The quirky, futuristic alien sci-fi film The Fifth Element has turned 20. The movie was an instant success in the box office, but the passing years haven’t treated it as kindly; most recently, it’s been skewered for using a sexist trope that the Pop Culture Detective Agency labeled in an April 27 video as “Born Sexy Yesterday.”
The trope describes female characters who are completely ignorant of social conventions — maybe they’re newly-created robots or aliens who’ve just come to Earth, or they grew up in the wilderness, you name it — and so they appear dumb and naive (like they were “born yesterday”). Although they’re intellectually and socially immature, they’re also depicted as sexually mature.
“She has the mind of a naive, yet highly skilled child,” explains the narrator of Pop Culture Detective’s video, “but in the body of a mature, sexualized woman. She also serves as our hero’s love interest.”
Enter Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), the female humanoid from The Fifth Element, whom the narrator calls “probably the most quintessential example.”
Leeloo is the human vessel of a Supreme Being sent to Earth as a weapon to defeat the “Great Evil”. Male characters revel in the “perfect[ion]” of her body, and one scientist even says he’d “like to take a few pictures” of her limp, naked form after she’s first constructed. Women who are “born sexy yesterday” are unaware of their sex appeal; Leeloo unwittingly undresses in front of others.
Leeloo doesn’t speak English. She communicates through infantile gibberish (“Boom! Bada boom! Big! Bada big boom!”) or abrupt, tantrum-like displays of fleeting emotion. Korben (Bruce Willis) treats this, and other naive actions — like her inability to work a camera or independently dry herself off after she gets wet — with patronization. Though ostensibly a kick-ass protagonist capable of destroying almost anything, some feel that her ignorance of almost everything detracts from Leeloo’s agency.
That’s another key aspect of the trope. The female’s ignorance allows the male to step into a powerful, teacher role. He shows her how to act in a socially acceptable manner and also becomes her guide in romance and sex. He doesn’t have any qualifications to take on this role, besides being the first human to whom the “born sexy yesterday” woman has gotten close. That’s enough to make her idolize and fall in love with him.
As the video explains, this male character’s instruction — which modern feminism sometimes refers to as “mansplaining” — is “rooted in a deep-seated male insecurity around sex and sexuality.” It describes:
“The crux of the trope is a fixation on male superiority. A fixation with holding power over an innocent girl. But in order to make that socially acceptable, science fiction is employed to put the mind of that girl into a sexualized, adult woman’s body. It’s a fantasy based on fear — fear of women who are mens’ equal in sexual experience and romantic history, and fear of losing the intellectual upper hand to women.”
The Fifth Element is far from the only science fiction film to exhibit this trope, but it may be one of the most egregious examples. 20 years later, the movie remains a cult favorite, but it could have trouble acquiring a new generation of fans.
Watch Pop Culture Detective’s video below.