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At The Movies: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

2010 October 14

I brought cock-flavoured blow-darts and everything.


I went into this film grumbling slightly and kicking my heels. “Man fights exes in order to win girl, oh fucking great,” I said. The trailer hadn’t done anything to dissuade my grumblitude, and I’d spent the past few days staring angrily at Le Roman De La Rose and going, “HAVE OUR IDEAS OF HOW MEN AND WOMEN INTERACT IN THE FIELD OF RELATIONSHIPS REALLY NOT IMPROVED AT ALL SINCE 13TH CENTURY FRANCE” ad nauseum to all those around me.

Image: The Romance of the Rose, 14th century illustration

"If I say yes, will you sign for your damn package?"

So in I went, determinedly wiping my mind clean and free of any prejudice, and settled my fine arse down in one of the seats and glared at the cinema screen, daring it to prove me wrong.

It literally did, as well.

I was comprehensively proved wrong about Scott Pilgrim by Scott Pilgrim, and I’m actually really glad of it, because I had a great time. Allow me to inform your mind-hole about how I was proved wrong and where.

Well, firstly, there’s the whole evil-ex-fighting thing. “GRUMBLE,” said I. “FIGHTING FOR A WOMAN,” said I. It is, in fact, none of these things. I felt a bit stupid. Perhaps I should have read the graphic novels first? But then, I’m a firm believer in the idea of things being able to stand alone as works of art despite being based on a previous work, and I think this film does. So I sat there, stewing in my own uneducatedness, occasionally hissing “Hah! Reading the source material is FOR THE WEAK!” and actually loving it.

But see, he’s not fighting for Ramona (The Girl, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) at all – he’s fighting for himself. Each ex is more daunting and jealousy-triggering than the next, and he’s fighting what we all fight when we get together with someone new – the Ghost Of Partners Past. Not the literal partners, but our ideas of them, and how much better they are than us.

…I know it can’t just be me, okay, I just saw a film that said it wasn’t just me. Shut up.

Secondly, I was all, “Ugh, this is going to be heteronormativity central”. It wasn’t. There wasn’t just gay visibility (with Kieran Culkin as Scott’s MIND-MELTINGLY ATTRACTIVE housemate Wallace OH GOD) but also a bit of bi visibility, with Ramona’s exes being adamantly exes and not ex-boyfriends. I mean, it’s spoiled a bit when Ramona confronts Roxy (Mae Whitman) with “It was just a phase, I was a little bi-curious” rather than it just being accepted unapologetically as, “Yep, I’m bisexual,” but in an age where bisexuality is still thought not to exist (!!) it’s something.  Excuse me for triumphantly dancing around the only scrap of water in this desert.

Image: Mae Whitman as Roxy in Scott Pilgrim Versus The World

Roxy Richter (Mae Whitman): more than a little bi-furious

Thirdly, th-the female characters don’t suck! I thought they were going to be crap, and they weren’t. Knives (Ellen Wong) was fantastic. Ramona was stalwart and human. The stand-out moment for me, however, was when Scott (Michael Cera) and Ramona are in bed, and she says, “I’ve changed my mind; I don’t want to have sex with you, and I reserve the right to change my mind again about that later” and that’s that. It passes with no awkwardness, no negative comment and no pressure whatsoever. It’s brilliant.  Can we please have more positive portrayal of women choosing not to shag guys in films, please? That’d be great. Because too often, she’d be demonised for that – words such as “fickle” and “cock-tease” would be flung about like undesired cornflakes placed before a two-year-old – but she’s not, here.  Hooray!

Similarly, there’s no gay panic. You know gay panic? Yeah, that. Well, it doesn’t exist in le Universe d’Scott Pilgrim. Scott shares a bed with his gay housemate (and his housemate’s increasing library of lovers) with no comment or problem.   It’s an idealised world where the oft-played-on awkwardness of “straight masculinity vs. gay masculinity” simply doesn’t exist, and it’s really refreshing.

