by Zheng Jieru
Set in a futuristic world, Resident Evil follows the journey of Alice, who is injected with T virus and thus gains extraordinary strength, fighting against Umbrella Corporation, which develops a deadly vaccine – airborne T virus- and triggers the apocalypse by turning humans into zombies. In fact, the film is adapted from the game of the same name developed by Capcom. Despite borrowing most of its backgrounds and plots from the game, the film made a bold change by centring its story on one of the less notable game characters, Alice. Furthermore, in the hexalogy, various female characters from the computer game appear to aid in the fight against Umbrella Corporation. Such depiction of heroic female characters is unusual in apocalyptic films, which are still largely bound by the idea of patriarchy, where the male characters are entrusted as the ultimate life saviours, while women usually act as the damsel in distress. Hence, the bold move of shifting the focus of the plot to female characters is reflective of the paradigm shift in societal opinions on gender roles, where females are taking up a more active role.
However, the film’s feminist image is hampered by the gender stereotypes that are deeply entrenched in the society. The film abounds with racist gender stereotypes as shown by the depiction of the aggressive Latino character, Rain, and mystical Chinese character, Ada Wong. Furthermore, the female characters still cannot escape away from eroticisation by the male gaze. Hence, I would like to argue that although more spotlight is shone on female characters, there is still a long way to go to achieve actual empowerment of females inside the movies as the film still presents a racist, sexist image of females.
Prima facie, masculinity of the film yields female characters power over their counterparts, allowing them to trespass the binary system of genders, where females are considered to be weaker and more submissive. Within the film, Alice is presented as the ‘girl that kicks ass’, and she is often equipped with guns when fighting with zombies. On the poster of Resident Evil(2002), she is holding a machine gun, which is usually associated with guys under psychoanalysis due to the underlying meaning of violence and strength.
Furthermore, the film also uses slow motion to highlight her precision and mastery of shooting when saving her teammates from the zombies who are hot on their heels. Their physical strength is shown through the superior combat skills of all the female characters as compared to their male counterparts as they are able to win in fights and come through all the perils unscathed while protecting their male teammates. As identified by Brown, the mastery of weapons as well as the possession of physical strength associate the heroine with “hardware” and “hardbody” image (Brown, 1996). “The repetitive use of “hard” as descriptive of the heroines emphasizes the removal of the “soft” (read: feminine) qualities” (Brown, 1996). Hence, the combination of deadly guns and physical strength allow them to break free from the traditional passive and submissive role usually played by the female characters and become real heroines.
Yet, such emancipation from the gender stereotypes is flawed as the film still falls prey to the racist gender stereotype and hence fails to qualify as a feminist movie. Under the framework proposed by Press and Liebes-Plesner, one of the key features to qualify as a feminist text is the variations of women beyond the usual normal parameter (Cited in Sutherland & Feltey, 2017). However, such variation is absent in Resident Evil series. As argued by Harper, both Alice (white) and Rain (Latino) “form a binary system of good/bad woman” (Cited in Wilson, 2012). Alice is depicted to be innocent, rational and intelligent as seen from her calmness and care for her teammates when leading her teammates out of the perils. On the other hand, Rain is depicted to be erotic and tough. She boldly claims ‘when I get outta here… think I’m gonna get laid.’ This is in contrast to the more romanticised flashback of Alice’s own sexual encounter –“slow motion shots of her and her security guard partner rolling around, sharing a passionate embrace in white sheets on a magnificent and luxurious four-poster bed” (Wilson, 2012).
Furthermore, though both appear to be aggressive, the difference is that Rain’s aggression depends mainly on her weapons and she is very hot-headed, while Alice fights with zombies in a stylish, smooth and choreographed style. Not only so, other white female supporting characters also fall under good woman category as they are revered and trusted by their fellow survivors to be leaders, appearing to be more virtuous and capable than Rain. Hence, the film abounds with racist female stereotypes, which undermines its feminist image.
In addition, the film has not escaped from the limiting and suffocating male gaze, where “men look and women are looked at” (Cited in Smelik, 2009). Smelik (2009) argues that female characters are usually under “a threefold ‘male’ gaze: camera, character, and spectator”. However, due to the lack of male characters, the main focus will be on the spectator. It is obvious the hexalogy is trying to appeal to the male audience, which makes up around 75% of the audience for Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004) (Follows, 2014). In the first movie, Resident Evil (2002), Alice first wakes up from bathtub naked and puts on the iconic bright red cocktail frock, which highlights her curves and female features perfectly, despite the fact such dressing style is highly inconvenient for her to fight and escape from the sea of zombies. The sexiness and femininity are further highlighted by the contrast between her pale white skin colour and red lipstick that present a femme fatale kind of image. A similar pattern can be observed from the female supporting characters.
