Over the last few weeks I’ve watched a number of movies and series. They include Jessica Jones (Netflix), Annihilation (Netflix), Red Sparrow (at the cinema), and Black Panther (at the cinema)
I’ve been struck by the differences and similarities between them, and the way women are represented in each of them.
The character of Jessica Jones fascinates me. She’s deeply dysfunctional, yet deeply and desperately emotionally connected, while still emotionally void – or at least avoiding emotion by drinking constantly. Brought up in an adopted, and also highly dysfunctional family, she has super powers as well. So there she is, a super powered private eye, with a history of alcoholism, disastrous relationships, and complicating other things that I won’t go into because…spoilers.
And yet, she is a woman who continues to determine her own destiny, despite all her messiness and sometimes self destructive behaviour. Rarely do we see gratuitous shots of Jessica Jones, designed solely for the male gaze.
Lena, in Annihilation, is a scientist married to a soldier who has vanished on a mission many, many months previously. Like Jessica Jones, she has a few hidden secrets which are slowly revealed over the course of the movie. Once again, she is self determining, and a woman who does what she needs to. Apart from the occasional flash back scene, she is generally fully clothed.
Black Panther, while not a movie primarily about women, is full of women, and full of empowered, thoughtful and clever women, who are proud of their country and of themselves. They are portrayed as fully fleshed characters, and they are uniformly real, engaging, and very much human
Dominika (Red Sparrow), begins the movie as a prima ballerina in the Bolshoi Ballet. The movie takes her from there into the world of the Red Sparrows – spies who use sex in order to ‘serve Mother Russia.’ It was a movie that had rather more graphic sex and violence than I expected to see. (I did expect to see some, given the subject matter, but not as graphically.) In contrast to Lena and Jessica, for much of the movie, Dominika appears powerless. This does change eventually, and we see more in retrospect by the end.
But, in even more stark contrast to the other three stories, we see Dominika naked quite regularly. Naked, and filmed in a way that is quite clearly designed for the male gaze. We do see a full frontal male naked shot, but only very briefly, and almost as an afterthought – a token, perhaps.
Although we understand by the end of the film that Dominika is cleverer and has more foresight than we might anticipate, it’s the filming of what goes on that makes this movie different to the others. Jessica Jones does have sex (it’s a Netflix series, so sex is pretty well a given) but the way it’s done is much less gratuitous – I know that sounds weird, but bear with me.
Jessica Jones is never an object for the viewer. Dominika is. And that’s what sets Red Sparrow apart. The objectification of the main character, not because nasty things happen to her, but because she is objectified for the viewer.
I think the best way to explain it is that women can be objectified once or twice. Once means that the objectification is part of what happens to them as part of the story. Twice means that the objectification is then exploited by the film maker for the viewer, and that’s where Red Sparrow went wrong for me. The character is objectified and then the actor is objectified deliberately in order to sell the movie.
Possibly not a view that others have, but I’m keen to hear whether you agree with me. Or have another point you’d like to make.