Gender Roles in The Fifth Element

The Fifth Element is one of those movies that it often seems like everyone likes. From the comic book visual aesthetic to the ostentatious yet believable nature of the universe, there is a lot to love about this flick. It is also a film that plays with tropes and genre staples in almost every scene. It could be said to be the opposite of a film like Young Frankenstein, which is a parody film that loves its genre; Fifth Element is a genre film that loves its parody. But while he employs many tropes, director Luc Besson seems to be deconstructing and analyzing those very cliches in a way that often makes the result truly brilliant.

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One of the things that gets dissected in this fashion is gender. The way that gender and heroism are intertwined in sci-fi is a constant presence in almost any scene in which there is significant development of the protagonists, Leeloo and Korben Dallas. While these moments sometimes play into expectations and brush with actual tropiness, they also make some crucial points in a way that resonates with an unusually diverse audience.

My primary focus will be three things: Bruce Willis as the “generic action hero”, The Supreme Being as a female archetype, and of course, Ruby Rhod.

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First off, while the character of Korben Dallas is certainly interesting, the fact is that Bruce Willis plays himself. He will always be typecast in “the Bruce Willis part”, and that’s fine! Bruce Willis is “generic Hollywood action hero”. He’s a space marine with a sensitive side and a past. He’s also a white male. When we say “action hero”, that is the first thing that comes to mind for many, because that’s almost exclusively what Hollywood shoves down our throats. That is certainly a failing and one that sorely needs to be addressed, but for the purpose of this analysis I’m looking at what tropes Hollywood currently employs, and Bruce Willis is often one of them. When you see Bruce Willis in the lead of an action film, you know exactly how the character will be portrayed; you already know who they are. All we need to know about Korben is that he’s a cab driver who used to be a super soldier. We learn more about him as we are introduced to his world, but the details are almost irrelevant; he’s “that dude in the action movie”. The lead is essentially a trope unto himself. But as he’s dragged through the events of the film, he proves that this character has a little more depth than meets the eye. While Korben Dallas may be the poster child of stereotypical masculinity, he’s rarely toxic about it.

While we know what we’re getting set up for with Korben Dallas, we are not really prepared for Leeloo. Once we realize that even though he’s the main character it’s really her story, the symbolic subtext of Korben’s role changes dramatically. He goes from the action hero to the sidekick. That inversion is essential in understanding the sometimes subtle implications about gender roles here. Korben assumes he’s the tough guy protecting the fragile woman, but when he realizes that she is infinitely stronger and more intelligent than he will ever be, he dedicates himself to having her back. Granted, this dynamic pales in comparison to a film like Mad Max: Fury Road, and we do still get the trope of him “saving the girl”, but Korben’s willingness to get out of the way and let the more capable woman kick some ass is not to be dismissed.

When it comes to kicking ass, most of the action scenes (at least the fight scenes) in this film do not feature Leeloo. Korben gets most of the action throughout the first half of the film and is still playing the hero till much later on. Leeloo spends most of her time just processing her situation. Having to catch up on 5000 years of social change in a few days is not easy, even for the Supreme Being. But while Korben spends most of the film protecting Leeloo or fighting on her behalf, he slowly begins to do some catching up of his own. As he begins to realize what exactly Leeloo is and what she can do, he starts to visibly change. Korben begins to suspect that she has, in fact, been humoring him. He begins to step back and see the picture laid out before him, one in which Leeloo is infinitely more capable than he could have imagined. When he is at the opera, she’s off actually doing the mission without him. She is able to take down a large squadron of heavily armed alien mercenaries with nothing but her body as a weapon. We see how incredibly skilled she is and realize that her earlier smiles weren’t cluelessness, but amused condescension. Korben realizes this as well, and while his initial reaction is shock, his ultimate response is one of devotion and support. He accepts that the power dynamic has shifted.

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That realization, however, is a long time coming. Early in the film, we get a crucial scene that directly addresses power and consent and that sets the tone for the relationship between the protagonists. When Korben tries to kiss a sleeping Leeloo, the scene changes tone dramatically. The music and cinematography initially suggest a Sleeping Beauty moment where the dashing hero kisses the sleeping princess and she wakes up. Halfway through the scene, however, the princess wakes up and has the only logical reaction: “who is this guy and why the fuck is he kissing me while I’m unconscious?!” She immediately disarms him and puts his gun to his head, literally telling him “never without my consent” in the divine language. Korben goes into profusely apologetic and slightly terrified mode and says “that was wrong” as he basically grovels for forgiveness.

As both their initial shock wears off and as Leeloo realizes he’s probably not actually attacking her, he starts to try and break the tension. They both regain their footing, and he slowly goes from panic at the gun she’s pointing shakily at him to happiness. He realizes that even though Leeloo had just fallen hundreds of feet through the roof of his cab and then fallen unconscious, she has now fully recovered. He’s not worried about getting shot—though given the situation that is a real concern—he’s just happy that she’s ok. He wants to apologize and get to know her. Though Korben remains the “knight in shining armor” for a while, he does get a taste of the fact that Leeloo is both independent and immensely strong, and his reaction is respectful. That’s a substantial inversion of the power dynamic. That puts their developing relationship on a footing of respect, making it both a “storybook romance” and simultaneously a refutation of many such stories’ antiquated notions about consent and gender roles. While the romance plot follows a somewhat routine progression and this moment is perhaps too easily forgiven, the impact of this scene is significant to the film’s exploration of gender roles.

Speaking of Leeloo, the Supreme Being is one of my and many other folks’ all-time favorite characters. How many of us have said “multipass” out of context at some point? She is presented as being a perfect being so unique and powerful that she is literally a fifth element of nature: life.

