It’s 2005. I’m thirteen years old. Spotty, puppy fat ridden and nerdy to boot, I’m watching Sin City for the 5th time. Armed with the original graphic novels by Frank Miller, I go through the movie comparing the original art to Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation. I discover it is mind bogglingly similar and rush to tell the only Boy I know about my discovery. He’s impressed. He asks me out. And my career in seducing Hot Nerdy Boys begins.
At that age I was already flexing my feminist muscles, but the nuances of objectification went over my head. As a teenager I genuinely thought Nancy the stripper was a strong, cool character. In the same way Buffy the Vampire Slayer was my hero, the girls of Sin City toted guns instead of handbags, had their own laws and used their sexuality and good looks to get what they wanted from men.
Sure, the women spent most of their time in their underwear, but that only made them appeal more. And Sin City felt like The Avengers for adults. The women in Marvel comics may spend an equal amount of time half-naked, but you’d never see them actually DOING IT. Full of hormones, I was curious about sex with any gender and gagging to see some flesh. Honing my nerd lingo and devouring the lives of Peter Parker and Thor got me closer to the boys I adored. Doing something I loved and impressing pizza-faced teenagers in the process? The dream.
TEN YEARS PASS.
The night’s as hot as hell. It’s a lousy room in a lousy part of a lousy town. And along comes the much awaited, highly anticipated sequel, Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For. I convince my hot nerdy (feminist) boyfriend to come to a Sin City double bill preview screening. He’s reluctant. He wasn’t that into the original and, although he is a huge comic book fan, he never read the graphic novels. Also he’s kind of offended by the poster. Fuck it, I say, it’s my guilty pleasure. I’m allowed one of those.
5 hours later and I’m suddenly caught between my intensely insecure thirteen year old self, and the ardent feminist I’ve grown into. When a female colleague asks how it was, I struggle to defend it. It’s pretty cool, I tell her. Made me want to buy a Harley and take up smoking cigars. But the truth is, the bubble has been burst. Skinny little Nancy Callahan did indeed grow up, and fill out, and in the process became a drunken coward. Hung up on Hartigan, the dead cop who saved her life, she stumbles about with a whiskey bottle and a loaded gun, too afraid to pull the trigger and claim her vengeance. Only when she goes “crazy” and cuts up her own face does she finally find the courage to kill a man.
But she’s allowed to be damaged, the nerd in my head says. Female characters are quite often only allowed to be Madonnas or whores, but she is the hero who is damaged, like the male characters. True, but she is still a stripper. And although she may eventually get her vengeance, she has to become “ugly” to do so.
And then there is Eva Green’s Ava. Seducing “good men” and destroying their lives for fun and/or money, Xan Brooks in The Guardian describes her as “the perfect embodiment of the directors’ cock-eyed sexual politics, in that she is a beautiful witch, at once arousing and deadly.” Miller’s unfaltering loyalty to the 40s crime-noir femme fatale disregards the modern audience he is selling to, and subsequently Ava not only feels utterly outdated, but offensively backwards.
In the sequel, Nancy has become a weak, frightened little girl who is out of her league, and Ava is a manipulative whore who gets her just desserts. The women of Sin City may be allowed to play with the big boys, but not without constant reminding that they can only be “dames” or “dykes” (“although God knows why, with that body she could have any man she wanted”) and were put on this earth with various orifices that need filling. Because in reality, that kind of ‘cool’ isn’t for girls. Whiskey bottles and leather coats and big guns – those are exclusively men’s toys. These women are prostitutes, and are deigned interesting enough to get screen time not because they are independent women, but because they have accepted their roles as inferior to men. They are smart enough to know that sex is all they are good for. And they are cool enough to enjoy it. And although it may be wrong to hit them, watching it happen for two hours is valid entertainment.
Looking back, watching and re-watching that movie to fawn over Jessica Alba in her underwear makes total sense. I’m a woman, and since birth I’ve been told there is a specific shape, and a specific size, and a specific mouth and nose and set of eyes and pair of feet and fingernails that I should have in order to be a better woman. And watching her, just like agonizing over size zero models in Vogue or considering the benefits of plastic surgery, helped teenage me feel like I was doing the right thing. That I was adhering to the rules dictated for me since birth in studying ‘perfection’ and making every effort to copy that.
And as a nerd, that is the fundamental difference between how I see comic book heroes and how my male counterparts do. Boys in the west grow up with dreams of superpowers. Girls grow up dreaming they were skinnier with shinier hair.
So now at 22, vaguely more worldly and consciously more feminist, I’m in a dilemma. From my nerdy perspective, the first Sin City is brilliant. And if I chose to avoid any work in that genre that was offensive to women, I would literally be left with one comic book (Ms. Marvel, if you’re interested). I’m a nerd and I like comic books and superhero films. And previously I let slide the seemingly innate sexism in that genre to try and be cool.
Perhaps Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For would have done better nine years ago. Perhaps the world has progressed since the first film was released. Or perhaps it is just a generation desensitized to that graphic combination of sex and violence that has disregarded this sequel to the extent it is flopping at the box office. I don’t think we have beaten sexism. But I think I am closer to sticking to my guns rather than letting outward sexism and misogyny slide because something is a certain genre, or because I like the characters. I want to see a film where Rourke the stripper gets kidnapped and half eaten by a psycho Elijah Wood, and the leather jacket wearing, cop-cum-outlaw Nancy kills a bunch of guys to save his ass. But maybe that’s silly.
- Daisy Bata