Seth MacFarlane Tried to Write a Progressive Female Character! But He Failed.

Slate's Culture Blog
May 30 2014 11:52 AM

Seth MacFarlane Tried to Write a Progressive Female Character! But He Failed.

million_ways_to_die
Anna's ready. Ready to let a man save the day.

Photo by Lorey Sebastian - © 2014 - Universal Pictures

As many critics have noted, Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West is short on funny: The pacing is off, a talented cast is given little to do, and the jokes are too lazy and uninspired to provoke much amusement.

Aisha Harris Aisha Harris

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

But aside from the film’s bland humor—which makes you want to rewatch its most obvious, and far superior, forebear, Blazing SaddlesA Million Ways to Die in the West fails on another level: in its halfhearted attempt to depict a strong, independent female character.

Advertisement

To anyone familiar with MacFarlane’s work, that will likely be unsurprising. This is the same guy who did an entire musical number about famous actresses’ boobs at the Oscars, the same guy who has a penchant for lame rape jokes. But A Million Ways stands out from his oeuvre because MacFarlane does attempt to subvert sexist tropes through the character of leading lady Anna (Charlize Theron). It’s just that he fails. Spoilers follow.

The first time we meet Anna, her independence is evident—she criticizes her abusive husband, the outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), for killing a man. He threatens her, and she’s forced to back down, but her defiance is refreshing. Later, she demonstrates her wit and reveals her talent with a gun, besting the mustachioed Foy (Neil Patrick Harris)—whose mustache makes him “manly,” as the film jokingly explains—in a target-shooting contest.

But whatever effort MacFarlane and his co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellsely Wild put into subverting the Old West stereotypes of women is for naught: Soon it becomes clear that the only reason for Anna’s character to exist is so that she can give MacFarlane’s wimpy, neurotic sheep farmer, Albert, the chance to be a hero.

Albert is terrible at his job—his animals are constantly found wandering town—and still lives with his parents. He’s repulsed by the flourishing culture of violence evident among the gun-happy townspeople and freak accidents that happen every day. In the beginning of the film he manages to talk his way out of a gunfight—in part because he has no idea how to shoot—by promising to pay off his debt. For all these reasons, his girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), dumps him.

Anna sympathizes with Albert’s plight and coaches him on how to shoot so he can win a duel against Foy and get Louise back. Anna and Albert begin to fall for each other, of course, though she keeps her marriage to Clinch a secret for fear of scaring him away.

Then Clinch arrives in town, upset to learn that a man was seen kissing Anna. He kidnaps his wife and carries her away from town to force her to tell him who it was. After learning the truth, he prepares to rape her. She manages to grab a giant rock and knock him out cold.

Rather than finish him off, however, she takes the time to pluck a flower from the ground and prop it in his bare butt (he has conveniently fallen face down). It’s meant to be lighthearted fun, and also a way to emasculate the alpha male and reduce him, literally, to the butt of the joke. But mostly it sets up Albert as the hero, as she runs back to town to warn him that Clinch will be seeking revenge. It’s not long before Clinch is holding Anna at gunpoint to entice Albert into a fight.

This sort of storyline would be less frustrating if it weren’t so familiar. If women weren’t so woefully under-represented as the protagonists of big-budget movies. If rape or the threat of rape wasn’t used so often, and so clumsily, as a plot device by filmmakers who don’t seem to care about its victims. If we weren’t still watching movies with damsels tied to the proverbial train tracks.

Theron has been praised as one of the few bright spots in the film, and she deserves credit for trying to elevate the movie. But “dialogue with f-bombs galore” and some skill with a gun does not a well-developed female character make. Anna may be a far cry from every other female character in MacFarlane’s world, who are so frequently the punch line of misogynistic jokes. But sadly, she still seems to subscribe to fellow female sharpshooter Annie Oakley’s dated mantra, from Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun: “You can’t get a man with a gun.”

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

TODAY IN SLATE

Sports Nut

Grandmaster Clash

One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

Uh-Oh. The World’s Oceans Have Broken Their All-Time Heat Record.

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

Future Tense

Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company

Food

How to Order Chinese Food

First, stop thinking of it as “Chinese food.”

The NFL Should Lose Its Tax-Exempt Status, Which It Never Should Have Had Anyway

The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant

The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 11:40 AM The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 18 2014 8:20 PM A Clever Attempt at Explaining Away a Vote Against the Farm Bill
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 18 2014 6:02 PM A Chinese Company Just Announced the Biggest IPO in U.S. History
  Life
Outward
Sept. 18 2014 4:15 PM Reactions to a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Reveal Transmisogyny
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 18 2014 8:07 PM Crying Rape False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 4:33 PM The Top 5 Dadsplaining Moments From The Cosby Show
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 6:48 PM By 2100 the World's Population Could Be 11 Billion
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.