“You’re a babe—own it.”
Actress Karen Gillan’s awkward-teenager-trapped-in-a-bombshell-body character gets this advice in the current blockbuster Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. This pointer would be a lot easier to take if certain outfits that women wear weren’t referred to as “ridiculous,” “skimpy” and “controversial"—and yes, all of these words have been used in the media to describe the attire that Gillan sports in the hit movie.
Around the film’s December premiere, one media outlet after the next asked the 30-year-old actress to speak to the controversy surrounding her character’s outfit: Why was she, the sole heroine, dressed in a barely-there costume when her on-screen male counterparts were practically covered head to toe? But this response highlights another issue. The fact that Gillan had to weigh in on the costume and that her castmates, such as Dwayne Johnson, came to her defense, only perpetuates a double standard and societal tale much older than Jumanji.
Critics have taken aim at the skin-baring—but by no means obscene—outfit as sexist. Even Gillan’s character, the kickass Ruby Roundhouse (who’s actually an insecure teenage girl on the inside), is at first uncomfortable in the leather crop top and tiny shorts. "Why am I wearing this outfit in a jungle? Was is this?” she asks.
Her sexuality needs to be protected, and his doesn’t—both on and off-screen.
Jumanji, the classic 1981 children’s book that was adapted into a ‘90s family film, is cleverly reinvented in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. In the recent movie, which just topped the box office for the second straight weekend, four teenagers get sucked into an old video game, and when they arrive on the other side in an actual jungle, they’re in different bodies. For example, scrawny nerd Spencer is turned into the fearless, strong Dr. Smolder Gravestone (Johnson), and the hot, popular Bethany is transformed into a middle-aged, overweight man (Jack Black). Young Martha (Morgan Turner) finds herself as Ruby Roundhouse.
Even before seeing the film, the internet wasn’t pleased. “Presumably the reason that she is dressed in tiny clothing is because that’s how female video game characters used to be dressed,” wrote The Hollywood Reporter. “Is that enough of a reason for a movie to dress the character this way?”
Immediately following the release of film images, Gillan tweeted, “Yes I’m wearing child-sized clothes and YES there is a reason! The pay off is worth it.” When promoting the film, the actress said she identified with those who criticized her wardrobe. “Everything that anyone’s been saying about the costume is exactly what the character is saying about the costume. To be honest, I can understand people’s reactions,” she told IndieWire.
Gillan and the Jumanji team, including Johnson, who served as co-executive producer, continued discussing the outfit. They argued to Vanity Fair that it turns an “absurd male fantasy” on its head, and “poke[s] fun at the ridiculous sexism of video games past.”
Some of the cast members’ remarks even felt a little dismissive of the badass Ruby—maybe real Ruby likes those clothes? But instead of defending her, the cast wrote her off as someone who’s not real. “Everybody is playing avatars. They are not, on a physical level, real human beings,” Gillan told IndieWire. Why? Because someone who’s a “real” badass wouldn’t dress that way?
The team also apparently wanted to use the outfit to make a statement about equality. “The point definitely got across, and I think that it’s a good thing that gender equality is at the forefront of people’s conversations,” Gillan told CinemaBlend.
From making light of a trope to calling out on-screen female representation, Gillan and the movie team deflected the negativity with an arsenal of defenses, and no matter how valid the arguments were, that’s the whole point: They shouldn’t have to use them.
Johnson’s revealing costume, which consists of a tight, buttoned-down top that shows his bare, bronzed chest and massive arms, was somehow never really a talking point. In the movie, the first shot of him is a close-up, slow look at his veiny forearms and biceps and chest bulging from his tight, sweaty shirt. His character continuously points out his unbelievable arms, and one of the girls gawks at him, saying, “Damn, that is a man right there.”
Did Johnson have to “defend” his outfit and muscles? No, quite the opposite. They’re admired. Praise of his body, like “Work Out Like The Rock,” hit the internet—a far contrast from what was written on Gillan, whose character was shamed for showing skin. And that’s where the cast and media missed the mark: No one responded to the criticism with the fact that Johnson wasn’t being discussed the same way. Sadly, art imitates life. Her sexuality needs to be protected, and his doesn’t—both on and off-screen.
But female heroines and their sexuality don’t need protection. They can dress however the hell they want to and still get the job done. Iconic action characters like Lara Croft (Tomb Raider), The Bride (Kill Bill), Black Widow (The Avengers), Selene (Underworld), Alice (Resident Evil), Princess Leia (Star Wars) and Wonder Woman prove just that. Their outfits all range in how revealing they are, but the common thread is that the women kick total ass.
Give past games and films a little bit of credit: These outfits do not define the women wearing them or their capabilities. Indiana Jones, Terminator, John McClane (Die Hard) and Wolverine never got scrutinized for taking on the action with tight (or no) shirts, oiled-up muscles and big, bare chests. Questioning why Ruby Roundhouse showed her body in the first place just feeds into this unfair double standard.
Ruby’s revelation arrives in the end when she ultimately embraces all of what she’s working with—both mind and body. She finally lives up to her wickedly fatal nickname, “Killer of Men.” Ruby singlehandedly destroys groups of buff, armed soldiers with her combat skills, and symbolically rips off the sweater she had tied around her waist to cover her body throughout most of the film. It was a liberation, one that real-life Gillan felt, too. “Usually, I’m suppressing [my own] awkwardness and trying to be more sort of badass, so it was cool to not have to suppress anything,” she told Bustle.
Finally, without worrying about judgment (her own included), Ruby murmurs the words that describe every woman who embraces the mind and body she’s given:
"I am a badass.”
The “Killer of Men” doesn’t have excuses, she doesn’t defend or question her outfit or body. And that’s the power all women are capable of having: letting their actions do the talking. Whether in booty shorts or not.