(Spoilers for Power Rangers ahead.)
So in my Power Rangers review, I happened to write the following:
A good amount of time is spent on Kimberly’s angst, and on how her recent actions have alienated her from her social circle, and made her begin feeling a measure of self-hatred. When we’re told what the inciting incident to all this is—she maliciously shared a nude pic of a classmate to humiliate her, it feels a bit out of proportion to her response, but that’s just me an adult and official old person. She believes this makes her horrible, and that’s what matters.
It got some critical feedback, which is good, not only because it means that somebody read the review and cared enough about it to disagree, but also, because there’s a lot worth criticizing in the statement, notably, the suggestion that sharing a nude pic of a friend–a female friend, at that–is no big deal.
To be absolutely clear, what Kimberly did is objectively terrible, and Kimberly is right to characterize herself as terrible for having done it*. I know this, I knew it when I watched the film, and I knew it when I wrote the review. Despite this, my main takeaway from that scene, while watching it for the first time and writing about it, is “Kim, you sweet, beautiful overdramatic child.” The terribleness of it doesn’t really come across on any emotional level, and I’ve spent some time since then thinking of why that is the case.
Part of it is my own damn fault, of course, for not immediately seeing all the angles even when made plain and empathizing more about the character I cared about rather than the ones she’d harmed. Another part of it, though, is the way the film deals with that moment and how it characterized Kimberly in comparison to the people she betrayed, and, more in general, with the film’s portrayal of Kim as a mean girl in the larger context of mean girls on film and TV. If Kim’s actions don’t feel as the big deal they are, it is because as terrible as Kimberly’s betrayal of her friends and general slut-shaming (and, technically, illegal distribution of child pornography) are, they are positively dwarfed in that larger context.
Pretty Little Liars starts out with the girls having blinded a classmate, and is steeped in blackmail and murder. Riverdale is headed in that same direction. Mean Girls has Cady manipulate Regina George into altering her body in unwanted, possibly irreversible ways. Heathers was all about murder, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer had its characters slut-shame as casually as they breathed. And it’s not the antagonists that do this–or rather, it’s not only they who do it. It’s (also) the heroes, the ones we’re made to root for, while being all glamorous and pretty and sympathetic, without the self-recrimination Kimberly displays during her confession, in stories where the effects of their actions tend to be downplayed, victims tend to be less affected the more time we’re meant to spend with them, and forgiveness is granted with disturbing ease. Taken together, it has a definitive desensitizing effect, making the terrible feel not so, or even awesome at times. Mona Vanderwaal may be a killer and blackmailer, but damn if I don’t love every bit of her.
And really, the film itself doesn’t help. Kimberly’s victims aren’t really characters, they’re extras whose main quality is being catty in a way designed to draw sympathy away from them and towards Kimberly; they are pissed, and rightfully so, but they do not seem harmed. And we really don’t get to see pre-epiphany Kimberly, which means we’re left to draw our conclusions from the version we see on screen.* All of which makes the confession scene feel unbalanced, with only Naomi Scott to sell it. As mentioned in the review, she succeeds, to some degree, but perhaps not all the necessary ones.
The thing is, though, that none of that should matter. Kim is clear about what she does, and what she does is terrible. And yet it does. There are a lot of dimensions to Kimberly’s story, and those dimensions all got the short shrift in my review, and my thoughts were expressed in the worst, most dismissive and harmful form–one that I, for all it’s worth, apologize for.
* There’s one moment in the film where we get an unvarnished hint of what Old Kimberly may have been like, and that’s the moment when she takes pleasure at seeing her former friends’ car wrecked during the Goldar battle, perhaps not considering that she and her friends were a few feet away from being squashed. There are a lot of arguments that one could make about that scene, as it goes on to suggest a whole lot of things about Kimberly’s story arc that don’t really get elaboration, and make it feel as if its missing some necessary pieces rather than simply unfinished, as, say, Trini’s. That said, I’m not sure I see that ambiguity as a flaw, and I hope it’s something the writers either intentionally included or noticed after the fact, and that it gets more development in subsequent films. It deserves to.