Red Sparrow escapes the male gaze — here’s how

In Red Sparrow, Jennifer Lawrence tells a story of weaponizing (and reclaiming) femininity.

Jennifer lawrence
February 12, 2018
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Jennifer Lawrence lets out a blood-curdling scream from behind her matted blonde hair. She is crouching on the floor with her knees to her chest in an unsexy, sweaty black sports bra, strained arms pulled back behind her. This chilling scene is one of the most common throughout the promotional materials for Red Sparrow, a thriller spy movie coming out on March 2nd, 2018.

It seems Chernin Entertainment has stepped in to give us the Black Widow movie that Marvel has been heavily criticized for not prioritizing. The narrative holds: like Marvel’s Natasha Romanoff (played in recent films by Scarlett Johansson), Dominika Egorova is a prima ballerina turned ruthless Russian spy in an intensive programme.

But despite the distinctly femme fatale allure of the film and the trailers’ sultry tones, don’t hold your breath if you’re waiting for a sexy Bond Girl type. The TV spot makes it clear: “Your desires. Your secrets. Your weakness.” Egorova’s is not the story about a woman whose success hinges on her beauty and the help of the men around her—rather, it’s that of a woman who has been pushed to the limit so many times she must weaponize her own femininity. The men around her can—and will—sexualize her, but it should be understood that there will be a price to pay.

This dangerous version of femininity is nothing new to Director Francis Lawrence. The Hunger Games series, which he directed in its entirety, gained quick notoriety for the power it gave lead character Katniss Everdeen. She was touted not only as a girl in power but as a completely new type of female warrior. Many hold her modest, sensible (and battle-appropriate) clothing to be the first unsexualized female lead—especially in something that comes close to being an action film.

Red Sparrow marks an important shift here. By its very nature, it cannot be as demure of a film—it’s been described as getting a “hard R-Rating.” But this film also marks the reuniting of Jennifer Lawrence and Frances Lawrence (no relation): we can expect it to be filmed with the tact and mutual understanding that they built throughout filming The Hunger Games.

Jennifer commented on the filming process: “Sparrow School was definitely daunting, because what you see, you know, I really did. My character is told to strip in front of the class, and I had to strip in front of a class and an entire crew. I worked myself up [about the scene], I was really nervous. But Francis made me feel so much more comfortable. Everybody made me feel like I had clothes on. And then when I finished, I just walked out feeling empowered. I felt amazing.”

In fact, Jennifer even remarked that filming some of Red Sparrow’s racier scenes helped her deal with the ordeal she went through last November when her personal photos were leaked. “It was never my choice for the world to see my naked body. … Nudity by choice is a completely different thing from being violated. This was my choice, and it was for my craft … I feel like I took something back that was taken from me.”  

Francis himself commented on much freer J-Law was able to feel on set with a director she knew and trusted. “I think she was willing to take some risks in this movie she might not have been willing to do for somebody she didn’t know. I definitely think we have a shorthand—we have plenty of shoot days under our belt, so we know how to communicate really efficiently. And it works.”

At first glance, the film seems like a thinly veiled wet dream: heavily marketed as sexy, sultry, boasting an R-Rating. But it acknowledges an uncomfortable truth: in a world where women are inherently valued for their looks, and treated a certain way for them, it is inevitable that attractiveness will go hand-in-hand with power. But through Egorova’s re-wiring of traditional femininity and Jennifer’s own experience filming alongside longtime friend Francis, how do we draw the line between a male gaze approach to a film and a narrative that acknowledges the subversive power women can find in sexuality?

Red Sparrow opens nationwide March 2nd.

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