The topics of sexuality and gender have been extensively explored by researchers in the last two decades. Indeed, the universally known and accepted notions of cinema and sex have developed in tandem, affecting society’s perceptions about sexuality, sexual identity, gender roles, social behavior, and politics. Furthermore, these notions have had an impact on the way people differentiate between the artificial and the real, transgressive and conservative, universal, and narrow as seen in the movies. Thus, studying gender and sexuality in the context of movies (especially action films) will add to a better understanding of popular misconceptions and key tropes, as well as stereotypes that cinematographers use in their works to appeal to a wider audience.
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The action movie chosen for this research is The Fifth Element (1997), written and directed by Luc Besson. It belongs to the type of action film that the majority of people seem to like. What is interesting is that the director and screenwriters of the film wisely used genre staples and tropes in the majority of scenes1; however, there has not been enough in-depth research on them. At the same time, along with employing an abundance of tropes in his film, Besson was attempting to deconstruct and analyze the stereotypes and clichés, which resulted in a truly brilliant piece of cinematography2.
The concept of gender development in modern media is a fundamental issue discussed by many scholars (e.g., Bussey and Bandura) because it influences some of the most important aspects of a society’s life, such as sociocultural opportunities, talents cultivated by individuals, conceptions people may hold about others and themselves, etc. Therefore, gender development as portrayed in media has a significant impact on what society perceives as normal or traditional3. The Fifth Element is an action movie in which the stereotypical and traditional perceptions of gender roles are shifted and transformed in a way that is innovative and captivating for the audience. The appeal of the main characters is associated with the fact that their physical appearance does not completely coincide with their emotional strength and intelligence, which is an interesting turnaround for an action movie.
The notion of gender is one of the key themes that the director has aimed to dissect in his film. How heroism and gender are connected within the context of science-fiction is reflected in the development of the two protagonists, Leeloo and Korben Dallas (played by Milla Jovovich and Bruce Willis). Therefore, this examination will focus predominantly on the two protagonists as well as the character of Ruby Rhod (the radio show host played by Chris Tucker). The character of Korben Dallas is the stereotypical figure of a Hollywood action-film protagonist whose aim is to save the world, a trope in itself4. What viewers know about Korben initially is that he is a futuristic cab driver who used to be a soldier. Therefore, the stereotypical gender role of the hero is established from the beginning. Furthermore, it is crucial to note about Korben’s character that Bruce Willis essentially plays himself, since this role is very similar to other roles that he has played in his career, for example, in the movies Die Hard, Armageddon, The Last Man Standing, and many others. Since the role of Korben is typical for Willis, some may regard this casting choice as intentional—the director wanted to present the character as a standard “guy from an action movie” to show some development as the film progressed.
Moving from Korben, the character of Leeloo—or the “perfect being”—deserves further exploration within the context of gender and sexuality. While the audience clearly understands the role Korben will play in the movie, the character of Leeloo is something that no one is prepared to see. Regarding gender roles, the appearance of Leeloo in the movie automatically makes Korben a sidekick rather than the protagonist. Such an inversion is crucial for the understanding of the key gender roles portrayed in The Fifth Element. When Dallas realizes that Leeloo is much stronger and smarter than he is, he chooses to become her companion and to help to fulfill the mission.
Despite the “switch” in gender roles, Korben still gets the most action scenes, thus fulfilling his role as a “save-the-world-hero.” In the greater portion of the movie, Leeloo is trying to process the situation and accomplish her mission. Her appearance can be regarded as “sexualized”; however, it is wrong to regard Leeloo as a typical half-dressed trope of a sexualized female. Because she was created a genetically perfect being, a pinnacle of evolution, Leeloo’s unusual appearance adds to the mystery surrounding the character and makes the viewer pay more attention to the development of her character throughout the movie.
Is Leeloo a “Damsel in Distress?”
While Leeloo is powerful and beautiful, in an examination of her role, it is worth applying the overused “damsel in distress” trope favored by modern feminist literature. In some scenes, the character of the “perfect being” is presented as infantile—her speech is limited, and when she engages in dialogue, she sounds like a child5. The quote by Korben Dallas, “When is Leeloo not in trouble?”6 alludes to the perception that her character is not smart or wise enough to avoid getting into complicated situations. Viewers of the film can state that although the director intends Jovovich’s character to be the one who would be protecting Korben, in many instances, Leeloo seems the one to be protected. Such a portrayal of the female lead character to some degree aligns with the “damsel in distress” trope, a storytelling trend that implies a male character saving the female character under dangerous circumstances7. On the other hand, while this trend has been extensively used in the feminist literature of the last decade (e.g., Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games”), the plot development in The Fifth Element cannot be considered a complete representation of the abovementioned trope since Leeloo is portrayed as a strong and independent character who can defend herself.
