Hell Hath No Fury: False Feminism and Perpetuation of the Patriarchy in "Lucy"
WARNING: CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR LUCY
TRIGGER WARNING FOR MENTIONS OF VIOLENCE AND RAPE
A few weeks ago, I saw a little film called Lucy. Now, like many young women, I was incredibly excited about a female-led action film, especially when it starred the talented and beautiful Scarlett Johansson. After all, female representation in the media is still painfully lacking, and the action genre is no exception. An action film with a female protagonist who kicks a lot of ass is, well, nearly unheard of.
But as it turns out, what you see in the trailers is rarely what you get.
Before we talk about the film itself, we must begin by talking about something seemingly unrelated, but something that was incredibly important to the viewing experience of Lucy. I don't know if this was the case for all theaters, but in mine, the trailer shown immediately before Lucy began playing was for Fifty Shades of Gray. For anyone familiar with the books or this upcoming movie, you know that Fifty Shades is a story about a BDSM relationship between super rich and handsome business tycoon Christian Gray and plucky young journalist Ana Steele who, at the start of the relationship, is a virgin.
Now, for anyone who actually READ the books, or is in any way familiar with BDSM in real life, you know that Fifty Shades GROSSLY MISREPRESENTS this kind of relationship: the violent dominance that Christian has over Ana goes too far - he is cruel, manipulative, stalker-ish, deceitful, and routinely ignores both her pleas to stop or go slower as well as the general aftercare that a dom like him is supposed to perform. Unfortunately, this behavior is still portrayed as romantic, sexy, and desirable, and the movie trailer (promoting a release date of Valentine's Day, of all things) encourages this mindset to upsetting degrees.
So why am I talking about Fifty Shades during a review for Lucy? Well sit tight, because it will all make sense in a minute. At the start of the film, Lucy is seen talking with her new boyfriend, who tries to convince her to deliver a metal suitcase for him. After many protests on Lucy's part, the man handcuffs her hand to the suitcase and all but forces her inside the building.
As a woman, the following scene was one of the most stressful and anxiety-inducing scenes I personally have ever witnessed. This young woman, who has just had her agency ripped away from her, is forced to stroll into a lion's den, where numerous men are waiting to literally drag her away into a private room away from everything. A gun is promptly pointed at her head and Lucy has become completely vulnerable at the hands of these men. Even without the gun and mentions of a drug ring, this scene plays so heavily on the day-to-day concerns and even fears that women face in regards to men that it was genuinely uncomfortable to watch.
But we don't end there.
(THESE NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS CONTAIN GRAPHIC DESCRIPTION OF SEXUAL ASSAULT)
Lucy is knocked unconscious, and when we see her awake, she is laying face-down on a bed, stripped down to her underwear, with crumpled and bloody sheets wrapped around her middle. It isn't until she sits up that we realize that the blood is from her abdomen, where the men had cut into her (read: penetrated her) in order to insert a bag of highly dangerous drugs.
This scene was a thinly veiled rape parallel, even for the casual viewer, but after seeing the Fifty Shades of Gray trailer, which focused on the romanticized (and indeed, sexualized) violence against women, it made the horror of this scene even more disgusting than was even probably intended.
But we move on, and this is where the problems with Lucy really take off.
Basically, the drugs increase brain activity to superhuman levels, and when they enter Lucy's bloodstream, she essentially starts becoming capable of literally anything that is conceivable (and even inconceivable) - all knowledge of the universe and the fabric of reality begins seeping into her consciousness. And Lucy's first act as a superhuman being?
Killing each and every one of the men who had kidnapped and imprisoned her.
Now, the ethics of this can be debated, because these were the men who had robbed her of her will and agency and then threatened to sexually assault her - but the fact remains that Lucy's first display of power was murder, and this does not stop being problematic for the rest of the film.
Over the course of the remaining hour of the film, Lucy continues to enact her plan of revenge against the entire drug ring who had planted the drugs in her (and several others) in the first place. On first glance, you have a woman taking on a number of men in a fight and winning, which in theory should have been a refreshing role-reversal for this particular genre. However, a glaring problem still remains in that nearly every single man in the film (at least, the ones that Lucy targeted) are all men of color.
I won't go into much detail about the racial elements of Lucy here, because so many others have talked about it so well, but I have to point out how upsetting this whole dichotomy is: on the one hand, you have men of color with loads of power who are portrayed as extremely dangerous. On the other hand, you have a (white) woman with loads of knowledge who is portrayed as extremely dangerous, and who not only targets the men of color but is on a mission to kill all of them. There is a glaringly obvious White vs. Other binary going on in this movie, and the fact that two sets of minorities were pitted against each other - both dangerous and both unsympathetic - is not just disappointing, but a terrible perpetuation of the Western, colonial fear of the racial "Other."