Leeloo is presented as the perfect form of sentient life and the pinnacle of evolution. In combination with earth, air, water, and fire, she can form a weapon capable of defeating evil incarnate. The technicians who revive her from a single cell are initially surprised that she’s female after determining her to be “genetically perfect.” Even in the far-off future, gender bias apparently exists. But it is presented here to heighten the impact of what Leeloo does next.

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See, being the Supreme Being isn’t just a figurehead kind of deal; she can punch through bulletproof glass, survive incredible falls, defeat huge numbers of powerful enemies, learn an entire language in a few hours, read minds, see the future, and scarf down two whole chickens without breaking a sweat. She is, in many ways, a living god. In fact, some of Milla Jovovich’s body language in this film reminds me of Alanis Morissette in Dogma; an all powerful, slightly goofy lady with a cute smile who can totally handle the fate of the universe.

She is not, however, actually perfect in every way; she needs help. She is severely injured later in the film due to a combination of bad luck and leaving herself vulnerable after rushing into combat in a vengeful rage. She needs her faithful sidekick to save her sometimes, even if she can’t admit it. The inability to accept help out of pride and anger is one often associated with tropes about male heroes in sci-fi. By expressing that trope, the irrelevance of gender in the role of “generic action hero” is thrown into question in a particularly subtle and subversive manner. This is further muddled by then having Korben play the role of tender caregiver. This serves as both a literal and cinematic exploration of Korben’s initial assumption that he needs to protect her.

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Leeloo, a small, cute, weird young woman, is the Supreme Being. She’s genetically perfect in every way. While the romance plot may play to male fantasy tropes, it does so in a way that recalls mythological stories about gods and goddesses falling in love with heroic mortals. It seems as though Besson is playing with tropes to show us why archetypes exist. He’s trying to show us that even if humanity keeps telling the same stories over and over, the way we tell them is constantly evolving. By subverting gender roles and simultaneously falling into some of them, Leeloo and Korben serve as an example of how gender can be a key way we do that.

Now, it’s impossible to discuss gender roles in Fifth Element without discussing the galaxy’s favorite entertainer: Ruuuubbbbyyyy Rhoooodddddd!!!

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It is somewhat difficult to pin down exactly what Ruby’s gender identity and sexuality are exactly. I think either gender nonconforming or genderfluid and either pansexual or heteroflexible are likely to be closest to accurate. “But who cares?!!!” Ruby would say. The character’s identity is unquestionably queer and unapologetic. In fact when I see the phrase “a great big blob of wibbly wobbly gender bendie stuff” on Tumblr, I often think of Ruby Rhod.

In the world of this movie, he (other characters use the “he” pronoun) is also one of the biggest stars there is. While Prince was clearly a huge part of the visual inspiration for the character, the custom designed Gaultier costumes helped his look go beyond satire. The entire film’s costume design aesthetic is “elegantly exaggerated future versions of things” and the results are beautiful. Ruby’s signature outfits, the rose-necked black dress and the leopard suit leotard thing, are the perfect illustrations of this design philosophy in relation to gender. One is a high fashion adaptation of a classic formal dress taken to a slightly exaggerated extreme, the other a leopard print bodysuit crossed with a tuxedo. Both are the height of future fashion and both were clearly designed for Rhod’s body type. The gender presentation is irrelevant as long as the style is perfect. A queer persona is the most popular character on the air and not as a curiosity but as a mainstream icon. The future of the Fifth Element has moved beyond gender to a large extent and Ruby is the product.

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While Rhod is often used as comic relief, Chris Tucker seems to embrace his character’s queerness by using it as a way to give Ruby both style and substance. Alternating between hypermasculine and hyperfeminine, Ruby somehow maintains a consistent feel and never (okay… rarely) goes from outlandish to parody. While it undoubtedly felt a bit like an “I’ll take what I can get” type thing for many in the queer community at the time of its release, I think there’s a lot more nuance in Tucker’s performance than initially met the eye. Though Ruby’s sheer ostentatiousness could be seen as playing to stereotypes, the character feels authentic. He feels like a genderqueer character and is one of the first I remember in mainstream science fiction. Diversity in sci-fi is a matter I and many of you take very seriously, and Rhod’s prominence in a film like Fifth Element is a message of hope for the future.

It could also be argued that Ruby himself is a commentary about gender deconstruction. He essentially embodies the argument that gender (and to an extent sexuality) are abstract concepts to be played with. The way Tucker, Besson, and Gaultier frame Ruby is as someone who has literally destroyed gender and reconstructed it to fit his personal style, and that is very very cool, especially for a big budget studio film.

There are many other examples of sci-fi gender role stuff going on in this film: the telepathic alien diva Plavalaguna literally holding the fate of the universe in her belly as she sings, the celibate priest and his male apprentice confronted with a naked Milla Jovovich as the messianic figure they’ve spent their lives waiting for, villain Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg and his love of big guns, the “retro futurist” flight attendant uniforms, even the visual of Leeloo and Korben doing it in the tissue regenerator while the president waits impatiently. But they all continue this pattern of dissecting and simultaneously utilizing tropes in ways that are somehow both blatant and subtle.

While it’s not perfect, the Fifth Element is a key example of how a film that explores gender issues can be a massive success with a wide audience. I hope the sensibilities that made this film so great are present in the upcoming Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and that these concepts are explored further. While not a sequel or even set in the same universe, this new film from Luc Besson is being presented as a spiritual successor to Fifth Element. I also hope it conveys a similar message.  A message that we all need to hear, particularly these days: “Only love can save the universe.”

Also… the future is queer.

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