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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.

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder