Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present, and future.
When a first-look image of Karen Gillan in costume arrived online last September for her role in “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” the adventure film was blasted for dressing her in tiny shorts and a bare midriff while her all-male co-stars sported more practical duds. At the time, Gillan tweeted, “Yes I’m wearing child-sized clothes and YES there is a reason! The pay off is worth it.”
When the film finally arrived last fall, Gillan’s promise proved out. As Martha, she plays an awkward teen who gets tossed into a video game with a pack of her high school brethren, and must fight her way out. The character of Martha is also played by Morgan Turner, said awkward teen who turns into the video game avatar Ruby Roundhouse when she enters the “Jumanji” game. That’s Gillan: an old-school video game character outfitted in a purposely ludicrous get-up. It’s the first thing her avatar comments on, and her unease with the outfit is apparent throughout the film.
As she told IndieWire, “My character is not happy about it, and she’s a really interesting, introverted girl, but in the body of a warrior woman. It’s about her learning how to inhabit that and dealing with this ridiculous costume. Everything that anyone’s been saying about the costume is exactly what the character is saying about the costume.”
That meta costume choice represented the delightfully tongue-in-cheek nature of the film, but it also shone a light on one of the action genre’s most pervasive problems in the contemporary era: outfitting leading ladies in stupid costumes, most of them meant to play up sex appeal over anything resembling functionality. However, Hollywood appears to finally realize that even costumes are primed for evolution.
This week’s video game adaptation is the “Tomb Raider” reboot, with Alicia Vikander is the revamped Lara Croft. Angelina Jolie’s Lara often sported very small, very tight shorts — hardly practical for a top-ranked jungle-hacking tomb raider, but it was the look favored by the character in the original video games.
However, the new “Tomb Raider” film is mostly based on the game’s 2013 reboot, and Vikander’s character’s costume reflects the new Lara. Her updated look now features a gray tank top with long cargo pants. Sensible pants! What an idea! The film features a series of outfits appropriate for Croft’s rough-and-tumble lifestyle, one that includes boxing for fun and bike messengering for money. She looks great, but she also looks like she’s not going to get road rash or die if she brushes against a poisonous plant.
No one goes to action movies for their veracity, but costumes that even look like they could survive the odd plane crash, shipwreck, and tomb-set battle sequence go a long way toward selling a story. Beyond that, moving away from costumes designed to accentuate the assets of those wearing them — yes, usually women — sends the message that these movies are being made with a much bigger audience than adolescent boys.
Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” was populated by warrior women who sported looks befitting their place in the DC ecosystem as hardened soldiers. Stomachs were covered and boots were often tall, creating a look in service to movement, safety, and a firm nod to the Greek god who created them.
In Sharon Gosling’s book “Wonder Woman: The Art and Making of the Film,” she devotes a number of chapters to the warrior costumes of Wonder Woman and her Amazon sisters. She even speaks to some of the training outfits, which do feature bare midriffs and a decidedly more relaxed overall feel — more cotton, less metal — and compares it to sportswear, the Themysciran version of workout pants.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Black Panther” feature female characters who ride into battle, and who dress the part. As former solider Valkyrie, “Ragnarok” star Tessa Thompson’s first look in the film is one that reflects her training as a member of Asgard’s super-tough, female-only force: lots of hardened leather, full-length pants, and boots designed for ass-kicking.
Later, she wears her full Valkyrie kit, one that includes full coverage, a ton of armor, and even a kicky cape. She looks great, but she also looks like someone who can get the job done without hurting herself.
The Valkyrie aren’t the MCU’s only all-female fighting force. When we meet their Wakandan counterparts in “Black Panther,” the Dora Milaje also wear tough, armored outfits that instantly telegraph who they are and what they’re made to do. They also tell a story about the women who wear them, a delightful one that further speaks to their importance in the narrative. For “Black Panther” costume designer Ruth Carter, that was top of mind.
“All those layers of their relationships are represented in the costumes,” Carter recently told IndieWire. “Mother/Queen, General/Girlfriend, Spy/Ex-Girlfriend, Sister/Genius. I think, in general, there’s a sense of royalty and esteem with the female uniforms. They have no past and we made them with a specific story in mind. It loops you into Wakanda … We covered the layers of women with their toughness and softness at the same time.”
In some cases, it’s an approach that’s literally coming from the bottom up. “Jurassic World” audiences were flummoxed by the heels that star Bryce Dallas Howard always wore, even while running for her life from dinosaurs. It was a sartorial choice that launched a thousand think pieces, but Howard herself told Cosmopolitan that she saw all the hubbub as a positive thing. “I feel really relieved at the amount of sensitivity that people have to women and women’s roles in films, particularly large films,” she said. “I did appreciate the fact that people wanted to ensure that it’s important for there to be female characters and roles where they do go on a journey and they aren’t just a function of the plot.”
The film’s sequel, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” is bound for release later this summer, and it will include at least one big change: Howard’s character is wearing some very sturdy combat boots.