I recently saw Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, and was overall very impressed. A good story, well directed by Brad Bird, excellent action sequences and, unusually for a TOM CRUISE film, a balanced ensemble cast. Despite Cruise being the main attraction and very obviously the star (as demonstrated by the posters that emphasise his name even when a co-star is featured), both the script and the direction give adequate balance to his three co-stars. As William Brandt, Jeremy Renner works well as a rookie with a troubled history, and his developing relationship with Cruise’s Ethan Hunt gives his character direction. In addition, Brandt has some excellent banter with Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn, who largely delivers the much-needed comic relief in a movie that needs humour to balance its own ludicrousness. And Paula Patton’s Jane Carter demonstrates that women can do just as well as men in this high-octane environment.
And yet, the role of Carter is problematic. Straightforwardly, she is a strong, dynamic, independent woman, just as tough and smart as the men. She’s clearly an essential part of the team, and indeed a senior member until Hunt comes along. She contributes ideas, plays her part in the mission, kicks ass and fires guns when she needs to. Even when her part is a honey trap, the temptation is clearly a means to an end and she beats the information out of her target rather than seducing it. But as is so often the case with women in “men’s” roles, Carter is “punished”, suffering for perhaps her temerity to enter a man’s world.
It is interesting, however, specifically why Carter suffers. In an early scene, we learn that she was team leader and one of her agents was killed. It is tempting to read her relationship with the downed agent as romantic, but there is equal evidence that it was comradeship, professional partners. Carter’s guilt rides through the whole film, forming her arc as she must come to terms with having lost someone in her command. When she captures the killer of her agent, she warns her colleagues that she must be kept away from the prisoner or will kill them, and in an altercation with the prisoner is clearly driven by violent rage, while Hunt himself remains cool, calm and collected. The mission is later jeopardised by Carter’s loss of emotional control, and in her self-blaming state, she turns to alcohol, but is stopped by Hunt who gets her back on track. So the film’s gender politics can be read as a woman being disciplined by a man who knows how this works.
Conversely, the politics can be read in terms of seniority – Cruise looks his age of late forties and it makes sense that he be schooling his less-experienced colleagues. In addition, it is likely that were Carter male, he would experience the same guilt, same loss of control, violence, and probably turn to drink. Carter is even shot during a gun battle and must grit her teeth through the pain, waiting for the crucial moment when all four agents work together to accomplish the mission. So Carter’s gender is less relevant to her character arc than her professional placement as a highly trained agent who is dealing with problems experienced in the line of duty. But the very fact that her problems would be typical for a male character is demonstrative of patriarchal hegemony. As contemporary, and indeed historical, white male hegemony has a cultural position of the “norm”, to have a woman in Carter’s situation, but to regard the issues as the same for a woman and a man, posits these issues as basic, fundamental, human, without consideration of whether it is different for a woman or a man. Therefore, woman becomes assimilated into the male norm and gender difference is erased.
It is hard to posit that Carter’s gender is actually erased, especially since she is presented as an object of desire for the male gaze and somewhat fetishised, particularly in the film’s Mumbai sequence when she wears a revealing dress and later changes in the car. So the film’s gender representation remains uncertain and uncomfortable. Carter ticks a number of boxes by being the token female character, also of mixed racial background, aesthetically pleasing but still a rounded character with a definite arc. But her characterisation can be largely defined within patriarchal parameters, making it questionable whether she’s really a woman, or more a male agent in drag.