By Sigrid Ellis
I find strength, agency, endurance and anger in the most unlikely works of fiction. I would not dream of telling someone that they are wrong to value a story. A work of art is empowering when the audience finds power in it.
Amid the current barrage of science fiction, superhero, fantasy, and horror films there is a quiet, steady stream of movies that star women. Tough women. Women of action. Women who are the star of the film or franchise, without whom the story would not exist. This is good.
However, the women are largely young, thin, white, conventionally very attractive, and dressed in a manner that presents their bodies in a constant sexual display. This is what we call problematic bullshit.
There is a moment in Resident Evil 3: Extinction in which our protagonist, Alice, finds a trench filled with bodies of her clones. Alice, played by Milla Jovovich, is horrified. The camera cuts quickly to her dead clones, all identically clad in the same red dress. They are interchangeable. They are disposable. The clones are, as is stated in the film, failures. They are not worth burying.
This moment exemplifies one of the strongest in–world messages of the movie: Alice is property to be used and thrown aside. But we watch Alice recognize her dead clone sisters. We see her eyes narrow, her jaw clench, and fifteen minutes later, we see her launch a vendetta that will burn the world in order to save it. Alice’s courage and determination, her autonomy, make her a strong female action hero.
Do we need to see the scantily–clad dead bodies of disposable women in order for the film to make this point? We support Alice in her rage, we support her as she shoots zombies and takes down the evil Umbrella Corporation. Do we support her choice to wear hot pants and a halter top?
At this point I need to mention false consciousness. I won’t take too long, promise.
False consciousness is the idea that the oppressed (you, me, women, queers, people of color, most of the planet) cannot recognize the tools of our oppression. That the downtrodden participate in oppressing ourselves while falsely thinking we are making free choices. The lack of diversity in female action heroes means that we are forced into upholding unrealistic standards of appearance, youth, and gender. False consciousness is the idea that we don’t know this — that we can’t see the problem. False consciousness tells me that I can’t admire female action heroes without buying all the rest of the crap. This is, frankly, bullshit.
So, back to Alice and her halter top and nudity. Could I wish that not every female action hero be scantily clad? I could. I do. But I refuse to agree that the clothes a woman wears — even a character in a film, dressed by corporate filmmakers — somehow makes her less of a fucking badass.
Go on. Try telling Alice that you are judging her based on her clothes. Let me get some popcorn first.
We consume fiction and take from it those things we need to live, grow, and thrive, even when the fictions available are imperfect, misogynist, complicated, or contradictory. And,believe me, the fictions available aren’t that great. If I restricted myself to watching critically–acclaimed films, it would be a total sausage–fest. Critically–acclaimed cinema is miles of films by dudes, featuring dudes, about dude–related problems which aresupposed to be universal. Life is short. Time is finite. I am not going to spend my precious movie–watching time on The Anguish of Being a Dude.
When I want to watch a woman who is tired of dude–related bullshit, I watch marginal, low–budget genre films. When I want to see a woman take matters into her own hands, kick ass, blow shit up, and save the world, I watch imperfect, complicated, sometimes contradictory genre fiction. The movie Jennifer’s Body is one such brilliantly complicated and imperfect genre film.
Jennifer’s Body is a horror–comedy. One interpretation of the movie is that this is the story of a hot, sexy, slightly stupid teenage girl who makes bad decisions and is killed for them. Her hot, sexy body is then taken over by a sexy demon who uses sex powers to lure–and–then–eat sex–crazed and slightly stupid teenage boys. In this version of the film the homely–but–smart best friend, Needy, is given the role of trying to save or avenge the now–dead Jennifer. In the final moments of the film she succeeds, having taken on some of the demon’s sexy magic.
In this version, Jennifer’s power as a mortal comes from her hot body and willingness to have sex. Her power as undead comes from her hot body and willingness to have sex withanyone.
However. Jennifer’s Body is also about the strength of female friendship. Needy and Jennifer have been friends since kindergarten. Needy is smarter than Jennifer, works harder than Jennifer, and has a loving and supportive boyfriend in Chip. Jennifer clearly believes that her strength — that all the strength a woman can have — comes from sex. Needy just as clearly knows that Jennifer is wrong. Yet these two love each other anyway. Jennifer loves Needy even though she worries that Needy might actually secretly be better than her in some way. Needy loves Jennifer even though Jennifer is slightly mean and demanding because she can see the insecurity and wants to protect her friend. Against all the social slings and arrows that junior high and high school can produce, these two refuse to let anyone or anything come between them. As Needy says in the film, “Sandbox love never dies.”
