When little boys begin to look for heroes on the silver screen a deluge of options sweeps them away. Cowboys, astronauts, superheroes and gods. Leading men with sufficient derring-do to power a thousand dreams and aspirations. Of course little girls are equally able to dream of Superman but they wake up and grow up in a reality that undermines those nighttime fantasies. Disempowerment is an insidious and deadly foe, folks! Adèle Blanc-Sec is a singular character. But she ought not to be. We ought to see as many complex and challenging women driving these films as we do men.
So why do we not?
Mainstream adventure franchises like Indiana Jones, Bond and Transformers throw us back to simpler times when men were men and girls were tits and hair endangered. Unfortunately these films are still being churned out, without acknowledging the passage of time or 50% of their potential audience. Big box office and enthusiastic feedback for recent releases like Maleficent, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Divergent and even Frozen tell us that the fairer sex can dominate a less than traditional story and still deliver bums on seats. As members of the Avengers corps, Black Widow and Agent Peggy Carter commanded enough attention and respect to be considered for features of their own. And Angelina Jolie gave damn good Bond when she took on Tom Cruise’s Salt role and wiped the floor with anyone daring to share her shot. So why does Adèle still stand out and why does she sadden me so?
Because Adèle Blanc-Sec is Indiana Jones and she is miraculously allowed the same foibles and flaws. She is inexplicably rude, often messy and almost entirely without backstory (in this incarnation, at least). Like Katniss Everdeen she subverts the damsel in distress trope but rather than saving a vulnerable man or feeding her struggling family, she fights to save herself. I cannot tell you how cheering that is. The rudeness too, that inexplicable rudeness, consider the rarity, please. When leading women are rude they have painstakingly detailed reason – hunger, pain, grief, fury – Adèle offers no such mitigation. Yes, there has been an unfortunate incident with her sister and the hairpin…still, one senses that discourteousness is in her DNA. Could America cope with such disrespect? Merida, the most encouraging prospect for a contemporary Disney Princess, was dumbed down and tarted up to enter the Princess Hall of Fame. What on earth would Hollywood have done to Betty Blue?
Perhaps then it could be argued that Adèle is singular because she is French – and as a lifelong lover of Betty Blue I could understand that position – but I prefer to believe that she is singular because she feels real. She has been written as a person first. Men who drive action movies are rarely ciphers, their female counterparts all too often are. Of course male characters can be poorly written, lazily portrayed and disappointingly edited, however no one really suffers when there are many fine upstanding heroes left to redress the balance. I am blessed to have grown up on a film diet that was heavily supplemented with Katharine Hepburn classics and I will gift my daughter with her back catalogue too. But Katharine Hepburn’s star rose 70 years ago and I struggle to find her modern day equal. If Hepburn was working today it would be inexcusable not to offer her Bond.
Complex characters – even perceived victims – can often make the greatest action heroines. Alabama Worley and Lisbeth Salander have taught us well. So we are hardly demanding to raid Iron Man’s manly closet. Write us like people and we will dazzle you. Commission us to do the writing and we will change the world. Maybe the return of Lisbeth will make strong women cool again, when the Mockingjay has flown away and Hollywood begins to forget we exist. And there is always the (horrifying) prospect of Adèle Blanc-Sec reimagined when studios trawl the ‘foreign’ aisle for inspiration once more.
Women make films – write them, shoot them and cut them – but you wouldn’t know that from the cover of Empire’s magnificent 300th edition. Their directors’ special sends an extra special message to half the population. In the face of so much tiresome misogyny it is probably time we asked ourselves: What would Adèle do?
The steampunk screening season at Peter Harrison Planetarium is part of part of Longitude Punk’d. It continues with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen on 31st July and concludes with City of Lost Children on 28th August. For details of how to book – and further information on Longitude Punk’d – visit www.rmg.co.uk