“Red Sparrow” represents Hollywood sexism at its most vile

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This article was originally published for the University of Denver newspaper, the DU Clarion. It has been republished here with permission. The original can be found here.

If there is any such thing as plague in the Hollywood filmmaking of the moment, it’s male filmmakers mistaking violence and humiliation as empowerment. As women have continued to forge a place for themselves on and off screen, many men have stood by their sides leering and waiting for a chance to cash in on what they consider to merely be a “trend.” Concurrently, film fans have waited tirelessly for Marvel to give in and gift the world with a Black Widow film, studios have been scrambling to provide audiences with a passable alternative. Thus, both these hideously opportunistic worlds collide with “Red Sparrow,” an adaptation of the novel of the same name designed to check off every box the female super spy genre has to offer.

It’s a travesty.

The plot, which follows a ballerina (Jennifer Lawrence, “The Hunger Games,” putting on her worst Russian accent) forced into becoming a spy of seduction for her government uncle after a dancing accident destroys her career, is obsessed with torturing and objectifying women for nearly every minute of its inexplicable two hour and 20 minute runtime. Lawrence runs the gamut of female nightmares, experiencing rape, forced public nudity, grisly physical abuse and more, all in the name of what the film thinks is creating a “strong female character.” This parade of violence represents Hollywood at its most ignorant, patting itself on the back for its victorious “feminism” as audiences squirm at the sight of Lawrence dragging her battered body across the floor. Oh, how far we’ve come.

The film leaves much to be said about this cinematic obsession with portraying the ugliness of how the world treats women. The controversy around this idea has been heavily discussed in the past year, especially in the case of “Blade Runner 2049,” which was attacked heavily for its bleak depiction of women as sex objects.

The director of that film, Denis Villeneuve, gave an interview to Vanity Fair in which he defended his creative choices regarding women, stating, “I am very sensitive to how I portray women in movies…cinema is a mirror on society. Blade Runner is not about tomorrow; it’s about today. And I’m sorry, but the world is not kind on women.”

Villenueve’s comments represent the current mode in which male filmmakers granted the heavy responsibility of portraying women in film should operate. When taking on the great privilege of being an artist, there is an ethical responsibility to cast a light on the darkest shadows of the world in order to warn us of what we’re in danger of propagating. Seeing the horrifying objectification of the women of the “Blade Runner” future warns us of the world we could be heading towards if we do not give women the respect and agency they deserve. It stands at a line of that representation.

“Red Sparrow” crosses that line, pettily grinning as it abuses the women of its world. Nothing is to be gained from its continued flurry of abuse outside of fantasy fulfillment for the most depraved and unaware of male audiences. Nothing in the film justifies its horrifying pursuit of what seems to be nothing but glossy torture porn. Nothing will make you feel clean after watching this movie. In the era of “Lady Bird,” in the same month as the female-led “Annihilation” is released, this is the best female spy movie Hollywood had to offer? Not even close. And it doesn’t get a pass for trying.

Ryan Ninesling