‘Salt’, Jolie, and a dubious trailer edit

Salt, which will open across the UK on 18 August, stars Angelina Jolie as Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent who may or may not be a Russian spy out to kill the US President. The film, which debuted in the US on 23 July, has already garnered attention because Jolie’s character was originally written as male.

Despite her previous action roles (the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider films, Mr and Mrs Smith and Wanted), this casting ‘gender switch’ divided opinions about whether Jolie convinces in the film’s scenes of physical action. While several reviewers felt she did (see Chang, Honeycutt, Ebert, Turan), Todd McCarthy argues that the film ‘glosses over how a lone woman, no matter how lethal a weapon, can repeatedly take out a dozen or more armed men.’ Given that such a question could be asked of any action film featuring a male action hero, this illustrates perfectly the gender double standard that still seems to persist in this area.

Lara CroftKenneth Turan suggests that this double standard is partly what animates our interest in the action sequences: ‘It is the contrast between what cultural conditioning in general and Hollywood movies in particular tell us about women’s roles and what Jolie can in fact accomplish that holds our interest’. For Turan, it is specifically Jolie’s body that ‘makes all the difference in a part that would be completely standard if a man played it.’ But in what way? As far back as the Tomb Raider films Jolie has displayed what I would call an expansive physicality that runs counter to normative conceptions of feminine comportment and behaviour. If dominant social norms encourage women to ‘take up as little space as possible’ (see Hartley in Braziel and LeBesco 2001: 61), Jolie chooses instead to adopt expansive poses and gestures, positioning and asserting her body in ways that declare her mastery over her body and the spaces of action. Looking at the action sequences in her previous films, it seems to me that Jolie has found a way to embody what Richard Dyer calls the ‘deeper, underlying pattern of feeling [in action sequences], to do with freedom of movement, confidence in the body, engagement with the material world, that is coded as male (and straight and white, too) but to which all humans need access’ (1994 in Arroyo 2000: 18).

The elephant in the room is Jolie’s equally emphatic function as erotic object. In all her films Jolie is depicted within the terms of heteronormative sexualized display, her feminine attributes (hair, costume, body) persistently eroticised. I haven’t seen Salt yet, but the trailer makes this function abundantly clear in a particularly dubious audio-visual juxtaposition one minute forty-five seconds in. A police car spirals off a bridge, crashing into parked taxis below.

Salt (Jolie) mid car crash

A medium close-up inside the vehicle shows Salt’s body thrown back by the force of impact: her head falls back, her mouth open as car bodywork crunches on the soundtrack (trailer still 1 above). A surveillance shot of Salt’s bare midriff, accompanied by a man’s lustful exhale, is but a split second transition to a close-up of Salt in the throes of passion, letting out a gasp as she throws her head back, her mouth open (trailer still 2 below). The edit suggests Salt’s body responds in the same way to the impact of action as she does to the ‘impact’ of sex.

... and in a somewhat different context

Action and sex: this moment from the trailer neatly encapsulates Jolie’s – and the film’s – dual marketability for prospective viewers. At the same time, it displays a depressingly familiar form of reassurance persistently evident in recent female-fronted action films – erotic spectacle as ‘compensation’ to the heterosexual male spectator for having to bear witness to the female action hero’s potent physicality. In a world where feminist cultural commentators are regularly accused of sense of humour failure and Sucker Punch is just around the corner, the Salt trailer seems further evidence that we feminist action fans are doomed to forever enjoy female onscreen physical agency with a side order of caveats.

4 comments

  1. Indeed, and one of those caveats, as your frame grabs clearly suggest, is that any such sexualized display must take place within strictly heteronormative parameters. I am struck by the fact that Angelina’s performance of a woman enjoying her sexuality is so very much coded by assumptions about female desire – what it looks like, how it is (or how it is to be) acted out, … – that I find rather problematic. And speaking of problematic, the less I say about the Sucker Punch trailer, the better, methinks!

  2. Lovely post Lisa – your attention to her body and its mastery rings very true to me, not having thought much about it before. I am stunned at McCarthy’s comments, quite apart from the double standard because I can’t imagine watching male fronted action films (particularly say the fourth Die Hard film, or the Transporter films) and thinking how believable it is that these men can take all these other men out. Surely the genre is subject to rather different rules (and the body in particular) that make that aspect of them rather besides the point.
    But coming back to the ‘problem’ of Jolie as erotic spectacle and action hero – I hadn’t noticed that in the trailer, and now feel quite shocked by this construction of an equation of sex and violence, particularly the way both are perhaps ‘done’ to the female body, that is so completely folded into the experience that you don’t necessarily notice it (unlike films like The Killer Inside Me, no one is going to start suggesting this is misogynistic etc), or more disturbingly it seems so completely normative to have the two intertwined that you aren’t being asked to see it as disturbing (unlike The Killer Inside Me). yuk.

  3. This is all interesting in relation to the whole Kick Ass palaver around Hit Girl, and what Kat Harding pointed out as perhaps the reason people were uncomfortable with Hit Girl, was that she was too young for her violence to be coded as ‘sexy’;

    ‘I can’t imagine seeing a female assassin on film who’s not sexualized without her being pre-pubescent… It’s not that she’s too young to be so violent, it’s that she’s too young to have the sex appeal that’s supposed to make the violence not only palatable but titillating. So all you’re left to enjoy is a bunch of dead bodies and gore and danger, with a real, simultaneously vulnerable and vicious human character in the middle of it, and you’re like, “Wait, why am I supposed to find this entertaining again? Why do I dig it when it’s Angelina Jolie or Uma Thurman but recoil when it’s a kid young enough to be trendily named Chloe Grace?” ‘

    Which plays really interestingly into Lisa’s points – that female violence/enjoyment of female violence is integrally coded as ‘sexy’.

    • That’s a very interesting quote Faye. I think you’re right – that dynamic of female violence being coded as ‘sexy’ or titilating is central to it being ‘ok’ for us to enjoy it – perhaps its something about the stylisation of violence (and how do you stylise women, but make spectacles of them – make them engage in ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ – which is the paradox of female transgression in melodrama, and so comes back to the way in which women transgressing don’t become ideologically like a man, but even more feminised in certain ways) and maybe the experiential identificatory thrill too (the feeling of wanting to be that person – from the perspective of a female audience member), but dressed up as ’empowerment’. So we are meant to watch something like Sucker Punch and think these women are using their sexuality as part of violence, so they must be in control of it, when actually they are still subject to it?
      I was just thinking it would be interesting to see how that plays out in horror when the female victim must become violent in order not to die/take revenge, but is stylised in a different way (perhaps still erotically, but often monstrously, or at least made physically grostesque – covered in blood etc) – The Descent comes to mind as a possible exception, non-eroticised female violence, perhaps?

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