Savages: not the kind of poly representation we need

This post contains spoilers right to the end for Savages. If you haven’t seen Savages yet, read this and save yourselves the price of a cinema ticket and two hours of your life. 

I went to see Savages today. The film has generated quite a bit of buzz in the poly community, as it’s a mainstream poly film wherein the relationship between the characters isn’t the main focus. What could possibly go wrong? Well, absolutely everything.

Our protagonist is a woman called O–which is short for OMG PLEASE STOP DOING CAPTAIN OBVIOUS VOICE-OVERS IT’S PRETTY GRATING–and her two male partners, Nice Boyfriend and Violent Boyfriend (I think they had names, but to be honest, this was the depth of their characterisation). They’re in a V-relationship (or as the mainstream media reviews tend to put it, O is their “shared girlfriend”).

Nice Boyfriend and Violent Boyfriend run a cannabis operation, where Nice Boyfriend does all the nice bits and Violent Boyfriend does all the violent bits. Meanwhile, O is just sort of there. Then one day, some mean Mexicans decide they want to take over the Boyfriends’ business, and because they’re the baddies, they kidnap O, and the Boyfriends work together to rescue her. Lots of violence ensues.

There’s a lot wrong with this film. So much that it’s pretty difficult to know where to start, so excuse me for being kind of stream-of-consciousness, because it’s so intersectionally awful that I’ll probably end up tackling it all at once.

Firstly, it’s pretty fucking sexist. There are two major female characters in this film. The first is O, who is our standard passive Hollywood damsel. She lets the men get on with their business while she just does… something. It’s not clear what she does, what she likes, anything. Awful, cardboard cutout characterisation is a hallmark of this film. O just provides a droning voice-over at various points in the film where the writers can’t be bothered to show rather than tell. She gets kidnapped and raped, and is largely a rather grating McGuffin so the men can do their thing.

Our other woman is Elena Sanchez, played by a Salma Hayek who looked a little young for the role she was shoved into. Elena is the head of a Mexican drug cartel, who starts out as a cardboard cutout female baddie, right down to the red dress. At this point, I’d thought the character was put in to detract criticism from the passivity of the other female lead, but it is later revealed that she’s so evil because her husband and sons were killed. And then motherhood turns out to be her major weakness, which is exploited by the Boyfriends who kidnap her daughter in order to get O back (they literally stuff this woman into a fridge during the kidnap).

Because O is so horribly badly characterised and lacking a single trait other than vapidity, it’s hard to see why the Boyfriends want her back. Perhaps it’s because she’s the only person in the world as one-dimensional as they.

You might have noticed that the baddies are Mexican. This is not handled in a way that is anything other than really fucking racist. We are presented with two sides. On the one side, we have the white, blonde O and the white Boyfriends. They are the GOODIES. On the other side, there’s a bunch of Mexicans. They are the BADDIES. The GOODIES describe the BADDIES as “savages” occasionally, presumably as the scriptwriters give each other a self-congratulatory pat on the arse for having managed to name-check the title so clunkily. Meanwhile, the BADDIES think the GOODIES are savages because they’re in a poly relationship. Yes. They say that. They actually say that.

As well as Elena Sanchez, there’s also two other Mexican baddies of note. One is played by Benicio del Toro, and his character is a rapist and a murderer and generally a thoroughly unpleasant human being. The other is a young guy who ends up getting killed by Benicio and I’m not entirely sure why. They’re all just cardboard cutouts, with various stereotypes about Hispanic people tacked on for good measure.

Also present is benevolent sexism. Nice Boyfriend is shown to be nice because sometimes he goes to Africa and cuddles brown children.

Now, it’s worth looking at where the characters end up to lay bare the fucking mess of sexism and racism in this fucking film, but this matter is complicated by the fact the film has two endings. It has a sad ending, wherein everybody dies, and a happy ending, which is the “actual” ending. This isn’t some alternate ending deal, though. It’s like they decided this film was so shit that nobody would shell out for the DVD so just stuck both endings in the film, with the sad ending being something O and her irritating voice-overs have just made up.

In the “actual” ending, Elena gets arrested along with all the other Mexicans except Benicio, who has quite a nice ending and lives happily ever after. The (white) cop who does the operation does really, really fucking well for himself. O is rescued by not one, but two men, and our protagonist triad go and live somewhere remote and cuddle brown children.

