Warning: this article includes spoilers
As our awareness surrounding social issues grows, our demands from society also grows. When Kingsman: The Secret Service was released in cinemas it was as dubbed as ‘filthy, funny and very violent’ (Empire), yet what many reviewers failed to comment on was how the film found its kicks from laddish humour, male dominance and female sexualisation. In a world where women have been fighting for decades to banish ideas of patriarchy to relics of the past, we should be demanding more from our cinema to guarantee these patriarchal ideals are banished for once and for all.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is first and foremost a spy film. It capitalises on the features that make James Bond and Jason Borne so iconic while adding a new spin on these through protagonist Eggsy’s working class background. Being the son of a renounced spy who died when Eggsy (Taron Egerton) was a young boy, he is nominated by spy Harry Hart (Colin Firth) to fill a role in the secret service. But to achieve this role in Kingsman – the name of the secret service – he needs to succeed in a competitive battle with other-wannabe spies. In the final round, however, Eggsy is unable to shoot his beloved pug and consequently loses out on the position at Kingsman to female nominee Roxy. Meanwhile billionaire philanthropist, Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), is organising a mass cull of the human population and, inevitably, Eggsy and Roxy become intertwined in Valentine’s plans and embark on a mission to save the world.
While the plot takes a new angle on plots seen in traditional spy films, its presentation of women is not so innovative. Throughout the film, women are seen as weak and in need of saving by men. Eggsy’s mother is subservient to her abusive husband, who Eggsy feels he has to save her from. Eggsy’s threats of violence towards him highlight the underlying expectations throughout the film that violence is a sign of power in this power-battle to be the top dog – to not use violence would be an insult to characters’ masculinity. Disturbingly, this is not only a trend in the spy industry depicted in the film; it is also a prominent feature of the working-class world that Eggsy escapes. Before entering the world of spies and martinis, Eggsy is engaged in gang-warfare in which the only way to win is utilise their masculinity as a sign of power. Beer, violence and female sexualisation. It’s all there.
Not only is Eggsy’s mother who is seen as weak throughout the film. While many hailed the film for its presentation of Roxy (Sophie Cookson) for winning the position in Kingsman rather than one of her male counterparts, she is consistently reliant on Eggsy for moral support. Furthermore, the production of the film means we cannot help but feel that is Eggsy rather than Roxy who is deserving of the role. The film is Eggsy’s tale, meaning we are naturally biased to his rise from a working class struggle to the glories of his new found success in the spy world. It is Eggsy who possess charisma, initiative and bravery while Roxy is characterised by her fear of heights that in multiple occasions means Eggsy is left to take the lead. Roxy is a less than lack-lustre and largely silent female hero. She is no female James Bond to say the least. It is also worth nothing that in the trials to become the new Kingsman recruit, there are only two female candidates in a group of ten and it is a female candidate who fails in the first round of trials. While, yes, it is a female character who eventually wins the position, we are made to feel that Roxy is an underdog. She is a surprise winner. The fact it is a female character who fails in the first round of trials maintains ideas that women are physically weaker than men and makes Roxy’s success appear an anomaly in a world where women are weaker than men.
Most interestingly, it is Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), Valentine’s amputee henchwoman, who is the most threatening of all characters – ironic considering her bladed prosthetic legs. She is powerful and expertly skilled, yet despite being the most able character in the film, she is utterly subservient to Valentine. It is she that keeps him afloat. It is she that protects him from threat. But she is defined completely by her employer. Thus, while she is presented as physically able despite her disabilities, she is presented as brainless. She is just yet another stock female assistant in a world dominated by men. She is a pretty face and it is she who also helps add the much needed sexualisation that is essential to any spy film.
However, where the film really fails in its outdated presentation of women is its presentation of Princess Tilde. She is hysterical and after being put in captivity by Valentine she promises Eggsy that she will do ‘anal’ with him if he ‘saves the world’. Really? Have women really been campaigning for decades just to be told that their only worth is to offer men anal? The closing scene is thus a close up shot of Tilde’s naked behind as she and Eggsy fulfil her promise. The scene is made all the more disturbing when you realise that Eggsy is still wearing his camera-glasses, meaning that fellow spy Merlin (Mark Strong) is able to watch the action too. The film thereby makes a mockery of female leaders; not only are they reliant on men, but her treatment proves that female leaders are unable to escape such blatant sexualisation.
And don’t even get me started on that film poster. Nothing shouts 21st century sexism like a good old fashioned female sexualisation. Even in 2015 bums equal business. It is Boutella’s toned behind that is intended to draw in audiences, with the positioning of various male characters between her legs heightening this sexualisation and power they hold over her. Even the gun and whiskey she clutches in her hands points to how women are expected to abide by male stereotypes in order to succeed, especially in such a male-dominated world such as the spy-world (and even film industry). Let’s not forget the title either: Kings-man.
Ultimately, however, while not every film can be at the forefront of social justice, it is almost unjustifiable the extent to which this outdated presentation of females was so unashameably shrugged off by the film makers and media. What was described by NME as ‘tongue in cheek’, ‘witty and entertaining’ and having ‘a gasp-inducing finale’ was a plot that capitalised on years of accepted female subservience. Look back over the Bond and Bourne films and you will realise that the whole foundations of these films are rooted in male idealism. Certainly, in no way was Kingsman: The Secret Service a bad film nor is it the most sexist film around, but what makes Kingsman so poignant is the accepted sexism that defines the film. When the film was realised, no one was questioning the fact that it was only men who held the top positions in the Kingsman spy agency; no one was questioning how female characters were presented as sexual objects used to reward men for doing the right thing and certainly no one was questioning why this is such a common feature in cinema. Women are continuously presented as damsels in distress, and what Kingsman does is fail to break away from this stereotype. It abides to traditional ideas about women and it is about time that we demanded more from our cinema to ensure that women achieve the equality they deserve.
So if art is a reflection of society, then Kingsman: The Secret Service shows that society’s views towards women are not quite as advanced as we may have thought.
Words by Juliette Rowsell