I like to spend Friday evenings watching silly films. A couple of weeks ago we watched Salt, which is a totally preposterous thriller starring Angelina Jolie as a CIA agent who is accused being a Russian double-agent.
It’s not a film I would bother to mention here if it wasn’t for the gender issues it raises. When it was released there was some talk about how the role of Evelyn Salt was originally intended for a male actor, someone like Tom Cruise.
I would say that casting Jolie as the lead does have the effect of lifting the film out of the level of totally run-of-the-mill because it turns it into a (no doubt unintentional) reflection on the gendered conventions of the thriller.
Salt presents femininity as a performance. At the beginning of the film, Evelyn is represented as highly feminine (heels, tightly-fitted suit, full face of makeup, beautifully coiffured blonde hair etc), but as the story progresses she is gradually divested of her femininity, ending the film as an androgynous figure who is able to pass for male. For the lesbian audience, I’d say Salt is worth watching just for the last 20 minutes to see Jolie with cropped hair in men’s clothes. I don’t usually find her sexually appealing, but my goodness that woman butches up well!
On a more serious note, there’s an anxious question underlying the film’s representation of Salt’s gender, a question concerned with what femininity means in a world in which women have access to power.
Having a woman in the role also allows the film to play around with the apparatus of femininity – for example, the scene in which Salt uses her lacy panties to block a security camera and the one in which she goes into a ladies toilet and gets a menstrual pad, only to apply it to a bullet wound to stop the bleeding.
Also, it was apparent that Salt’s husband, who would have been his wife in the original script, was written as your classic ‘girl in the refrigerator’ – a woman who has something horrible happen to her just to advance the man’s story. This movie treats us to a ‘boy in the refrigerator’ and the convention is not much less irritating for being gender-flipped. It still feels like lazy storytelling.
For me, the gender-flipping does fall down a bit because Jolie is so fragile-looking in this film that I found it hard not to laugh when she took out two or three burly CIA agents with a couple of kicks. Mind you, this kind of action scene really isn’t much less ridiculous when it’s a man doing the fighting, it’s just that gendered narrative conventions have accustomed us to accepting the idea that Tom Cruise or Matt Dillon would be able to take out several CIA agents in one kick, when it reality, it isn’t any less preposterous.
So Salt is a film that manages to be both extremely silly and quite thought provoking.