Is “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” Sexist?

When Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) appeared on the big screens, everyone thought it was going to be a hit. Financially speaking, they were right. The action-adventure romp earned $333.1 million internationally. Critically speaking, well, that was a different story. While the film has slowly earned appreciation over the years, the initial reaction proved less than kind.

Critics were disturbed by the film’s darkness. After all, this is the movie in which a satanic priest rips a still-beating heart out of a guy’s chest. Some cinephiles were turned off by the film’s racist treatment of Indians. However, plenty of people were also upset by the film’s, shall we say, “misanthropic” opinion of women, personified by Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), the blonde entertainer who does more shrieking than singing.

So what did the critics of 1984 think about Ms. Scott? Well, David Sterritt of The Christian Science Monitor wrote, “Not since Fay Wray met King Kong has a heroine done so much screaming.” The always acerbic Gene Siskel once quipped, “When we see Willie dangling over molten lava, frankly, we wish she would fall in.” Writing for Texas Monthly, James Wolcott explained that “you really don’t have to be a feminist to be offended by a throwback character whose only function is to serve as a hysterical, nail-digging nuisance, a harpy in white satin.”

As you might expect, Capshaw was incredibly disappointed with the reviews and told Empire, “The thing that surprised me the most was that the critics, women critics in particular, were very critical of Willie Scott, as if we were making a political statement, and I was doing nothing for my sisters.” Those are some harsh sentiments, but unfortunately, they’re true.

When Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and screenwriters Willard Hyuck and Gloria Katz created Willie Scott, they were going for a certain type of female character: the ditzy blonde of 1930s screwball comedies. They wanted a goofy gall who’d give Indy (the straight-edged, no-nonsense he-man) a hard time. However, somewhere along the way, the filmmakers screwed up the secret formula, and instead of creating a modern-day Carole Lombard, they came up with a sure-fire recipe for tinnitus.

Willie Scott is a totally pathetic bimbo. Every time she runs across a slimy creature, a sticky situation or, heaven help us, when she breaks a nail, Willie launches into a fit of hysterics loud enough to shatter a rock star’s eardrums. As screenwriter William Hyuck told Grantland writer Bryan Curtis, “We [Hyuck and Katz] took a lot of heat for her screaming all the time, but they [Lucas and Spielberg] wanted her to scream constantly.” Even Capshaw complained, “There were…one hundred more screams than we needed.”

The film also paints her as a complete idiot who mistakes “mommies” for “mummies,” is completely incapable of riding an elephant, and thinks villagers out in the deep jungle might have a phone so she can call her agent. She’s an ineffective character who never accomplishes anything—other than getting in Indy’s way. And that’s really the biggest disappointment with Willie’s character. If Willie was introduced as a strong, self-assured gold digger à la Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941), or even if she started out as a dumb whiner but slowly evolved into a better person, her character might’ve actually worked. But that’s really the biggest disappointment with her character. She’s irritating in the beginning, and by the end of the movie, she’s just as annoying. Or as film fan Devin Faraci recently put it, Willie is “toxically misogynistic.”

It’s all incredibly odd when you realize Kate Capshaw was inspired by Katharine Hepburn’s character in The African Queen (1951), a film where the heroine is actually in charge of her own destiny. While Humphrey Bogart’s drunken Charlie Alnut is reluctant to fight the Nazis, missionary Rose Sayer is eager to trek off into the jungle, exhilarated after riding down the rapids, and even devises a plan to sink a Nazi battleship. She’s confident, courageous, and most importantly, she’s making things happen…unlike Willie who would’ve fainted when Bogart crawled out of the river covered in leeches.

Things are stranger still when you look at the other female leads in the Indiana Jones series. In Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) is an incredibly strong-willed woman who’s completely Indy’s equal. She’s bold, gutsy, and takes on a thug with a frying pan. She out-drinks a burly bar patron, tries to outwit Belloq (Paul Freeman), and even socks Indiana on the jaw.

Fast forward to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), and sure, Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody) is a villainous Nazi, but she’s intelligent, cunning, and at least we’re given a moment where we can sympathize with her motives. Even Cate Blanchett’s Irina Spalko (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, 2008) is a high-ranking Soviet agent who’s won numerous decorations, can handle herself in a sword fight, and certainly isn’t screaming while exploring the jungles of South America.

In fairness, it’s hard to blame Kate Capshaw. She even admitted her character “was not much more than a dumb screaming blonde.” (In real life, Capshaw is the polar opposite of Willie Scott. Before filming Temple of Doom, she was a single mom and teacher with a master’s degree in special education. She didn’t even know how to scream the right way until Spielberg taught her on set.) The fault is more in the screenplay…and you can also blame the two men behind the movie.

It’s not much of a stretch to assume Spielberg and Lucas were possibly feeling a little prejudiced towards women at the time. Both men had recently gone through bad breakups and were so depressed they wanted to make Temple of Doom as dark as possible. The whole movie basically mirrored a really bad time in their lives. When Grantland writer Bryan Curtis asked Lucas if the infamous sacrifice scene symbolized his own heart getting ripped out by his ex-wife, George actually responded, “Yeah.” So perhaps Spielberg and Lucas also felt like getting a little revenge on their exes by torturing poor Willie Scott.

Watching the film, you get the sense Temple of Doom can’t stand its female lead. As film critic Amy Nicholson pointed out, “I cannot imagine a film that hates a female character more.” Joseph McBride, author of Steven Spielberg: A Biography, seems to agree, pointing out that Spielberg “gleefully…tortures, mocks, and humiliates her character….”

Willie is subjected to all sorts of endless horrors, from eyeball soup to giant bugs, and while the males never so much as flinch, Willie is on the verge of a full-fledged panic attack. In one key scene, Indy and Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan) play cards while Scott frantically runs through the jungle, harassed by seemingly every animal in India. In fact, Capshaw even reported that Lucas and Spielberg always referred to Willie as simply “the girl,” not exactly a sign of respect.

Of course, that’s not to say Lucas and Spielberg are sexists. If you look at their collective bodies of work, you can find quite a few strong female characters like Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) in The Color Purple (1985) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) in Star Wars (1977). It seems like Lucas and Spielberg experienced a temporary lapse of judgment. They were carried away with their love of serials, and they were both emotionally raw in 1984. Honestly, everybody messes up, even great directors, and since the film’s release, both men have tried to distance themselves from the film, expressing regret for the movie’s mistakes. Really, it seems like Spielberg and Lucas were just angry and needed to let off a little bit of steam. Willie Scott just happened to be the perfect target.