Also, I was totally won over by the soundtrack and visuals.  Then again, I am a simple creature.  Glitter and 16-bit everywhere!  It’s like an illegal rave in Marioland.  I’m almost disappointed that I loved it. I wanted a really good trumpeting rant, and I’ve been denied that. Damn you, Scott Pilgrim! Damn you for being surprising and good.

Image: Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth meet for the first time as Scott Pilgrim and Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

"... and also, I totally play the lute."


  • It does many things right, including people, consent and sexuality
  • It’s a winsome and appealing portrait of how much people suck at interacting romantically
  • It’s really very gorgeous
  • …And so are the people in it


  • It’s very geared at a specific audience (late teens/early twenties, geeky, internet-fuelled) and therefore might not be accessible for everyone

Movie stills: Universal/Everett/Rex Features

9 Responses leave one →
  1. October 14, 2010

    Alas, it still fails the Bechdel test (well, it might techically pass it for the scene…Julie Flowers? tries to talk with Envy about her work, roughly; but Envy doesn’t respond!).

    I enjoyed it (and the books), but I don’t really feel the idea that the woman characters are well handled. They could have been much *worse* handled, but consider your own reflection: “But see, he’s not fighting for Ramona (The Girl) at all – he’s fighting for himself.” Yes. Exactly. There’s a basic erasure going on here embedded right in the title.

    Again, not the most egregious or repellent version of this, but the women are still props. I think Ramona could be really interesting, but she doesn’t end up being so except (primarily) as potential.

    • Jenni permalink
      October 14, 2010

      Actually it passes in loads of places.

      Not that passing means ‘yes – it is feminist’ or ‘no – it is not feminist.’ Or even that it’s a good or bad movie.

      • Miranda permalink*
        October 14, 2010

        It’s definitely debatable how well it passes, but I think it’s also the case that romantic comedy films about relationship obsessed gangs of young people, all of whom have a gossipy obsession with the relationship between two of their number…. are going to have trouble with Bechdel whether, as films, they have interesting, well represented female characters or not…

        I think it’s actually an example of the limitations of Bechdel as a rubric for judging all films. The film fails in several places, and is good in others, I think.

        I would have liked to see Ramona and Kim’s friendship on-screen, yes. I think the women are all a little island-like. Mind you, we barely see the non-Scott men have much inner life either!

      • October 14, 2010

        I still don’t see any of the passes which are more than highly technical passes. And even most of those, IIRC, have one character *trying* to talk about something else and being blown off.

        Again, failing the Bechdel test doesn’t invalidate the film or make it unenjoyable. It doesn’t even entail that there were no strong, interesting female characters. However, I think failing it is one indicator. The fact that it was all about Scott all the time is another.

        (And it *could* have easily passed, as all the technical passes indicate.)

        (Note that I’m pretty sure it passes the reverse Bechdel test. So being about Scott all the time isn’t quite sufficient.)

        I like what I can project on to the female characters, but I don’t find them particularly well characterized (or at least particularly feministically characterized). YYMV.

        • Miranda permalink*
          October 14, 2010

          I agree with you on the “it’s all about Scott learning not to be a dick” not being a catch-all excuse, and to be crude for a moment, I reckon Hollywood could do with learning to be *about* less dicks, at least in an obvious heteronormative sense, more generally!

          The issue for me is that in a world, and a Hollywood, where Bechdel passes and female characters that are motivated like male ones tend to be in shorter supply (ie. not exclusively in existence as love interests, for example!), a movie like Scott Pilgrim failing to give more inner life to its women seems to matter more. Somehow it feels like it’s not the movie in and of itself that’s the problem so much as the feeling of “is this all we get?” if that makes sense. I think the movie has some good things going for it genderwise, bar some of the hairier moments outlined earlier about orgasms (it’s either on this thread or on our other SP post thread!). But I think it matters more to us that it be better, perhaps, because of the goals it actually does score for things like gay visibility and so on – the good stuff makes us go “ah, jeez, why couldn’t you go all the way with this?” I, for one, spent hours before the film arguing with the rest of the BadRep team about the fact that this sort of film – Scott-centric, geek-male-centric, is the one that will get a Hollywood green light where Ramona Flowers Vs. The World might not.

