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.
Kenneth 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.
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.
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.