Obviously – SPOILERS AHEAD. I try not to be too specific, but some major plot points are mentioned.
Also, I have not read the Mark Miller/Dave Gibbons comic, The Secret Service, on which Kingsman is based. This post is about the film only.
I thoroughly enjoyed Kingsman: the Secret Service. It was clear while watching it that the creators had one major goal – to entertain – and they succeeded. From the start it burst onto the screen with a brash energy that’s rare. It is irreverent fun that moves fast and hits hard. It goes out of its way to break conventions and divert clichés. The whole thing is a play on spy movie tropes. Unfortunately, something holds it back, and it’s the way it treats women. There are three female characters that have an effect on the story: the main character’s mother, the Big Bad’s henchwoman, and an agent recruit.
The mother is a victim of an abusive criminal husband. She’s there to give the main character his angsty background and his motivation to stand up for people. She also provides a personal stake for the main character when the bad guy enacts his evil plan. That all makes sense, and the portrayal of an abusive relationship is pretty accurate, but she’s never characterized. She’s only shown as a victim. She’s just a big ol’ damsel.
The henchwoman is a deadly, vaguely-ethnic, exotic vixen cliché. She’s super badass – wicked bladed leg prostheses! – but is given no real motivation, desires, or background. She just kills whoever her boss tells her to without question. To be fair, she’s based on the classic henchman, and none of them were well-characterized, but so much of the rest of this movie feels very modern. It seems like the only thing that isn’t modern is the portrayal of women.
The recruit that the main character befriends in training has the biggest female role in the movie. She’s quite capable, but very plain, and second in everything to the MC (main character). The only exception is when she passes the final test to actually win the rank of agent, beating the MC, but it’s really just a twisted trick that only shows she is more easily manipulated than the MC. In the climax of the movie, she’s put on the backburner; relegated to pressing a button to shoot down a satellite instead of actually helping with the final raid on the bad guy’s lair. Apparently, ovaries exclude one from ridiculous hyper-violent action scenes. That is, unless you’re a sexy evil chick with katana feet.
Kingsman has all the three bad female clichés: damsel, evil vixen, and pretty sidekick. Wait, did I say three? I left something out. Don’t forget the sex trophy!
This is the part that bothered me the most. Toward the end of the movie, the MC comes across a European princess that has been imprisoned by the bad guy since she stood up to him earlier in the movie. She actually shows herself to be strong-willed character in that earlier scene, which was nice. When the MC comes across her trapped in a cell, she’s been in there for a week at least, probably more like several months. I don’t really remember. Anyway, when he encounters her in her cell, their encounter goes something like this.
Princess: “If you get me out of here, I’ll do anything.”
MC: “Really, anything?”
MC: “Alright then. Just let me go save the world, and I’ll be right back.”
Princess: “If you save the world, I’ll let you put it in my ass.”
What the ACTUAL fuck? Keep in mind, this exchange happens minutes after they meet, and the princess has been kidnapped and locked away, with the possibility of being murdered. Everything seems consensual, which is a plus, I guess. The Princess is the one who brings it up. But it’s so unrealistic it hurts. Ugh. THEN, after the climax (of the movie), in which the world is indeed saved, the MC returns to the Princess’s cell with a bottle of wine and a smirk. He opens the door and she invites him into the CELL she has been IMPRISONED in. Things get steamy, there’s a close-up on her naked ass, and the movie goes to credits. Seriously.
I haven’t even brought up the issue of race yet. One little thing that I just happened to notice was that the only people of color in the movie who were impactful characters were the BAD GUYS. The good guys were all whiter than a polar bear plastered with mayonnaise.
Now, if one or two of these things were in the movie, it wouldn’t be a big deal, but they pile up to become a major problem with this story. If you’re going to very obviously play on old tropes of a certain genre, and of movies in general, why would you ignore the tropes that work against women and people of color? At one point, the Big Bad says “This isn’t that kind of movie,” when referring to bloviating and giving the heroes a chance to escape, insinuating that this is fresher and smarter than what you’re used to. But when it comes to marginalizing female characters, it isn’t smarter at all, it’s exactly that kind of movie.