Why did Laura Woodhouse walk out half an hour before the end of this film? As she explains, this so-called "coolest film of the year" brings comic characters to life, but ironically leaves the female characters one-dimensional.
Sin City is a cinematic adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name. It depicts a world of violence, greed and corruption peopled by hookers, bent and not so bent cops and twisted violent lunatics. I went to see the film knowing that comic books aren’t exactly renowned for their broad-minded view of women: gravity defying breasts, unimaginably pert buttocks and thigh length PVC boots appear to be their defining features. I was prepared to put up with this as I was more interested in the way in which the comic book format was represented upon the screen.
Sin City is certainly visually impressive: it is beautifully shot in black and white with flashes of deep colour which emphasise important aspects in each image, generally blood and women. However, this novelty wears off after about ten minutes when the tedious round of naked, one dimensional, patronised, possessed and oh-look-how powerful-she-is-she’s-got-a-gun-and-a-PVC-costume-but-it’s-ok-because-I’ve-fucked-her/am-fucking-her/will-fuck-her-so-now-she’s-mine women sets in. I left the cinema half an hour before the end of the film in disgust, anger and, quite frankly, boredom. This is something I have never done before, and perhaps it renders me unqualified to review the film; all I can say is that I felt too uncomfortable, as a woman, to remain in the cinema any longer.
One of my main issues with the film was the costumes, or rather lack of, that the female characters wore. No, I’m not a complete killjoy. I don’t have a problem with female nudity and I think women (and men) have the right to display their bodies if they desire and both women and men have the right to enjoy looking at them. However, I do have a problem when it comes to defining women by their naked bodies, presenting them as nothing but tits and arse. I believe I’m right in saying that every female character bar one spent the majority of the time with at least one of these defining features on display, most often for no particular reason other than to allow the viewers to ogle. And just in case our attention began to wane during the scenes that didn’t involve one of the female protagonists, a pair of random breasts or buttocks (that’s a woman, for any of you who don’t read FHM) would be oh-so-subtly inserted into the frame. Yes, a lot of the female characters are prostitutes and their body is their trade, but surely they must get cold? The only time we see policewoman Lucille’s girlfriend is when we see the extra pair of breasts in her bed: the only knowledge we have, and indeed need to have of her is that she has nice breasts. But then again, why else would a beautiful woman want to be a lesbian when there are so many good men around if it wasn’t for that extra pair of breasts to enjoy? ‘She’s a dyke, but God knows why. With that body of hers she could have any man she wants’. No further comment.
The only female character who didn’t appear naked was a member of an Irish vigilante group sent to kill Clive Owen’s Dwight. As an equal member of a powerful male group she transcends the passive female stereotype prevalent throughout the film and is thus able to escape objectification. In the crude world of Sin City she is almost a male. Unfortunately the other, more truly female characters – I point out to you once again, ladies and gentlemen, the tits and arse – are unable to escape their weak, passive, supporting roles, and as such their nudity is a reflection of their exploitation and appropriation by the men around them.
The opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the film. A beautiful, unknown woman stands on a balcony: we don’t need to know who she is, she is beautiful, she exists to be possessed. She is approached by a man: ‘Her perfume is sweet promise that brings tears to my eyes. I tell her that everything will be all right; that I’ll save her from whatever she’s scared of and take her far, far away. I tell her that I love her.’ Wow, how did he guess that she was scared, that she needed to escape, that all she needed to make her happy was a man? Oh yes, she’s a woman. Stupid me. Obviously she melts into his arms. Unfortunately her life saver turns out to be her killer, although I guess the greatest pity is that she didn’t have the chance to fulfil that ‘sweet promise’ before she died.
Later on we meet Shellie, a woman who has dumped her violent boyfriend, Jackie Boy, for a more protective one, Dwight. When Jackie Boy breaks into her apartment and slaps her round the face we discover just how brave she is: it’s ok because she’s taken worse. Nice. There is no condemnation of domestic violence; Shellie is simply a tough gal because she’s put up with it. She is female therefore she is a victim, man, in the form of Dwight, must now protect her.
This portrayal of woman as victim, man as attacker and protector is nothing new- it is the basis of the majority of Hollywood films and indeed the majority of fiction written throughout the ages. However, what makes Sin City stand out as particularly sexist is the way in which it ensures that even the women who are potentially in a position of power are unable to escape patriarchal domination. Lucille, the policewoman, is found naked and raving in the cellar of Kevin, a cannibal who has eaten her hand. She is rescued both symbolically and literally by the hulking killer Marv, who covers her fragile nakedness with his coat and breaks her out of the cellar. The (male) cops turn up and Lucille now attempts to protect Marv using her status as a policewoman. She is shot full of bullets.
Gail, the leader of an extensive gang of hookers who control the old town initially appears to be impressively powerful. She and her girls work by their own rules and have ditched the threat of pimps, drugs and rape by striking a deal with the police that allows them to protect themselves with arms providing they don’t kill any cops. When Jackie Boy and his gang of brainless thugs start harassing one of the girls, Gail prevents Dwight from interfering as her girls easily deal with the threat. Hoorah, at last we see some women who are not owned by men and can protect themselves! But, surprise, surprise, it turns out that Dwight has possessed Gail and this gives him the right to tell them what to do when they have to dispose of Jackie Boy’s body: turns out he is a cop and they have broken the pact.
Gail’s belief that she and her girls can defend themselves is ‘stupid’ and Dwight takes control, giving out orders with an air of unthinking arrogance that made me cringe. These previously powerful women are now under his control. Gail gave herself to him and now he not only has to protect her, he also has the right to control and constrain her for as long as she lives. Her initial powerful image was nothing but a reflection of the male fantasy of the dominant sexual woman, complete with bare breasts, buttocks, PVC and fishnet. Her real potential for power is undermined by Dwight’s possession of her. She ends up captured and helplessly bound by her enemies, waiting for a man -guess who- to save her.
Miho, the prostitute who kills Jackie Boy, initially appears to be the only truly powerful woman in Sin City. She is not possessed by a man, she is not a victim, she is certainly not physically passive as she goes on to kill many more men and can easily win a fight with any man. However, she does not say a single word during her time on screen. In a film where verbal insults prior to, during and after fighting are the norm, this seems rather strange. It is almost as though Miho is a different creature, a member of a race of silent killers that exist only to perform acts of violence. Quite simply, she cannot be presented as a ‘normal’ female because she has superior killing skills to a man and this threatens the patriarchal nature of Sin City. The creators of Sin City rob Miho of a voice in order to justify her power: she is not like other women, she is not normal, she is a one-off, and therefore she does not represent a threat to the male dominance of the city.
Like the femmes fatales of classic film noir, both Lucille and Gail attempt to transgress the passive female stereotype and are punished for doing so, while Miho is only allowed to demonstrate superiority over men because she is not like ‘normal’ women. The other female characters exist as victims, as justification for the male violence prevalent throughout the film. Almost all the women are at some point reduced to the status of tits and arse, and in some cases are no more than the sum of these body parts. In the hour and a half I remained watching the film there was no let up in this misogynistic portrayal of women, and I couldn’t hack it any longer; I’m told there were no redeeming features in the last half an hour.
So what’s my point? Sin City is, after all, just a film. However, it is a film with a huge marketing campaign. It has been promoted in newspapers and magazines, on phone boxes, billboards, bus stops and even the drinks menu in Scream pubs, and each advertisement bears Total Film’s assertion that Sin City is ‘The coolest film of the year’. What worries and upsets me is that by portraying such a sexist film as the all important “cool”, by giving it such exposure, particularly in the media which has an undeniable influence on public opinion, the makers and promoters of Sin City are portraying the oppression and objectification of women as cool and therefore acceptable. Sin City adds to the already innumerable instances of sexism in the magazines, lyrics, music videos and adverts of popular culture and can in my view only encourage certain men’s belief that they have the right to feel me up in a club or shout lewd comments at me in the street. After all, I’m only a woman and I can’t expect anything else if I’m going to wander around with my breasts and arse on display, bound up in fishnet and PVC” Oh sorry, I forgot I’m not a character in Sin City.
But, hey, if Sin City is the coolest film of the year, I guess being a passive, voiceless, naked, objectified, victimised, male possession is the way forward, right?