At The Same Time, These Women Challenge And Address The Very Essay Samples
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Proposal: Women as Weapons in Metropolis and La Femme Nikita
Women in science fiction and action-thrillers tend to explore a fairly limited set of character types and tropes – the strong warrior woman, the vulnerable damsel in distress, and so on. This is no exception in world cinema, either, as many prominent foreign genre films also explore this particular trope. The character type of the fragile, beautiful young woman turned into a weapon with little choice in the matter explores a number of fascinating ideas, including the patriarchy of modern capitalist society, images of virginity and sexuality, the dynamic between young vulnerable women and the tough men who train, surround and support them, and more. In Rintaro’s 2001 anime Metropolis (based on the manga by Osamu Tezuka) and the 1990 French action thriller La Femme Nikita (directed by Luc Besson), the stories center around young, vulnerable women who are turned into weapons by their ‘creators’ or benefactors, becoming pawns in grander designs to explore the status quo. Both of these works strive to navigate the ways in which women are treated in such action, intrigue-heavy stories, particularly given their respective influences from other Western sources.
Irrespective if their treatment of women, La Femme Nikita and Metropolis both take inspiration from works originated in other countries. The clearest parallel is Metropolis’ inspiration from the 1927 Fritz Lang film of the same name, both stories featuring totalitarian dystopian future-worlds and centering around a young female-gendered robot. In the case of Nikita, the story is not explicitly science-fiction, but no less fantastical: a young street urchin (Anne Parillaud) and criminal is taken in by a mysterious secret society of assassins and trained to be a professional killer.
The story’s basic thematic roots has sources in such varied media as Beauty and the Beast, Shane, Conan the Barbarian, and more. Stylistically, the film is presented through Luc Besson’s stylish direction, evoking the same kinds of fast, frenetic action and gunplay found in the works of John Woo and American action films of the 1980s. Even further back than that, the tale of the hitman with a heart of gold and a sense of conflict about their actions dates back to classic films such as Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai. In this respect, the cultural differences (and similarities) between films of different cultures and time periods heavily informs the texts of these films, upon which the essay will go into greater depth.
Metropolis and La Femme Nikita both focus on specific gender issues related to the science-fiction and action genres, respectively, namely the treatment and coding of ‘warrior women’ in cinema. In many ways, Tima and Nikita are both incredibly similar in their treatment – they fulfill the traditional ‘damaged, vulnerable women who is turned by men into engines of destruction,’ both of them innocents perverted by patriarchal, domineering social systems and leaders into tools of violence and destruction. An oft-repeated trope of these particular genres, the lithe-but-deadly girl assassin/killer offers a particular brand of exhibitionism for its audiences, providing transgression for women by giving them agency and letting them ‘kick ass’ like male action stars do. At the same time, however, they are often coded differently than male action heroes or killers, with Nikita especially being framed as an action hero in a way that still allows for the male gaze to appropriate her.
This particular topic is of great interest to me, most notably because of my adoration for strong female characters in films (particularly genre films) and a desire to explore how they are coded and represented. There is a fine line to be drawn between the woman-as-weapon as a transgressive figure (defying notions of the passive, submissive victim) and as an exoticized figure playing up her strength to appeal to male fantasies of domination. Between the robotic Tima in Metropolis, who is more of an innocent (who does not even know she is a robot), and the transformed Nikita of Besson’s film, there are incredible contrasts between the way these two characters are portrayed while still being actualized in destructive ways for the sake of the flawed societies in which they live.
In writing this essay, several aspects of both films will be explored, all centering around the ways in which the woman-as-weapon is depicted in genre films, and exploring whether or not Metropolis and La Femme Nikita serve as examples of a regressive depiction of women or evidence of a transgressive subversion of these warrior-women tropes. The plan for the essay is as follows:
First, the cultural history and legacy of both films will be explored, in terms of their cultural influences and impact on both their native cultures (Japanese and French, respectively) and international audiences as a whole. Metropolis, for example, will be noted for being part of the burgeoning anime market in the 1990s and early 2000s, while La Femme Nikita’s success will be discussed in terms of the franchises and spinoffs it created (for example, 1993’s American remake Point of No Return, and the two television series it spawned on the USA Network and the CW, respectively). These points will establish these works as major examples of world cinema representation with a significant level of crossover.
Secondly, Metropolis will be explored in depth for its thematic content and its cross-cultural subtext. Cheypesh (2007) and Park (2005) will be used in great detail to explore the themes of technology, environment and gender representations in Metropolis and other films, particularly acting as a Japanese film meant to cater to a wider audience. In this work, Metropolis is noted to thematically express themes of unreality and the dangers of technology through its very nature as animation. Park (2005) notes that the film “reiterate[s] and rework[s] the power dynamics of techno-orientalism” by offering a decidedly American visual style in amongst its anime trappings, featuring the female subject as a primary focal point, and being ambivalent towards the value and relationship of man to technology (61). Tima herself is a representation of the fear of burgeoning womanhood and the fear of technology alike, culminating in her attempting to fulfill her programming and destroy the world around her. Only the very end gives a glimmer of hope, as some robots will attempt to rebuild her; however, whether or not she will be kind to humankind (or man in general) is left ambiguous.
Thirdly, the same approach will be given to La Femme Nikita, discussing its themes and the representation of its lead character. Wiles (1997) explores Nikita through a gendered perspective, demonstrating visual and thematic evidence of Nikita’s subtextual dismantling of the patriarchal social order by almost exclusively targeting powerful men in her assassination games (43). Hayward also explores Nikita herself in depth, noting the transformation of her character from asexualized street urchin to eroticized fighter: “in the first episode she goes from child to woman; in the second she is represented as agencing desire” (Hayward 298). Roark (2011) describes Nikita as establishing an archetype of the ‘daughter’ in action films, a woman with distinctly feminine motivations who uses her sexuality and femininity to disarm her opponents. As an assassin, Nikita performs repeated masquerades on her victims, learning how to act like a ‘lady’ and learning to dress provocatively to keep her targets off guard. In this way, Nikita’s femininity and sexuality are emphasized, and she is coded as a prostitute.
