Please Don't Let Flight Win Any Awards, Unless It's One For “Most Sexism”

The plane in Flight flies upside down.

“You put me in a broken plane!” wails Denzel Washington’s character, secret alcoholic pilot Whip Whitaker, in Flight, after crash-landing a malfunctioning 737. Replace “plane” with “movie,” and he’s exactly right.

The Oscars are handed out next week and Flight was inexplicably nominated for best writing after mild critical acclaimFlight, directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by John Gatins, is not a good movie. But let’s be real: I saw Flight because I wanted to see a commercial airliner fly upside-down. I didn’t expect it to be good. I also didn’t expect it to be rife with misogyny, so when it opened with gratuitous female full-frontal nudity, I was a little confused. I had been promised harrowing turbulence! When, I wondered, would the real story begin?

Spoiler alert: A good story never begins. But the objectification soldiers on, bolstered by stale sexist tropes that Gatins seems to have all but copied and pasted from old standbys of the romance and horror genres.

In case you were wondering, the naked person in the film’s opening, with whom Whip snorts coke and has sex but does not seem to have what you might call a Meaningful Emotional Connection, or even a real conversation, turns out to be Katerina (Nadine Velazquez), a flight attendant on his crew, which I can only assume is an uninspired attempt to show he’s edgy. I mean really. A maverick pilot? WHERE HAVE I SEEN THAT BEFORE?!

Moving right along, the next time we see Katerina, she’s abruptly killed off during the plane inversion, thus ushering Flight into the grand horror film tradition of girl-with-sex-drive-gets-killed-first. Thanks for that.

The sexist circlejerk bumbles ahead, giving us Nicole (Kelly Reilly), Whip’s new manic pixie ladyfriend, a fellow addict and masseuse (seriously) whose purpose is apparently to cry very prettily, thus challenging Our Hero to get out of his funk and Become a Better Man. Only a cryfest this sentimental and shallow could make me long for a manic pixie tale in the style of Zooey Deschanel. At least when I watch those movies, I can hate-chuckle at “quirky” jokes and admire some Peter Pan collars and sweet knitting skills. Watching Flight, I mainly just wanted Nicole to find a really good therapist.

The third archetype of Flight’s lady-apocalypse is a motherly flight attendant named Margaret (Tamara Tunie), because I can only assume that after two tries at writing women, Gatins was like, what else do they DO? Oh yeah, MOMS.

I don’t mean to criticize the women who ended up in these diminished roles—bad writing incapacitates even the best actors, Vazquez, Reilly, and Tunie do their best, and certainly the problem is systemic. It goes beyond just one film. But what I find potentially damaging about Flight is that it has received more attention for (subpar) writing and casting Denzel Washington as a total douche (so daring!) than for its negative depiction of women. Its misogyny has gone largely unquestioned.

In Flight’s final moments, at an investigation into the crash, Whip faces a line of questioning—empty vodka bottles in the hull!— that could expose his substance abuse, effectively destroying him. The only way to save his reputation is to throw the deceased Katerina under the bus.

 You kind of have to hand it to Gatins for finally giving character development a half-assed try when he has Whip tell the truth, contradicting every choice Whip has made thus far, ostensibly to defend Katerina’s honor. But there’s also something sinister in it. Gatins and Zemeckis mean-spiritedly expect viewers to believe in the transformative power of an essentially invisible relationship involving a character who appears on screen for maybe all of ten minutes, and whose main character development involves her being naked. It’s Lifetime Original nonsense, and because it’s unearned, the sentiment just doesn’t work.

It’s not just feminists who should roll their eyes at Zemeckis and Gatins’s film—all audiences should notice that the film is hurt by underdeveloping these female characters. By neglecting to write complex women, they’ve taken an ending that could have been emotionally affecting (albeit cheesy as hell) and turned it into a rushed, tacked-on bit of hokum that comes off as patently false. Realistic female characters aren’t just a nice idea. Flight proves, in a bad way, that believable characters are essential for all good movies.

by Megan Burbank
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Megan Burbank lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is arts editor at the Portland Mercury.

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23 Comments Have Been Posted

Disagree mostly

I am really glad you wrote about Flight. I did not know what to expect walking in and really just saw it because of the strong user reviews and I had seen all the other holiday blockbusters. While for the most part I have to differ in that I support the movie and find it acknowledges addiction, family and pain in a different way than most movies, I do agree some of the female representations are weak . However, this movie struck me as being about the experience of addiction, which can truly be incredibly self-absorbed.

I was very moved by the characters of Whip and Nicole. Addiction is an ugly, self-destructive pattern that some people have not experienced or had a close person experience (my significant other is one of those people and we talked about the movie at length). I actually cried because I saw the pain and suffering that Whip put the people around him through (and especially himself) and how he pushed people away with the ugly tirades. My father died last year of alcoholism and I saw myself in his family, who loved him but also hated the darkness he clung to.