          Reading this thread, and without having read the books, I think that had they serialised these films into a set, we’d have got a better deal on the female characters, actually.

          I think that giving the ladies more room to breathe and develop would balance out the “win the girl, like a really patriarchal legend of old!” framing device, and actually bear out the irony. The irony of this stuff happening in the modern world only really becomes ironic at all, and is borne out much more, if the characters can actually transcend the save-the-girl stuff. And from what I’m reading, that happens far more successfully in the books.

          Sadly – and I do think it’s a shame nonetheless – the film hasn’t done too well at the US box office even in the form it *was* released in.

          • October 15, 2010

            It’s interesting to compare with Tamora Drewe (which we saw the same weekend as seeing Scott Pilgrim and The Runaways). Even if it passes the Bechdel test (which I’m not 100% sure it does), I thought Tamora Drewe missed some opportunities in a similar way. Which didn’t make it bad at all (I though it was fantastic and qua film much better than Scott Pilgrim although superdifferent).

            I think it’s worth celebrating “Hey, not nearly as horribly messed up as I was fearing!” but also to acknowledge that we’re settling. I read some stuff that makes it sound like the Scott Pilgrim series is a radically feminist work and it really isn’t. It has female characters that I like and wish had gotten more care from the author. But it’s also breezy fun.

  2. October 14, 2010

    You’ve actually changed my mind about this film – I kinda found it a bit meh at the time, but Knives is indeed awesome and it has plenty of good bits and you’re right about the ghost of partners past – nobody can help wondering how we match up to our predecessors. It’s a good theme.

    However, all the things you pointed out as feminist-relevent hadn’t actually jumped out at me. Maybe it’s cos they’re so standard in my life… no-one I know would mind sharing a bed with someone of a different orientation to them (that I know) of and I grew up in a school where feminist was kind of the default setting of all teachers and students and most people I spent time with were ‘at least a little bi-curious’ – I suppose it’s weird to be reminded that some people would see this as not standard…

  3. Russell permalink
    October 14, 2010

    The bi-curious line was totally just there so that Roxy could say the (much better) bi-FURIOUS line.

  4. Stephen B permalink
    October 14, 2010

    I thought a lot of gender issues were really well done in the film, and didn’t mind it being geeky/male-focused: it’s clearly about what’s in Scott’s head, and acknowledges that he’s not mature or very aware. Or even a nice guy.

    Wallace was *great*. I agree the straight vs gay masculinity didn’t exist, and also that being gay meant no change whatsoever in the behaviour of those around him.

    But on the flip side of that: Scott is the ~least masculine man ever to walk the face of the Earth~ (mostly because that’s what Michael Cera is, in movies). And sleeping in a gay man’s bed is part of it.

    Not having his own place is also part of it, but to the general public “gay man’s bed” is even lower on the Loser scale than “Mom’s basement” and I don’t think it’s seen as a neutral statement in the comics or the movie either. The characters don’t mind it (except when they want privacy) but O’Malley must have known that readers would see it as a sign that Scott isn’t in charge of his life.

    I think the stigma is sexual though. There’s the inconvenience he faces when it intrudes on his sleep – he can’t afford his own place, so isn’t in control. But it would be seen differently if it was 3 straight guys with no money sharing a tiny apartment while they try to find jobs in the big city, and hey it’s only temporary. This is a gay man’s *bed*.

    So I think there’s a bit of both. To see all the characters be utterly relaxed about most of the gay issues is fantastic, but that doesn’t mean Scott’s masculinity wasn’t judged (by the average audience, if not the creators).

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