– By Marielle Cuccinelli –
The Fast and the Furious franchise is home to some of the most epically misogynist films I’ve ever seen. The series started in the early 2000s – the merry old days when it was totally cool for filmmakers to be openly, blatantly, incredibly sexist and objectifying. Some of the most memorable elements of the first few films are the awful sham attempts at strong female characters. You’ll see a busty supporting heroine in a semitransparent t-shirt who inevitably, inexplicably, and with no storytelling finesse whatsoever fall in steamy love with the hero, which inevitably leads to her being captured by the male villain, on whom she was probably cheating with said hero (which is okay, since the villain is a villain and the hero isn’t cheating on anyone). You’ll see the sexy, tough-as-nails token female member of the street racing fam, who is there entirely to be the sexual prize of the fam’s leader – and that’s not even me reading into things; Dominic Toretto literally, literally calls Letty “my prize,” and she acts like that’s hot instead of demeaning. Does that make you feel empowered or what, ladies?
You’ll see the utterly essential staple strip club scene in every film. You’ll see the token fetish girl, too, clad alternately in skimpy hot pink outfits and sexy hot pink bikinis and, lest you fail to be aware of how empowering it is that a woman is allowed to participate in street racing, at the wheel of an atrociously hot pink race car. Oh, and she too is somebody’s sexual prize, in case you were wondering, but her male counterpart gets to be fully clothed the whole time. You’ll see so many shots of women’s semi-clothed butts and so many shots that pan up women’s bodies that you could honestly make a great drinking game of it. And I’m only scratching the surface here.
With that glowing introduction to the Fast and the Furious, allow me to segue to the franchise’s most recent installment; Hobbs & Shaw. From the first trailer, this movie promised an iconic female action hero, Hattie Shaw (played by the goddess Vanessa Kirby). Despite the overblown misogyny I associate with most of its predecessors, I had my fingers crossed for Hobbs & Shaw.
I will say that the film upheld its promised potential better than I, conditioned as I am to be disappointed by contemporary efforts at female equality, expected. There was some fantastic action – the climactic fight scene in particular, an epic battle in the rain filled with slow-mo shots of rain flying off fists, made my action-loving heart ever so happy. Idris Elba’s villain drives a smart motorcycle that he can control remotely, and the way that element was incorporated into the chase scenes was epic. The animosity between the two titular characters made some of the fight scenes really entertaining.
Furthermore, I did genuinely like Hattie Shaw’s character, and I’d like to go on the record saying she was a better character than I expected. She had an irreverent Cockney accent that successfully divorced her from the posh, sexy British she-spy trope, and the film showed impressive restraint in refraining, mostly, from unnecessarily sexualizing her.
Some massive strides in the writing of female characters have been made since this franchise’s first couple of films. There, I said it, and I stand by it.
However – tale as old as time – the film still falls vastly short of being the empowering piece the trailers promised. It was riddled with the tired tropes that have been nailed to women on screen since the inception of film. Here are the most outstandingly memorable ones:
The trope: setting a female character up as powerful and unbeatable, just to have the male hero easily defeat her in order to show how powerful he is. Hattie Shaw gets a hell of an introduction, injecting herself with a deadly virus in order to keep it from falling into evil hands, fighting her way out of a trap that kills a team of highly trained MI6 agents, being branded a rogue by her organization, and singlehandedly evading MI6’s efforts to find her. And then… enter Dwayne Johnson’s Agent Hobbs, who tracks her down and easily overpowers her – rendering her helpless, at one point, by holding her up in the air with one hand like a child. From this moment onward, Hattie takes a back seat to the adventures and action chops of the titular buddy-cop heroes.
The trope: the kick-ass female hero can defend herself against anything and anyone, except when she can’t, which is always when the male heroes are around to defend her more competently. Hattie Shaw can outfight swarms of knock-em-down goons. Or at any rate, she can do so when it’s convenient and when the film is trying to establish her as a strong female character. At other times, that strength is tossed out the window and she’s easily overpowered in order for the indomitable Hobbs and Shaw to come to her rescue.