Among all the racism and sexism, it isn’t even that good a depiction of polyamory. This might be somewhat related to Hollywood’s general aversion to sex, while it embraces violence. We get teased with the beginnings of a threesome scene which fades to black before the clothes even come off, while we are treated to, among other things, a kneecapping scene and a shot of a big fucking hole in the back of someone’s head. So perhaps this goes some way to explaining the utter clusterfuck of the main relationship.

O explicitly describes her two partners as being equivalent to one–each representing a “half” of something she needs. Nice Boyfriend is nice; Violent Boyfriend is violent, and a voice-over informs us of exactly how they are opposites of each other and the only thing they have in common with each other is O (and their drug business, which O has conveniently forgotten for the purpose of the voice-over). Um, right.

In the bad ending, Nice Boyfriend is shot in the neck and Definitely Going To Die, so the other two commit suicide and they all die together in the desert, because apparently the writers couldn’t possibly imagine any other way for a poly relationship where one partner dies could end.  Meanwhile, in the happy ending, in another of O’s fucking voice-overs, O informs us that she isn’t sure if three people can ever love each other in a way that is balanced, and that they’ve become savages and she’d rather not live like a savage. And they cuddle some brown children, and they cuddle each other. In both endings, they pay their dues for their sin.

So, in short, it’s a terrible film. Yes, it depicts some characters who happen to be poly, but quite frankly if it’s happening in films that awful, I’d rather we stayed invisible.

“You’re polyamorous, right? Like in the execrable Savages?”

No. Nothing of the sort.

10 thoughts on “Savages: not the kind of poly representation we need”

  1. Actually makes me glad that we live miles from a decent cinema. One thought occurs, given the name of the main female character, and the violent boyfriend /nice boyfriend. Has someone read The Story of O and in an incredibly trite and non subtle way attempted to update the characters? I could see Hollywood putting Rene in the “nice ” box and Sir Stephen in the nasty?
    Or, as seems likely from your description am I assuming far more thought than has gone into what sounds like a terrible movie on every level?

    1. I was thinking a bit about that myself, and sadly I don’t think that much thought was put into it. It really was that lazy and bad.

      1. If I ever do write that novel everyone is said to have in them, it will be about how you can have a poly relationship and you know, its not that damn different, someone still has to change the cat litter and put the bins out,and no one dies or leaves for a life of celibacy. But with whips.

  2. Yeah, I pretty much predicted this almost as soon as I read the synopsis. Pretty good racist Hollywood trope is evil brown/black people, usually men, kidnap a pure white woman. As a writer, I wouldn’t touch that plot point with a ten foot pole. There’s just so much contextual racist history around it that there’s no bloody way you can pull that off WITHOUT it being racist, even if you were relatively conscious of that issue. Let alone Hollywood writers, who seem to be as socially conscious and aware of privilege as a brick wall.

    I avoided seeing it because I can’t handle rape scenes but so many people were really excited about this because it’s *poly*. TBH, I wish people would stop calling shit poly unless people actually SAY it’s poly. This is a continual problem, not just when you get depictions like this which are made of fail, but when poly people cherrypick without cultural context or understanding practices of other cultures in different times and call them “poly”. And seeing as I’m a non-monogamous person who purposefully doesn’t ID as poly, I’d be annoyed with someone tacking that onto me. Not every incidence of non-monogamy is necessarily poly or even necessarily good. Hopefully people will see this film and realise that.

    1. There were some people behind me in the cinema offering their commentary throughout. Apparently, the main character was a “slut”. Sigh.

    2. “I wish people would stop calling shit poly unless people actually SAY it’s poly. This is a continual problem, not just when you get depictions like this which are made of fail, but when poly people cherrypick without cultural context or understanding practices of other cultures in different times and call them “poly”. And seeing as I’m a non-monogamous person who purposefully doesn’t ID as poly, I’d be annoyed with someone tacking that onto me.”

      This !^^^^^^^^^^^^^

      I have to agree about the identification as poly, I have,but currently struggle to, generally because originally it seemed to describe me, (I am in committed relationships with two people, one the person I live with, the other my Dominant in a D/s relationship) The problem is poly groups kept telling me what was and wasn’t acceptable

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