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What’s Up With Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and its Erasure of Female Characters?

(Possible spoilers for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets follows.)

For every elaborate world visited in a Luc Besson film, there’s usually a typical “strong female character” present whose physical abilities, intellectual prowess, and emotional growth demand the audience’s attention. There’s the titular “La Femme Nikita,” criminal turned assassin whose status as a sexy, teenage killer launched a thousand fantasies of (straight) boys who loved her and girls who wanted to be her.  Natalie Portman got her start in Leon: The Professional as another would be girl killer. With the help of a wonder drug, Scarlett Johansson’s Lucy evolves beyond physical human understanding into a form of pure instinct, intelligence, and power, kicking ass and punching a few bad dudes along the way. And in Besson’s previous trip into far outer space, the 1997 cult hit The Fifth Element, Milla Jovovich was Leeloo, a supreme being, literally perfect, who saves the universe by simply existing. Some annoying tropes abound; aside from Portman’s Mathilda, nearly all of them are presented as sexy.

But they’re all also smart, funny, and enjoyable to watch, which is why it’s so curious that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Besson’s latest foray into an eye-dazzling future of space stations, alien encounters, and intergalactic espionage traffics in the practical erasure of its female characters.

First, there’s the supposed lead woman Laureline, played here by model-turned-actor Cara Delevingne. Despite the fact that Valerian is based on a French comic series from the 1960s titled Valerian and Laureline, Laureline herself doesn’t get title bidding here in this big budget American adaptation. Valerian himself is made out as the ultimate hero here. A cocky, supposed-to-be-charming but really just a tool, kind of ladies man-turned-romantic lead savior whose mistakes as a soldier are repeatedly fixed by his savvier female counterpart, Laureline. It’s curious why, with Besson’s track record for lifting up women in sci-fi worlds, he chose instead to take a comic with an equally competent duo and focus this film’s title on the male half of the team, stamping him with the definite status of hero. But even Laureline’s status as a smarter, more empathetic, and more competent soldier doesn’t free her from sexism as she remarks that a dangerous mission ruined her dress or exclaims her intense desire for shopping.

But nearly forgetting about Laureline isn’t Valerian‘s only issue with supposedly 50% of the population of the universe; the whole film suffers from a significant lack of female representation. The opening sequence, the film’s most lovely moments, begins in 1975 with American and Soviet astro/cosmonauts meeting and shaking hands for the first time in space. Through a montage set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” varying nations of Earth meet and work together in orbit, until one day, another species appears on the other side of the door. One by one, decade by decade, more species interact with humans. Yet every time a hand is extended from the human representative of Earth, it’s always attached to the male of our species.  This is supposed to be the 28th century, yet we’re supposed to believe that no woman was given the role of alien ambassador once in hundreds of years.

This lack of ladies continues throughout “Valerian’s” universe and throughout space station Alpha wherein all of the action takes place. Again, despite being the 28th century, seemingly 90% of military and government personnel are male. There’s a scene in which delegates from every species gather to address the major issue facing the station. All human representatives are male, and when it comes to the aliens, well who can tell what’s what? The Boulin Bathor who kidnap Laureline to dress her up in a wedding gown and feed her brains to the king—are any of them the women of the species? Come to think of it, is that king really a queen? Hard to say! Who knows! But ambiguity does not equal representation.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets could have used a serious examination by the so-called “Geena Davis Test.” Similar to the Bechdel Test in its purpose, Geena Davis’ simple instruction for making a film less sexist goes as follows: “When describing a crowd scene, write in the script, ‘A crowd gathers, which is half female.'” That would have significantly altered the makeup of the human characters of the film alone. Furthermore, Davis’ instruction to “Go through the projects you’re already working on and change a bunch of the characters’ first names to women’s names” would have yielded a more realistic future. How easy would it have been to make Clive Owen’s gruff villain a woman, or Sam Spruell’s second-in-command? I don’t know about Besson, but come the 28th century, I expect this problem to be solved.

(image: STX Entertainment Motion Pictures)

Casey Cipriani is a New York-based arts and entertainment journalist with a passion for watching sci-fi and fairy tales and addressing women’s issues in the industry. She has written for Indiewire, Vulture, Slate, Refinery29, the New York Times, the New York Daily News, Women and Hollywood, and Bustle. She earned her Master’s Degree from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism where she concentrated in arts and culture reporting and criticism.  

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