It’s rare that I leave a film heart-pumpingly angry. But Valerian: City of a Thousand Planets was infuriating.
I go to the cinema most weeks with a group of friends. We all have quite different tastes which can lead to some interesting chats afterwards.
Each week I keep an eye out for representation of women, whether the films pass the Bechdel test and what trailers are shown beforehand.
On the surface Valerian is about a man and a woman saving a space city from doom. The posters and interviews with director Luc Besson lure you in to thinking you’ll see positive depictions of strong women.
That’s true to an extent but it also does women a huge disservice.
Why is it so bad? I’ll summarise into 3 main points.
1. It’s a sausage fest
The main character Laureline is ALMOST the only woman in the universe. Aside from one other female in the military whose job seems to be passing messages, all the government and military leaders are men.
- The highest military leader and his henchmen are men
- The second in command and his support are men
- All soldiers are men
- All general army staff and extras are men (save for the messenger)
You get the idea.
500+ years in the future and women have not progressed above the role of Sergeant and have zero authority.
What about the minor characters?
The next closest thing to a meaningful female character is Bubble, a shape shifting stripper played by Rhianna. We’re introduced to Bubble via a pole dance involving a variety of sexy outfits like ‘French Maid’ and lots of gyrating.
Amongst other smaller characters we had
- Male submarine driver hunting a male sea creature
- Male doctors and scientists
- Male tour guide
- Male gluttonous aliens (Boulin Bathor) ruled by a male leader who is catered for by a male chef (there was one female, she mostly held up dresses while geurning)
- Male pearl alien leader
- Three male oracle aliens, the Doghan-Deguis*
- Male tourist exasperated at his wife’s shopping (Ooh! A woman with a couple of lines!)
* My friend “John” insisted that the Doghan-Deguis could have been any gender or none.
But the director went to the lengths of demarking other aliens as clearly feminine if they were female and didn’t do so with these.
They have low voices, flat chests and no clothes while all other female aliens had (some) clothes, softer features, higher voices and other traditional gender markers.
Interesting that John didn’t notice the lack of women in this film until it was pointed out. Could that be because it also contained aliens, making it look diverse? Are we trained to expect fewer women in sci-fi and fantasy?
Laureline’s name was even removed from the title of the original graphic novels the film was based on.
Ok the source material is from the 1950s but it’s an adaptation. It’s well within Luc Besson’s powers to ADAPT a few of the characters into clothed women.
2. Laureline gets overly sexual costumes
For the first 45 minutes Laureline wears a bikini with a sheer wispy top over it. The camera lingers on her body as she stretches. She’s apparently dressed as a tourist but nobody else is wearing similar clothes.
She then gets to change into her military uniform… which involves a mini skirt.
Her ‘badass’ armour has massively oversized boobs built in, raising eyebrows and frustration from many.
Boob armour is a quick way of enhancing a woman’s breasts while pretending like she’s doing something active and practical.
“What are you complaining about, she’s in armour and she has boobs so she needs boob armour” moan men who don’t know how breasts work.
Boob armour is impractical, always massively oversized and only serves to sexualise. A sports bra and a flatter shape would be much more practical and pain-free. But then what would the people gaze at.
Her final outfit is a pretty lacey dress with various parts cut out. Thankfully she finds a jacket to cover it up in the last 30 minutes of the film. But not before being a sexy potential meal for the Boulin Bathor glutton alien leader to simultaneously lust and salivate over.
3. Valerian is a sex pest
The message here is “No doesn’t mean no. She wants you to persist”.
As a Major Valerian is Laureline’s superior. He constantly tries to kiss her, professes his love for her and asks her to marry him. He has a string of ex lovers in a ‘playbook’, including photos, which apparently anyone can view.
Laureline’s rejection is clear and strong. Strong enough for me to think ‘wow she really can’t get any clearer, he is just sexually harassing her now’. But he doesn’t take no for an answer and persists.
In the end she relents and admits her love for him. To the inner scream of the women in the audience.
In too many film and TV shows women are pushed by men, even to the point of rape, until they relent and ‘enjoy’ it. See the Poldark rape scene as a prime example.
The message here is “No doesn’t mean no. She wants you to persist”. This narrative contributes to rape culture and men’s sense of entitlement to women’s bodies.
John and I didn’t see eye to eye on this either. He thought Laureline was just as equal in the budding relationship as Valerian. But Valerian was always the one to raise the issue and Laureline was constantly shutting him down.
Summary: I actively disliked almost every minute
Bechdel test: Fail
I was looking out for this and it may have technically scraped through (if you think ‘thank you’ in alien speak that had to be translated by a man counts). But I don’t class this as ‘conversation’ and am going to say it didn’t pass.
Entirely unscientific women’s representation score: 3/10
Group’s average score: 3.5/10