Transformers: The Last Knight was supposed to be different. The trailer sold it as a girl power robot riot, which was novel for a series that sticks to strict formula of robots, a male protagonist, and the occasional woman-as-sex-object.
Isabela Moner plays Izabella with a "Z," a 14-year-old autobot caretaker who wants you to know that girls can be tough. The preview is essentially a Beginner's Guide To Grrrrl Power — Izabella defends the phrase "fight like a girl" and growls at the little boys who dare to question her strength.
Bad news: Izabella is barely in the movie. Feminism is also barely in the movie, a headache-inducing romp through space and time. Her appearance in the preview is about all there is to her role — it's as if production, upon seeing the popularity of Millie Bobby Brown in Stranger Things, decided the movie needed a last-minute injection of tween girl empowerment.
Izabella isn't even the main woman character in the movie. She wasn't featured in the trailer, but Vivian (Laura Haddock) is the head honcho here. She's a British professor-doctorate-lawyer-something with a preference for body-con dresses. She's important to the world of Megatron and autobots because — spoiler alert — she's the Last Knight. A direct descendant of Merlin (yes, that Merlin), she's the only one who can wield the staff that can harness the magic of transformers. On paper, Vivian's storyline is actually more feminist than Izabella's. Izabella shows up in a football field for five minutes during the film's exposition; Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) decides shortly after she's too small to join the real fight and asks her to stay at the junkyard while the adults go off to fight. Enter: Vivian, the woman who's old enough to be an object! She's highly-educated, good at polo, and her family keeps asking why she's still single, i.e. she's a textbook Strong Woman.
Vivian's supposed to be the human hero of this story, as the titular last knight, but naturally, she suffers at the hands of the male gaze. (Sigh.) When she dons a low-cut sheath dress, Cade complains that he has to listen to "a woman wearing a stripper dress."
"Perhaps you'd feel more comfortable if I took it off," she replies. I'm still not sure if she was flirting or unleashing some sarcasm. Cade then agrees that yes, she should take the dress off. Then, Anthony Hopkins* tells them to stop fighting. (Stop flirting.) As much as I hoped Vivian would be our Eowyn, whipping off her mask during the final fight to reveal "she's no man," she's not. The professor/doctorate/J. Crew-model is a love interest for Cade and little more than set dressing for all the cool robots.
The robots are the main focus in this series, which contributes to the gender issue. The Transformers series has always been one for the boys, the same way Bratz have always been for girls. There are giant robots! Fighting! The first movie featured an oiled-up Megan Fox, leaning seductively over a car. (Allegedly, Fox was never comfortable with the way director Michael Bay sexualized her in the movie. She didn't return after the first movie, and her role has been filled by various other nubile women characters.)
This was never more apparent than when I sat down to see Transformers: The Last Knight next to a pack of tween boys and heard one proclaim, "I don't want to see any humans in this movie — only robots." I'll never know who made the arbitrary decision that, for boys, machinery would be awesome and, for girls, ponies preferred, but the marketing tactic seems to have worked.
Trouble is, girls like me escape through the cracks. (Talk to me about Pacific Rim sometime.) Because bots are the main characters, humanistic themes can seem fairly out-of-reach. Izabella and Vivian can never be as important as Bumblebee and Optimus Prime.
So, Transformers won't escape its robots-for-boys confines until it gives us a woman autobot, preferably a badass one. The villain of The Last Knight is Quintessa, an Ursula-inspired autobot who, it turns out, needs Optimus Prime to kill everyone on Earth. (It's complicated. This movie leans on Harry Potter rhetoric by saying something like "no planet can live while the other survives.") It says a lot about my generosity to this franchise that I was delighted at the idea of a transformer-cum-femme-fatale, even one who is barely on screen.
That's what I need from Transformers, though. I don't need girl power. I don't need a professor-y person who, in the middle of a fight to save Earth, kisses Mark Wahlberg. I don't need a 14-year-old orphan who's given the nickname of "Little J. Lo." I need woman robots — and not just a love interest for Bumblebee. Make no mistake; they may be robots, but the autobots in this franchise all present as men.
In most ways, Transformers: The Last Knight is not a feminist movie. It doesn't pass the Bechdel test, mainly because the people in this movie don't talk about anything other than robots. Its attempt at Logan-style little girl badassery is limp at best, and its stab at Wonder Woman-style heroism is soaked in made-for-men cinematic style. Quintessa, then, is our only hope. There's going to be another movie in this series — what, you think they're just going to stop making them? — and that one had better have a few lady robots. This particular lady robot needs that to happen.
*No one knows why Anthony Hopkins was in this movie.
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