Posted on Friday, May 24th, 2013 by Angie Han
It’s more or less impossible to reboot a massively popular franchise for the big screen without drawing the ire of a few fans, but one major criticsm plaguing Star Trek Into Darkness in recent days has nothing to do with J.J. Abrams‘ Klingon redesign or use of parallel timelines. Midway through the film, there’s a brief scene in which the character Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) strips down to her underwear for no apparent reason. Some fans called filmmakers out for being sexist, and so far writer Damon Lindelof has stepped up to offer his apologies.
The minor controversy was fresh in my mind when I went to go see Fast & Furious 6, which, as you’d expect, outdoes Star Trek Into Darkness‘ tiny sliver of cheesecake on every level. All of the female stars of Fast & Furious 6 are conventionally attractive to begin with, and none shy away from wearing form-fitting outfits or showing off a bit of cleavage. Additionally, scantily clad female extras are used in several sequences as little more than set decoration. And yet I walked away from Fast & Furious 6 thinking that director Justin Lin and his crew could teach the Star Trek team a thing or two about portraying female characters on screen.
To start with, let’s discuss why Carol Marcus’ brief stripping scene in Star Trek Into Darkness was so problematic. Out of context, it doesn’t seem so bad as far as these things go. The whole thing is over within a minute, and ends with Carol still in her bra and panties. Her lingerie isn’t even all that sexy. But — and memorize these next two words, because they’re basically my entire thesis statement — context matters. Daily Dot has a wonderfully in-depth post about the female-unfriendly circumstances aboard the USS Enterprise. The gist of it is that this is a movie where there aren’t many women to begin with, and the few there are have precious little to do besides look fetching.
Uhura (Zoe Saldana) gets a couple of badass moments, but her primary function in the film is emotional cheerleader — to feel the feels that her boyfriend can’t, or to commiserate with Kirk when things go wrong. Carol Marcus has it even worse. She’s introduced as a smart, determined scientist with a mysterious agenda, but her actual contribution to the plot is negligible. Her real role is to serve as eye candy so Uhura doesn’t have to. No, seriously. “Last time, Zoe needed to wear underwear, and this time it was Alice Eve’s turn,” the costume designer explained to the Guardian. “You know, it’s a rather large male fanbase, and JJ wanted to appeal to that.”
The low point of Carol’s storyline, as you’ve probably guessed, is the scene described in the first paragraph. Kirk (Chris Pine) turns around and watches her change after she explicitly told him not to look back, inviting the audience to watch with him. This is the male gaze at its most literal. She reacts with slight annoyance, but does little to deflect his gaze. The moment comes out of nowhere and is never discussed afterward. It teaches us nothing about either character that we didn’t already know. There is literally no plot or character reason this scene needs to exist. It is the very definition of gratuitous.
Now let’s contrast that to Fast & Furious 6. If Star Trek Into Darkness offers a tiny slice of cheesecake, Fast & Furious 6 offers up a big fat wedge, garnished with raspberry sauce and chocolate shavings. But it also has far more female characters than Star Trek Into Darkness does. More importantly, far more of them are doing things other than being pretty. Gisele (Gal Gadot), Riley (Gina Carano), and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are all gorgeous actresses, and they’re in costumes that show off their curves. However, these women manage to look that good while also racing expensive cars, shooting at baddies, and engaging in hand-to-hand combat — you know, playing central roles in the actual plot of the movie.
The same point holds even in Fast Five, when Gisele dons a racy little swimsuit as part of a silly plan to get a guy to slap (and therefore leave his handprint on) her ass. Gisele is perhaps even more physically exposed than Carol was in her big scene, but Gisele’s situation comes across in a much more positive light. For one thing, there’s at least some attempt to justify Gisele’s semi-nudity on a plot level. For another, her feminine wiles are just one of many skills Gisele brings to her team; she’s also a weapons expert, a skilled shot, and a capable driver.
The most crucial difference between Carol and Gisele’s scenes, however, is that Gisele’s skin-baring moment comes as the result of an idea that she had, and she decided to execute. Carol’s is something that’s done to her, by Kirk, without her permission. When it happens, she hardly even objects to his blatant disregard of her wishes. Presumably we’re meant to believe that Carol doesn’t mind too much because Kirk is just so smooth. Still, it’s irritating that Carol shows no agency in this sequence whatsoever. Even the audience seems to take a more active role in this moment than she does, since the way the scene is shot makes us complicit with Kirk’s actions.
While we’re on the topic of near-nudity, Fast & Furious 6 also has Star Trek Into Darkness beat for beefcake. The men in this movie are as handsome as the women are gorgeous, and are dressed in similarly body-conscious outfits. (I spent a good ten seconds of the film wondering whether those Under Armour shirts were cutting off circulation to Dwayne Johnson‘s massive guns.) Both Vin Diesel and Ludacris get opportunities to shed their tops and show off their abs, for anyone who wants to appreciate them.
Star Trek Into Darkness does, at one point, show Kirk without his shirt on, but the circumstances surrounding his near-nudity couldn’t be more different from those around Carol’s. Kirk’s lack of clothing makes logical sense in the scene; he’s in his own bed with two shapely alien gals. (If anything, then, his nakedness is a reminder of his sexual power.) And whereas the camera leered at Carol along with Kirk, it doesn’t linger at all on Kirk’s body. Nor are we ever encouraged to check out the Enterprise’s other attractive male crew members. Those Starfleet uniforms aren’t exactly made for showing off muscle tone. Beefcake and cheesecake don’t necessarily cancel each other out; besides, even if they did, Fast & Furious 6 features far more half-naked female bodies than male ones. But giving the ladies something to ogle too definitely goes a long way toward making female viewers feel like they’re on even ground.
Star Trek Into Darkness‘ brief moment of sensuality (so tame the MPAA didn’t even mention it in the ratings explanation) is further complicated by the type of movie that it wants to be. Fast & Furious 6 is supposed to be a movie about incredibly good-looking people doing utterly ridiculous things, and showing us a fantastically fun time while they’re doing it. The ass-shaking, bikini-wearing ladies of Fast & Furious 6 are presented in that hedonistic spirit. In contrast, Star Trek Into Darkness asks us to take its universe and characters seriously, and invites us to be moved by the crew’s plight. But first, it says, let’s take a moment to check out this hot chick.
The sad part of all this is that it’s not as if Fast & Furious 6 is some paragon of feminist ideals. Male roles outnumber female ones by a 2:1 ratio, and the film fails badly at the Bechdel test. Then there’s the fact that all four major leads are men, while all the pretty but silent set decoration-extras are women. The female characters it does have, however, are treated as equals, both by the other male characters and the movie itself. Gisele, Letty, Riley, and the rest of the ladies make for luscious eye candy, but no one would mistake them for plain old sex objects. Star Trek Into Darkness, on the other hand, struggles to come up with anything else for its female characters to do.
There’s nothing inherently bad about putting sexy ladies on screen for audiences to enjoy. Had Star Trek Into Darkness taken a page out of the Fast & Furious 6 playbook, it could’ve had its (cheese)cake, and eaten it too. They could have integrated the moment into an actual plotline, say, or balanced it out by keeping in Benedict Cumberbatch‘s shower scene. At the very least, they could’ve put Carol in charge of her own striptease — had her do it in an effort to seduce Kirk, perhaps. Instead, the franchise reputed for devotion to progressive, egalitarian politics is the one leaving a bad taste in female fans’ mouths. Lucky for them, there’s Fast & Furious 6 waiting one theater over with open arms.