Mediocre Expectations: The Failures of Female Representation on Screen
There’s a tendency in Hollywood to market women-led action films as revolutionary. We are at a cultural turning point where every time a woman throws a punch, shoots a gun, or walks slowly away from an explosion, we are told that this is a new moment for feminism on screen. We rest the accolades of progress on multi-million dollar pieces of cellophane, and are gleefully told that every new film with a woman on the poster is the next flashpoint for female-led films. The most frustrating part of all of this is that most blockbuster female-led films – while yes, major studios are starting to see the value of cinema that feature women in action roles – are still being written by men.
Women are just starting to get their foot in the door as blockbuster action stars with their own agency, removed from sexuality or whims of men, and current movies like Tomb Raider and Red Sparrow only serve to disappoint audiences. While it’s fair to say that all movies have to have a gimmick, films with women as leads tend to rely on the hook for success, rather than the quality of the film itself. Tomb Raider rested on the laurels of a decades-long, multimedia franchise, and Red Sparrow, on Jennifer Lawrence’s star power. Other films recently released starring women in action roles, such as Proud Mary, (with Taraji P. Henderson as a capable and fast-acting spy), and Annihilation, (starring Natalie Portman with a supporting cast of four other women), were ignored by audiences. Annihilation was, by most accounts, a better film than any of the others, but with a studio hamstringing its release and minimal marketing, it never had a chance at success.
It’s frustrating that more diverse and unique movies like Proud Mary and Annihilation seem to be glossed over, ignored and ushered out of theaters the same month they are brought in. There is a pervasive belief that the failure of women in film is the failure of all women in film, a problem that men and male-led films never have to face. I doubt Rob Cohen (director of The Fast and the Furious), will suffer any impediments to his career after The Hurricane Heist.
Mediocrity should be good enough, but it isn’t. Women in general, (and women in film specifically), are held to a higher standard. This isn’t anything new, and people have been arguing since Aliens and the early Terminator films that we need more room for characters like Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor to be on screen. Films with women in the lead need to make a statement, or else opportunities for all women are diminished and dismissed as ‘not profitable.’ Women can’t have mediocre films; their careers simply won’t allow for it.
I have nothing against mediocrity. Not every film can be as flat-out fantastic as Wonder Woman (written by a man), or as crafted as Atomic Blonde, (written and directed by men). There is simply an enormous lack of wiggle room when it comes to films that star women. Jason Statham and Bruce Willis can put out a chase scene disguised as a cinematic release every six months, but few women get a chance to be in more than one action sequence in their entire careers. (Exceptions like Charlize Theron do not mean that women have this ability, it simply means that Theron is the exception, and the list of male action heroes would take up the rest of this article.)
It’s sad that modern day big-budget films hire writers who are so inexperienced or wrong for their films. Red Sparrow was a book about a woman, written by a man, adapted for the screen by a man. It’s no surprise that the film handled sexual assault so poorly, and the sheer amount of men praising Red Sparrow might have been shocking, if not for the audacity of the marketing surrounding the film. It’s not as if the trailer, synopsis, or graphic images cater to a female audience. One clip I remember seeing over and over was the image of Jennifer Lawrence in a ridiculously impractical bathing suit passing by Joel Edgerton (in a much more utilitarian suit) while at a pool obviously meant for swimming laps. The entire film was truly a man’s masturbatory power-fantasy, starring Lawrence as an agent provocateur of the most pathetic and immature kind, with no mind of her own and a wishy-washy backstory that was supposed to explain her motivations.
Tomb Raider was conceptualized and written by a woman, Geneva Robertson-Dworet, and helped along by screenwriter Alastair Siddons. This is Robertson-Dworet’s first feature screenplay, and it shows in some of its trite dialogue and overused tropes. Not to mention that Tomb Raider’s SFX crew could have been hired off the production line from the last Uncharted video game.
