Atomic Blonde made a big splash at this year's summer box office due to its premise of an action heroine filling a role normally reserved for men. Not only was the film set up as a female-led action film, but it showcased a romantic relationship between two women. The film's marketing pushed its heroine's bisexuality to the forefront, ensuring that prospective fans would be lured in by new twists on a stale genre. Unfortunately, the advertising is where the film's many fumbles began.
Note: Heavy spoilers for the film ahead.
A Marketing Mishap
Atomic Blonde was advertised as a spy thriller. It stood out from the crowd due primarily because of a highly talked about sex scene between the two leads, Charlize Theron and Sofia Boutella. Nearly every trailer for Atomic Blonde featured snippets of their bedroom romp. The first red flag appeared when I realized that I would be watching yet another sex scene between two women with a man behind the camera. Atomic Blonde is not the first film to stumble on this issue. 2013's lesbian romance Blue is the Warmest Color was met with similar criticism when it featured an explicit ten-minute long sex scene. The film was also directed by a man.
The first question I had was, why is this the main focus of conversation in the press? The relationship between the two leads was not advertised as a romance, it was advertised as sex. Every interview with Charlize Theron concerning the film focused on her character's sexuality and the nature of the "big scene." In an interview with Variety, Theron praised the film's lack of discretion when it came to the explicitness of the scene:
I loved that we didn’t hide under the sheets.
But why didn't they hide under the sheets? What purpose to the plot, or even to the development of Delphine (Boutella) and Lorraine's (Theron) relationship did an explicit sex scene serve? Zero. The scene was put in the film to titillate the audience, not to cultivate a realistic depiction of a romance between two women. Removing the scene or cutting away would not have made their relationship less impactful. Even if the foundation of their relationship was sex, implying it by skipping to the pillow talk would have made it feel less cheap and exploitative. As it stands, that scene, and the core of their relationship, felt like the cinema equivalent of television's "sweeps week lesbian kiss" trope.
Additionally, for all the talk about Lorraine being a bisexual heroine, the word 'bisexual' is never uttered in the film. Perhaps a spy thriller is not the place for frank discussions about female sexuality, but considering the film's marketing team had no problem tossing that word around the press circuit it would have been nice to see it come to fruition on camera, particularly given how taboo that word still is for television and film.
That Shocking Twist
The sex scene alone was not the film's only misstep. Near the end, Delphine is brutally murdered by James McAvoy's character. During the scene, she is graphically strangled while wearing nothing but lingerie. Even in her final moments she is subjected to hyper-sexualization. Not only does Atomic Blonde kill off one of its gay characters but the scene is disturbing in another way too. It is yet another depiction of violence against a woman of color on screen; the film's only non-white character, I might add.
Film and television are no strangers to killing off their gay characters. In 2016 there were at least twenty-five LGBT women killed off on television. Twenty-five out of an already small pool of representation. Fans have even coined a term for it known as "burying your gays." The 100 is one of the most well-known offenders. When the dystopian teen drama killed off one of its lesbian characters the show suffered a tremendous backlash, leading fans to orchestrate a petition to have writers pledge to treat their LGBT characters better. So it is unfortunate to see this trend continuing year after year despite the criticism.
If Atomic Blonde was never meant to be an "LGBT film," but instead simply an action movie that happened to feature a gay romance, then I would pose the question of why the filmmakers would choose to feature an LGBT relationship at all if they were not trying to appeal to an LGBT audience? Who was the film trying to market to by including that girl-on-girl sex scene? The answer to that question proves just how much Hollywood still has to learn about inclusivity and diversity. It is not enough to just throw these characters in your films, they deserve as much care, development, and nuance as their privileged counterparts.
It is unfortunate that Atomic Blonde failed on this front because outside of the romance between these two women the movie did have its merits. Hopefully if it does go on to launch a franchise the filmmakers will take heed of these issues and work to rectify them in the follow-up.
What were your thoughts on Atomic Blonde?