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The Genderfluid Ruby Rhod
The character of Ruby Rhod deserves separate discussion in the context of gender and sexuality in The Fifth Element since it is somewhat complicated to determine exactly what Ruby’s gender and sexuality are. What is important to mention is that whatever gender or social identity is assigned to this character, the response will likely be, “Who cares?” The identity of Ruby Rhod is unapologetic and openly sexual, which is an interesting move for an action film. In The Fifth Element universe, Ruby is one of the biggest celebrities, and the choice of his costume and overall appearance (heavily inspired by Prince) is what makes him stand out as a satire for celebrities who live in the “real world.” Interestingly, the character’s costume speaks volumes about his personality and philosophy regarding gender, while it is impossible to say the same about Leeloo. While Leeloo’s appearance is characterized as “over-sexualized,” the director does not make a study of her sexual identity.
Even though the character of Ruby was introduced as comic relief to the intense action scenes, Chris Tucker manages to embrace his role and give it more substance than was intended. The switches from feminine to masculine are consistent throughout his appearances in the movie, and this helps the viewer to get a better understanding of Ruby’s character since there is much more to him than meets the eye. While the character’s loudness and standoffish behavior can be seen as playing to stereotypes about the queer community, Ruby feels authentic and genuine, not to mention that he was one of the first characters of his kind in mainstream action movies. His appearance in The Fifth Element can also be attributed to the nature of the film’s sci-fi universe, with different creatures and extraordinary people; thus, presenting a genderfluid character in this context was a smart move for the director, who was trying to send a message of diversity and equality.
While it cannot be stated that The Fifth Element is an action movie that destroys the traditional norms of sexuality and gender, it puts a large dent in the stereotypical ideas of blockbuster characters. The character of Leeloo turns out to be a strong female lead who combines a tender physical appearance with the determination to accomplish her mission. What is interesting is that action movies usually develop around the character of a “superman” whose job is to save the world; however, Korben Dallas looks more like a sidekick compared to his female friend. Still, there is some interchangeability about gender roles in the movie—Korben plays the role of the savior when Leeloo is unable to protect herself against danger. The character of Leeloo is portrayed as a physically attractive young woman not wearing many clothes (specifically in the scenes when she first appears); this seemed like another smart move made by the filmmakers—the audience instantly associates her with a helpless creature that needs care and protection every second of the film, but as the movie progresses, the viewer’s opinion about Leeloo shifts drastically.
It can be concluded that characters in The Fifth Element deserve more attention from researchers in the field of mass culture studies because, to some degree, the film presents a fresh view of the stereotypical roles in action movies and introduces bright and interesting characters such as the genderfluid Ruby Rhod. The concepts of gender and sexuality are interchangeable in the movie. Thus, further analysis of each character may reveal even more than that which is seen on the surface. Overall, a strong female lead is not the key feature of the movie; the main feature is the diversity to which a sci-fi world might be accustomed, just as a real society should be.
“Gender Norms in The Fifth Element,” Sarahhansel.wordpress.com.
“Gender Roles in The Fifth Element,” Ladygeekgirl.wordpress.com.
Claire Hosking. “Bound Women: Why Games are Better Without a Damsel to Save,” Polygon.com.
Jocelyn Murphy. “The Role of Women in Film: Supporting the Men – An Analysis of how Culture Influences the Changing Discourse on Gender Representations in Film,” Scholarworks.uark.edu, Web.
“The 43 Most Overused Movie Tropes,” Cracked.com.
The Fifth Element. Directed by Luc Besson. 1997. Culver City, CA: Columbia Pictures, 2000. DVD.
- “Gender Roles in The Fifth Element,” Ladygeekgirl.wordpress.com, Web.
- Jocelyn Murphy, “The Role of Women in Film: Supporting the Men – An Analysis of how Culture Influences the Changing Discourse on Gender Representations in Film,” Scholarworks.uark.edu, Web.
- “The 43 Most Overused Movie Tropes,” Cracked.com, Web.
- “Gender Norms in The Fifth Element,” Sarahhansel.wordpress.com, Web.
- The Fifth Element, directed by Luc Besson (1997; Culver City, CA: Columbia Pictures, 2000), DVD.
- Claire Hosking, “Bound Women: Why Games are Better Without a Damsel to Save,” Polygon.com, Web.