In 1994’s True Lies, Arnold Swarzenegger is Harry Tasker, a James-Bond-like spy for the United States who plays the part of a boring computer salesman for his wife, Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis), and daughter, Dana, since both have remained clueless to his true profession over the years. From the beginning of the movie, Cameron establishes the fissure in the Tasker family and the distance between Harry and his wife and daughter. When switching from a fake identity to his real one, Harry forgets his wedding ring and Dana promptly throws away a present from her father calling it “lame.” The film portrays two different worlds: Harry’s fantasy spy world and the real world with his wife and daughter. In his fantasy world, Harry glides easily through large, crowded ballrooms of strangers, making conversation in multiple languages, and accomplishes incredible things, escaping pursuers in an explosion-filled shootout. But in his home environment, Harry looks cramped, “the darkly-lit rooms seem too small for his physique” (Tasker 75), and he struggles to get a part of the bedcovers from his wife. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that to repair the family Dana and Helen must cross over from the real world into Harry’s fantasyland.
The process of this crossover begins when Harry discovers that Helen might have a lover. He decides to use his resources to tap her phone at work and to put a tracking device and bug in her purse in order to track down the man she has been seeing. Harry soon learns that Helen’s lover is a slimy used car salesman named Simon who tells women that he is a spy in order to seduce them. When Simon contacts Helen for a late night rendezvous Harry uses his oblivious co-workers to raid Simon’s trailer and kidnap him and Helen. This kidnapping leads to a pivotal scene in the movie in which Harry, separated from his wife by a one-way mirror and technology that distorts his voice, interrogates Helen about her affair, which actually never progressed into anything intimate, with Simon. This scene “articulates and underscores [Harry’s] failure to communicate and [Helen’s] frustration and isolation” (Tasker 76) as Helen expresses the desires, the need to “feel alive” and “do something outrageous,” that lead her to associate with Simon. The scene also acts as the culmination of Helen’s independent attempt to cross over into Harry’s world. Trying to break free of the domestic sphere, symbolized by her interrogation room, Helen pursues her relationship with Simon, represented by her pounding on the one-way mirror with a stool, but only manages to crack the glass, not break it.
To become free of the real world, Harry must break the glass for her, giving her a fake assignment as a spy, which involves her pretending to be a prostitute. She receives instructions to “dress sexy” for her assignment and arrives for her mission wearing a dress with long sleeves and a high-necked ruffled collar. When confronted with her identity as a prostitute, Helen decides that she must change her appearance. As Sandra Lee Bartky describes, a “generalized male witness [has come] to structure a woman’s consciousness of herself as a bodily being” (38) and in this scene Helen submits to her internalized male gaze. She rips the sleeves, collar, and all excess fabric from her clothing, leaving her in a short, tight, black dress with Jamie Lee Curtis’ ample bosom nearly spilling out of the top. After she sheds her dowdy, though not tomboyish, attire, Helen is placed under Harry’s scrutinizing gaze as he poses as the john she is supposed to contact. Harry instructs Helen to remove her dress for him and then perform an alluring dance in only her underwear. This striptease acts as an agent by which Harry regains control over his wife. By pursuing her relationship with Simon, Helen challenged Harry’s domination over her body and through this ruse of Helen’s kidnapping and assignment Harry regains his power. By subjecting her to his “spectator’s look,” Harry “emerges as the representative of power” (Mulvey 20) over Helen as “woman as spectacle” (20). During the striptease, the main plot of the film involving Arabic terrorists intersects with this subplot as they kidnap both Harry and Helen—only after Helen strips to reveal her body as a sexualized object can she join her husband in the fantasyland of his career. The remaining minutes of the film show Harry fighting against the terrorists with Helen ineptly and accidentally helping him. At the climax of the film, Harry rescues his daughter, who had been kidnapped by the terrorists and, therefore, dragged into the spy world like Helen.
The conclusion of the film shows the Taskers, now a happy, well-adjusted family, laughing at the dinner table before Helen and Harry receive a call about a joint assignment. Helen has shed her dowdy clothing for tighter-fitting, sexier attire and Dana has discarded her androgynous flannel shirts and layered clothes for a sundress. Helen and Harry have become partners in the fantasy world, but the final scene expresses their inequality. When they encounter Simon on assignment, Helen and Harry torment him by feigning anger and pressing a “gun” to his throat. Once Simon humiliates himself and runs away, Helen uncaps her “gun” to reveal that it is a tube of lipstick. This moment reveals that the only power Helen has gained by crossing into this world is the power of her sexuality. The film ends with Harry and Helen tangoing, a dance that involves the man moving very little but the woman drapes herself over her partner’s arm and allows him to drag her across the dance floor.
Bartky, Sandra Lee. “Foucault, Femininity and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power.” The Politics of Women’s Bodies: Sexuality, Appearance and Behavior. Ed. Rose Weitz. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. pp 25-45.
Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.
Tasker, Yvonne. Working Girls: Gender and Sexuality in Popular Cinema. New York: Routledge, 1998.
True Lies. Dir. James Cameron. Perf. Arnold Swarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Arnold, Bill Paxton, Art Malik, Tia Carrere. 20th Century Fox, 1994.