Red Sparrow is the avant-garde spy movie we have all been waiting for, but there are many issues to unbox before it can be considered entertainment
In Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow, Jennifer Lawrence portrays the thrilling character of Dominika, a Russian ballet dancer. With her livelihood at risk and her sick mother in her hands, she is given a simple choice by her pimp-like uncle: become a Russian spy, or get killed and leave her mother to die. The film offers an opportunity for Lawrence to reclaim the hypersexualized position of the spy-girl. It also poses as an empowering feminist narrative. However, throughout the movie, these sparks are often buried under layers of cold war stereotypes and done-before plots.
Francis Lawrence fails to provide a refreshing take to the Russian-American Cold War the movie claims has not ended, but broken into thousands of pieces. If anything, the film only provokes it more with the way the two sides are presented. The Russian spies have only their hypersexualized bodies to offer (Dominika’s roommate suggests the best way to draw information from a man is through a ‘good old blowjob’). Meanwhile, the Americans play the more strategic, brainy spies often seen in Bond-like movies. With Dominika’s character being built on the sexualization of the Russian ballerina, she is placed in a hard box to break out of. When it comes to the larger institutions as well, the Russians are brutal, violent and misogynistic while the Americans are the freedom fighting presence in the Eastern European setting. This obviously leads to the same old dilemma for Dominika, stay with the abuser or run to benevolent America?
Luckily for us, there are deeper layers to this film. As Dominika struggles to maintain her autonomy while maneuvering a sexist world, the film plays with gender roles and the objectification of women. It doesn’t necessarily provide a positive answer to these issues, but it succeeds in starting a discussion. With this, Dominika’s role tries to present a newly empowered female take to the spy genre. However, the intention is blurred by the fact that only the female students in the spy academy (or “whore school”) are shown to be learning about seduction as a weapon. No male is seen learning about the use of his sexuality, or worse, seen performing sexual acts against his will in the way his female counterparts have to. The women are expected to give their bodies to the self-interested plot of the male dominated Russian state. Here, the standout scene is when Dominika is asked to give into a sexual act with a classmate against her will. She takes the opportunity and turns it into a platform on which she reclaims her agency. Dominika is told by her teachers that her body ‘belongs to state’, and here she proves them wrong. However, the rest of her efforts are at most overlooked, only proving the point further.
With the majority of spy-movies having narratives catered for men, the result is that female characters are often marginalized and objectified. Yes, Red Sparrow does take a female eye, but how much further from this does it go? It succeeds in giving emotion, opinion and choice (sort-of) to the female spy characters, but with the constant rape and abuse their bodies face, you are often thrown off and distracted from finding the feminist narrative of the film. These often act as a mere reminder that sex is ultimately their only weapon. But hey, maybe that is one of the empowering points Lawrence wants to offer.
A pivotal moment at the end of the film is when Dominika’s intelligence, disguised by her sexuality, outplays the manipulation of her male superiors. She wins herself acclaim and does justice to a man who subjugated her. Unfortunately, this is a small victory in comparison to the twists of the plot and the greater scheme of events happening. However, this can represent an allegorical parallel to the contemporary feminist movement in a very important way: women’s rights and equality issues are being confronted every day. There are many small victories that constantly try to tackle the bigger systems that don’t advocate for these ideals. The film may just represent a step in a larger movement that will require many more before it can overtake its long, brutal history.