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Sydney Sweeney boobs
Sydney Sweeney in the campaign for her collection with Frankies Bikinis

On Immaculate, bodily autonomy and Sydney Sweeney’s boobs

Sweeney’s nun horror film about bodily autonomy is the ultimate ‘fuck you’ to everyone being so weird about her body

It seems impossible for people to be normal about Sydney Sweeney. The undeniably beautiful 26-year-old actor, who emerged from HBO’s Euphoria to films of already intriguing variety, has captured the lusty imaginations of social media with her bombshell appearance in as much as her career choices. It may sound like a tough appraisal, but it is difficult to measure her success simply by her acting merit: she is also a celebrity, the subject of memes and tweets by the metric tonne, and it is her looks – particularly, her breasts – that have made her both popular and grist for the discourse mill. 

Over the last month or so, people have become increasingly weird about her online. Some claimed her existence (and her breasts) were proof positive that the ‘war against woke’ was over, and the old guard had won. Others said her popularity suggested that no one really cared about fatphobia or body positivity anymore. “For anyone under the age of 25, they’ve likely never seen it in their lifetime – as the giggling blonde with an amazing rack has been stamped out of existence,” wrote one journalist. Her voluptuousness begged you to notice it, doing away with the pesky idea of objectification as a negative. Some even talked about her appearance as a post-Trumpian throwback to white Eurocentric beauty standards. 

Sweeney has acknowledged this obsession with her boobs. While hosting Saturday Night Live, they made up many of the punchlines (a Hooters skit, for instance), showing that she was not only aware of the conversation about her body, but happy to be in on the joke about it. And yet, some people were annoyed that she dared be self-aware about any of it. Women have traditionally been socialised to value and work to improve their appearances and simultaneously pilloried for caring about them. Sweeney’s jokiness about her own body allows her, at least, to own the narrative somewhat. And yet self-awareness does not necessarily place her in the driver’s seat, as she has said herself in interviews. Regardless of the benefits of beauty and celebrity, to be the focus of this kind of attention must surely be an uncomfortable feeling, to say the least.

Meanwhile, amid all this hysteria, Sweeney has been carving out a promising path as an actor. Away from the increasingly histrionic role of Cassie in Euphoria, she has played a down-home Midwestern whistleblower in the political thriller Reality, as well as a slipshod law student falling hard for the strapping Glen Powell in runaway box-office hit romcom Anyone But You. Now, she’s followed it up by playing a nun in the new indie horror Immaculate, for which she also acted as executive producer, playing a huge role in getting the film made. She recently told Variety that she wants to continue reshaping scripts and sculpting the films she makes.

The discourse around Sweeney’s body has been a fascinating barometer of how symbolic and how fraught a certain kind of female beauty still is. Even after centuries of obsession and relitigation of the topic, its shifting standards and relative morality, here we still are, projecting meaning onto what shade of blonde Sweeney keeps her hair and the size of her boobs. That’s why it’s so exciting that her new film Immaculate has so much to say about women’s bodies, objectification and their agency over their own bodies.

In Immaculate, Sweeney plays a young American nun-in-training, Sister Cecilia. Though make-up free and wiped clean of any glamour or sexuality, she is still as radiant as ever and characters remark on Cecilia’s prettiness; early in the film one Italian man mutters to the other: “What a waste.” These comments seem to stand in for the audience’s own thoughts about such a sexualised young woman playing a part where the whole point is to refuse that label. It feels like a comeback to the male entitlement around declaring that her figure and appearance somehow align with their worldview, or that she is giving them tacit permission to be creeps simply by existing.

Sweeney’s character, Cecilia, has been promised an idyllic life in a mediaeval Italian convent after her diocese back home was shut down. Taking the opportunity and arriving without an iota of the language, she soon senses something sinister is afoot around her. The film serves as a potent allegory about women’s rights to own and have agency over their bodies; the secret (male) cabal around her are old-time Catholics who seek to experiment on and control the female bodies around them. Sweeney and her director Michael Mohan give the film a real kick by letting the star push herself beyond simply a ‘scream queen’ or ‘final girl’. This is especially interesting given that the screenplay for the film has been floating around for a decade, and that Sweeney first auditioned for an early version of the part as a teen. Something about it, she said in interviews, stuck with her. What a beautiful thing to see the actress come of age, and into enough power, not only to help bring the project into existence but to apply an authorial hand to the story.

In a key moment of the film, Sweeney is dramatically un-prettified. Her face is daubed in blood; she looks like a grunting primal creature, alone and desperate. She releases a guttural howl of rage as she commits the most savage and ‘unwomanly’ of acts, freeing herself from male control. It is a proudly pro-choice film at a time when reproductive rights are being clamped down on all over the States; dressed up in horror allegory though it is, it’s hard to miss the message.

It’s a cathartic series of events, but not only because Immaculate is a well-executed horror film. There’s something extratextual to it, because of the nonsense around Sweeney and her beauty. There is nothing resembling sugary-sweet male fantasy or a conservative image of femininity here. The performance, and the film, feel like the ultimate ‘fuck you’ to those who keep trying to tell Sydney Sweeney who she is. And I think she has a better idea than the rest of us do.

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