In our contemporary blogosphere, it’s becoming commonplace for opinion pieces to spark galled backlash. With these internet ripostes in mind, allow me to start by addressing a point that’s heated “Jezebel” and “The Gloss” writers alike. I am now and have always been of the opinion that skinny female characters and the actresses who portray them can most certainly be strong. Some examples of this reality include Jada Pinkett Smith as The Matrix trilogy’s Niobe: a skinny woman who’s physically buff and whose on-screen presence as captain of the Logos packs a commanding wallop. Jennifer Lawrence as The Hunger Games‘ Katniss Everdeen: a skinny woman who exudes strength in controlled stoicism, perseverance, deft reflexes, and cunning. Emilia Clarke as Game of Thrones‘ Daenerys Targaryen: a skinny woman who commands dragons, the most powerful weapons in all of Westeros… when she can find them. In fact, my list of skinny badass women could go on for the duration of this entry because, quite frankly, skinny badass women proliferate the action genre. In some cases, the tiny but strong physiques that parade across theater screens are totally warranted, such as Katniss Everdeen’s lifetime of meager rations and near-starvation, which produced not only her precision in archery but also her emaciated frame.
These rare cases of justified slenderness aside, last weekend I begrudgingly sat through an aspiring blockbuster which reminded me all too blatantly that in most cases Hollywood’s coveted runway-ready action heroines possess slender builds that go without explanation, or outright contradict their characters’ backstories. Said film that I knew I would execrate from the first teaser trailer was 300: Rise of an Empire.
Now in a continued effort to keep the peace, let me apologize henceforth to anyone who adored the second installment of the 300 franchise and warn anyone who’s optimistically awaiting the DVD release that these next paragraphs aren’t for you. I would hate to rain on anyone’s pending parade but in my effort to lay down the skinny, an explanation is in order.
Perhaps my seventh grade history reenactment of the Battle of Thermopylae gives me a sense of personal connection to the story, or perhaps sneaking into the sold out premiere after enduring Wild Hogs and being forced to sit in my friend Davin’s lap in the front row made it all the more exhilarating, but 300 is one of my all-time favorite movies. A hyper-stylized, Greco-fetishism action film whose place in my heart outlived my teenage affinity for violent, adrenaline-fueled cinema, 300 is like a classical painting injected with testosterone and set to a mashup of choral hymns and industrial guitar performed in a Mediterranean arena. Couple this with my Frank Miller phase sophomore year of high school, during which all my paintings suddenly looked like Sin City and all the dialogue in my stories had the private investigator timbre of a film noir revival, and it’s a shoo-in that 300 would have me hooked.
As such, from the minute my ear registered the first inklings of a possible sequel, I knew I was in for a pile of sepia-toned, slow-motion dog crap. And when I broke down and saw the film as an escape from last Sunday’s heatwave, my expectations were not disappointed. Seven years ago when it was released, 300 was something we hadn’t seen yet. Sure Neo’s back-bending, decelerated bullet dodge in The Matrix ushered in the stylized fight sequences that pervade action films to this day, but as far as I’m concerned 300 was a new form of visual gluttony that was candidly cool. From the sheer mythos of ancient Spartans, to the absorbing narration, to the gritty and simultaneously painterly aesthetic, to the machismo choreography, to Gerard Butler and his conical beard, and to the archetypal characterizations–every facet of this narrative oozed cool.