When every female-led action film has to have some kind of platform on which to make a statement, we end up with films like Tomb Raider and Red Sparrow. Both these films had slick execution, a good aesthetic and the star power that could have made them into hits, but neither capitalized on what worked. What they did have: bland dialogue, weak motivations and one-dimensional women that are carried along by the story. The character of the female lead was sacrificed for a fast-paced narrative and when women are discarded in favor of plot by male writers, directors and producers, it’s obvious. It might be a gift women have, but most of us can tell when a man writes a screenplay. That’s usually not a compliment.*
There is nothing outstanding about this latest Tomb Raider film. It serves as a passable action flick, but not of the blockbuster variety; an adaption of a video game, but not a particularly engaging one, and as much as I wish I could say watching Alicia Vikander kick ass for an hour and a half was exciting, it simply was not enough to carry my interest through this film. There were some highlights. The action was believable, the mythos was unique, and there were some narrative twists that were interesting, even if they weren’t surprising. All the actors did a decent job with what they were given, and Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft, was allowed to be dirty, gritty, and unconcerned with prettiness. I was worried that the camera would take on the typical objectifying male gaze, but that never happened. Lara Croft was never oversexualized or even sexualized at all by the narrative.
Red Sparrow’s huge failure is its rampant misogyny and sexual assault. There are other problems, (mediocre acting, poor characterization, and muddy motivations), but the distracting, obvious problem is the fact that Dominika (Lawrence) has so little control over her own life and choices, and she is endlessly subjected to the male gaze both through the camera and multiple characters on screen.
Red Sparrow, like Tomb Raider, is a thriller-based genre film with a female lead, heavy on the action, with a predominantly male cast supporting the main actress. They both cater to a predominantly male audience and they were marketed as such. Both films are derivative in nature, and neither offer a particularly unique take on their subject matter. Alicia Vikander and Jennifer Lawrence have both stated that they felt empowered by these roles, expressing satisfaction with their characters.
Tomb Raider and Red Sparrow take opposite sides on the platform of women’s action films. In the era of Time’s Up, #MeToo, and the Women’s March, a woman’s sexuality has once again become a mystery to Hollywood. Tomb Raider seems to have taken this into consideration, eliminating sexuality from the film almost entirely, while Red Sparrow swings in a totally different direction, making Dominika’s sexuality her weapon and her body a tool to be used by others. Red Sparrow bills itself as a spy thriller, but this kind of barely-veiled erotica on screen isn’t empowering to watch. At least Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft is in charge of her own body at all times, and her utilitarian outfits, pulled back hair and muscular back are all tightly contained and speak to her ownership of her agency.
It’s unfortunate that these two films were the ones given marketing and distribution support by studios. Both set back the fight to create more action roles for women, and neither establish their leading actors as action stars. Vikander might break out into more physical roles (her work with the jilted lines and sometimes over the top stuntwork were some of the highlights of Tomb Raider), but Lawrence has defied pigeonholing despite her notoriety as a new generation of starlet. It’s discouraging to see these two well-known actresses given roles like this: lackluster on screen, stilted on the page, and disappointing in their execution.
I wish that I could dismiss these films as mediocre and move on to better, more diverse and more exciting films led by women, such as A Wrinkle in Time, or the upcoming Oceans 8, but the huge budgets and wide audience that these films received makes them hard to pass over. In the end, while they both made money, neither film was truly successful. At least Tomb Raider is moderately enjoyable, but Red Sparrow is nearly unwatchable during parts. I hope that these films are written off as simply failures of writing and production, and not failures of selling women-led films to an audience.
There is simply not enough representation of women in action films to create a deep enough pool for people to pick and choose which female-led films influence major studios. Women are making progress, but until there is true, visible equity and diversity in action films, every film will be held up as a litmus test to determine whether or not another film with a woman as the lead is profitable or marketable, or if the field is oversaturated or underdeveloped, or if something is too risky or too boring. Until there’s a Bruce Willis among women who can rehash the same plot line ten times in five years and STILL be hired for the exact same character, every woman-led movie will be subject to scrutiny far beyond any film that stars a man.
I ask that mediocrity be allowed to pass as mediocrity. Trying to make arguments about empowerment is futile, because so few movies make any attempt to fully empower their female characters beyond a single lead. I will settle for simply having more films helmed by women, in front of and behind the camera. Maybe next season will be better.
*I’ve heard the same thing said about black audiences watching films made by white people, and queer audiences watching films that center around straight people. Nobody ever gets everything right.
Linda H. Codega
Linda is a twenty-something millennial living and working in the Hudson Valley who loves fandom, pop culture, sailing, tarot cards, and crying in movie theaters. If you want to listen to them talk about pop culture, the repeating cycles of media, and those stories that we can’t get out of our heads, you can listen to their podcast, Retronym, on iTunes.