Content warning: film spoilers, graphic mentions of sexual assault and nudity.
Long before the #MeToo movement, there has been heated debate regarding the place violence against women (particularly sexual assault) has on both the big and small screens. When it comes to shows like Game of Thrones, some have asked if the writers are really entitled to employ sexual violence as a plot device or cornerstone of a character arc. While every individual is certainly entitled to their own reactions and aversions to graphic, and even non-graphic, depictions of such violence, I personally found Sansa Stark’s dynamic growth from a victim into a ruler capable of enacting well-deserved revenge to be highly empowering, for the most part doing the inclusion of the problematic scene justice.
For me, Game of Thrones conveyed an important message about a woman’s ability to surpass her trauma, lifted up the voices of survivors of sexual assault, and created another access point for widespread dialogue about the sexual trauma women (especially trans women and women of color) disproportionately endure and so often are forced to keep quiet. Survivors deserve representation onscreen as more than disposable plot devices. I view Sansa’s struggle as far more than just another a two-dimensional plot point because she ultimately becomes so much more than a survivor. As the comedian Hannah Gadsby said, “There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.”
INTO THE STORM
In Red Sparrow (2018), Jennifer Lawrence’s character Dominika is thrust into a dark downward spiral of misfortune after her career as a prima ballerina is cruelly and permanently sabotaged onstage by a peer she trusted. After exacting brutal revenge, she is quietly coerced by her uncle into attending a school to educate her in the ways of the Sparrows, who manipulate and seduce their targets in order to extract information on behalf of the Russian government.
Dominika’s first mission, prescribed by her uncle prior to attending the school, amounts to a horrific rape ending with her assailant being murdered in the act. She’s left profoundly shaken, covered in her assailant’s blood, and clearly traumatized both physically and emotionally after the event. She’s subsequently handed off from male bureaucrat to male bureaucrat until she is left under the supervision of the Matron at the school for Sparrows.
In her training, after being commanded to conceal all personal information from any students or staff she might encounter, she’s immediately asked to reveal her body to the whole class.
Her male counterpart, asked to do the same, does so without hesitation. Dominika, on the other hand, resists and ultimately refuses. This resistance, counterintuitively, would prove to make her an outstanding student in the eyes of her superiors, as she is able to carefully weigh her own well-being (painted time and time again as merely self-interest) against the demands made of her by authority figures. This results in her being chosen for a special mission.
BODIES OF PROOF
Interestingly enough, this film deals with sex and nudity by revealing bare buttocks of both men and women, and repeatedly showing breasts and male genitalia, but never fails to just barely conceal exposed female genitalia. Would it be more feminist to show these vaginas, the careful camera angles disproportionately doling out modesty, or is the film’s current state reinstating the actresses’ ownership of their bodies, which so often is dissolved in comparison to men’s onscreen?
Pressing further, is female genitalia being made excessively sacred relative to male genitalia, or is it perhaps just too inappropriate, too taboo to grace the big screen? Or, could male genitalia itself embody enough of a crucial threat of danger and harm in the context of the film to warrant their startlingly graphic reveal for shock value, if nothing else? I endeavor to address these questions by examining Dominika’s agency (read: control) in the film.
In addition to the expositional scenes of brutality, there is no shortage of violence inflicted upon women’s bodies in the film. They’re punched, grabbed, stabbed, shot, cut, exposed, raped, tortured, beaten, and run over by trucks, but the plot moves forward too quickly for us to be left to mourn these injuries and deaths, not unlike the way the news today moves too fast for us to cling to the horror of any one woman harmed for long.
As Dominika frequently sobs, shrieks, and vomits in response to her trauma, you have to wonder how Jennifer Lawrence felt having to give interviews as her often glowing, bubbly self for such an intense film.
DIMINISHED AUTONOMY AND THE FEMALE BEING
At one point, Dominika says, “If you don’t matter to a man in power, you don’t matter.” Setting the film in Russia allows viewers to comfortably witness the glaring inequality from a great distance, yet calls on them to reflect on the parallels in their own circumstances. Red Sparrow has a number of lines candidly acknowledging systemic sexism in the US, which indicates the film was at least attempting to be vocally feminist.
Along these lines, in the context of the film, rape is belittled as the sacrifice these women are simply expected to make for their country, with men often assuming the role of country, while women are the bodies nourished from birth then ‘expected to give back,’ as the Matron claims.
“[Dominika] practically weaponizes her objectification.”
While some may find the film’s plot too extreme a comparison, one doesn’t have to look too hard to see the parallels between the average American woman’s life and what Dominika is faced with: she is socialized, then forcefully educated, to believe herself to be a man’s object of sexual pleasure. And it’s framed to be for her own benefit, ‘for her country’. How will we ever break this cycle if backlash against men’s reputations continue to take priority over women’s safety?
