It’s no surprise that big Hollywood productions lack strong female characters. Ones that are complex and interesting, and that, like a lot of real women, refuse to be shoved into categories designed by men. But sometimes a film comes along that feels particularly damaging. Case in point: American Sniper, the Oscar-nominated drama from veteran director Clint Eastwood.
American Sniper is riddled with faults. It’s a shallow biopic, as cold-eyed as its protagonist and as repetitive as paint-by-numbers. It boils down the Iraqi community into its most basic, savage stereotype and is never brave enough to challenge Chris Kyle’s reputation as a modern hero. But it’s the casual misogyny that really stuns, carving into the film like a silent slash to the jugular.
Let’s be frank: there are no women in American Sniper. In their place, feminine cut-out shapes are scattered, each adorned with long hair, slender limbs and kissable lips. Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall have a vague notion of how everyday women look and act, but no real awareness of who women are. The worst crime is their lack of desire to find out.
Defenders will argue that American Sniper isn’t about women, it’s about a man who fought to protect his country from tyranny. But for a film that tries so hard to juxtapose brutal war scenes in Iraq with Kyle’s apple pie American home, you’d think the filmmakers could at least flesh out his wife into someone worth remembering. Unfortunately, Taya Kyle is little more than a cute counterpart to her superhero husband and other women don’t fare any better.
There are three female characters in American Sniper, each of which revolves around Kyle: his mother, ex-girlfriend and wife. The mother hardly counts, pictured quivering beside her husband at the dinner table during Kyle’s childhood. She’s as quiet and as easily forgotten as a silhouette.
Likewise, Kyle’s first girlfriend has less than five minutes’ screen time. In the one scene she’s in, Kyle comes home to find her her half-naked with another man. After he throws the guy out in a well-greased show of macho aggression, the girlfriend attacks Kyle in her crop-top and daisy dukes. Her only excuse is that she was sleeping around for attention. So, not because she was feeling lonely or invalidated. Of course not. She mentions that she has no friends or family in Texas, but the filmmakers never give her the chance to elaborate.
Maybe she did feel genuinely sidelined, maybe Kyle really was a neglectful ass. But by shoving this character into a single scene where she acts petulant and promiscuous, the audience is quick to reject her. What a bitch, we think, screwing around on the good-looking Kyle, a man who, we know, is destined to become a bonafide American prince. Her loss, right?
Kyle decides to dump her like old take-out and in retaliation she tells him that he was a shitty lay. Right. Because all girls care about is how well they’re being dicked. This comes directly after Kyle and a friend talk about a “slutty” girl who likes to “suck a lot”. This brings us to a common trope: the Slut, usually signified by women who sleep around and dress provocatively. It’s as tacky and artificial as a neon light and about as nuanced as an air horn.
The next character comes in the form of a slinky Sienna Miller, who plays Kyle’s future bride and the ‘love of his life’. In Taya’s first scene with Kyle, she’s flirty and fun, downing shots with him in a redneck bar and coyly telling him she’d never date a soldier. Two scenes later, she wears skimpy lingerie and takes him to bed, all slim muscle and smooth, milky skin.
She changes as Kyle does. When Kyle wants to settle down, she makes a swift transition from playful girlfriend to model wife, donning a white gown like a second skin and buying a home with him. She’s constantly pretty and constantly pregnant, dutifully having his babies and rearing new life while he’s in another country killing women and children. Like a cookie-cutter woman, Taya is delicately plucked and molded from Kyle’s desires. She has phone sex with him when he’s in Iraq, kneads his crotch under the kitchen table and organises family barbeques in cute summer dresses.
Here’s another trope we’re familiar with: the Wife and Mother, the Madonna to Kyle’s ex-girlfriend, the Whore. These are the usual sub-headings female characters are permitted to fall under in American mainstream cinema, and not once does Taya wander from the roles Kyle dresses her in. The only time she’s allowed to be imperfect is when she’s crying about how damaged he is, in which she sniffles prettily and paws at Kyle like a disgruntled kitten.
Outside of Kyle’s orbit, we never get any indication of who this woman actually is. We never find out about her family or what her life was like before she met Kyle. We never find out if she’s educated or where she works. We never find out if she has hopes and ambitions or her own, if she has any fears that don’t involve her husband. We only find out that she has a habit of dating the wrong men, another element of her existence defined by the opposite sex.
Without Kyle, Taya becomes an ember. We forget about her in the scenes she’s not in because she never has a presence. She exists for her husband and him alone. When he goes away, it’s like she folds herself up in a box and waits for his return. This this isn’t a woman, it’s an extension. She’s the string that pulls Kyle home, an image promising intimacy and warmth, but she isn’t a person. She’s as real as the pin-up girl posters army boys tack on their walls or have tattooed on their arms. Gorgeous, sure, but ultimately faded around the edges.
There are no women in American Sniper, only the names men call us, and the categories they force us into. The damage this film inflicts isn’t just on the Muslim community, but on women, who are kept at a distance and annihilated before they get a chance to exist. Kyle displays a chilling, surgical approach to killing and this soon spills into his interactions with his family.
In a ‘playful’ scene towards the end of the film, Kyle points a gun at Taya and tells her to take off her panties. It’s supposed to be cute and light-hearted, because y’know, they’re still that fun-lovin’ pair who shared shots all those years ago. Instead it’s a perfect representation of patriarchal, oppressive masculinity. By pulling a gun on her, he denies her existence. This picture says, be the perfect wife and mother, and nothing else. Be mine. Be here for me.
The real victim in American Sniper isn’t Kyle. It’s his wife, who’s left to shiver in the cold, lacking an identity or any sense of self whenever he leaves her side.