Extreme or otherwise gratuitous portrayals of women’s nudity and violence against women—often together—are common in cinema and television. Game of Thrones does it so much that the show has inspired a statistical analysis of its rape scenes, and the new term sexposition, or the practice of breaking up heavily expository scenes with largely unrelated nudity. While recent Netflix series Altered Carbon is the biggest budget sci-fi show under a woman showrunner, and featured four women of color in lead or supporting roles, it was still littered with a distracting layer of women’s bodies, all tortured, raped, naked, or dead. It’s frustrating when these practices are employed by TV shows or movies that are considered empowering to women, like Jennifer Lawrence’s spy thriller Red Sparrow.
There is a difference between portraying the objectification of women characters and actively participating in the objectification. The delight with which Red Sparrow shows graphic, detailed physical, and sexual violence toward women, again and again, far removes any illusions about the film’s priorities.
The premise of Red Sparrow—a woman navigating a sexist, violent world while maintaining as much of her autonomy and sense of self as possible—is a promising one. Movies and shows like Mad Max: Fury Road, Orphan Black, and Killjoys have dug in deep on these themes without the shows themselves objectifying or otherwise minimizing the experiences of their leads. Most of Fury Road’s heroes are women who were controlled by men, and yet the film chose not to show their (sex) slavery. No matter how many different people, cult-like religious figures or shadowy government agencies, want to control the Leda clones of Orphan Black or Dutch from Killjoys, the audience never doubts that the shows themselves believe in the power and personhood of their leads.
It’s not that violence against women or sexualized violence can never be portrayed—they are an all too real part of the human experience. But they should be included with great care, in service to the story, and not used as a stand-in for a backstory, shorthand for how evil a male character is, or motivation for a man in the victim’s life, like a father, brother, or lover. Moreover, these scenes shouldn’t be filmed to titillate, from the perpetrator’s perspective, or in the same manner as consensual sex.
Looking at Red Sparrow, there is an entirely disproportionate amount of torture, violence, rape, and nudity, with a small group of women bearing the brunt of it. The audience is shown all of this in stark, unsparing detail. In contrast, when a male character is tortured, it is both bloodless and largely out of sight. This was such a departure from the aesthetic of the film that I incorrectly interpreted this artistic choice to mean that the torture was being faked. Why else would this scene, and only this scene, be treated with such restraint?
It’s unclear why boys even attend Sparrow U, or “whore school” as Dominika calls it. It’s certainly not to receive the same education as their female peers, who are repeatedly pressured to perform sex acts against their will and are chastised for objecting to their “education,” including the extracurricular rape attempts by fellow students. Where was the scene of male students learning to seduce? Where was the cold insistence that a homophobic young man perform oral sex on an adult gay man in front of the class, like a female student was pressured to do? Red Sparrow positions the young men of Sparrow School as fellow students but allows them instead to skip all the hard classes and go straight to recess.
While we further see the sparrows-in-training jog, watch porn, and “entertain” visiting members of the military, there is little education on hand to hand combat, weaponry, or even typical spy craft. Based on the rest of the movie, Dominika apparently learns all of that off-screen. These less racy aspects of her education either weren’t at Sparrow School or were simply of too little interest to warrant inclusion in the film, as opposed to the physical and emotional abuse that dominates that section.
Dominika and the other women of Red Sparrow are shot with what’s known as the male gaze, a specific, voyeuristic point of view that hypersexualizes female bodies, regardless of context, often to the detriment of their development as fully fledged characters with their own backstories and motivations. We see it in the way that the camera lingers on every curve, pans up and down the length of Dominika’s body at the pool, or simply cuts off women’s heads and faces altogether. Here, the male gaze feels even more dominant in part because it’s ever-present.
Even in scenes where Dominika is alone, such as getting dressed or showering, and the only men present are the ones who made the film, she is sexualized. Worse still, we’re given almost nothing of Dominika’s interior world, allowing the sex-centric perception of her to be the only one.
One of the most egregious examples is the incongruous way one torture scene is filmed more like consensual sex, with Dominika’s breast in the foreground. Her chest is strapped, BDSM-style, into the genuinely torturous version of a push up bra, so that her breast jiggles as it dominates the screen. This scene is meant to show Dominika as she goes through the most grueling experience of her life, forcing the audience to question whether she can withstand the torture. But this inexplicable indignity is filmed like porn with a blockbuster budget, rather than as the purely horrifying torture that it is. This betrayal of the scene’s intent only adds to the disturbing quality of the portrayal
There are certainly moments of victory in Red Sparrow that involve nudity, violence, or both, such as when Dominika finds a way around the assignment to fully “give herself” to a male classmate in front of everyone, she does so on her own terms and by following the letter (if not the spirit) of the assignment. In this way, she is victorious over both her instructor and her classmate. But this scene was filmed more neutrally than most, and the rest of the film would have benefitted from that treatment.
Beyond that, this scene reinforces that the world of Red Sparrow requires Dominika and the other women to use their sexuality to win, a standard that does not apply to the male characters. Even if this one sequence were read generously, it’s not enough to outweigh the film’s pervasive issues.
That gesture toward empowerment actually adds an extra sting to the brutality of Red Sparrow, and other properties like it. Not only do these portrayals seem to enjoy treating women characters like dehumanized dolls, but women viewers are supposed to be grateful for the opportunity, as these sorts of characters and storylines receive praise as empowerment, largely from male critics. Altered Carbon was widely criticized for the near-constant presence of naked women’s bodies, many of which were tortured, beaten, and killed, often for no apparent reason. But the series was still made, in spite of source material that was apparently much worse, and it may still get a second season. While many are quick to declare that Game of Thrones is feminist, that’s only true at the surface level and for certain kinds of women.
There are films that feature brutal violence, or even ones that use stylized violence to deepen their meaning. But the central premise of this film is a young woman’s journey to maintain her power, in spite of everything that is done to her. This is a journey of a woman liberating herself from so many violent, controlling men, which many critics have noted, often with glowing admiration. How then can we square that message with the form the movie takes in order to deliver it?
The method cannot be separated from the message. Red Sparrow and its ilk want to push empowerment, but they do so through the heavy filter of misogyny.