So, as we approach the release of X Men Apocalypse I’m sure that we’ll be hearing the mandatory interviews with actress Olivia Munn that she’s incredibly stoked to be playing such an “empowering” and “inspirational” character as Elizabeth Braddock, aka Psylocke from the X-Men comics. If it seems kind of inauthentic, it’s probably because there still isn’t much about Psylocke that is empowering to women or all that inspirational.
See that outfit Psylocke is wearing in that illustration? That has been her outfit, more or less unchanged, for DECADES. Sometimes she’ll switch it out for a slightly more modest painted-on body glove, but let’s not mince words: the character of Psylocke exists for two things: Tits. And. Ass.
Here’s a photo of Olivia Munn in her official costume (in an official photoshoot to promote the film too; I wonder why she was asked to promote…?) so you can see how little has changed in the transition to the big live action screen. Munn even claims the outfit requires four assistants to apply body lube just so she can put it on, and she’s not exactly a chunky girl.
Ironically, the most modest we’ve ever seen Psylocke is in her bit part in X-Men 3 (aka: the only version of the character that actually wears clothes). I love that look for the character, because it channeled the visual energy of the character without coming across as stripperiffic.
Psylocke has definitely had superb writers over the years, and she can have the potential to be an empowering, inspirational character– it all depends on the storysmiths running her show.
But let’s make one thing clear: she was created for the male gaze, and while I appreciate that as a straight male will, and because of how her appearance has always been handled, I don’t have much reason to expect greatness from this role, or anything that indicates female empowerment, which I feel is yet another missed opportunity for the film industry.
There are characters who manage to be both sex objects and empowered women, and I hold Bayonetta as a prime example of that. She’s a very sensual, flirtatous, and sexual being, but she owns it as part of who she is, and yet she has a great many genuinely heartwarming and downright motherly moments throughout her story with the little girl she winds up rescuing early on. It doesn’t change the fact that she’s designed to look like a dominatrix librarian in a leather catsuit, but she manages to be both a sex object AND a very female-positive character who even passes the Bechdel test as we spend time with her over the course of her story.
RULE 1 It has to have at least two women in it – Bayonetta and her nemesis Jeanne are arguably the two biggest characters in the game.
RULE 2 Who talk to each other, – Yep. Plenty of Bayonetta vs. Jeanne scenes.
RULE 3 About something besides a man. – Indeed. Everything that Bayonetta and Jeanne discuss revolves around their past histories and their present disputes. I could be wrong, but I don’t think they ever talk about a man.
The Bechdel Test aside (and spoilers to Bayonetta, ahead), there were several other pro-woman outcomes at the conclusion of Bayonetta:
Bayonetta defeats her father, Balder, who reveals he not only manipulated Bayonetta so that he could use her to revive “the Creator”, but also used his powers to pit Jeanne against Bayonetta in the first place.
Towards the end of the game, Jeanne and Bayonetta abandon their previous animosity and join forces as friends to save the world and destroy the Creator Jubileus, who also appears as a woman.
Bayonetta does not take the romantic bait in her fanyboy-sidekick Luka. While there are moments in the game that suggest that they may end up together as Luka secretly lusts after her (while he helps care for Cereza), the coupling at the end of the game turns out to be Bayonetta and Jeanne as partners in crime.
Somehow, I doubt Psylocke will get the same (relatively) girl-positive treatment as Bayonetta did. I think someone wanted to see Olivia Munn in a pleather one-piece, wrote a portion of the script to vaguely justify this, and then waved money at Olivia Munn until she agreed.
There’s nothing empowering about that, regardless of what miss Munn might claim in the interviews. I know she’s a comic book geek at heart, and I know she’s been an enthusiastic cosplayer on several occasions, but that’s really not why she was cast here. Whatever the rationale given, they went with that costume in the film to capitalize on her sex appeal, not her acting skills, and certainly not the narrative merits of including the character.
This is one rare time I will actually subtract approval points from a comic book film for staying visually true to the source material. If I had a girlfriend, I would feel slightly embarrassed to take her to see this film as soon as Psylocke strutted into frame in that outfit, especially since the X-Men films have, until now, taken regular sizable liberties with the physical appearances of the characters (ESPECIALLY the women– they’re often better dressed in the films than they are in the comics).
Hopefully, I’ll be somewhat wrong, and Psylocke’s writing might turn out to be utterly amazing and very pro-women. I really hope so. Hopefully, Olivia Munn will turn in the role of her career that we speak of for years to come.
But given the evidence so far, I’m not betting a single penny on that hope.