Dear ‘Ocean’s 8’ Creators: We Can Do Female Characters Better
By Aya de Leon
I suspect it may have been Mabel Maney who ruined the movie Ocean’s 8 for me. In 2001, Maney wrote my one of my favorite novels Kiss the Girls and Make Them Spy: A Jane Bond Parody. In it, James Bond’s twin sister, Jane Bond, is called upon by Her Majesty to stand in on a mission after her brother is diagnosed as “a homicidal depressive paranoiac.” Jane is an androgynous lesbian who impersonates her brother perfectly. Dear Ocean’s 8 creators: that’s how you do the sister-of-the-famous-suspense-movie-guy trope.
In many ways, my own heist series, Justice Hustlers, is inspired by Maney’s work. I also have these all-girl crews who run around doing their part to make trouble, have fun and generally upset the patriarchy. While Maney wrote an all-gay world, I write a world where straight, queer and trans women all find love, sex and trouble. Plus, they conspire together to steal things.
Ocean’s 8 stars Sandra Bullock as Debbie Ocean along with Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, and Helena Bonham Carter. Debbie Ocean masterminds the robbery of a $150M necklace from the Met Gala. As the first mainstream female heist film, I really wanted to love Ocean’s 8, but the film couldn’t decide if it was a remake of Ocean’s 11 with a female cast, or a little sister story. On the one hand, it follows the 2001 narrative: A member of the notorious Ocean family gets out of jail and pulls off a heist. On the other hand, it sets Debbie up as Danny’s younger sister. Danny is conveniently dead, presumably, so we don’t have to explain why he’s not part of the team? Why couldn’t Debbie just be the mastermind in her own right? Oh yeah, sexism. But it undermines at more than just the abstract level, because the already long film wastes two critical scenes establishing Debbie’s relationship to her dead brother instead of investing in the relationships with the living women on her team.
And speaking of her team, we never get to see her take charge in the same way her brother does. There’s a great scene in Ocean’s 11 where Danny lays out the con to the team for the first time, and he wins them over. That scene establishes him as the criminal mastermind. In contrast, Debbie Ocean never bosses up the same way. She delivers the movie’s best line: “So whatever happens tonight, I want you to remember one thing. You’re not doing this for me. You’re not doing this for you. Somewhere out there is an 8-year-old girl lying in bed dreaming of being a criminal. Let’s do this for her.” But she doesn’t deliver it from a place of power, standing in front of her team like Danny Ocean would have. Instead, she delivers the line alone into the bathroom mirror, while applying mascara, as the team walks by in the background, barely paying her any mind.
And why is Debbie Ocean stealing anyway? Her motivation is lackluster. She says simply “because it’s what I’m good at.” But part of what makes writing a heist series so much fun is developing the incentive to steal. I write in the tradition of Robin Hood. For each book, I get to think up new things women could be angry about, and reasons to steal things from people who don’t deserve them. In my first novel, Uptown Thief (2016), the protagonist stumbles across an opportunity to rob a group of corrupt corporate CEOs involved in a Mexican sex trafficking scandal. In my second book, The Boss (2017), the main character needs to steal something from the Ukrainian mob, in order to help a group of exotic dancers to form a union to protect themselves against mob violence and economic exploitation. In my third book The Accidental Mistress (2018), a woman loses everything in a case of mistaken identity and needs to clear her name. To do that, she’ll need to steal everything back from the strip club mogul who skipped town with the pension fund and the investor money. The fourth book, Side Chick Nation (2019) takes place during Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. The characters are all connected, and each book is about a different woman finding herself pushed to her limits, and doing what she needs to do, in order to set things right.
I didn’t need Ocean’s 8 to be a Robin Hood story, but if the goal isn’t justice, I still wanted a female hero. I wanted to see Debbie Ocean leading a slick, seasoned gang of female thieves, every bit as badass as her older brother, if not moreso.
Even the final scene isn’t about Debbie celebrating with her team. Instead, she’s sitting alone, drinking a martini at her brother’s grave. Such a disappointment. I wanted the scene where she and her best friend ride off into the sunset together for more adventures.
If Ocean’s 8 was just supposed to be a fun chick flick, can we at least keep the women from being upstaged by dead guys who aren’t even in the film? But really, I want more than that. In 2018, given all of the challenges that women face, the Me Too and Time’s Up movements, the fight for equal pay, the attacks on healthcare, I would have wanted more resistance. Why can’t books and movies be fun and have a social justice message? I guess at the end of the day, I like my patriarchy shaken, not stirred.
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About the Author
Aya de Leon teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley. Kensington Books publishes her award-winning feminist heist series, Justice Hustlers: Uptown Thief (2016), The Boss (2017), The Accidental Mistress (2018), and in 2019 Side Chick Nation about the hurricane in Puerto Rico. She has received acclaim in Washington Post, Village Voice, and SF Chronicle. Her work has appeared in Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, The Root, VICE, and on Def Poetry. Aya is at work on two suspense novels: Operation Hologram, about FBI infiltration of an African American political organization, and a black spy girl book for teens called Going Dark.
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