The trope: Fridging (a personal favorite of mine) and the good old damsel in distress – a double whammy. Fridging, in case you’ve missed my incessant references to it in other articles, is when a female character is killed, captured, violated, or otherwise harmed, endangered or taken out of commission, in order to motivate the male lead to drive the plot forward. For all her heroism, irreverence and fighting prowess, Hattie Shaw has to be saved by the male heroes. And not just once; she’s a Russian nesting doll damsel in distress. Saving her from the virus she’s infected with is the driving thread of the story, and along the way, our heroes save her many a time from Idris Elba and his knock-em-downs. I’ll allow that she consistently contributes to their efforts to save her, which diffuses some of the damage, but is insufficient to negate it. She kicks a lot of ass, but at the end of the day, Hattie’s primary function in the story is to be the fridged damsel whose distress is our male heroes’ driving motivation.
The trope: the female supporting character ends up being the prize with which the male hero is rewarded for his growth, heroism, accomplishments, etc. In what other direction could Hattie Shaw’s arc travel than romantic collision with her brother’s fremesis and co-hero Hobbs (who, in case you forgot, is the one who so easily bested her a couple tropes back)? It would have been just unthinkable, wouldn’t it, for a leading female character to remain romantically unattached for the duration of an entire film? Because I liked the film, I’ll give it a 25% pass on this, since if the roles were flipped it wouldn’t be unheard of for a male supporting character to end up with a female hero. But given how exhausted this trope is, and given the objectifying undercurrent behind the idea of women as romantic prizes or rewards for men, the film is still 75% on the hook for it.
The trope – the oldest, simplest, and most basically offensive one in the book: Objectification and flagrant sexualization of female characters. Hattie Shaw is spared this treatment, but just because they don’t do it to one female character doesn’t exonerate them doing it to others. The filmmakers probably thought it was a show of tremendous good taste to restrain themselves to one single yet egregious shot that goes out of its way to ogle a nearly-naked female butt. As far as I’m concerned, that one absolutely unnecessary shot single-handedly destroyed any claim this film could have made to genuine female empowerment. And then there’s bad boy Shaw’s friend Madam M, so flat a sham of a strong female character that she belongs in the original Fast and Furious films, not in this one. Madam M is a sexy lamp there for no apparent reason other than to conveniently present some key information – oh, and to casually make out with Shaw when he appears on her doorstep. You mean to tell me that’s not how hot women normally greet their male friends? You mean to tell me women aren’t just perpetually horny squirrels waiting for a good makeout sesh with the first hot guy that’s up for it? You mean to tell me that’s a male fantasy perpetuated by male writers? You mean to tell me depicting women this way perpetuates rape culture? Weird. Let’s chew on that and regroup.
Putting all these tropes aside, my fundamental issue with the film’s politics is this: Hattie Shaw should have been the lead. I know, I know; the whole point is Hobbs and Shaw, the beloved icons of the franchise, the dynamic anti-duo, the buddy cops that can’t stand each other, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and good old Jason Statham. And don’t get me wrong, it’s a great premise that certainly delivers on its potential for fun and hilarity.
But from a purely structural, writing perspective, Hattie Shaw is set up like she’s the lead character, which leaves a sense of inconsistency. Hattie is the one whose actions drive the story forward; Hobbs and Shaw are reactionary characters who are dragged in latently to fumble the storyline out of her hands once she’s done the work to set it in motion. Even while they’re saving her and running around the world to get her cured before time runs out, they’re reacting to changes she sets in motion instead of initiating change themselves. Overall, In spite of being a vast improvement on the Fast and Furious films preceding it, Hobbs and Shaw still falls far short of delivering on the themes of equality and female power promised by the trailers.
About the Author
Marielle Cuccinelli (class of 2019) is Virginia-bred storyteller who’s been obsessed with action movies for as long as she can remember. She graduated with a degree in Media Communications with a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing at JPCatholic in 2019, and hopes to live out her ambitions of bringing the female action heroes she looked for as a kid to life on the big screen. She spends her free time writing feature films and choreographing fight scenes.