Red Sparrow, Sexism and Casual Discrimination: How can YOU change this?

Red Sparrow, Sexism and Casual Discrimination: How can YOU change this?

By Marion Herve

I went to see Red Sparrow...  I did not want to see this film, at all, but there were some disturbing issues mentioned in critiques that I felt the need to address. So, I went to see it with an open mind and eager to reach my own conclusions. Red Sparrow is the story of a woman who is used by the Russian government to spy on a CIA agent. When they meet, he convinces her to become a double-agent. At the end of the film, she uses her wits to help the Americans, while not blowing her own cover, or the one of their mole inside the Russian government. She comes back to Russia as a hero and remains a double-agent, a tool in the hands of men on each side of the conflict. The film wants to be perceived as an empowering story for women, as the heroine fights back against the men who manipulate her and shows them that she is more than a doll that they can use and abuse. However, the character played by Jennifer Lawrence is so empty that the film seems to be doing the same as the men in it: presenting this woman as an objectified body that we are supposed to perversely enjoy seeing being raped, assaulted, tortured or used as a seductive tool. I should add that all men in this film seem unable to resist her, all can be easily manipulated by sex or seduction, and most of them are sadistic perverts. Not a very flattering or accurate portrayal of men. If you want to know more about this film, I would suggest reading the critiques by Delia Harrington and Hannah Woodhead, who respectively question its misogyny and its portrayal of rape. Today, I want to question why such a film is problematic and what we, as spectators/consumers, can and should do about it. 

‘Red Sparrow is a movie. It’s a psychological spy drama. I’m a woman. […] It’s entertaining, don’t put any political weight about it’ 
— Jennifer Lawrence

This quote raises an interesting question: should we care about how men, women and minorities are represented in films that do not brand themselves as political? The answer is obviously yes! What could be called casual discrimination is as dangerous as very open discrimination. If we accept sexism, racism, homophobia and lack of diversity as insignificant details in mainstream entertainments; without consideration for the social realities they illustrate, then we accept them as something normal.

This awards season has been full of promises in terms of respecting women, inclusion and diversity in the film industry. Through speeches, dresses and pins supporting movements such as #metoo, Draw a Line or Time’s Up, and nominations of films made by and/or portraying people of colour (e.g. Get Out) and the LGBTQ+ community (e.g. Call Me By Your Name), film professionals are (hopefully) stepping towards a new and more inclusive era. However, there is still a long way to go (e.g. Best Costume Design was the only category at the Oscars where the same number of men and women were nominated). As a spectator, we have the power to make these changes happen. Indeed, if someone thought that it was worth it to invest $69 million in Red Sparrow, it is because it was thought to be a profitable investment. They are planning on us, the consumer, to pay to see a woman being used as an object, in a film portraying mainly white, straight and skinny characters. It is why I here suggest that WE SHOULD ALL make the effort to consider what and who we are endorsing when we are investing our money in a film. Here are a few tips on how to do that easily and without spoilers: 

First, consider who has been involved in the making of this film. How diverse is the cast? Who is directing the film? Has he/she, or anyone else involved, been accused of assault or rape? What were his/her previous films? How were women, men, people of colour and other minorities portrayed? To determine this, you can apply three tests to some of the director’s previous films. First, the Bechdel Test which, based on a comic strip, questions the way women are portrayed in film. There is also the Vito Russo Test which similarly questions the portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters. Finally, you can use the Duvernay Test, focused on the presence and portrayal of people of colour. These tests involve a short series of question that you can easily apply to any film. They can be considered to have quite low standards. This is because they are tools to question the films we see, but not are not infallible rules. For example, Red Sparrow passes the Bechdel Test, despite its sexism, and the Vito Russo Test, as it portrays a lesbian woman who is not defined only by her sexual identity and is a key part of the story; but it dramatically fails the Duvernay Test. 

Another approach is to ask yourself the following question: what product are they trying to sell? Looking carefully at Red Sparrow’s 2.5 minutes trailer, I came up with interesting numbers: she was told ‘take off your clothes’ twice, you see her in underwear or naked six times, and engaging in sexual/seductive activities four times. You can also note that she is once referred to as a weapon; an object. Apart from the fact that she is going to be sexualised and objectified, we don’t learn much from the main character for the duration of the film except that she cares for her mum and dances ballet. It was very clear in the media campaign around this film that we were being sold a woman’s body instead of a woman’s story. 

Finally, in the future, it will be important to support films featuring 'inclusion riders' in the contracts of film professionals. This term coined by Stacy Smith in 2016 was recently made famous by Frances McDormand's Oscars acceptance speech. This clause in a contract means that a person demands that the cast and crew of a film matches the diversity of our world. Since the Oscars, several actors/actresses, such as Brie Larson and Michael B. Jordan, have expressed their desire to include this clause in their future contracts. 

The film industry will take time to change. So, does it mean that in the meantime we cannot watch any film in which actors/actresses are mainly white, straight and skinny, or some of the people involved have been accused of abuses? No, there would not be much left to see in most cinemas. But, be aware that seeing a film in the cinema is a means of endorsing it, contributing to its success. Box Office sales are mainly how the success of a film is measured. So, for every one of these films that you see, go and see independent films, films made by women and/or persons of colour, films passing all the tests. Show the producers that these films can be just as profitable. If you still really want to see Red Sparrow, or the latest Woody Allen, maybe wait to rent it online; it is cheaper than a cinema ticket. In the meantime, if you want to see women triumph in a violent, misogynistic and male dominated world, go see Kobiety Mafii (Women of Mafia). It is everything Red Sparrow should have been.

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Marion is a French Feminist and film buff. Harpy are proud to provide a platform for Marion's well-researched and thoughtful opinions, as she confessed that she had been toying with the idea of writing critically for some time.

Title image sourced via:

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