In regards to Lucy as a protagonist, we must now address the issue of her humanity. Excluding the single scene we have of her at the very beginning (pre-drugs) and a scene where Lucy calls her mother and explains how overwhelmed by everything she feels, and how she can remember literally everything (biological or otherwise) that ever happened to her, Lucy begins losing touch with humanity the more drugs she takes and the more knowledge she gains. So for more than half the film, Lucy is basically an unfeeling, walking and talking supercomputer. Having a protagonist who is so removed from emotion and empathy makes it nearly impossible to root for them.
We have come nearly full circle as Lucy's lack of humanity leads me to talk about the depressingly heteronormative and patriarchal nature of this film. There is only one other female during the course of this film - Lucy's friend from the beginning - but she is practically a non-existent character. So the film is essentially Lucy against a world of men. It sounded promising from the trailer - a woman who had been victimized by the patriarchy taking control and turning the tables on her oppressors. But in execution, not so much. Instead, we have an extremely forced and poorly timed kiss between Lucy and a male police officer who she is keeping around for convenience sake. In the scene, we are told that the purpose of this kiss is to reconnect Lucy to humanity (though it has little to no effect) - however, under the circumstances, it reads very strongly of Lucy being temporarily "tamed" by the very patriarchal system that had violated her and weaponized her in the first place.
We also have a scene where Lucy is behind the wheel, weaving between traffic practically at lightspeed, and leaving crashes, explosions, and general devastation in her wake. The police officer asks, "Do you always drive like this?" to which Lucy responds, "I don't drive." I have been told that I'm reading too much into this, but if the expression on the police officer's face is not supposed to encourage a "women can't drive" joke, then I completely don't understand the point of that entire exchange.
As we near the end of this long and super-ranty review, I have a few more things to add. When this film was first being promoted, I - among others - noticed many similarities between Lucy and the 2011 film Limitless. After having seen Lucy, I immediately sought out and watched Limitless in order to compare and contrast. And what I found was as disturbing as it was sadly predictable.
The premise of both movies is more or less the same - the protagonist acquires a drug that provides them with an abundance of knowledge and places them in a position of power.
BUT. Here's where it gets a bit hairy.
In Lucy, we don't know much about her as a character at all, much less prior to the insertion of drugs into her body. We know that she briefly dated the guy who chained her to the briefcase, and we hear something about her taking exams. That's it. We don't even know her last name.
In Limitless, however, we know a great deal about the protagonist Eddie Morra - we know that he's an author struggling with writer's block in New York, and we know about the strained relationship that he has with his girlfriend. Already, we see a male character who is career driven, whereas the extent of our knowledge of Lucy as a character begins and ends with her interaction with her boyfriend.
But let's talk about the actual acquisition of these life-changing drugs. It is important to note that with Lucy, she is violently kidnapped and the drugs inserted into her body without her knowledge or consent - she has absolutely no say in the matter. But with Eddie, he is given the drug from an estranged brother-in-law and decides to take the drug of his own free will, no coercion or threats needed. Already, we are seeing an extremely disturbing difference in the way these similar situations are presented with a male and female lead.
As mentioned before, Lucy's first act as a superhuman is to murder her captors and proceed on a bloody revenge spree to wipe out the entire drug ring. But for Eddie, his experience with the special drug provides him with an increase in his sex drive, incredible business success, and the completion of his novel.
Do you see the difference? The man's power lends him success in all aspects of his life - the woman's power leaves death and destruction in its wake and immediately sets her up for a downfall. While both movies address the issue of the drug becoming addictive and the users undergoing a form of withdrawal if they should stop taking it, Eddie's life significantly improves while Lucy's quickly deteriorates the more powerful she becomes.
Lucy concludes with the acquisition of all knowledge and she essentially ceases to exist. Or rather, she transcends as some sort of multidimensional being who is literally everywhere and in all things. It is clear that in a warping of the phrase "absolute power corrupts absolutely," Lucy's absolute knowledge has corrupted absolutely.
Going into it, I had high hopes for Lucy - a strong female lead in an action film was something that our media sorely needed - but what it actually accomplished was counterproductive. The overall message of Lucy seemed to be that women with knowledge are dangerous and must be destroyed.
This was not the feminist film that it promised to be, and the fact that it (and the media) seem to believe that it is, means that Lucy's got some serious explaining to do.