Even if you haven’t watched Taken (2008, dir. Pierre Morel), either of its two sequels or seen the meme it inspired, you are likely to be dimly aware of the film’s premise.
Taken is an action film that follows former CIA operative Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) as he travels to Paris to rescue his daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace) after she has been abducted and trafficked into the sex trade. Although the movie came out in 2008 and was an instant hit, I managed not to watch until November 2020. It wasn’t that I was avoiding the film, it’s that I didn’t actively want to see it because I had a sense that the film was going to be a little sexist. The plot line of a young girl being kidnapped and having to be saved by her father is innately sexist. But when it came on TV one night, I was willing to park my concerns in order to enjoy a good action flick. For many women who enjoy action movies – or any genre really – sometimes to genuinely enjoy a film, we have to put part of our experience into a box and metaphorically file it away. Personally, I do this every time I watch a James Bond movie. Taken, however, required too much of me.
Taken is not just a little sexist. It’s deeply misogynistic, racist and problematic. To avoid turning this article into a rant, I will be focussing on its misogyny. The racism of the film is not an easy thing to dismiss but it is commonplace in the action genre: the ‘bad guys’ are the ones with the foreign accents. Kim and her best friend Amanda travel to Paris together, alone. From the beginning, Kim is set up as the good girl to Amanda’s bad girl. It is made very clear to the audience that Kim is a virgin and Amanda isn’t. Amanda is the one whose desire to flirt with a cute French guy – who is working for sex traffickers – results in their endangerment.
Soon, they are abducted by Albanian mobsters. Kim happens to be on the phone with her father at the time so he hears the whole thing. Insert famous meme-inspiring speech here. Bryan travels to Paris to rescue his daughter. In Paris, Bryan moves from location to location, looking for his daughter. On the way, he disturbs multiple sex dens where women are clearly being held through coercion. At no point is he shown informing anyone of his discovery of these dens despite the fact that he has contacts in the French police. Bryan does rescue one prostitute but only because she has information that might lead him to his daughter. While looking for his daughter in one particular sex den, Bryan discovers Amanda’s dead body. Eventually he discovers that because his daughter is a virgin she has a higher value than other trafficked women (like the non-virgin Amanda) and so, Kim will be sold in a virgin auction for exclusive clientele. Accordingly, Bryan tracks down this auction, rescues his daughter minutes before she gets raped and kills a lot of bad guys in the process.
What shocked me was not the horrors that the female characters were experiencing. On film, female characters are far more likely to be murdered, raped, maimed or harmed than male characters. What shocked me was that these horrors were never acknowledged except in a way that reflected on Bryan. At the end of the film, after being abducted, drugged, trafficked, sold, abused and very nearly assaulted, Kim returns home to America with her father. To cheer her up after her harrowing time abroad, Bryan arranges a meeting for Kim with a well-known singer because Kim aspires to be a singer. Then, the film ends. Nothing is mentioned of Kim’s trauma or recovery. In that final scene, Kim smiles as if the whole movie didn’t just happen to her. Even if – a big if – Kim was fine, what about her dead best friend, Amanda?
The film implies that since Kim’s virginity isn’t taken, there is no lasting damage or sense of loss. More accurately, because Neeson’s character didn’t lose anything that mattered to him – such as his daughter’s life or virginity – then, nothing has been lost at all. This is encapsulated in a brief moment before the climax of the film. The bad guy running the virgin auction says to Bryan: ‘It was business. Nothing personal.’ Byran’s reply: ‘It was personal to me.’
If you watched Taken and enjoyed it, I’m not trying to shame you. A number of very smart, talented and experienced people spent a great deal of time and money to make the film enjoyable. Given the box office returns, I’d say that they succeeded. If you watch Taken after reading this article and still enjoy it the way you did before, that’s when I worry.
It’s easy to see why male audiences find this film so attractive. Doesn’t every little boy want to grow up to be the big man that saves the day? Plus, look cool and sound macho doing it? Taken provides an ego-centric experience for them. The film totally ignores the trauma and experiences of anyone but Liam Neeson. In effect, it is a 190 minute ego stroke complete with well-choreographed action set-pieces.
Whilst there’s nothing wrong with the feelings that Taken inspires – doesn’t everyone love that high they get after a good action movie, feeling like they could punch a hole in the fabric of the universe? – the message that goes along with those feelings is toxic. It’s toxic for the same reason that it’s pleasurable and, for the same people.
Taken sends the kind of message that, if repeated enough times, could be really dangerous. The film seems to be telling men that sex trafficking and the women abducted into it are only worth noting if they enforce a male experience, specifically a masculine experience of empowerment. In short: the disempowerment of others is only relevant to the white, cis male if it provides an opportunity for him to feel powerful. Although the film exposes its audience to disturbing, formative experiences – we see Kim abducted, multiple women in illegal sex dens and Kim being sold for her virginity to the highest bidder – it never invites us to empathise, or even sympathise, with these experiences. Instead, the camera and story assume that we align with Neeson, particularly the thrill and righteous anger that he feels because of how these experiences reflect on him.
From where I was sitting, Taken was one of the most disgusting films I’d watched in a long time. I couldn’t understand how something as sickening as someone’s daughter being abducted into the sex trade could be made into a fun action caper. What disgusted me most was how hard its male audience have fallen for this movie. When I raise objections to Taken, I am often dismissed with a ‘it’s just a good action movie’. During and after watching Taken, I wished that I’d never started watching it. Then, I wished that the film had never existed. Then, I wondered: how does a movie this problematic get made?
Taken is an example of why we need more diversity in the film industry. I am convinced that the film would never have been made today because of our heightened awareness of the diversity of movie-goers and the importance of representation and inclusion. Diversity in the industry would mean that we continue to see great action movies and, hopefully, they get made by people with a wider perspective. People who understand that – if they make their movie right – their audience won’t just be white and male. People who understand that the best kind of films are those that everyone can identify with, to some extent, and that don’t privilege one experience whilst sending damaging messages about others. Diversity might just be the antidote to the toxicity of films like Taken.
Written for The Film Dispatch by Niamh Carey-Furness.