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Why women are getting a bum deal on film posters

Film posters are addicted to showing a faceless woman from behind, with her legs framing the real hero.

Don’t panic, ladies and gentlemen. Colin Firth hasn’t shrunk. His latest film is not about a tiny besuited man and his struggle to survive in a world terrorised by gargantuan women. If you look closely you’ll see that our old friend perspective is at work, and that Firth has been pushed to the back of the picture so that in the foreground a shapely female arse and pair of legs can frame him.

In a conscious aping of the poster for the 1981 Bond film For Your Eyes Only (complete with gun held downward in right hand), the publicity department for Kingsman have solidified the towering wall of posters using this curiously popular trope: man looks on at faceless woman’s legs in tight outfit; audience is lured into cinema by promise of pert buttocks; woman straddles and opens herself up to the real hero of the film.

In one trailer, Sofia Boutella, who is the woman in question and plays a character called Gazelle, has no lines. In another she has one line. You could be forgiven for thinking her character is not crucial to the film. You could also be forgiven for thinking that a poster in which Firth faced down the film’s actual villain – Valentine (Samuel L Jackson) – with Jackson’s arse similarly photoshopped, would not have drawn in quite as many teenage males. Proving exactly this, and that the technique is one of cynical cosmetics, there is another poster in which Jackson replaces Firth and looks menacingly at Boutella’s crotch. But their characters are in allegiance; she has no need to threaten him with a gun. The publicity department seem to have written “lady’s arse in tight trousers” on a whiteboard, and decided that, once they went ahead with that, nothing else would need to make much sense.

In a great deal of posters guilty of the same cynical tactics, the woman is not only cut off at the waist but is also wearing virtually nothing. To give Kingsman’s publicity department minimal credit, they have kept Boutella comparatively covered; but, realising that doing so probably wasn’t sufficiently arousing, they have made her trousers almost obscenely tight. Marvel at the effort that has gone into artificially enhancing the curvature of Boutella’s buttocks. That is someone’s job. Someone was paid to do that.

A famously dependable way of sniffing out sexism is simply to test whether or not a situation is as applicable to one sex as it is to the other. When was the last time, in other words, you saw a film poster on which the legs and shapely arse of a faceless man loomed over the heroine of the story? Answers on the back of a postcard, please. On the rare occasions that the technique is approximately reversed, something interesting happens: rather than being relative equals, both holding guns, it is the man who wields the power – generally with a phallic weapon – over terrified, scantily-clad women.

And, when a roughly comparable film like Tomb Raider comes along, a film in which the lead character is a no-nonsense action heroine, is Angelina Jolie a serious figure in the distance, framed by a titillatingly tight male tush? No. Her breasts are artificially pronounced and she is wearing tiny shorts. If you want an action film, in other words, you’d better just get on board with the fact that women’s bodies are its currency.

Especially in light of the paucity of women in the Oscar nominations this year, it is difficult to shrug the feeling that cinema caters primarily to heterosexual men. Posters like this reinforce the impression, however accurate it may be, and give women increasing reason to think that they are better off turning their back on the industry.

JAMES SPARSHATT/DESIGN PICS/CORBIS
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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses