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Which is Sexist: “Red Sparrow” or the Male Critics that Gave it Negative Reviews?



Jennifer Lawrence in Red Sparrow
Jennifer Lawrence as Dominika Egorova, prima ballerina turned spy in Red Sparrow | Image credit: 20th Century Fox

Watching Red Sparrow is a glaring reminder not to read critics’ reviews before seeing a film — any film. I have to admit that the 47% rating on Rotten Tomatoes made me stay away from the film longer than I would normally have. But, having disagreed with so many critics’ reviews in the past, I went ahead and watched it anyway. After I had, I understood the barrage of negative criticisms. Which is sexist: “Red Sparrow” or the male critics that gave it negative reviews?

But, first, let’s separate fact from fiction. Red Sparrow is based on a novel (fiction, of course) of the same name written by an ex-CIA operative. Don’t tell me it isn’t biased. We’re all biased — a natural consequence of our own upbringing, education, social class, political views, propaganda we have been exposed to all our lives and religion, if any.

What isn’t fiction is that in the espionage industry (yes, “industry” is an accurate term), female spies have used sex and seduction to get their jobs done. Nadezhda Plevitskaya (a.k.a. Kursk Nightingale), Amy Thorpe Pack and Larissa Kronberg-Sobolevskaya are only a few examples.

Of course there had been male spies too as in the case of ‘East Germany’s “Romeo spies” sent into the West on gigolo duty to seduce women of influence during the Cold War.’

If all the examples given above lean more toward Russians and Eastern Europeans, that’s because we in the English-speaking world are only aware of information provided by English-speaking governments and media. Who really expects the CIA and the MI5 to provide the world with information about the spies they have unleashed on their “enemies”, right?

Matthias Schoenaerts and Jennifer Lawrence in "Red Sparrow"

Matthias Schoenaerts and Jennifer Lawrence in “Red Sparrow” | Image credit: 20th Century Fox

So, the film. The “Red Sparrow” is Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), a prima ballerina who suffered a career-ending injury after her dance partner stepped on her foot during a performance.

Juxtaposed in the ballet sequence is a Gorky Park meeting between CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) and a Russian mole. A police car wanders into the scene and Nash, not knowing if the police was after his asset, fires his gun to divert the police and allow the asset to get away.

Of course, the Russian government wants the mole discovered. Ivan Vladimirovich Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), a ranking SVR (in real life, what became the foreign intelligence agency after the KGB disbanded) officer recruits Dominika to become a spy. To entice her, he hands her a tape-recorded conversation between her dance partner and his girlfriend, fellow ballerina, that proves her on-stage injury was no accident but a ploy to give her partner’s girlfriend a shot at becoming a lead dancer.

Once on her feet and out of the hospital, she surprises the couple and beats them with her walking stick.

Then, because the Bolshoi could no longer pay for her apartment and her sick mother’s medical bills, she accepts her uncle’s offer. A one-night thing, she is told, to learn more about Dimitri Ustinov. But when she becomes a witness to the murder of Ustinov by the assassin Matorin, she is left with no choice but to train in what she would later refer to as a “whore school” and continue to serve as a spy in order to avoid being eliminated as a witness to a murder.

Not surprisingly, it becomes her assignment to seduce Nate Nash to get the name of the Russian mole who had been supplying information to the CIA.

Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton in "Red Sparrow"

Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton in “Red Sparrow” | Image credit: 20th Century Fox

Too much violence, they say, too much nudity and too much female degradation. Too sexist, mostly male critics chime.

Was the violence too graphic? There are scenes that can make the viewer uncomfortable. I’m not one to enjoy violence in film but I sat through every scene of Red Sparrow without any attempt to divert my eyes. Did the torture scenes make me flinch? Yes. Just as I flinched when Le Chiffre repeatedly hit James Bond’s balls with a knotted rope in that infamous Dutch Scratching scene in Casino Royale and in those scenes showing Jason Bourne’s training in The Bourne Ultimatum.

So, I need to ask. Why is a spy film with a female lead with more than a token of exposed female breasts and violence labeled as sexist while similar films with a male lead are celebrated? Red Sparrow‘s 47% rating on Rotten Tomatoes as against Casino Royale‘s 94% and The Bourne Ultimatum‘s 93%.

It just seems to me that most male critics’ problems with Red Sparrow is that with its sober tone, it does not conform with stereotypical testosterone-driven spy movies with male leads. No fantastic car chases. No heart-thumping fight scenes.

The thing is, unlike James Bond who only did as he was told and Jason Bourne who, half of the time, did what he did without really knowing why, Red Sparrow‘s Dominika Egorova followed no one’s agenda but her own. From the start. She took the assignment with Ustinov to pay for her mother’s medical bills. She went to “whore school” to avoid getting executed. She knowingly allowed to be led toward inevitable torture because she was playing a bigger game that would finally remove her from the clutches of her corrupt and exploitative uncle. What is sexist about that? I call that power.

What does a film with a female lead have to be in order not to be labeled as sexist by male critics anyway? Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri? I read no negative comments about the nudity, torture and violence in The Shape of Water.

So, dear critics who are so quick to use the label “sexist”… Perhaps, you ought to assess the context in which you analyze films. Being sexist is just like being a chauvinist or a racist. You don’t know that you are.