With their bee-stung lips and doe-eyes, the busty vamps of Frank Miller’s Sin City pander to the hungry hearts of 13-year-old boys everywhere.
The comic is a fast-food fix for their hormonally charged teenage desires. Does it come as much of a surprise then that sex and violence are paired side by side? Everything is larger-than-life — from violence so shocking as to be absurd, to women with features so exaggerated that only Hollywood could reproduce them in the flesh.
But something happened in the translation of Sin City from comic book to film. It is no longer just the stuff of a teenager’s wet dreams.
The murky black and white of the movie, save the occasional dash of color, befits the world of Sin City. Its softening effect on the bloodbaths, dismemberment and cannibalism so commonplace for the city, reflects the very psyche of its inhabitants; Sin City is a way of life and it is not to be changed.
Gail, played by Rosario Dawson, is the leader of a pack of tough-as-nails prostitutes and personifies this mindset. She handles a machine gun with bloodthirsty ease and wears a revealing fusion of fishnets, thin leather straps and strategically placed zippers.
“The ladies are the law here,” we’re told of the seedy, tight alleyways that make up the red-light district of Sin City’s Old Town. Women dressed in classic bondage gear line the roofs or buildings, machine gun in hand, ready for the slightest transgression from any male visitor.
Gail and her followers do not need men’s protection, or guidance, yet they are in a very essential way, for sale. Operating under only the guise of real authority, they do not pose an actual threat to male power or identity. They can then be considered as powerfully sexy, without being relegated to the realm of truly independent and powerful women who, because they operate on their own terms, are considered dangerous and unattractive. It seems that the message is that sexiness requires deference and dependence on men — a strong woman is only sexy when she ultimately answers to a man.
All too perfectly illustrating this mindset is Lucille (Carla Gugino), a parole officer and the lone lesbian character in the movie. It seems nothing could be more threatening to the heterosexual male ego than the true lesbian. But Lucille’s threat is diminished by her perpetual nakedness and attraction to defending down-and-out men. In fact, her weakness for helping men appears so great, that she would sacrifice herself for any one of her rogue parolees. In this manner, Lucille is disarmed, leaving her a feisty but weak character.
The angelic Nancy Callihan (Jessica Alba) grows before our eyes from a wide-eyed little girl, saved from the grips of a child molester by police officer Hartigan (Bruce Willis), to the main attraction at the local strip club. Her naiveté in even the filthiest of surroundings paints her as the sole representation of innocence. Toward the end of the movie, she’s shown in a nightgown, handcuffed and on her knees, while the molester she’d escaped as a child whips her mercilessly. She succeeds in her one goal: to not let him hear her scream. The scene acts as a powerful, albeit disturbing, representation of evil’s winning battle over good in Sin City.
Nancy’s effort to only survive the attack, rather than to flee, mirrors the mode of operation for the entire city; it’s a repulsive sewer, and all of its inhabitants are desperately fighting to keep their heads above water, but none show any actual intention to escape. This is not to say that Sin City attempts to delivers a message about evil, goodness or humanity — although like any representation of life, one can draw meaning from it.
While there is no mercy in the violence dealt toward women in the movie, neither is there for the men. The women may be able to protect themselves, but just as all of Sin City’s inhabitants are dealt heavy doses of violence, their strength is only a side-affect of their environment.
Too often, teenage boys’ hormonal cravings are met with simplified one-dimensional representations of what is sexy and alluring. We should all be hungering for more than such limited depictions of the many ways in which women can be powerful, but that’s not to say that there isn’t female power than can still be celebrated in the movie. As with the men of Sin City, the women must be judged in relation to their environment and just as with the movie’s male heroes, we can celebrate a character like Gail, who takes an active and fierce role in defending what little territory she has.