Red Sparrow is an adaptation based on a book by Jason Matthews, a former CIA agent, that features a Russian ballerina, Dominika Egorova, pushed into espionage after a career-ending injury. (Dominika’s story is quite similar to Natasha Romanov’s backstory in the Marvel comics, but that’s a different discussion.) Dominika’s new world is one of secrets, lies, and sex, as she is trained as a “sparrow”, a sort of state-sponsored sex worker who uses seduction tactics to pry information from her marks. Dominika bares her body—Lawrence calls her Red Sparrow experience “empowering”— and even when Dominika isn’t naked or having sex, she is often dressed in provocative outfits and the camera lingers on her body in a blatant example of the male gaze. (I echo Kristy Puchko’s sentiment that the gaze in Red Sparrow is “unnerving”, as if director Francis Lawrence, who also worked with Lawrence on The Hunger Games movies, was just waiting for her to grow up so he could film her like this.) Jennifer Lawrence was violated when her personal photos were stolen and posted on the internet, and if starring in Red Sparrow made her feel empowered and gave her a sense of control over her body and her image, then that is sincerely good. But let’s be clear—Red Sparrow is not empowering for women as a whole.
And that is because Red Sparrow has a woman problem, which is that it is not for, by, or about women. The protagonist is female, that is as much as women and womanhood matter to Red Sparrow. This is a movie made by men, for men—specifically for men who are too embarrassed put “humiliation porn” into their search history and so will settle for the soft-core stylings of Red Sparrow. And it’s a movie that knows so little about women that Dominika bleaches her long brunette locks with one box of pharmacy hair dye and then GOES SWIMMING. (One woman in my theater laughed out loud.) April Wolfe points to this moment as a giveaway of men trying to write for women and failing, noting how blowing such a detail casts doubt on the filmmakers’ overall ability to depict women as whole people—“one box bleach job and then swimming” is the new “running from a T-Rex in high heels”.
But the hair dye is not the real problem with Red Sparrow. It’s just the surface detail that signals a much bigger problem, in this case, the blatant and creepy objectification of Dominika. There are multiple rape attempts of varying success that do nothing but reinforce Dominika’s position as an object, and a vulnerable one at that. Over and over again Red Sparrow shows that no matter how clever Dominika is or how physically capable, she will be made vulnerable for the gaze of men, for no purpose but audience titillation. Even her inevitable torture scenes are prurient, with Dominika’s naked body subjected to abuse in scenes staged to show her off as much as they are to humiliate her.
Red Sparrow pays lip service to equality, with a moment of full-frontal male nudity—much briefer and explicitly not sexualized, unlike Dominika’s multiple moments of nudity—and by giving her a sex partner of her choosing, CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton). But her relationship with Nash is fraught with post-Cold War politics and the double-triple-quadruple-crossing nature of the story. We can never trust Dominika’s true motives in sleeping with Nash, which negates her choice as independent and instead slots it into the “f*ck anyone you must to survive” narrative that hounds her from the moment her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts, who looks made up to resemble Vladimir Putin) coerces her into the Sparrow program, which she dubs “whore school”.
It's as if Red Sparrow has confused acknowledgment for empowerment, as if letting a female character say brash things and murder a dude makes up for scenes of overt sexualization—especially scenes that SHOULDN’T be sexy, like rape and torture. But Red Sparrow’s woman problem is less with Dominika herself and more with how she is presented, how she is captured by the camera and how perfunctory is her performance of agency (separating here the character’s agency from Jennifer Lawrence’s as a performer). That single box of hair dye is a clue that Dominika’s reality as a woman is not understood at all, let alone represented. We only know her in one mode—survival—and she is presented in the shallowest possible way, as an object for a leering male gaze. Red Sparrow is performative empowerment, using the meta-language of the moment to paper over the same kind of exploitation that has always reduced female characters to nothing more than titillation and the cheapest kind of salacious spectacle.