In Resident Evil: Retribution (2012), another well-loved character from the computer game, Ada Wong, fights along with Alice against the villainous Umbrella Corporation while wearing her iconic bright red tight dress that is highly similar to Cheongsam. Such a sexy image reminds us of the societal perception and expectation of females of all races that they should still appear feminine when handling traditional men’s job. In many other heroine movies, “no matter how many times they kick and punch, they shine as if they came out of a shampoo advertisement” as identified by Bampatzimopoulos (2015). In Resident Evil: The Final Chapter(2016), even after the violent fights with all the zombies and the main antagonist, Dr Isaacs, Alice still emerges to be mostly clean, which is further enhanced by the contrast between her and other zombies who are dark and lifeless. Hence, through the sexually appealing image as well as the clean and unscathed fighting scene, the movie diverts the otherness of females away from the male audience by turning female characters into a perfect and ideal beauty, in the word of Smelik, “a fetish”. As such, it appeals to the male gaze by averting their castration complex, an idea introduced by Mulvey, as females are seen by men to be an inferior being according to Freud. (Cited in Smelik, 2009).
The movie abounds with erotic depictions of the female characters, which reduces them to the regressive image as sexual objects. While the film is not to be blamed for the highly revealing clothes worn by the female characters as most of them are in fact based on the computer game, the movie often includes snippets of Alice almost naked. Apart from waking up naked and wet in Resident Evil (2002), another incidence of a highly erotic depiction of Alice appears in Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004) and Resident Evil: Retribution (2012), where Alice wakes up only covered by two pieces of papers. Such naked and erotic scene allows the male audience to derive pleasure through an experience called scopophilia. The selection of the actress also lays the foundation for such erotic gaze. Alice is played by Milla Jovovich – a former model – who is slim, tall and fit. Hence, it fits well with current beauty standard of the public, where women are supposed to train their bodies like men as well (Cited in Smelik, 2009). As such, it is better and easier for men to eroticize over the body. Hence, the deliberate attempt to eroticise female bodies shows that the film succumbs to male gaze, thus disqualifying the movie series as a feminist text.
For females to attain a position that is equal to their male counterpart, they should possess the same power and status as the males. Yet, in the film, the females are actually, to a certain extent, powerless, despite their superior combat skills. The visible lack of powers of women is shown through the absence of females in power. The highest rank female in the film is Alicia, the daughter of the original owners of Umbrella Corporation and the inventors of T virus. Yet, she was sidelined by the management board as seen from the fact that she has no power to stop Dr Isaacs’ evil plan to use T virus to cleanse humans. In addition, it is sarcastic that she rises to such a high rank through inheritance from her father instead of her own merits, thus further showing the fact that females are less capable than males and therefore unable to climb up the social ladder through their own abilities.
The lack of power is also shown symbolically through the different types of vehicle used. Under psychoanalysis, As Brown theorizes, the vehicle is “an obvious phallic symbol, suggesting that whoever has mastered the machine, male or female, has also mastered power, privilege, and individuality” (Cited in Bampatzimopoulos, 2015). For Alice, the most common vehicle she uses is motorcycles, even for long-distance travelling. For example, she travels from Washington back to Raccoon City by motorcycle, which is perplexing as she is rushing for time and motorcycles do not provide good protection for her compared to cars which can shield her entirely. This is in contrast to the fact that the arch-rival as well as the main male character, Dr Isaacs, drives a tank while orchestrating an attack on the remaining human survivors. Hence, by looking at the difference in the size and complexity of the vehicles that female characters and their male counterparts drive in the movie, we can see that Alice has much less control and power compared to her male counterparts, setting up a weaker image.
In addition, the fact that Alice is in the post-human state further undermines the power she possesses. Alice’s superiority and extraordinariness mainly stem from the T-virus, which transforms her body and enhances her strength, speed as well as agility. As such, genetic-modified nature of Alice implies that Alice can only be on par with or even better than males with the help of the virus, not because of her gender or her own merits. This shows, to a certain extent, that females are still weaker, relieving the audience, especially the misogynist of the fear of the dominance of females.
All in all, the film fails to present a feminist image due to the racist gender perception, the eroticism and the lack of power of females in the film. While we should appreciate the boldness of the director, who is actually told that “a female-led film won’t work”, we should see that such gender inequality presented in the film is a structural problem as the director, the game developer and the movie industry still works within the constraint of gender stereotypes and male gaze (Anderson, 2012). This is because to them, especially the director, Paul W. S. Anderson, the winning combination for the female-led film is a sexy female character with a gun (Anderson, 2012). Furthermore, the fact that such inequality persists throughout the whole series despite the push for gender inequality over the past decade indicates how deeply rooted such stereotypes are in the minds of many, reflecting the struggle of feminism in real life.
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