Pitch Perfect 2 – Feminist Storytelling

Pitch Perfect 2 promoWarning, this one has some plot spoilers.

Pitch Perfect 2, is a great dose of quirky, catchy and exuberant musical fun. And just for fun here are the Barden Bellas with their re-mix of Just the Way You Are from the first Pitch Perfect movie.

 

But this fun movie has a serious message, not far from the surface.

The explicit and implicit feminist sub-texts of Pitch Perfect 2 are gracefully woven into the latest adventures and music of the Barden Bellas, an all female a capella group, for whom the label ‘misfits’ is spelled with a capital “M”.

The characters of the Barden Bellas are a collective challenge to stereotypes of “feminity”. There is no “normal”. The group finds a way to accommodate and welcome their differences. The Barden Bellas is the sisterhood at the heart of the movie’s feminist message.

This is not a casual feminism either. There are multiple feminisms at play and a sophisticated sub-narrative which explores the more radical dimensions of feminism. The movie goes well beyond the now commonplace storyline in which women are placed in a lead role in a traditionally male (and usually violent) context – i.e. women beating patriarchy at its own game in the never ending battle between good and evil. The Hunger Games, Divergent and Snow White and the Huntsman are all examples of such narratives. Power in such stories is the traditional “power over”, and evil must be overcome in a fight between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. This is not the case with Pitch Perfect 2. In an interview, director of Pitch Perfect 2, Elizabeth Banks joked that the first Pitch Perfect is “exactly the same as the Hunger Games minus the killing of kids and plus singing and dancing”. Banks, who is also an actor, appears in the Hunger Games as the make-up artist Effie Trinket as well as the announcer Gayle in both Pitch Perfect movies.

The complexity of the feminist message is further underlined by “politically incorrect” use of feminist themes. “Rape whistles” are introduced in an ambiguous way – “only blow it if you mean it”. Fat Amy says “No” but then winks, when Bumper propositions her. The viewer is not sure how to read the interaction. The scene points to the serious and ongoing debate about campus rape in the United States and campaigns such as the “Yes means yes” which are moving away from the “No means no” message because they open a “silence means consents” argument. The a capella announcer John Smith wallows in racist or mysognist quips. “This is what happens when you let women into college.” While they are so incongruously out of place as to draw horrified laughs from the audience, they also point to a past where such views were believed and enforced.

The plot of Pitch Perfect 2 is driven by an onstage disaster in which Fat Amy’s acrobatic wardrobe failure leads to exposure of her “down under” to the President and the First Lady. This accident is followed by media controversy, boxes of hate mail and expulsion from the national a capella competition on which they have brought “disgrace”. The only way for the Bellas to redeem themselves is by entering and winning the world a capella competition. How society deals with the female body is centre stage, and as noted by Kirsten Page-Kirby the way in which this incident is dealt with, echoes real life celebrity wardrobe malfunctions and society’s obsession with control of the female form. Again feminist themes are explored.

In Pitch Perfect 2, the Bellas are on a trajectory that takes them out of the Barden University context and into the wider world. The boys of the male a capella group (The Treble Makers) who has been their opposition in Pitch Perfect 1 and had been strictly off limits, are now re-cast as a warm support team for the Bellas. They are there supporting the Bellas on their journey. Here we see implicit exploration of gender relations. The “enemy” are recast in a new light.

The Bella’s opposition, as they enter the “real world” is “Das Sound Machine” (DSM). This is an a capella group from higher league. Their technical and physical perfection is on display. Their lead is also a woman, Flula Borg, but as their name suggests, they represent mechanisation and dehumanisation. They are the Bellas “bad guys”, and in this role they are all about “power over” the Bellas. This leads to multiple scenes in which DSM are using their power to “slap down” the Bellas. In one Flula speaking to Beca: “why so small, you are like an elf, … no a troll”. Beca attempts, but fails to respond in kind. Overawed by Flula’s physical beauty and presence, Beca is reduced to muttering how even Flula’s sweat smells like cinnamon. She is a super being, who Beca can only weakly admire.

In the musical stakes the Bellas try to outdo DSM at their own game, but they are never going to get to DSM’s technical perfection. The attempt leads to repeated disaster.

The Bellas find their sound in their own essence: friendship and community. In the world championship, shaking off DSM, their set starts with a variety of feminist inspired themes. First up, a no holds barred rendering of ‘Who runs the world (girls). Who runs this (mutha)“, followed by other feminist linked themes “Where dem girls at” and “We belong to the light” from feminist singer Pat Benatar. Even the word “mutha” here evokes the ancient matriarchal past when God was Goddess and Earth-Mother. The 20th century curse is inverted to its ancient sacred meaning.

The Bella’s finale is all Bella. They finish up with an “original” signature song: Flashlight (Jessie J).

Their response to the power-over and mechanistic perfection of “Das Sound Machine” is full of humanity.

When tomorrow comes
I’ll be on my own
Feeling frightened of
The things that I don’t know

I got all I need when I got you and I
I look around me, and see sweet life
I’m stuck in the dark but you’re my flashlight

The future is not hopeful. In fear and uncertainty we are in darkness. We are in the early 21st century.

Yet, in each other we find “sweet life”. On the surface about romantic love, more deeply it suggests the centrality of human relationships. It suggests the “I and thou” in which Martin Buber suggests human beings find their meaning.

The “and” between You and I represents the relationship between all human beings and this is where we will find our life. The theme draws on the power of human beings to create positive, supportive and transformative relationships. Power-to, power-with, power-within – all feminist reflections on the nature of power.

In the closing scene, past generations of Bellas join the young singers on stage. As they appear, they implicitly make visible generations of transformative feminists from Lucretia Mott to Germaine Greer. Implicitly, these past generations of feminists are there in the background supporting this generation in finding its feminist sound.

Useful Links

Topics in Feminist Philosophy

Feminist Philosophy

“Crushed It!”: ‘Pitch Perfect 2′ Hits Its Marks Sarah Seltzer Flavorwire

‘Pitch Perfect 2’ Is An Aca-Awesome Example Of Feminism For 7 Reasons & Way More Than Just A “Chick Flick” Tracy Dye, Bustle

Elizabeth Banks Makes ‘Pitch Perfect 2’ A Feminist Dream & One Of The Fiercest Movies Of 2015 Elizabeth Banks, Bustle

Pitch Perfect 2: An Off-Tune Paean to Feminism and Flatulence Brandon Judell

Interview: Elizabeth Banks – Director of Pitch Perfect 2 Katie Manzie, brick.me

 

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