Warning: Massive Looper spoilers below. If you have not seen the movie, and you plan to, don’t read any further! Of course, this whole post won’t really make sense if you haven’t seen the movie. So go see it and then come back.
Let me start by saying that Looper is excessively fun to watch. It’s brainy, at least for a blockbuster, but it’s not shy about gory bloody killy shooty action sequences. It’s disturbing and it’s clever and it’s suspenseful, but mostly it’s just really entertaining.
It also has a woman problem. Like, a major woman problem. Like, of all the blockbusters I’ve seen recently, it probably has the biggest woman problem.
First of all, it has a quantitative woman problem. Only four women in the cast are credited. Of these, only three speak and have names. Here are their roles: Sara (Emily Blunt) is a mother and reformed party girl. Suzie (Piper Perabo) is a prostitute and mother. Beatrix (Tracie Thoms) is a waitress who speaks about four sentences. Old Joe’s Wife (Summer Qing) is, as her title credit would suggest, Old Joe’s Wife. And a mother. Obviously.
None of the loopers (hired killers) who appear onscreen are women. None of the hired goons who appear onscreen are women. Director Rian Johnson, supposed visionary, can’t seem to imagine a future in which women participate in criminal activities. Maybe this doesn’t seem so bad; after all, all the women in the film are good, or at least neutral. But this is insulting. It assumes that women aren’t complex enough to turn to evil, or really to anything other than prostitution, when our lives go wrong (and prostitution always means that our lives have gone wrong, of course). It’s lazy filmmaking that goes unnoticed because we’re so used to it. If Rian Johnson did think of including a few women among his unnamed criminals, he probably dismissed the idea as being too distracting.
So, in a movie loaded with characters, Looper could only spare four lady parts. And what of these lady parts?
Let’s start with Old Joe’s Wife. Mrs. Joe goes unnamed throughout the movie and we never hear her speak, but she’s fundamental to the plot. When the Rainmaker’s henchmen come to claim Old Joe (Bruce Willis) and send him to die by his own hand - just one of many complicated time travel things, don’t worry, you’ll get it - Mrs. Joe is accidentally killed in the crossfire, prompting Old Joe to go off book and set out on a mission to find and kill the Rainmaker’s past self. (The Rainmaker is the incredibly powerful and fearful cause of all this drama and strife, for reasons that become clear later.)
When Old Joe and Mrs. Joe meet, his life is a mess. He’s a drug addict and criminal. Mrs. Joe, Old Joe explains to Young Joe (see how much easier this would be if Mrs. Joe had an actual name?), saved him from this life. “Why?” Old Joe asks Young Joe. “Ask yourself why someone would sacrifice their life for you.”
What is Mrs. Joe getting out of this relationship? We’re never told. We see some tender moments between them in flashbacks, but we’re never told that Joe is a terrific lover or a really nice guy or great at making French toast. It’d be one thing if the filmmakers let us assume that Joe provides something in this relationship, other than his need for salvation, but they don’t even do that. They assume we won’t care. Women aren’t supposed to expect anything in return for our salvation. We’re just supposed to bestow it. Does Mrs. Joe know about Joe’s past as a looper? Does she know that he’s doomed to die violently, and that he knows exactly when that will happen? Would she want Joe to risk his life and kill massive amounts of people to save hers? Who knows. Who cares? She’s Old Joe’s Wife; that’s all she is, and all we need to know about her.
Then there’s Sara. The only female character with any amount of depth to her, Sara is an Independent Woman raising her son, Cid, on a farm outside the city. She grows cane! She says “fuck” a lot! She almost masturbates! She has a shotgun! But rest assured, her main role is as Cid’s - the Rainmaker’s - mother, and thus the maker of the Rainmaker, both literally and metaphorically. She alone, we are told, controls Cid’s destiny. If she stays in his life, he’ll grow up good. If she doesn’t, he’ll grow up bad. And bad, for Cid, is really, really bad. People explode. It’s a thing.
Of course, this narrative parallels Joe’s. Joe’s mother sold him for drug money when he was a child, and this led him to a life of crime and ultimately to becoming a looper. No mention is made of his, or Cid’s, father. No mention is made of the truly crummy dystopia in which the film is set, and the societal and governmental forces that have made poverty and crime so rampant. Joe and Cid are entirely products of their mothers, and their every deed, both good and bad, can be directly traced back to their mothers’ influence.
No pressure or anything.
Looper exemplifies the problem laid out in the now-infamous Bechdel test: Women in movies exist only as props for men. We are their mothers, their wives, their prostitutes. We bring them steak and eggs, we save their lives. We shape their destinies, without getting to have destinies of our own.
And it’s frustrating, because it didn’t have to be like that. Several of the male parts could easily have been played by women without affecting the plot one bit. Think of Sigourney Weaver or Tilda Swinton in the part occupied by Jeff Daniels; how totally badass would that be? Think of a creepy little girl as the Rainmaker (though I will concede that Pierce Gagnon was extremely well cast as Cid). Throw in a few women as extras, for God’s sake. It’s telling that when Old Joe goes hunting for the potential Rainmakers, of the three children he looks for, all are boys - even though it’s explicitly stated that no one knows who the Rainmaker is and that the title could belong to either a man or a woman. At the very least, you could throw a few women onto the pile of bodies that Old Joe leaves in his wake.
And really, why not take it even further? Why can’t Joe be a woman? What would happen? I’ll tell you: the movie would go from being a blockbuster with universal appeal and a 93% rating on RottenTomatoes to a girl power movie. There’s no way to verify this, but I’m willing to bet that if only that detail were changed - if everything else in the movie were exactly the same, except that Young Joe and Old Joe were played by Rose Byrne and Glenn Close (dare to dream) - the movie wouldn’t be nearly as well received. It would be silly and fluffy and not “believable.”
So if you’re ever wondering what patriarchy is, this is it. It’s the fact that even in the imaginary future, women can shape the destinies of the criminals, supervillains, and heroes of the world; we can raise them, marry them, service their sexual needs, and take their drink orders; but we can never, ever be them.