At the same time, Nikita herself is not strictly a transgressive figure, as she eventually ends the film just as passive as before after realizing the error of her ways as an assassin; she resumes that childlike position, simply with a different master (her boyfriend Marco). As an assassin, Nikita specifically is called upon to act as a call girl, a seductress, Besson’s camera filming her the same way a normal film would depict any other ingénue or sexual object. While she is somewhat granted agency, this agency is used to simply quit the system and settle down with her boyfriend in a normal, heteronormative romantic relationship, accepting her eventual destiny as wife and homemaker.
Nikita’s relationship to her father figure “Bob” also plays with (and reinforces) the trope of the ‘daughter’ archetype in action films – the character has the illusion of agency, but is really working for powerful men in a way that specifically feminizes them. Nikita herself acts in Bob’s interests rather than her own, and her motivation is, essentially, to please him with her successful efforts. Bob’s goal is to ‘fix’ Nikita of her societal ills – as represented by her androgynous nature in the beginning of the film – in order to place her in her proper societal role of eye-candy for her victims and the audience. In this way, Nikita’s gender politics become somewhat problematic, as she does not become the system-destroying force of nature the first two acts of the film imply her to be. Her ending does not have the same satirical bite as Tima’s in Metropolis, making it the weaker film of the two in terms of offering gender-progressive politics in its messaging.
In addition to comparing the leads of Metropolis and La Femme Nikita, the overbearing, oppressive worlds in which they live will be explored and discussed. The world and plot of Metropolis is a direct commentary on the dangers of the urban environment, as the film features cities and works of technology being destroyed: “This concept is an alternative to the North American interpretation of technology breakdown as a tragedy that excludes any future progress, stops time, and preserves space unchanged” (Cheypesh 17). The film not only explores universal issues of humanity, love and violence, it examines issues of authenticity of culture and the corrosion of Japan through its Americanization.
Next, the two films will be compared primarily through in-depth contrasting of Tima and Nikita as characters, women and warriors. The central relationship for Tima and Nikita alike revolve around a triangle of affection between their creators/benefactors (Duke Red in Metropolis, “Bob” in La Femme Nikita) and the well-meaning romantic interests who have their best interests in mind (Kenichi in Metropolis, Marco in Nikita). Nikita’s father-daughter relationship in particular is couched heavily in French tradition of its films from the 1960s to th 1980s (Wiles 40). Both stories feature this push-and-pull between two different male forces – the authoritative ‘father figure’ who is responsible for their creation and desires to use them as a weapon, and the young, age-appropriate love interests who steer them towards a life of peace.
The gender issues related to the production and reception of these two films also distinctly color their effectiveness as social critique or representation of gender issues. Metropolis was internationally acclaimed on release and instantly compared to the original Fritz Lang feature (which also featured a female robot), explicitly positioning its main girl (Tima) in the auspices of Japanese anime, a genre which already features explicitly sexualized female figures (Park 61). Despite her large eyes and almond-shaped face (the hallmarks of Japanese anime drawing), Tima is also blonde-haired and blue-eyed, which are distinctly European-American features, and her body shape is said to be inspired by “Disney cartoons and Betty Boop, the quintessential cartoon pinup girl” (Park 63).
The film, with its Americanized city and distinctly anime styling, offers an Eastern view of Western values, cityscapes and sexuality, Metropolis commenting on both the way Japanese anime views young, sexualized girls and how this sexualization is translated to American audiences. Despite this, however, Metropolis was only a niche success, resonating primarily with the anime audience during the height of its crossover into American markets in the late 90s and early 2000s, and did not achieve major cultural impact.
Conversely, La Femme Nikita was a huge cult success in international markets from its outset, and became enough of a cult phenomenon to spawn the aforementioned American remake Point of No Return, starring Bridget Fonda, and two television series. Some critics cite Nikita as the initiator of the ‘daughter’ archetype on modern action cinema, with many imitators coming after it and its success establishing a market for independent and foreign action cinema (Roark 52). In this respect, it is clear that Nikita made the larger cultural mark over Metropolis, which was possibly hurt by its niche appeal and animated nature. As a result, it is extremely telling that the less transgressive story – Nikita’s sexualized female warrior over Tima’s infantilized, mass-destructive innocent – found greater mass appeal. The success of Nikita over Metropolis reveals not just a decided preference for traditionally-filmed live-action thrillers over philosophical-yet-visually-stunning foreign animation, but a desire to support stories in which women are show to be tough in a way that maintains their subordinate nature and focus as a sexual object.
Cheypesh, Oksana. “Technology, Environment, the Masculin and the Feminine in Distance
Cultures.” Humanity in Cybernetic Environments, Daniel Riha (ed.), Foxit Software Company, 2007, pp. 13-20.
Hayward, Susan. "Recycled Woman and the Postmodern Aesthetic: Luc Besson’s Nikita."
French Film: Texts and Context. Ed. Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau. Second Edition. London: Routledge, 2002. pp.297-310.
Park, Jane Chi Hyun. “Cyberpunk Impulses in Anime.” World Literature Today 79(3/4) (Sep-
Dec 2005), pp. 60-63.
Roark, David E. Girls with guns: understanding gender and violence in contemporary action
cinema. Diss. 2011.
Wiles, Mary M. "Mapping the Contours of Cyborg Space in the Conspiracy Film: The Feminine
Ecology of Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita." Post Identity 1 (1997): 39-65.
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