Bright Lights Film Journal

Superwomen? The Bad-Ass Babes of Sin City – or Are They?

This noir-drenched comic adaptation is retro in more ways than one

In the sordid, febrile netherworld of Sin City, the eponymous film re-creation of the comic by Frank Miller, the viewer is catapulted into a tumult of outlandish violence, reprisal, terror, and vigilantism in which men are hyper-masculine, women are strippers and prostitutes, and both are marginalized. During the two agonizing hours I watched it, six people stood up and exited the theater. This might be what director Robert Rodriguez intended.

Nonetheless, it should be asked (and there is a noticeable dearth of discussion in this regard) what the film means to our cultural consciousness in light of its contestable portrayal of women?

In the widespread reviews of this film, the focus has been on the artistic medium rather than the message. Arguably the qualities of Sin City‘s medium are groundbreaking. Rodriguez has been lauded for his use of unorthodox film style and production techniques in successfully translating comic into film – using all black and white footage with touches of color – as well as for his impudence against almighty Hollywood dictates (e.g., quitting the Director’s Guild of America when they would not let Miller co-direct the movie). In other words, the film has garnered mainstream notoriety for “coolness” by way of flagrantly anti-Hollywood establishmentarianism and by its cult comic origins. Because of this, Sin City will no doubt become a classic.

With this kind of bloated hype and popularity, therefore, its (mixed) messages about women requires scrutiny. Despite that the movie’s production was unprecedented, and its disturbing comic vision stands at societal margins, it is problematic in its arguable misogyny. On one hand, the women can be seen as warrior-goddesses, magnificent and luminous; on the other, they are morally dubious prostitutes and strippers, victims and servants of debased male gratification.

Rodriguez, however, is not much help in this area. His lack of discussion in interviews about the film’s topics and themes has been conspicuous. It can only be speculated that his silence is perhaps due to the kind of marketing savvy that rouses interest from sustained mystery (saving the discussion for the DVD?) or out of respect for the authorial voice and co-director, Frank Miller. More likely it is to sell movies to an adolescent male audience even if it is at the expense of women. After all, he has taken the male-centered subculture of comics to mass culture.

Certainly Sin City‘s cinematic views of women are conflicted in large part because the movie is a close reproduction of a comic. Comics are notoriously written by men about men for men, and gender roles are made even more extreme by the comic genre insofar as it strives to be unrealistic, fantastical, and hyperbolic. Both the men and women are overstated and fanciful, for the men are not intended to be real men and the women are not real women. But many times, instead of challenging traditional roles, comics inflate them and the men are portrayed as excessively macho, the women as sidekicks, sex kittens, or helpless appendages. Like many comics, Sin City‘s six vignettes step inside the consciousness of its male narrators to represent women from a hard-bitten, ultra-masculine point of view. The females are “told” by men, and they are positioned and poised as vixens, temptresses, pin-ups, vamps, prostitutes, and mistresses. Unfortunately, Rodriguez directly transcribes the comic – even though the film draws a mass audience – without altering its mixed perspective on women. For example, the actresses Rodriguez chose are relatively young and unknown, B-list (Rosario Dawson, Jessica Alba, Brittany Murphy, Jamie King) compared to the older big-name male actors (Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Benicio Del Toro), and in the script, the women are even called whores and are slapped by men. In spite of this, the women manage to outrun their stereotypes to de-center the male narrative, but with much ambiguity.

