“Atomic Blonde” Gives Us A Badass Action Heroine, But Can’t Escape Sexist Tropes: BUST Review

by Erika W. Smith

Atomic Blonde, out today, gives us an incredible action heroine: Charlize Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, a Cold War-era British spy who, as her supervisor tells us, has unbelievable skills in intelligence collection, hand-to-hand combat, and foreign languages, particularly Russian. And although she shares the screen with a number of other spies — both male and female, and of various nationalities — Lorraine is undoubtedly the best, most badass spy of them all. Directed by action film pro David Leitch, the film is based on the 2012 graphic novel the Coldest City by Antony Johnson and Sam Hart.

But although an action film with a female main character is certainly something to celebrate, there’s still this — Lorraine appears in a nude scene long before she gets to speak a word. After a prologue in which we see Lorraine’s fellow British spy and implied former lover (James Hargrave) get murdered by Russians in East Berlin just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, we cut to Lorraine in a London bathroom. The camera lingers on Lorraine’s bruised and naked body as she takes an ice bath, sips vodka, and wanders nude around her apartment, all without speaking a word. 

In the next scene, Lorraine goes into a debriefing with her MI6 colleagues, who interrogate her about a mission gone wrong — she had been sent to Berlin to join up with eccentric British spy David Percival (James McAvoy) and track down a missing watch that contains within it a list of all the active spies. We see most of the film in flashbacks from this debriefing scene. We watch Lorraine and David plot circles around each other, beat up rival spies — and each other — and attempt to save the world, or at least the British spy community. The film evokes a late ‘80s aesthetic, with an ’80s pop and New Wave soundtrack (including multiple versions of “99 Luftballoons”), lots of neon hotel lights, and near-constant cigarette smoking. Much attention is paid to Lorraine’s wardrobe, which is both stylish and highly sexualized. Her typical uniform is a miniskirt, trench coat, and, alternately, sky-high stilettos with thigh-high stockings, or thigh-high leather boots. In one scene, we see her attching a tape recorder to her black lace undies. 

atomic blonde 2One of Lorraine’s fight scenes; note the thigh-highs

Promotion for the film has made much of the fact that Lorraine is bisexual and has a female love interest. But her love interest — an inexperienced French spy named Delphine LaSalle (Sofia Boutella) — is one of the less developed characters in the film. Worse, Delphine falls prey to several disappointingly sexist and biphobic tropes. It’s great to have a bisexual lead character and a female love interest — but be warned, these two women are not teaming up to fight the patriarchy and then riding off together into the sunset. This romance could have been done so much better. Explaining further would spoil the film, but if you are okay knowing what happens, click this link here to see trope number one, this link here to see trope number two, and this link here to see trope number three.

delphineLorraine and Delphine

This isn’t to say there’s nothing to enjoy about the film. It made me want to listen to New Wave, wear sunglasses, visit Berlin, put some neon lights in my apartment, and sip Lorraine’s signature drink, Stoli on ice. I’m excited to see Charlize Theron continue her journey towards becoming the world’s #1 action star. But I can’t turn off the feminist part of my brain that notices things like the fact that we see all the women characters naked, and none of the male characters. Or the part that knows that we need to see more same-sex romances that end happily. 

Atomic Blonde is, in many ways, a fun summer action movie. It’s got a great soundtrack and stunning cinematography. But having a female action star isn’t enough to make a film feminist, and like so many other action films, Atomic Blonde falls short in how it portrays women, and how it portrays same-sex relationships.

Images via Atomic Blonde

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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