High-speed driving sequences align audiences with the protagonist as they initiate and experience their own diegetic velocity. Narrative and performance cues indicate the vector along which the protagonist wishes to launch themselves, but it is the physiological cues displayed by the body-in-movement that ‘flesh out’ how that body chooses to orient itself in relation to this trajectory.
Action cinema mostly places men in the driving seat (from The Driver (1978) to the Transporter films (2002, 2005, 2008, 2015), and Drive (2011)); men with open body postures, upright and alert, inscrutable and unflinching. Women are frequently anxious passengers, bodies recoiling at unwanted velocity and its risks. Moved into the driving seat, women still often display physical and vocal indicators of anxiety, such as repeated cringing or crying out in trepidation. The counter-tradition is the confident female driver, forged in exploitation cinema, and found today in the Fast & Furious films (2001 – ) and – just occasionally – elsewhere. These women adopt the posture and poise of the silent male driver, or visibly / audibly thrill in velocity-induced exhilaration.
The opening action sequence of Skyfall (2012) shows how these extant representational tropes can be invoked in ways that constrain women’s agency. Field agent Eve (Naomie Harris) is driving Bond (Daniel Craig) in a Land Rover in an Istanbul chase. Early on she maintains an open body posture, shoulders back, face relaxed, but as they enter a market square Eve struggles to control the steering wheel, hunching her shoulders and throwing her body left or right to little effect, so that Bond has to reach across and pull the wheel down in order to smash into their quarry’s vehicle.
There is no diegetic motivation for why Eve should find the Land Rover more difficult to steer at this moment. Instead the film invokes not just gender-normative notions of female physical weakness, but also the trope of the struggling woman driver, to naturalise the shift of power and control to Bond in the scene. (Indeed Eve becomes the field agent consistently less skilled than Bond (in marksmanship as well as driving), important in a film in which Bond himself is faltering and uncertain). It is a narrative capitulation conveyed through the body which is all too familiar, quietly suppressing both the image of the competent female driver, and our embodied experience of her control of technology and space.
Great post Lisa! I'm happy that you've brought gender into the discussion of speed. Your idea that the female's wider narrative capitulation to the male is encapsulated through the physical image of the woman as (bad or anxious) driver is very rich indeed. The notion of the 'bad female driver' is so culturally entrenched that it is fascinating to think about how that trope is worked through in action cinema - and indeed elsewhere. So is there a cultural fear and risk about associating women with speed and high velocity would you say?
Gender and affect
Really enjoyed this post, Lisa. It makes a great companion piece to your discussion of the Bourne films in your contribution for the In Focus. I am wondering about the implications of the viewer's affective alignment, and how this is complicated by questions of gender?
Not a safe pair of hands
Thanks Tina and Tanya for these excellent questions. I think they both point to the same phenomenon, in which our affective investment in a characters trajectory can be framed as unsafe, risky, tenuous through aspects of physical performance, but that that is much more common when the character is female. And that the spectator's investment is directly related to filmic decisions. Mad Max: Fury Road offers a striking example of the opposite, a strong female driver, framed as such by the film.
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