In the film, Dominika’s skills are marketed among those in the know as sexual prowess, but it is her smile and friendly intonations alone that win over a bank teller on his way out of work to give her the forms she needs. On sight, she’s harmless, but she’s already a sexual target to be attained by the men she faces.
Her supervisors perhaps set themselves up for failure, training her so well as to be able to employ her “mind tricks” against them to save her own skin when it comes to that. This becomes clear when she kisses her uncle (who is also her boss) on the mouth, after we’ve spent most of the film receiving hints he’s always had an inappropriate fascination with her.
THE POWER OF FEELING
Dominika’s greatest weapon, ultimately, is her emotional control. Her ability to wall herself off from the situations she’s confronted with is what allows her to survive, both psychologically for herself, and as a tactful maneuver against her opponents. She can be upset when the circumstances reward it, just as she can be sweet and feign helplessness. Her finely tuned perception and emotion regulation allows her to, in the film’s language, treat every mark as a puzzle, discern what they’re missing, and become the piece they need.
As a last defense against male dominance, she can be stoic to gain the upper hand, pointing toward the men’s intrinsic need to be dominant. The play on her character’s name is not lost on a keen viewer, as time and time again she practically weaponizes her objectification.
“Dominika’s greatest weapon, ultimately, is her emotional control.”
In her training, men are humiliated alongside women at the Sparrow school, but there is a lingering sense that despite the alignment, there’s hardly a true balance. Women, it seems, always have more to lose. Surprisingly, this initial disadvantage is what puts the thoroughly trained female Sparrows in the position to gain the upper hand. Dominika’s trials indicate sex is a basic human instinct that can be easily repurposed, when framed with the proper manipulation. Gaining trust by asking, “Can I trust you?” and feigning weakness (maybe even employing authentic fragility) earns her the reciprocated vulnerability she appears to both want and require.
Intimacy between a man and woman as a beautiful thing is not entirely eradicated by Red Sparrow, however. Sparing little memories, gentle pillow talk in hushed tones of the grey morning light— in these moments, it is difficult to tell what is part of Dominika’s orchestration, and what is derived from her humanity.
NOT YOUR SAINT OR SALVATION
In all of this chaos, women are not painted as infallible, nor are they entirely helpless. When an American senator’s drunken chief of staff, jacket pink and curls askew, sells out her employer for $250,000, the contrast between her and the cold, black-clad, professional Dominika is great, but not all-encompassing. Corruption and deceit clearly come in a variety of packages, both male (as we so often get to see onscreen) and female.
As Hannah Gadsby said, “Men do not have a monopoly on the human condition.” Yet, through it all, you cannot help but root for Dominika. She is hardly evil; she is rather a product of her circumstances, which are objectively horrific.
Seeing her not only rise to the occasion, but quietly change the rules of the game, you cannot help but take satisfaction in the damage she calmly, cleverly inflicts upon those playing against her. She never asked to be a pawn for the government, an expendable piece in these men’s game, but she works very hard to thrive within her given means anyway.
Coming from a world of manipulation and abuse, an act of kindness bewilders her enough to comment on it. “You’re helping me for no obvious advantage. That’s not what I expected.” Watching the film, you can’t help but wonder how she doesn’t doubt her target’s offer to be her own maneuvers being used against her. With all the deception at every turn, Dominika is constantly forced to ask, “Who is lying? Who is coming for me next?” Unabading and well-earned paranoia teaches Dominika over and over again “to do unto others before they do unto me.”
To live as a woman in America, or any country today, is to know a lifelong, sequestered but innate fear, rooted deep in the embers of our beings that on a personal level, as long as we live in a patriarchal society, the men in our lives will never truly understand.
“Dominika is constantly forced to ask, ‘Who is lying? Who is coming for me next?'”
LOOKING BEYOND TRAUMA
The finale of the movie sees Dominika exact fatal revenge on the man who incited all the violence against her to begin with, yet what makes her journey feel complete is not seeing her repulsive uncle be shot for his crimes. No, it is that in the end, in a world of endless lies and pain, she finds men she can rely on to treat her with respect and work faithfully alongside (not against and not above) her. This resolution leaves her with her mother, her lover, and a powerful friend whose life she actively spared on no one’s instruction but her own, all safely intact and thriving.
Despite still being set to operate in a job wrought with constant threat of death and harm, not to mention sexism, she has managed to forge a path all her own in pursuit of her own beliefs about what is right, beside people deserving of her trust.
It’s true not all men are as monstrous as the ones portrayed in Red Sparrow. But, what men need to understand is that a woman alone in a room full of men today can never be entirely at ease due to the worst case scenario, which we are graphically confronted with multiple times in the film. The world taught Dominika time and time again that in order to survive, she must protect herself at all costs. Someday, I hope to live in a world in which men accrue enough compassion to dismantle this gross inequity, and violence against women, once and for all.