In defense of Mako Mori: a response

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A dear friend of mine posted a link to Tasha Robinson’s latest article on The Dissolve, titled “We’re losing all our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome.”  While the central idea is perfectly valid, I took enormous exception to this passage:

Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako Mori in Pacific Rim is weak next to Charlie Hunnam’s Raleigh—her past trauma blocks her from being effective in mecha combat, and endangers everyone around her—but even when she proves her strength, he still has to assert himself by knocking her out and dumping her limp body as he heads off to save the day at the end.

I then proceeded to write an essay in a Facebook comment about just how wrong that assertion is.  Here’s a slightly edited version of what I said.

Wrong idea #1:  that Mako is weak compared to Raleigh.

Did y’all even watch the same movie as me?  Did you happen to go to the bathroom, look down at your phone, or get popcorn refills at all the points in the movie where Mako proved that idea totally incorrect?  “Fifty-one drops, fifty-one kills” in the Jaeger simulator?  The part where she oversaw the restoration of G*psy Danger?  Ultimately beating Raleigh when they fight in the Combat Room?  The part where she built a sword into Danger’s arm and totally ruined Otachi’s day with it?  And while Mako was being absolutely brilliant, what was Raleigh doing? Co-piloting their Jaeger, which is important, but he’s mainly being Mako’s personal cheerleader (both of these are points I’ll discuss in more detail later). Mako is weak? Jiminy cricket.

Wrong idea #2:  that Mako’s trauma drags her down as a character.

HOLY LFJLASLDFJ;LKASJDGAJDL

This makes me angry, actually outright angry, for two reasons (technically three, if you count the fact that one of my English classes last semester was all about trauma theory, so I’m super-attuned to that subject now).  One, when Raleigh and Mako drift together for the first time, it’s Raleigh who initially disrupts the handshake by remembering his brother.  This is what triggers Mako’s traumatic flashback.  Two, what is with this idea that women can’t show any vulnerability at all without being automatically dismissed as weak?

I’d like to present this quote from an absolutely golden article as a counterargument at this juncture:

…few cultural tropes get under my skin like “strong female character,” and it still surprises me when like-minded people use it. Maybe the problem is semantic. Maybe what people mean when they say “strong female characters” is female characters who are “strong,” i.e., interesting or complex or well written — “strong” in the sense that they figure predominantly in the story, rather than recede decoratively into the background. But I get the feeling that what most people mean or hear when they say or hear “strong female character” is female characters who are tough, cold, terse, taciturn and prone to scowling and not saying goodbye when they hang up the phone.

Of course, I get the point of characters like these. They do serve as a kind of gateway drug to slightly more realistic — or at least representational — representations of women. On the other hand, they also reinforce the unspoken idea that in order for a female character to be worth identifying with, she should really try to rein in the gross girly stuff. This implies that unless a female character is “strong,” she is not interesting or worth identifying with.

– Carina Chocano in this NYT article

(Read the full article.  You won’t regret it.)

Now I’d like to tack an addendum onto my second point from above, with this caveat:  I may have read a fair amount on the subject, but I am by no means an authority on racism, and I’m happy to cede to the opinions of people who actually are.  Since Mako is a woman of color, Japanese specifically, deriding her for her (completely legitimate!) trauma… well, it sounds pretty racist to me.  There are two main stereotypes of Asian women – the “China Doll” and the “Dragon Lady.”  The “China Doll” is marked by, among other things, her submission, and the “Dragon Lady” is, in the words of TVTropes, “The Baroness meets Yellow Peril.”  Criticizing Mako for her trauma is like slamming her for not being submissive, for not letting her story be secondary to Raleigh’s (I’d argue, as many people have, that hers is the primary story of the movie), and at the same time slamming her for not being completely unflappable.  It manages to touch on both those stereotypes.

Wrong idea #3:  that Mako and Raleigh’s relationship is defined by unequal power dynamics, such that Raleigh feels the need to “assert himself.”

Man… this level of wrong goes beyond just taking popcorn-refill breaks at all the wrong times.  This goes back to understanding the entire concept of the movie.

The Drift only works because of cooperation.  The two people whose minds are melding (heh) have to be mentally equal and compatible, and they both have to use their brainpower to pilot the Jaeger.  This movie is literally all about people working together.  I cannot emphasize this enough.  Granted, there are a lot of relationships in the movie where the power dynamics are funky – Stacker and Mako have their fatherly-daughterly thing going on, Herc and Chuck have issues out the wazoo, and Raleigh and Chuck are far from the best of friends.  But Mako and Raleigh’s relationship absolutely does not fall into that category.  Raleigh, once he meets Mako, spends basically the entire movie (1) staring at her in complete adoration, (2) telling people (mainly Stacker) how awesome Mako is, and (3) fighting anyone (hem hem, Chuck) who says otherwise (see also:  this wonderful post).  Raleigh is continually lifting Mako up.  Which brings me to my next point – Raleigh is *not* “assert[ing] himself” at the end of the movie.  When he ejects Mako from the Jaeger in the escape pod, that is not a bullheaded attempt to reclaim his masculinity.

Allow me to recap the end of the movie, for those of you who don’t remember/don’t obsess over this movie like I do.  In order to close the wormhole thingy and stop the kaiju, Raleigh and Mako have to kill a kaiju and ride their Jaeger (G*psy Danger, if you’ll recall) through the wormhole in order to detonate the nuclear reactors that power it and collapse the wormhole.  Yeah, you read that right.  There’s a good chance that this is a suicide mission.  Raleigh, by ejecting Mako from the Jaeger before he and Danger go through the wormhole, saves Mako’s life (and, as another friend of mine pointed out, he even gives her his oxygen).  His motivation?  Well, remember where I said Raleigh stares at her in complete adoration all the time?  Remember how I said Raleigh’s story is secondary to Mako’s?  Yep.  Raleigh doesn’t plan to make this a bona fide suicide mission – he ejects himself from the Jaeger just as soon as he’s able – but he wants Mako to make it out of this alive.  It’s not about him getting one last ego boost by being the dude who has the cojones to make the selfless sacrifice or whatever.  That’s not what it’s about at all.  As far as Raleigh’s concerned, Mako is the hero.  It’s about making sure Mako doesn’t, you know, die like so many other WoC characters do (for more on that, see this).

(This bit is especially great because women of color are so seldom portrayed as worthy of rescue.  Chivalry may have relegated white women to damsels in distress, and that’s not a good thing, but it completely screwed over women of color.  Google “strong black woman stereotype” if you want to read more about this.)

One last note:  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Mako Mori Test, found here (scroll down a bit to get to the test itself).  (Also, the original post by chaila makes no mention of this, but the test has come to be specifically meant for WoC characters.)

In conclusion, Mako Mori is not a Trinity Syndrome victim.  Not now, not freakin’ ever.

~~~

Postscript:  I didn’t realize this till after I posted the comment on Facebook, but Raleigh is actually a pretty good example of the female gaze (though the classic example is and always will be George of the Jungle).  Mako gets that moment in the middle of the movie where she looks through her peephole, sees Raleigh sans shirt, and goes holy crap.  Mako, in contrast, isn’t sexualized at all.  Guillermo del Toro purposely avoided that, in fact.

~~~

Other links for stuff I looked at while writing this screed:

http://sanguinarysanguinity.tumblr.com/post/56257180783/pacific-rim-raleigh-and-emotional-intelligence

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DragonLady

http://groupthink.jezebel.com/asian-women-arent-your-oriental-submissive-china-dol-1464199143

http://purtek.wordpress.com/2007/12/04/martyrdom-and-motherhood/#comment-173