I don’t pay attention to critics of film. I often, in fact, go out of my way to avoid other people’s opinions of a film before I’ve seen it. And afterwards, I may go check out what other people thought, but I don’t really care that much. What one will enjoy is pretty subjective, and the collective consensus about pop culture skews white, straight and male to a degree I find positively demoralizing.
This is all to say I mostly don’t give much of a fuck about the Oscars. I sometimes watch them for the red carpet spectacle and fashion, but I didn’t last night. It’s nice that Jordan Peele won best writer for Get Out, though. (Kind of ridiculous that he was the first black person ever to win best writer, though. We have so far to go and just a huge history of bullshit to try to dismantle.)
Anyhow, while I didn’t see the oscars, I did get out to see Red Sparrow. I was amused afterwards when I looked up info about it on the way out of the theater to see that people were accusing it of “failing at its women’s empowerment message”. I have no idea where they got the notion that it was supposed to have a women’s empowerment message. Certainly not textually. Maybe the director said something somewhere?
Anyhow, it’s a spy/counterspy film set (largely) in Russia. And its the kind of story where everyone is super dangerous and the Russians speaking to each other basically never speak in Russians, but always have Russian accents. It’s a bit too thriller-y for my usual tastes, but it’s a woman-led action movie, so it made it onto my list anyway.
Before I saw it, I was calling it “the sort-of Black Widow” movie. The heroine does indeed have some cosmetic parallels to the Marvel character – ballet, deception, catch 22s and coercion.
The story is not really exceptional if one is familiar with the spy thriller genre. The only things that really do distinguish it are that a woman is the main character and the focus on sexual exploitation as a spy gambit.
This is where any argument about its ever being intended to be about women’s empowerment falls right down for me. It’s not about voluntary use of sex as a tool in a spy’s arsenal. It’s about people who don’t quite know what they’re in for being trained as mini modern Mata Haris. There are male-bodied folks as well as female in the training program, but most of the grinding humiliation and forced participation is directed at female characters.
The fact that Jennifer Lawrence’s main character gets a little slice of her own back by the end of the film after being put through this program is mildly emotionally satisfying but in no way diminishes not just the story she’s been through nor how the movie chooses to tell the story.
Both the story and the movie are about exploiting womens’ sexuality. And the story is engaging, but it’s not groundbreaking nor particularly political (ironic for a spy thriller, I guess). I feel as though if a similar film had been made with the same characters 10-20 years ago, Lawrence’s character would not have been the main character but would have been an accessory to some guy’s story.
The one thing that is slightly empowering, in a cold, shattered sort of way, is that our heroine ultimately saves herself. There are a lot of men in the story pressing her in many directions and putting her in invidious positions over and over and she uses what she’s learned to outsmart, outlast and manipulate them. It’s a story about creating new options for yourself when you’re given a choice of evils, but it doesn’t lead us to believe that the new third way is, in contrast, an unequivocal good.
For my many sensitive friends, I will say that the film has many, many awful scenes – torture, sexual coercion, violent rape & rape attempts. Basically all the CWs ever should go on this film. I didn’t find the rapes to be diminished or sexualized, for what little that’s worth.
It kind of reminded me of La Femme Nikita in attitude, though this is a more difficult watch (and I didn’t find Nikita easy). I’m sure that it’d be enjoyable to folks who are comfortable enough with spy genre tropes. I’m equally sure that the mild emotional satisfaction the resolution of the film brings is not remotely enough for anyone uncomfortable with any of the plot elements I mentioned to push through and watch it anyway.
So, honestly, the best thing about it is probably that it out-performed Bruce Willis’ Death Wish at the box office in the first weekend. As well it should. As little empowerment as Red Sparrow offered, it has to be better than two women fridged in the first ten minutes as motivation for the main character. And in our current climate of mass shootings, I’d really rather see sex used as a weapon than weapons used as solutions to All The Things in my downtime.