The spy who violated me
Spoilers for Kingsman: The Golden Circle and its predecessor, Kingsman: The Secret Service, below
There's a scene in Kingsman: The Secret Service that soured the entire movie for some viewers, despite coming at the end (no pun intended). It's when Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström) offers Eggsy (Taron Egerton) anal sex if he "saves the world." It's a bad joke, but instead of learning from the justifiable backlash it received, Kingsman director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn made The Golden Circle even more misogynistic and degrading to women. In a movie that was intended as a fun piss-take on the male-dominated spy genre, that's a problem.
The original's butt sex joke may seem harmless, but a helpless, captive woman offering crass sexual favors in exchange for rescue is pretty dang retrograde. Vaughn has openly addressed the criticism, claiming the gag is "a celebration of women and the woman being empowered," which is completely ridiculous. There's nothing remotely "empowering" about being trapped in a cell and offering sex in exchange for rescue, no matter how the scene was intended.
That could have been a teachable moment for Vaughn, but one specific scene in The Golden Circle made it clear that the director isn't interested in improving the portrayal of women in his films.
It's bad enough that Halle Berry is stuck behind a desk the whole movie. Meanwhile, this universe's only female agent, Sophie Cookson's Roxy, spends her one scene as a glorified personal assistant, helping Eggsy impress his girlfriend's parents, before being unceremoniously blown up, cementing the fact that there's no room in these movies for powerful women. Sofia Boutella's Gazelle, with her sharpened blade legs, was an exception, albeit not exactly a two-dimensional character. Even so, she's the one character from the first movie I actually would have liked to see resurrected in The Golden Circle.
Julianne Moore's villainous Poppy is empowered as the villain, in that she literally has quite a bit of power. In a different context--say, if the rest of the movie was better--it would be possible to view her mid-century Americana obsession as a subversion of the imagery of the docile 1950s housewife. In some ways she's the best part of the movie, besides Elton John, whose jokes about how he doesn't want to be there come off a little too meta.
Princess Tilde's prominent role in the new film is clearly an attempt to actually buck that Bond-esque trope of the super-spy who sets his sexual conquests aside in between every movie. But by giving the princess nothing to do besides dote on Eggsy and pressure him into marrying her, Kingsman plants her firmly in the stereotypical role of a nagging girlfriend who doesn't understand A Man's Work. It's totally unbelievable that she'd be so squeamish about Eggsy seducing a target, given that she's, you know, dating an international super-spy. But that's apparently the only way Vaughn could imagine a woman reacting.
And Tilde's reaction is just a small part of what's problematic with the scene in which Eggsy has to seduce a woman so he can insert a tracking device into her vagina. It's terrible in every way: outrageous, but not hilarious; nonsensical, but not even close to satirical; reprehensible and degrading, yet our hero's only hang-up is that he might piss off his possessive girlfriend.
The scene involves Eggsy and Agent Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) flexing their machismo by trying various pick-up lines (a trope as unflattering to the men involved as the women) on a female target, Clara (Poppy Delevingne, Cara Delevingne's sister). They need to trick her into allowing them to sexually insert a tracking device into her vagina so they can find her boyfriend. The tracking device needs to be inserted via a mucous membrane, which Whiskey and Eggsy jokingly admit could include the target's nostril instead, before immediately dismissing that option because they both accept that it will be easier for one of them to seduce her than to simply stick a finger up her nose and walk away.
Since that makes no sense, the only actual explanation is that Vaughn simply thought it would be funnier this way. In Kingsman's ridiculously over-the-top universe, where briefcases are gatling guns and umbrellas stop bullets, the idea that the only tracker they've invented needs to be inconveniently inserted into women's vaginas is a bullet to suspension-of-disbelief's forehead (and not the kind that can be instantly healed with a bandage full of magic gel). The story suffers for this terrible gag reflex of a joke--which, by the way, could have been removed entirely with no difference to the plot, since our heroes learn the location of Poppy's secret lab from a phone call, rendering the tracker unnecessary in addition to being impractical and offensive.
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From beginning to end, this scene is just terrible. Why does the insertion device look like a condom, but go on your finger, other than so Vaughn could jam in another dick joke? Why does the camera linger so long on Clara's body, including that uncomfortable close-up on her panties as Eggsy's finger delves inside? Did we really need that CG shot of her innards to top it off? Why did she offer to let him pee on her too, doubling down on the twisted sexual subservience that these films insist their female characters exhibit?
Kingsman: The Golden Circle shows nothing but contempt for its female characters. "James Bond would have done that," Vaughn said in an interview with Uproxx, defending the scene by way of Eggsy's discomfort with his mission. But Eggsy goes through with it, just like Bond would have. Vaughn has said he wants to subvert the spy genre, but he just keeps making it worse. Who ever said 007 was a role model, anyway?
At the end of The Golden Circle, Halle Berry's character Ginger Ale is finally promoted to agent status. Cross your fingers she makes it through her first mission alive in the next one--the odds are not in her favor.