Throughout the movie, the roles of the female are ambivalent, for although the women are often strong and self-sufficient, the commentary the male narrators make about them and the way they treat them undermine their portrayal. As well, the very fact that the females are prostitutes and strippers leaves them in an uncertain position and one that is at the mercy of men. The women in large part are defined by their sexuality: envisaged as stunning and scantily clad, they maintain power through sexuality and physicality. In other words, they are objectified and rendered by obsessive male fantasies and mythologies. Therefore, it is also more evident of the female than the male characters that they are flat, fixed, and stereotypically idealized. Their roles include, for example, the glamorous, angelic love interest that turns out to be a common prostitute, the stripper with a heart of gold, the beaten waitress with an abusive string of boyfriends, and the controlling dominatrix madam. The men idealize, romanticize, pine for the women by placing them on impossible pedestals (circumscribed by sexuality and desire) as cherished imaginings and visions, and through this possession make it their duty to guard and safekeep them, especially since the women are jeopardized or victimized by brutal crime and injustice. In this way, the traditional formulations or projections of femininity as sexuality are retained, as are the concomitant age-old misogynistic conceits of male domination/paternalism in the guise of safety and defense of women, i.e., the cliché that women are weak and need rescuing by men from other men, and from themselves. At the same time, the women are members of the sex industry, thus coded as morally unsavory and sinful. They are blamed for the resulting mayhem when the men, lured by the women’s so-called dangerous mystique, act in revenge on their behalf to maim and murder. By contrast, the men are vindicated and validated in making the ultimate sacrifices to revolt against institutionalized power and to signify vigilante justice. In the end, the women are simultaneously exalted and loathed as the objects of male fantasy. While the men admire the female spectacle, they have no respect for them, brusquely calling the women whores and slapping them for being fatuous.

This is not to say, however, that the women in the film are submissive, dependent, and do not take action within the scope of their agency, or that they do not have power over men. The women are not helpless, powerless, or weak; rather, they are cunning and battle-ready. Not only do they refrain from asking for help from the male protagonists, but they either resist or fight to save themselves from their enemies. In one of the stories, a group of female characters are joined in a sisterhood of prostitutes that is armed, independent, and protects itself, led by Gail (Rosario Dawson, above, with Clive Owen), who is both capable and powerful. Nonetheless, Gail is told at least three times by Dwight (Clive Owen) that she is a Valkyrie, a mythic Norse woman warrior or angel of death – the repetition of which is almost absurd in its insistence, as if Rodriguez or Miller is desperately trying to point out, “Look! A strong woman!” or rather a woman delineated by a man, even though she can stand for herself. A prominent member of her faction, an Asian martial arts archer named Miho (Devon Aoki), though silent and literally without voice in the film, rescues the clan and even Clive Owen’s character from extermination. Another strong character is the lesbian friend and parole officer to Marv (Mickey Rourke), who has her hand bitten off but does not cry out or complain. Marv wonders how a “dame with a body like that can like women,” but she is his ally and is killed trying to help Marv avenge her captor. The youngest female character, the most seemingly naïve of the prostitutes, goes against everyone to betray her family of prostitutes and Dwight (Clive Owen) to the corrupt police because of her tremendous love and dedication to her mother. One of the most stale and banal characters, Nancy (Jessica Alba, above), still manages to be shrewd and resilient, even though she is saved as a child by Hartigan (Bruce Willis) from a pedophile and once more when Willis discovers that she has become a teenage stripper, again captured by the same pedophile. Nonetheless, throughout her childhood, she manages to smuggle Hartigan letters while he is in jail – and she becomes valorized in his mind as a surrogate daughter, and he sacrifices himself to protect her.

Just as the film is shot in black and white, there are plenty of gray areas and murk in the message – and just as Rodriguez toys with film noir and with stylized, inflated violence, it seems there may be a twinge of skepticism (arguably a critique of established modes of film and of media power) as well as absurdity due to excessively stereotyped language and characters. Like the female characters, the male characters are ambivalent, for though they fight for humanity, they are themselves depicted as nearly inhuman: monstrous, scarred, homicidal, blinded by violent subconscious drives of fear and rage, trying to assert their fragile masculinity and dominance; even going so far as to castrate and emasculate other men (to become, as Freud might say, their fathers); and trying to derive power from their false fantasies of women.

In the end, however, for the audience of young boys and men that this film most appeals to – and for most girls and women who see it – it will likely not be analyzed this way. And on the whole, the gray areas are too subtle. The two-dimensional comic is visually static, but when transmuted into film, it is laden with livid, disconcerting action and realism. Its fans are zealous devotees and the comic message may be tailored to appeal to them, but it also impacts them early on (as it did Rodriguez, a lifelong Sin City enthusiast). Regrettably, even though the film has a great deal of potential to undermine and destabilize codes of power, it only manages to promote a brutal and vehement backlash of frantic machismo that must be overridden by the figures of the women themselves.