is, he gave her a phallus in many symbolic ways, allowing her to divert feelings of inadequacy. Traditionally, the stages of Penis Envy state that the young girl begins to desire a sexual relationship with her father. And this is where Freudian readings get, pardon the disgusting metaphor I am about to use in a terrible context, sticky. But Hit Girl has no mother, thus nobody to blame for her “castration.” She also has nobody to learn to mimic in order to become “a woman.” But her relationship with her father only began after the age of five when he was released from prison, which effectively (and very cleverly) allows her to more or less bypass the desiring-your-dad-and-wanting-to-kill-your-mom stage of growing up, you know guys, that age. There is a shitload of analytical baggage that can be un-packed regarding Hit Girl & Dad, but it’s complicated and I talk about Freud to much, so draw your own conclusions.
So when we empower children (especially young girls), the message isn’t “act this way in public but secretly own your identity.” The message in Kick Ass is stand up for yourself and don’t take shit from bullies and rapists. So actually, the Hit Girl storyline and character, despite the gore and over-the-top violence that seems gratuitous and even disgusting coming from a kid is actually a really badass, positive message to be sending to young girls – especially those who might be persuaded that Miley Cyrus is a good role model, or better yet, the Pussycat Dolls. Even though young ladies in the pop world (with the exception of Lady Gaga, who is fucking amazing and rocks her shit all over the place, and a select other few) use their sexuality as somewhat of an empowerment, their sexuality becomes their only value, and eats up their entire identity – at least on screen. Hit Girl is an embodiment of not only a budding sexuality which could become explosively erotic as she matures, but also of cleverness and a will to protect herself from being exploited. Which are generally the missing components of young girls who wish to embody their sexuality today – objectification still exists because sexuality is pimped in an objectified and commodified way. Add some personal identity and power to that mix and there’s the line between objects with titties and sexy, awesome women. Like Lady Gaga.
The near-final scene of Kick Ass features Hit Girl finally facing off with the mob don who was her father’s nemesis and now her own. She gets beat. She gets physically abused so bad it’s horrifying. And the “final boss” holds a pistol to her head and gets ready to shoot her but, in typical movie fashion, Kick Ass arrives on-scene to save her in the nick of time.
Generally, the “lady needing to be saved” would get a hearty eye-roll from me, but in this case it only strengthens the basic Hit Girl message. By having Kick Ass save her, there is a strong message of communal responsibility. Kick Ass is a member of Hit Girl’s community, in that he is also a “super hero.” Even though he is bumbling and sucks at what he does for the most part, even he is capable of stopping the death of a young child. So there’s the message, PSA-style (that’s shorthand for Public Service Announcement): “Only you can prevent child abuse.”
This opens a dialogue about child abuse – and it’s not your “show me on the doll where he touched you” bullshit, that just reinforces to children that adults are fucking uncomfortable as balls with sexual abuse and not all of them want to hear about it. Kick Ass not only saves her life, but takes her in. Community has a huge responsibility to prevent shitty things from happening, and turning a blind eye is is not acceptable. In the end, this is Kick Ass’s most heroic feat: he opens his eyes and prevents something awful from happening. And if you’re not clear on the metaphor, the don holding a gun to Hit Girl’s face is a very, very clear allegory for rape.
The community message does go both ways, as earlier in the film Hit Girl and her dad save Kick Ass from sure death. Once again, Hit Girl’s power and maturity is reinforced, as she can also be a “hero” rather than relying solely on others to prevent bad things from happening to her. But the responsibility is evenly distributed. Not your usual superhero message, where one man must have the world on his shoulders and blame himself for everything bad that happens.
The bottom line is although Kick Ass is, in several ways, a pretty typical genre film, it pulls some pretty excellent and well-executed punches in regards to the average plot-line and the “token” female hero trope. I didn’t expect to enjoy this movie at all, but as a friend said, “it took an eleven-year-old girl to make me love superhero movies again.”