As you read this sentence, theaters on the East Coast will be midway through their first matinee screenings of Hanna, the new thriller from Atonement director Joe Wright. Saoirse Ronan plays the title character, a shy 16-year-old girl taught by her father to be a human killing machine, a skill that comes in handy when Cate Blanchett's team of CIA assassins start chasing her all over creation. Wright has been open about his desire to see Hanna become the new standard for lady action heroes, telling New York magazine he made the movie as "a reaction against a kind of prevailing sexual objectification of young women" and to express frustration with "the traditional, testosterone-driven, misogynist, right-of-center action movies that have absolutely no regard for their subtext whatsoever." The film has been wide release for less than 12 hours, but judging by the response from feminists to Wright's film and his reasons for making it, the character is quickly approaching icon status.
What Hanna is not
This isn't the first movie in recent months to feature a teenage girl on the warpath. Kick Ass and Sucker Punch both relied on a similar conceit. But while the heroines in those films wore suggestive superhero-type outfits on their rampages, a mixture of sex and violence Wright recently described as "very, very alarming," Hanna wears baggy sweatsuits. Jezebel's Dodai Stewart believes the director's refusal to exploit his character gives Hanna a sense of mission and depth of personality rarely afforded to women on the screen, especially not in action movies
"Hanna, is a well-drawn, fully realized character, not just an avatar for an idea," marvels Stewart. She continues: "Each choice Hanna makes leads to the next decision and the following action, so that as we get to know her choices and thought process, we know her. This is how a character is built. ...Why did Babydoll from Sucker Punch wear middriff baring sailor suits with mini skirts? We have no idea, and therefore must assume that Zack Snyder just likes the way it looks."
What Hanna is
Jennifer Stuller, author of the feminist film book Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors, blogs that the character's isolated upbringing, rather than her formidable killing skills, is why Hanna is about to become a feminist icon "Hanna grows up in a cabin in a forest," explains Stuller. "She is schooled by her father (Eric Bana). Her training and the only books she knows – an encyclopedia and a copy of Grimm’s fairy tales – are all that inform her world view." They are discovered early on and she has to go on the run, where she discovered how much the."surreal, fairy tale world – her reality – clashes with the real world she is forced to encounter. Here lies the real potential for female strength, because perhaps empowerment will come not from Hanna’s impressive physical ability, training, or lethal skill, but from her ability to adjust – to grow." Seen through that lens, the movie isn't a revenge thriller: it's a coming of age story.
...and a dissenting view
Discussing the film's gender politics in The Village Voice--not exactly a bastion of anti-feminist sentiment--Eric Hynes makes the case for why the character is not as revolutionary as she may she seem. Along with True Grit, its the latest in a line of "mainstream Hollywood adventure films that refrain from sexualizing or gender delimiting their young female protagonists." For all of its "21st-century trappings and proto-feminist protagonist, Hanna strangely reverts to reactionary politics as usual" during its final scenes.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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