Finally watched the movie of Whiteout last night. It's a thriller set in Antarctica, in which US Marshal Carrie Stetko has to solve a murder before the long Antarctic night sets in.
I wasn't thrilled with the movie overall; just didn't grab me. But I'm not going to talk about the overall movie here; I'm just going to look at one specific aspect of it and the comic book it's based on: the female characters.
Stetko is played by Kate Beckinsale. The movie passes the Bechdel test; there are a couple of other women, and we see (for example) two female scientists interacting with each other (though only one of them speaks in that scene), and later a female air traffic controller talks with Stetko about a lack of available planes. (Arguably indirectly about men, but close enough for me.) And it's great to see a tough competent female lead in a thriller (there are certainly others, but I think it's still relatively rare).
And yet. The first time we see Stetko, she comes inside, goes to her room, and takes off the badge hanging around her neck; we get a look at the badge, which is a nice compact way of showing us that she's a Marshal...
...And then she takes off the rest of her clothes. When she's down to her underwear, the camera watches her from behind, and we get a lingering shot of her ass as she bends forward to turn on the shower. And then we watch her take a hot shower, blurred by steam. Sigh.
To its credit, the rest of the movie doesn't do that again. But was it necessary even once? The movie does contain brief male frontal nudity; as she's headed inside just before her shower, a line of naked men streaks past in front of her. (Apparently there's a real-life thing of running naked outside in Antarctica.) But that's just (ahem) a flash; not the sexualized extended closeup that we see of Stetko's body. The disrobe-and-shower sequence is a full minute long.
(I have no general-principles objection to Beckinsale taking off her clothes onscreen. My point is that that scene is completely gratuitous; it's unrelated to the rest of the movie; cutting it completely would not have done any damage to the movie.)
Anyway, aside from that I thought the movie did a decent job with gender stuff. But it's based on a 1998 comic book by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber that I had remembered quite liking, but it's been a long time since I read it, and so I thought I would take a look at the comic to see what aspects were original to the movie.
And I was surprised to discover that I had completely forgotten something major about the comic:
There are two female leads.
In the comic, during her investigation, Stetko encounters a British agent named Lily Sharpe. (That's not a spoiler; we first encounter Sharpe on p. 14.) And Sharpe is also an occasional viewpoint character. And the two of them interact and collaborate and conflict with each other for the rest of the story. This is not just a single Bechdel-test pass. This is a story with two tough competent female leads.
And that's despite the fact that (according to the story) the ratio of men to women in Antarctica is something like 200 to 1. (TSOR suggests to me that in real life it's more like 2 to 1, but I know Rucka does a lot of research, so he may well be right, or it may've changed over time.)
So what happened? Why isn't Lily Sharpe in the movie?
Well, she's been replaced. That's right: the tough competent female British agent in the comic has been replaced in the movie by an American man who works for the UN.
And why is that? According to the filmmakers at a Comic-Con panel in 2007, “it accentuates the fact that Carrie [Beckinsale] is predominately surrounded by men.”
So, wait, in the comic, we're told that there's an incredibly lopsided gender ratio, we see the men around Stetko behaving badly about gender issues (that's not the focus of the story, it's just a recurring background annoyance; I think that stuff is handled remarkably well, especially given that it was written by a man), we see Stetko and Sharpe interacting with lots of men, and yet we still have two great female leads. But in order to show that she's surrounded by men, the movie added several minor female characters who have only a few lines apiece, and replaced one of the two female leads with a man.
(And P.S.: The comic does not contain a shower scene. We do momentarily see Stetko in tanktop and briefs climbing into bed, but in those couple of panels, most of the visible exposed skin is her muscular arms.)
So anyway, I still really like the comic, and I recommend it. (I should note that it does contain one incident of attempted sexualized violence, and a fair bit of mostly minor sexism and misogyny from various male characters.) And although I'm glad to see the women who are in the movie, I'm really disappointed that they didn't choose to include Sharpe.
(I'm also surprised and disappointed that I managed to forget about Sharpe. She's a great character, and central to the story, and I'm not sure how she wasn't included in my admittedly vague memories of the comic.)
(For more thoughts about all this, see “Whiteout and Women On Screen,” by Ink-Stained Amazon, written before the movie came out but after the trailer, which included the shower scene.)