As for Nicole-- yes I hated her helplessness, but she was operating out of pain and grief. Her break from Whip was a strong move. I saw a lot of truth in their relationship - two damaged people that would just encourage more self-destructive behavior, she saw this and got away --both in spite of and because of her love for Whip.

Where I agree with you is that Katerina was one-dimensional-- (we can only read her as sympathetic because Whip is tormented by her death)....It seems the director attempts to show that she was someone Whip had feelings for, he was so out of touch he couldn't even address those blocked out feelings until her death. This observation of her through his lens IS self-absorbed and sexist (but this is very true of the drug/alcohol addicts I have known/been related to/watched die). Aside from that I really did connect to this story of addiction and self-loathing.


Hi, booksniffer! Thanks for giving us your take on the film. I just wanted to chime in and say that I actually agree with you on Flight's depiction of addiction. It's what I found most realistic about it, and most emotionally resonant. That scene where Whip stares at the vodka bottle in the hotel room? That was riveting to me. I just wish that the rest of the film -- including, yes, the depiction of female characters -- could've matched its strength.

But wait a minute...

What is not believable about a young coke-snorting impressionable female sleeping with an older pilot? What is not believable about a manic pixie alcoholic? I've met a few. I think the choices in this film reflect what could be a real situation. It's a film about a drunk a-hole pilot, not a bunch of sassy female Harvard intellects. Just because the director didn't want to cast his film with the actresses from the sitcom Living Single, doesn't mean his film was garbage. The pilot's union is a boy's club. That's real. Addicts are a-holes a lot of the time. That's real. Some of those addict a-holes are dismissive of the women in their lives and fail to perceive their value other than being baby-makers and sex toys. That's real. The crash and heroism? Not so real, but sickening and exhilarating to watch. If you want to be angry at something, be angry at the woman hating a-holes of the world, not a director's reflection of that world. Is it bad to reflect what exists? Should we only make movies which present an ideal of fairness and justice and rich female characters? The females in this film made me feel icky and I was sad for them. But not because I found them or the way they were treated to be unbelievable. I think the director was dismissive of real female character development because the world he was depicting (aging drunk pilot world) is probably really dismissive of females.


Some a-holes see women as one of two stereotypes. That's real. Women aren't simply one of two stereotypes. That's also real. So if you want to defend the movie by claiming it's being realistic, you should probably not focus on how the women are depicted...

Flight critique

<i>the naked person in the film’s opening, with whom Whip snorts coke and has sex but does not seem to have what you might call a Meaningful Emotional Connection, or even a real conversation, turns out to be Katerina (Nadine Velazquez), a flight attendant on his crew, which I can only assume is an uninspired attempt to show he’s edgy. I mean really. A maverick pilot?</i>

You thought it was an uninspired attempt to show that he's edgy? Seriously? I thought it was showing what a fuck-up he is, not only that he's drinking and doing drugs before flying, but that he was the worst kind of pilot, and it frankly horrified me. I didn't think it was showing that he was a "maverick pilot" at all, but an irresponsible, terrifying pilot that I would never want to get into a plane with, ever. There were noticeable gasps in the audience that a pilot would ever have the audacity to do that before a flight. It is a traveler's worst nightmare.

As for the full-frontal female nudity, it didn't bother me, because it showed realism after a one-night stand. No showing them in bed with her bra on (who has sex with their bra on?), or the infamous "L-shaped comforter".

<i>Moving right along, the next time we see Katerina, she’s abruptly killed off during the plane inversion, thus ushering Flight into the grand horror film tradition of girl-with-sex-drive-gets-killed-first. Thanks for that.</i>

Seriously? Now you know that's being ridiculous. I seem to remember her dying because she unbuckled her seatbelt to save a child. I guess you conveniently forgot that point. She died a hero.

<i>whose main character development involves her being naked.</i>

So you *did* forget that she saved a child. She unbuckled her seatbelt to strap the kid in. And then didn't get back to her seat in time and died.

Nadine's role was not important, just a sex symbol and offensive

Of course her saving a child will be forgotten
Because the gratuitous unneeded tits
And ass scene is fresh in everyone's
Head. If that scene would have been less
Graphic, then she would have been
Remembered a hero but she was instead
Remembered as a less than character
In a movie/ typical hot chick that takes her
Clothes off so the audience can oggle
Her lady parts. Her choice, her consequences.
You choose the reaction of the audience with
The role you play. Tits and pussy are not
Used to convey a character, their acting is.
She didn't act, he was just the hot piece of
Ass that is trying to break Into show biz by
Disrobing (shocking) no talent, just another
Whore that'll take her clothes off and make it
More difficult for women to be taken seriously.
So before you go defending the topless broad
That made the female audience squirm, remember
There is a reason why she is remembered and
What she is remembered for. If the director wanted
Her to die a hero, maybe the focus should have been
More on that rather than the opening shot be on her
Tit and the majority of her screen time being the main
Use of seeing a nude lady and sexism.

