Before we knew better: Flashdance is what happens when men try to write a strong female character

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In this mini-series, we return to movies and TV we’ve loved to see how they depict gender. Does it hold up in 2019? Warning: contains spoilers.

When was this film released? 1983

How does it hold up? Poorly

Thirty six years after its release, Flashdance is considered an 80s classic. The leg warmers, the perfect synth soundtrack, the iconic scene in which an empowered woman seduces a man by taking off her bra from under her sweatshirt—could anything be more 80s?

For people who haven’t seen the film or who only saw it a long time ago, the faint impression of Flashdance is that it’s a film that enshrines powerful women who are not afraid to embrace their sexuality.

But in reality, the film doesn’t come anywhere close to that. Instead, it shows how flat and empty a strong female character can be when she’s written by men who can’t fathom what her inner life would be like.

You would be forgiven if you forgot the movie’s actual plot. Here’s a quick refresher: Alex Owens is an 18-year-old living in Pittsburgh. By day she’s a welder, by night an exotic dancer. She starts dating the owner of the welding company—she feels like she’s crossing some kind of line, but she does it anyway. She loves ballet and wants to audition for a real dance school, but she’s too insecure. Said boyfriend pulls some strings and sets up an audition for her. She’s offended that she didn’t get one on her own merit, but she forgives him and auditions anyway. If you’re hoping to find out if she gets into dance school, you’ll be disappointed—the film ends with her running to see the boyfriend after her audition.

What we don’t see: Her feelings and motivations. She seems capable of only rage and horniness.

Now, there are things about this film that are enjoyable. The soundtrack holds up spectacularly (Flashdance was nominated for several Oscars that year, including for best film editing and best cinematography, but it only won one award: for best original song). And it’s still truly a pleasure to watch Beals’ dancing.

And Alex isn’t without her admirable qualities. She doesn’t suffer fools and has no problem telling men exactly what she thinks of them (like responding to a guy hitting on her by citing the size of the smallest penis ever documented) or fighting back against men who she thinks have wronged her. And her moves are sexy, though it’s telling that what she’s best remembered for is a simple, meaningless, seductive gesture.

I remembered these seductive qualities from when I first saw this movie in my mid teens. I recall thinking they were bold and enviable expressions of sexuality that I couldn’t fathom ever doing myself. So I was excited to watch the movie again to see how they look to me now that I’m 30.

But the film fails because its heroine is, ultimately, so empty. We don’t know why she does anything, what compels her to weld or to dance, who she wants to be. She is the heart of the film’s loose plot, but she’s just a shell of physicality and action. There are ample opportunities for women to talk—backstage at the club, when Alex and her sister Jeannie go ice skating, when Alex visits her elderly mentor, Hanna—but they mostly talk about men, or don’t talk at all. The film only barely passes the Bechdel test.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised; Alex was never a great character. When the film was first released, critic Roger Ebert wrote: “This poor kid is so busy performing the pieces of business supplied to her by the manic screenwriters that she never gets a chance to develop a character.”

So why do we remember it differently? It may be because Alex was one of the first examples of strong, sexy female characters that began to pop up around the time when Flashdance came out. That might have distinguished her then, but it doesn’t stand up over time.

In the late 70s, many movies offered women roles as sex objects in need of saving—Carrie Fisher in Star Wars, Olivia Newton-John in Grease—or mothers/wives, like Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice, for which she won an Oscar in 1983. Starting in the early 80s, though, there was a proliferation of a new kind of female character, one who is feminine yet powerful. Think Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien. Most of these characters were limited to action movies, however. Flashdance’s Alex was a new brand of 80s girl, one who lived in the space of a rom-com but was strong and fiercely independent while still embracing her sexuality on her own terms.

To some less woke than Roger Ebert, Alex might have looked like this new strong female type, especially since other leading ladies at the time were even more flat, conventional, and oriented around men. But rewatching the movie in 2019, I find that Alex has more in common with the sex kittens and sexless moms because she is not a person who exists for herself. She’s a male fantasy embodied, there to be ogled while she works out, to stand up for herself and be hard-to-get only in a way that makes her sexier.

This is, no doubt, because of how Alex is written. Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas co-wrote Flashdance, along with several other films depicting sexy, ambitious women, such as Basic Instinct and Showgirls. Eszterhas notoriously excels at writing strong, sinister women. He just has no idea what makes them tick.

It’s hard to think that this would have happened if Flashdance were written by a woman. It’s not hard to picture what the film would be like if it got a 2019 revamp, a la Ghostbusters and Ocean’s 11—we’d get many more montages and complex storylines that give Alex depth of character and inner life, as well as for the women around her. And many fewer shots of her bikini line.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here