Zack Snyder may have taken the M. Night Shyamalan route and fallen quickly from a laudable perch in film esteem to directorial leper, but based on the utter disaster that is 300: Rise of an Empire, upcoming director Noam Murro could do with a touch of Shyamalan. Where 300 was fresh cinematic confectionery, 300: Rise of an Empire came seven years too late, after a horde of fanboys reproduced its aesthetic to death in both film and television, à la The Immortals and Spartacus. As if this latency weren’t enough, 300: Rise of an Empire then took everything that was impressive about its predecessor and lamed it past the point of entertainment. Where 300 presented us with hardcore-by-definition Spartans, it’s sequel centralized around the farmers and poets of Athens, and expected us to believe that men of these dispositions would possess the same chiseled and airbrushed abs of life-long, fanatical warriors. Where 300 brought us iconic dialogue to rev up battles of hand-to-hand combat and impossible feats of flight and strength, Rise of an Empire gave us horrendously convoluted and unimpressive speech, generally followed by tedious ellipses, before merely smashing their CGI ships into one another. Where 300 brought us powerful archetypes, such as the inexplicably behemoth god-king Xerxes, the sequel squandered said mystique with inane, humanizing backstories. Where 300 brought us bizarre, prosthetic monsters that served a purpose, the new release tossed in a couple half-attempts at poorly animated creatures that did nothing but hiss, spit, and disrupt deep sea dreams. And where 300 brought us female dynamism in Queen Gorgo’s plight to aid her husband and her people by whatever means necessary, Rise of an Empire brought us Eva Green.
Prior to seeing the film, I read a review in the Los Angeles Times written by a woman who ranted and raved about Eva Green’s magnetism as the Persian navy’s most formidable commander. While it’s nothing against Green’s acting skills, I found both the writing and choreography for Artemisia dry and unimpressive, and the casting of waif-like Green (who attributes her paper-thin mien to her French affinity for “cigarettes and laziness”) really got my goat for the very reasons I started this blog entry.
Artemisia is a Greek woman betrayed by her countrymen and hot on the trail of vengeance, and as such she’s been training with the Persian herald (of all people) in combat since childhood. Her lifelong vendetta builds her up to be one of Darius’ and Xerxes’ most vicious soldiers, and when she’s pitted against the Athenians at sea, her skill with a sword makes her a killing machine amidst the onslaughts of unexplainably robust seafarers.
With a backstory and profile like that, you’re not pulling one over my eyes this time Hollywood. If Artemisia was a real woman who’d devoted her entire life to Greek-Decapitation Boot Camp, she would at least have arms like these female Adonises:
(And look Hollywood, you could even keep the cinched waist for sex appeal!)
For some reason, despite the beautiful, muscular women like the afore-pictured 1905 “circus strong woman” and 1890’s Vulcana–a woman who actually looks like she beats foes to a pulp for a living, Hollywood insists on ignoring the characters’ profiles and casting the Gal Gadots of the industry as Diana of Themyscira.
Occasionally Hollywood does get it right, utilizing Gwendoline Christie’s striking height of 6’3″ to create a totally believable warrior in Brienne of Tarth, or casting stunt woman-turned-lead-lady Zoë Bell for her genuine physical prowess and ability to literally kick butt. More often than not, Hollywood makes feeble efforts at best, tailoring B-movies to women like mixed martial artist Gina Carano, whose leg locks far supersede her abominable acting. That, or they bypass accuracy altogether in favor of sex appeal.
As a girl who’s been a limp noodle far more times in my life than that period of lopsided racquetball strength and that one year track and field made me muscular, I completely understand the argument that thinness does not equate to weakness. After all, there are numerous fighting styles out there that enable a narrow figure to bring down someone twice their size. Plus, there’s always the fact that a thin actress can bulk up for a role. But I’m not going to kid myself into believing that Hollywood’s decision to cast skinny women as beastly characters is an attempt to emanate female empowerment. Rather than utilizing low-weight modes of combat to their advantage or following in the BBC’s footsteps and casting actors that realistically look the part of their roles, Hollywood is clearly only concerned with selling tickets via sex, and the current mainstream definition of feminine attractiveness is runway model thin… with breasts if she can manage to pull off that Victoria’s Secret feat.
Thus, until the the media’s interpretation of desirability begins to morph towards something of Polynesian proportions, I’ll have to buckle down and swallow my gripes, watching adequately muscular film and television contenders get passed by in the casting hunt for the fiercest commanders of the shitty-remake sea.