There's a scene in Atomic Blonde that's so brazenly violent, I had to look away. Charlize Theron is no stranger to strong female characters, of course, but this one felt different somehow; more intense than than even Furiosa's unmitigated rage. There's just something about seeing a woman head-butted, and then thrown into a dresser that remains hard to process, even if it's technically in her job description.
Red Sparrow, which hits theaters March 2, isn't Atomic Blonde, though comparisons will be inevitable. Both films star A-list actresses as blonde-banged spies trained in combat and seduction; but while Atomic Blonde was feminism's answer to James Bond, Red Sparrow is more in line with gritty Cold War thrillers like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy. It's not exactly an action film. Still, they both belong to what seems to be an emerging micro-genre of film, centered around new, more progressive femmes fatales, that stands out in part because of the violence its protagonists are forced to endure. Unlike female action portrayals past — and there have been a few — when these women kick ass, ass kicks back. Hard.
In a way, this feels like the natural end game in a longstanding struggle to prove that women can pull off the kinds of roles that have historically gone to men. Women being violent (and subjected to violence) onscreen isn't new, but it's usually been kept within the realm of niche and independent projects rather than big studio films. (Think Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) in Planet Terror, whose leg was sawed off and replaced with a machine gun.) It's fitting that Jennifer Lawrence, who hammered that point home when she was cast as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, a franchise that grossed roughly $1,451,538,526 over four years, would now be taking that extra step. Dominika Egorova, her character in Red Sparrow, isn't quite as brash as Lorraine Broughton in Atomic Blonde. As a prima ballerina, she's been trained to defer to traditional expectations of femininity. But when a series of circumstances leaves her unable to dance, she's forced into training as a Sparrow, an elite breed of Russian spies who use their bodies to manipulate the enemy and extract information. But though headlines have focused on Lawrence's choice to embrace nudity for the role, what I found most disquieting was the pervasive and overt quality of the violence.
So, why does it still feel shocking to see a woman get beaten up? The simple answer is that throughout most of history, we've been taught to view women as gentle, frail, and delicate — potential mothers to be protected, not fierce warriors who can take on a man, and win. We've since moved on from that narrative, but it takes a long time to dispel such ingrained myths.
What's harder to pin down is whether subjecting women to the kind of violence traditionally born by men really is a sign of progress. There's a contradiction between the empowering feelings engendered by seeing a woman truly own her body in a fight, and the discomfort of seeing the actual physical toll that fighting takes. It's confusing, because while it is undeniably satisfying, empowering even, to see a woman truly hold her own in a fight (cheers erupted in my screening of Atomic Blonde when Theron brought a man to his knees with pure physical force), there's also a deep underlying feeling of discomfort that I can't seem to shake. These heroines may not need saving, à la damsels in distress, but while that is a definite step forward, I'm not sure if it's enough.
There's an added concern when the assailants are men — and they almost always are. No matter that these are proud, capable women, presumably trained to withstand this and more, it's hard to see a woman being hit — often paired with an offhand hiss of "bitch," or "slut," just to make things particularly uninteresting — and not to make associations with domestic violence. What's more, since sex — or at least, nudity — and combat often go hand in hand where female spies are concerned, there's the added concern that these women's bodies are being harmed and then objectified for the benefit of a male audience. The opening shot of Atomic Blonde, for example, is of Lorraine emerging out of an ice bath, her naked body covered in bruises. When Dominika undergoes torture at the hand of the Russian secret service, she's immediately robbed of her clothing.
Wolverine spent the majority of Logan straining to ignore increasingly severe injuries acquired during incredibly violent altercations with his enemies, but it never occurred to me that his body might be exploited for the audience's sexual gratification. And not one henchman ever suggested that he was promiscuous just because he could throw a punch.
Maybe it all comes down to the fact that the vast majority of directors are men. Atomic Blonde was directed by David Leitch; Red Sparrow comes courtesy of Francis Lawrence, who also directed Lawrence (no relation) in the three latter Hunger Games installments; and the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot, which promises similar physical feats from Alicia Vikander's Lara Croft, is helmed by Roar Uthaug.
On the flip side, you have Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, and an example that suggests women can be fierce and commanding of respect, without being beat up by men in a way that makes the audience do a full-body wince.
Wonder Woman is rated PG-13. It's not supposed to be a down and dirty look at the gritty lives of female spies. But I suspect that if you dropped General Antiope into 1989 Berlin or present-day Moscow, with a female director behind the camera, we wouldn't be having this conversation. Come to think of it, that's a movie I want to see.