Thank you for watching crappy

Thank you for watching crappy movies so that the rest of us don't have to!

Some questions to ask - did the only show the woman's full frontal nudity or the guy's too? If the former only, that's sexism plain and simple. If you want to be "realistic" and show people as they are you have to show both people naked, sorry.

If the world you are portraying only contains weak female characters who are plot devices to the main (male) hero, that is unrealistic too because there are lots of cool women populating the planet.

You can portray asshole males without showing weak underdeveloped female characters. (Kill Bill? Deathproof? Inglourious Bastards? Heck, Mad Men?


He was still in bed, she was getting ready to leave. It was in a nonsexual manner and was mostly blurry.

<i>If you want to be "realistic" and show people as they are you have to show both people naked, sorry.</i>

And then the MPAA promptly slaps your R-rated movie with an NC-17 rating, just. like. that. The ONLY kind of full-frontal male nudity that is acceptable is if it's very, very brief, or used in a comedic manner, like in Forgetting Sarah Marshall or Hall Pass. Remember that movie Shame? Yeah, it was NC-17 and had full-frontal nudity on both ends, but it was mostly because of Michael Fassbender walking around his apartment nude that was the reason for the rating. That's where the sexism is. Plus, maybe Denzel Washington was unwilling to do full frontal. A lot of actors and actresses won't.

Re: nudity

Hey Red, good question! The opening scene features female nudity only, which is what I found particularly problematic about it, along with the fact that this is one of the only glimpses we get of the character, and it is super male-gaze-y, if you will. Perhaps I should've clarified that in the post! As for the characterization, what others are pointing out is true (hat tip to all!) -- she does buckle in a kid, which is indeed a heroic action, although I think it could've been treated as more of a major plot point, and I don't think it negates the gratuitous opening. They definitely could have done a lot more with her character, but she remains a cipher. Unfortunate!

See above comment

Like I said above, they can't show full-frontal male nudity in that vein without getting slapped with an NC-17 rating. So don't accuse the filmmaker of sexism on that end.

"although I think it could've been treated as more of a major plot point"

How? It just seems that you're asking for more on her simply because she slept with Denzel's character. I'm thinking "Does it really matter who she really was?" I really think you're focusing on the wrong character here, and probably only because of how she was shown in the beginning. Why not ask for more characterization on Nicole instead of a very minor character who was briefly seen?

Dude seriously?

Quit defending sexism bitch. Are you a fuckin dude?
Ya she slept with him, so what. He was in bed under the covers,
Why couldn't she have been too? They could have portrayed the same
Message and done it more tastefully. They didn't need to go
That far and it was uncomfortable for a lot of the female viewers
To watch. Why is it people defend this scene, especially females?
It was gratuitous and could have been done A LoT more tastefully.
It was done very gratuitously and excessively.
If someone can't understand that, it's disturbing to me how desensitized
A person can be.

I was ticked off by the

I was ticked off by the female nudity in the opening scene as well. She was mostly faceless/headless in the frame, so it was about 3 minutes of an anonymous female body walking back and forth in front of the screen. I honestly didn't even recognize her as the flight attendant in the next scene because I barely saw her face. I figured it out when he was in the hospital bed after the crash. It didn't sit well with me that the next shot of her on the plane started with her ass. I turned it off shortly thereafter so I can't attest to the rest of it, but I think it's safe to say the movie was unsurprisingly sexist and pretty weak.


Admittedly I haven't seen the movie, but from what you describe I'm not sure Flight would qualify for "most sexism." It certainly sounds problematic, but sadly there's a lot of competition for that title, and it doesn't seem like anything particularly special or extreme. Frankly I'm not even convinced it's misogynist, let alone sinister, as opposed to plain old sexist and badly-written. And since when does snorting coke and having NSA sex translate to maverick? I think most people, if they know anything at all about the film going in, would be more likely to read it as addictive behavior than admirable rebelliousness. But then, before reading this I would've thought most people going in would be looking for an addiction/redemption narrative, not cool special effects, so maybe I'm wrong about that too. I guess I'm just saying it seems like you really, really hated this film and I'm not quite sure why such strong feelings.