When Jennifer is kidnapped for human sacrifice by the band Low Shoulder, Needy fights for her. When Jennifer returns as something akin to a succubus, Needy keeps her secret, defends her friend, and searches for ways to save Jennifer. And Jennifer… doesn’t eat or kill Needy. It’s an extension of their entire relationship — Needy makes life easier for Jennifer while not challenging her, and Jennifer doesn’t ever abandon Needy for cooler, sexier friends. They know they love each other. They know what they each give to and get from the other. And not even death will end that.
Ultimately, of course, it does end. This isn’t Jennifer anymore, it’s a demon wearing her body. In their final conflict, the demon is winning until Needy breaks the BFF necklace. Jennifer, betrayed, loses her concentration. Needy kills her. It’s the last gift she can give to the girl she loves.
Strength. Power. Agency. While overtly associated with the body of Jennifer, Needy is the bedrock of the friendship. And Jennifer knows this, relies on it, and will not betray or abandon Needy until she is past dead and her body is host to a nightmare.
Yet the film giveth, and the film taketh away. Jennifer’s Bodyuses the first interpretation I offered to tell the story of the second. To undermine the idea that sex is power, Jennifer’s Body shows us that sex is power. While denying the stereotype that girls always fight and compete, we first see Jennifer being mean to Needy, we see Needy’s loyalty, and we see the demon in Jennifer fight and compete with Needy. To subvert the notion that a woman’s power comes from being an object, Jennifer’s Bodymakes the body of Jennifer an object for men to use.
Complicate, imperfect fictions. But I get to choose the parts of the story that give me strength, hope, and determination. You get to make the same choices and I would not dream of speaking ill of them. A film can be objectifying and misogynist and still be a source of power for the audience. Sucker Punch is the perfect example of this contradiction.
In Sucker Punch, we have five women who are presented as abused patients in a mental hospital. These same five women are also, in fantasy sequence, unwilling prostitutes. And in further fantasy sequences the five are warriors, pilots, ninjas, magic–wielding mech–driving badass motherfuckers. Their dark, luxurious, long, false eyelashes are the same in every scene, no matter which world or fantasy the women occupy. No matter their power, position, or lack thereof, their faces look bruised and hollow.
Sucker Punch is not a well–made film. In one interpretation we can conclude that the opening scene’s point of view character, Baby Doll, is committed to the institution because she tried to protect her sister from rape. She is lobotomized at the end of her first week. All other scenes in the film are her fantasy in the moments before the lobotomization.
If this is the narrative you take from the film, women are objects, without power, used sexually, discarded and further violated to protect their abusers. In every scene, the women are presented as sexually available. In this interpretation the viewer is supposed to find a mech pilot, a trapped prostitute, and a sexually abused mental patient equally sexy. Remember the lush, perfect false eyelashes. It feels gross to even think about.
But there is a second narrative in this mess. The narration voice–overs are not by Baby Doll, but by Sweet Pea. It is possible to see the prostitution fantasy not as Baby Doll’s, but as Sweet Pea’s method of coping with life in the institution. The violent action fantasies become part of Sweet Pea’s life when she meets Baby Doll. Baby Doll is the catalyst for an escape plan, enacted both in fantasy and reality, which results in Sweet Pea getting away. She is free.
I wish for movies in which badassery is not only–and–forever paired with a limited notion of fuckability. But, despite the costuming and the makeup and those damn false eyelashes,Sucker Punch is the story that makes me bare my teeth and pump a fuck–yeah fist in the air. This is a story of women who have had absolutely everything taken from them, who steal power back by any means necessary. This is a narrative of women joining forces to carve out safety and freedom. This is women with every damn reason in the world to give up, lie down, and die — who don’t.
They will not give their abusers the fucking satisfaction of surrender.
Are these films and the other action, fantasy, and horror films that star women — such as Underworld, Kill Bill, Salt, Aeon Flux, Domino, Elektra, Ultraviolet, or Haywire — empowering? Yes. Without question. Are many of them exploitative, problematic, and full of male–gaze sexual–pandering bullshit? Yes. Many of them. Without question.
So fucking what.
This is where the female–power party is at. It’s here in the action films made mostly by dudes who think women with guns are hot. That’s okay — I believe that you and I are smart enough to find strength while rolling our eyes at bullshit.
Power is present. Agency is here. And nobody but you gets to choose your strong female–hero role models.
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