The Problem With "Lucy" And White Feminism

In the end, it’s still a movie about a white person killing a bunch of Asian people.
Publish date:
August 15, 2014
movies, racism, lucy, scarlet johansson, female protagonists

You know what’s cool? Action movies with a female protagonist and no romantic entanglements driving the plot. What’s not cool is using that as an excuse to get away with racism.

"Lucy" is the story of a young, American student in Taipei who is forced to become a drug mule by Korean gangsters. After being kicked in the stomach, the bag sewn into her abdomen ruptures and the drug leaks into her system, giving her immense power based on the flimsy premise that most people only use 10% of their brain.

It follows the age-old trope of vulnerable white women being manhandled and violated by predatory Asian men, followed by the aforementioned men getting their just desserts. In this case, with Lucy administering the punishment herself, it’s meant to be some sort of feminist subversion -- oh, she’s getting revenge on her captors! Girl power!

Except it’s hella racist, guys.

"Lucy" begins in Taiwan and all the villains are Asian so the question has to be posed: Why is Lucy white? What kind of decision was that, if not one that was specifically done to reinforce the Yellow Peril trope? They could have easily set it in America and avoided the Orientalist garbage that the movie became, or set it in Taiwan and cast a Taiwanese actress. The decision to make Lucy a young, white, American woman is one that unfortunately can’t be brushed aside, because it provides the context for many of the racist undertones.

Take the escape scene, where she breaks free from her captors and finds a taxi to take her to the hospital. Lucy walks up to two chatting taxi drivers, asks if they can speak English, and shoots the one that says no. The taxi drivers seem intended to be slightly comical -- their facial expressions and movements show exaggerated fear. And yet, this is uncomfortably similar to real-life instances of persecution.

English is not a widely spoken language in Taiwan, where this scene is set. Half of my family do not speak English -- in fact, half of my family are Taiwanese. Lucy, our white feminist hero, would have shot them immediately because people of colour are disposable. The shooting and possible death of an innocent man isn’t a tragedy, but some sort of twisted punchline to a joke that isn’t really a joke at all.

Soon after this, she murders a patient mid-surgery because, in her words, they "wouldn’t have been able to save him anyway." I’ll give you one guess as to his race. I guess foreigners are disposable and the white (wo)man knows best, something that’s been echoed throughout colonialist history.

During captivity, Lucy is kept in a bare room with Chinese writing painted in red on the walls. I will give them due credit for using the correct kind of Chinese characters (they use Traditional Chinese in Taiwan and Simplified Chinese in most of China) but I’m going to go ahead and state that the only reason the words are there is to further drive home the point that these are scary foreign men she’s dealing with. I say this because the characters, when read, have zero meaning. Keep clean, apples, spring onion, ginger, grapes, tangerine, and tomato. Keep in mind that Mandarin Chinese is the most spoken language in the world. Great effort, guys -- nothing is more terrifying than a polite reminder about hygiene and a list of food produce.

Put something in a foreign language and it’s automatically villainous because foreigners hurt pretty white women and English is the language of the heroes of the story.

I love that the protagonist of this movie is a woman; I think that that’s amazing. There should be many more female-led action movies. However, that doesn’t mean that "Lucy" can be hailed as a feminist victory because to do so would be ignoring its myriad other problems. It’s feminism of a sort, but it’s not one I can get behind, because my feminism doesn’t involve murdering disposable Asian characters for self-empowerment. The movie totally ignores real problems of oppression at the intersection of racism and misogyny in favour of putting forward a Strong Woman who can ensure the white supremacist narrative is pushed along to the bitter end.

Taking the prototypical white male action hero and switching his gender is not as revolutionary as it seems if all the old racist tropes are still in place. In the end, it’s still a movie about a white person killing a bunch of Asian people. Lucy might be opening doors for women-led action movies but the door’s only big enough for white women, apparently.