Whenever a movie gets made about the future, it’s valuable to take note of what progressions or regressions appear as we move forward through time. Similarities or differences can be quite telling, whether as artistic statements, predictions or as incidental byproducts of the filmmaker’s present-day cultural climate.
The Fifth Element is set in the 23rd century and there have, certainly, been some developments. Cars can fly and we can travel efficiently through space but the interesting thing about The Fifth Element is that it’s really a 20th century culture jazzed up with 23rd century technology. McDonald’s is still a convenient source of instant gratification, mindless radio blather still fills the radio waves, and distribution of wealth still seems troublesome at best. Over the span of three centuries, not a lot has moved forward except gadgetry and transportation. Unfortunately for the women in the universe of The Fifth Element, it’s certainly possible for things to move backward. There aren’t a ton of women in this movie and there are even fewer with any agency.
Unless I’m mistaken (a highly likely premise), these two drive-thru workers are the first two human women we see in the film. It’s 35 minutes into the movie and the first exposure we have to human femininity is two women whose cleavage is being put on display for the sake of shilling cheeseburgers and Coke. Their job is to McFlirt a sexual charge into the fast food experience.
Now, I haven’t been on a plane in about 10 years so my knowledge of flight attendant culture is pretty stunted but a cursory glance over to Google Images suggests that there is an effort these days to shake the stereotype of “stewardesses” being an all-female profession. There is apparently still a particular level of attractiveness and fitness that upholds the norm of the job but The Fifth Element eliminates any form of pretense and sets a very clear model of what a flight attendant should look like. It cuts out the men. It cuts out any variation on body types. It cuts an impractical amount of material out of the uniform. The only thing it adds is a bizarre, racial homogenization with the addition of a blonde wig.
Like the McModels from above, these flight attendants are part of sexualized branding for whatever airline is employing them. Part of the experience of flying on one of these ships is ogling the staff. And, unlike a present-day flight, it’s not like these people’s job includes selling you products or fluffing your pillows. In The Fifth Element‘s cross-space flights, voyagers are literally put to sleep for the duration of the trip. The flight attendants aren’t just one aspect of the airline (spaceline?)’s customer experience, it’s the only part they’re conscious for. This is a brand built on midriffs and cleavage.
Finally, a woman with some power. By the looks of things, she is a decorated member of the military. The only problem is that she doesn’t really do anything except show up and be a punchline. The joke is that when protagonist Korben Dallas is sent on a secret mission to collect some ancient stones, Iceborg is supposed to pose as his wife.
See, it’s funny because the fact that she looks the way she does means that it’s so completely unimaginable that she could be a viable sexual partner that Korben would rather turn down the mission to save the world, with the help of an accomplished soldier as his partner, than pretend for a day to be knocking boots with Major Iceborg. Even her name adds to the “joke.”
While I cannot prove it, something tells me that male office administrators in The Fifth Element universe don’t strut around wearing just bowties and codpieces.
Hah! I was wrong! Korben’s mom is actually the first human female we meet. Heard but never seen, Korben’s mother role is similar to Iceborg’s in that she exists for the sake of showing how manly of a man Korben is. Mom would describe herself as put-upon, long-suffering, and under-appreciated. Unlike most of the women on this list, she at least speaks up for herself and resists against mistreatment. But, for everyone within earshot, she’s an insufferable shrew who needs to be hung up on.
This has got to be where this whole argument goes off the rails, right? The movie is called The Fifth Element and Leeloo is the fifth element. She is the one who brings peace to the universe and destroys giant, burning death suns. She’s an ass-kicking super-clone chick who exists to save the universe. What could possibly be wrong with that?
Sure, Leeloo is probably the least problematic female character. She is physically strong, highly capable, intelligent but also inexperienced, naive, and innocent. She’s probably the most interesting character in the movie but she still helps identify some other gender issues.
As a plot device, the fifth element is prophesied before she ever comes into being. When a monk, who has studied the prophesy his entire life, finally meets the embodied element, his first reaction is to say “He’s a she!” The assumption is that an all-powerful saviour would be male. It is only by correction that he recognizes that there was no reason for him to make any assumptions about his messiah’s gender.
It’s also unclear what Leeloo actually does to save the universe. By the end of the movie, she is pretty bummed out about the human race and is depressed to the point of immobilization. In trying to fulfill the prophesies and save the day, Korben rushes to Egypt, figures out some ancient puzzles and plunks Leeloo into her place as the last piece. An epic lightshow explodes out of her and the universe lives to tell other universes about its near-death experience. The movie’s most powerful, divine female character is still, at the end, a damsel, needing to be carried to her destiny by a hunky man,
For mankind (and I use that term intentionally), the elements – earth, fire, air, and water – are historically the components that make up everything in existence. More accurately, they are four components of nature that offer massive benefits of utility. The fifth element – a woman – seems to be the same. While women are useful for selling burgers, answering phones, and nagging people, The Fifth Element does not offer anything in the way of hope that femininity has any place in the future unless it comes with a body to ogle or a fragility that demands male heroism to protect.
I doubt it’s intentional but this portrait of future womanhood is troubling. As a prediction of the future, it’s harrowing, as a reflection of the present, it’s simply depressing.
Dylan Clark-Moore is a podcast creator and blogger at NetFlakes. You can find him on Letterboxd and Twitter.
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The Fifth Element is also available from Amazon.