And sexual harassment too

But not just addictive behavior, but horrifying behavior. Not only because of possible sexual harassment in the workplace (we all know that hooking up with coworkers is a bad idea, but a pilot/flight attendant is a power issue as well), but also because he not only partied hard the night before a flight, but he was doing drugs and drinking *the morning of* a flight.

It didn't bother me at first to see that he had hooked up with a woman, but when it was found out that she was a flight attendant that he worked with, to me, it made him look like a scumbag for sleeping with someone who would be considered a subordinate.

I'm still extremely puzzled as to why the author thought viewers would see that behavior as him being a "maverick." Totally off the mark.

Couldn't agree with you more!

Couldn't agree with you more! This film received some harsh reviews because you strongly disliked it. I honestly can't figure out why? Katerina died a Hero, Nicole had the courage to leave and get better (requires strength) even Whip's ex-wife character was admirable to me. The fact that you went to see the film just to see the effects of the plane flying upside down already suggest that you were not a fan at ALL.

I hate how men are almost

I hate how men are almost always portrayed as bumbling twits in television commercials, while the "wise and tolerant motherly figure" simply offers a knowing smile as she saves the day with FIber One or Bounty Paper Towels or Windows 7 or Scrubbing Bubbles or a Volvo Sedan or Progressive Insurance or her Lee Jeans or T-Mobile or whatever the kids are into these days, but you don't see me writing whole flipping tediously long-winded articles about it, do you?

Aw, it must be so hard for

Aw, it must be so hard for you, being occasionally made fun of as an archetypal doofy boyfriend/father/etc. Those years of systematic oppression and tropism in the media must be real hard for you.

cart before the horse

I have a number of issues with this piece, many of which have been brought up in previous comments.
But the most alarming is that this reads like reverse engineering.
Let's be clear in the way this movie was marketed. The trailer and talk around the movie was not, this is going to be a great action film! Woo! Upside down planes. Nearly every preview claimed that this was Denzel's performance of a lifetime. It was clearly marketed as a character drama with a flashy hook. But acknowledging that fact sure would take the steam out of the author's opening.
Another commenter pointed out that Katerina wasn't simply killed off but was killed in the act of saving a child. But again, that fact would contradict this anti-feminist-horror-trope that the author is so desperate to graft onto the film.
This habit of willfully ignoring facts in order to push a THIS IS UBER SEXIST GUYS! reading of a film is problematic. The girl who cried misogyny is a very dangerous thing especially in publications like Bitch, that produce thoughtful and needed feminist content.

If Katerina had lived...

I haven't seen it, but I appreciate this review. I'm curious about why they decided to kill Katerina off. Seems like it would have been more effective, and less of a punish-the-slutty-woman narrative to just have Katerina decide to break off her relationship with the pilot. That way, when he thinks about throwing her under the bus later, it would also be an acknowledgement of the unfair power structure in their relationship -- which would be a nod to gender relations. Why kill her?

Why kill anyone?

Why even have anyone get killed? It's quite simple: Dramatic impact. He obviously had a "relationship" with her, he did care for her in a way, and she was young and pretty and it was a bigger impact that she was killed (same with the other flight attendant getting killed). No one wants young, attractive people to get killed, it's more dramatic.

BTW, why does everyone at Bitch seem to think that the first thought viewers had of Katarina was that she was a slut? I didn't think so, in fact, my negative reaction was towards Whip (as well as the audience I saw the movie with) for having an inappropriate relations with someone who would be considered his subordinate.

And if she had lived, he wouldn't have been able to throw her under the bus, it wouldn't have even been an option, and there already was a nod to the unfair power structure in their relationship: Him being a pilot, and she being a flight attendant, sleeping together, and him trying to throw her under the bus and almost being able to get away with it because she died and because he was a pilot.

Missed the point of the movie

Megan, I think that by focusing on the weak female roles, you missed the point of this movie. This movie was about addiction, and it's consequences. To tell that story, it had to focus squarely on the issue.

You're right that the female roles were weak; none of those roles would have earned any actress a best supporting actress role. They may also have bordered on stereotypical; but stereotypes are drawn from reality, they are not made up.

The female roles were weak because they had to be. They were for all intents and purposes casualties, as you correctly pointed out. You may also want to examine the other male roles - they weren't developed either. John Goodman's role was a stereotypical drug dealer - complete with the psychedelic coloured bag. In being weak the other characters, male and female, supported not the primary male role, but the story - one of addiction - and the character of the addict.

People keep talking about the

People keep talking about the female roles being weak and realistic,
They keep continuining these roles and women will continue
To be thought of as weak .... Sad.....

The plane in the movie wasn't

The plane in the movie wasn't a 737. Maybe you would not have missed that detail if you were a man and not overly pre-occupied with making yourself feel better by b*^%%ing about a work of fiction.

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