The last action heroine: Why tough actions don’t always equal strong women

The last action heroine: Why tough actions don’t always equal strong women

Are we in a new age of girls with guns (and samurai swords, and bows and arrows)? A few weeks ago, The New York Times’ chief critics, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis, looked over a recent cinematic landscape that includes Sucker Punch, Hanna, Super, Let Me In, Salt, Kick-Ass, and Dragon Tattoo adaptations past and anticipated, and wondered whether this rise in violent femmes signaled “empowerment or exploitation? Feminism or fetishism?”

I’d lean toward “E: None of the above.” Considering how much the idea of a typical male action lead has changed over the last few decades—the ’80s were all brawn, but for many viewers, the best fight scene of last year belonged to Joseph Gordon-Levitt—it seems inevitable that genre-movie badassery would eventually become more equal-opportunity. Why would the capacity to wreak onscreen havoc be left only to the dudes? There’s an undeniable frisson to seeing any characters outside the expected action-movie template lay waste to their enemies, whether it’s the eternatween vampire of Let Me In or the Eagle-Scoutish Matt Damon discovering his hand-to-hand combat prowess in The Bourne Identity. When Vin Diesel and the artist formerly known as The Rock finally clash in a haze of testosterone, protein supplements, and baby oil in Fast Five, it’s a predictable muscle-y pleasure. When spindly Saoirse Ronan coolly takes out a room fully of armed guards in Hanna, it carries a charge: We might have known it was coming, but no one onscreen did.

Where the going gets fuzzy is when these titles are offered up as de facto examples of films featuring strong female characters, as if the “strong” in that term referred to the ability to deadlift a certain weight and not possession of a personality. It isn’t a given that just because a film features a woman with a weapon, it’s empowering, and having a female lead doesn’t necessarily mean a film is for or about actual females. Take Sucker Punch—please. As Dargis points out, save for the designated chick flicks, “the American big screen hasn’t been very interested in women’s stories, violent or not, in recent decades.” When a lady-centric movie makes it out of the chick-flick ghetto, whether it’s the latest action installment or Bridesmaids, it’s still rare enough to provoke discussion and closer examination, whether the films can bear up under the weight of it all or not. 

It’d be easier to attach more significance to the increase in destructive dames if more of them seemed like they were written as women. But for the most part, these characters are engaged in a complicated act of ventriloquism. Keeping up with the boys remains pretty much the only game in town—a tough chick is, by the laws of the multiplex, one who acts just like a tough guy, regardless of how fab she might look in a mini. Sometimes this ventriloquism is built into the narrative of the film. The fearsome adolescents in Kick-Ass and Hanna are by design vessels for the revenge plots of their father figures, kept in different kinds of isolation and relentlessly trained to carry out a mission they never seem to have had a chance to question. (This also provides an out for any bloodthirstiness: They aren’t bad, they were just raised that way.)

Other times, it’s more implicit. Salt started as a prospective Tom Cruise vehicle about a character named Edwin A. Salt. After Cruise dropped out, Angelina Jolie came on board, and the script was adjusted for her. Edwin became Evelyn, the fate of the character’s spouse altered, a child snipped from the story, and there you go, a perfectly entertaining spy thriller. Jolie is a capable action lead, and the character is endearingly no-nonsense, but Salt is still a slightly odd fit. In the film’s effort to be one-size-fits-all-A-listers, Salt’s gender becomes something of an elephant in the room. She has the face of a woman who’s considered one of the most beautiful actors working today, and no one seems to notice. Other than the barest hint of softness from the higher-up played by Liev Schreiber, everyone else acts like Jolie was greenscreened in after the fact. The feeling isn’t one of equality, but impersonality.

Equally impersonal? The all-but-interchangeable lineup of dead-eyed dollies in Sucker Punch, a movie with problems that go far beyond its characters’ lack of apparent inner lives. Except… the movie does take place almost entirely in the head of one of those characters, Emily Browning’s Baby Doll, who, having been placed in degrading captivity in a mental institution, promptly escapes into the fantasy of a sexier form of degrading captivity, and from there, into that whole samurais/zombie Nazis/dragons/futuristic trains thing. While on the surface, Baby Doll appears to be a virginal young blonde who likes to wear schoolgirl outfits, underneath, she’s actually a fanboy with an apparent additional World War II interest. It’s like every cautionary tale you’ve ever heard about meeting someone on the Internet.

Looking to these films for considered characterization of any type may be asking for disappointment, but when so many females in mainstream movies of the non-romantic-comedy variety are only there for decorative purposes, or to be rescued, or to nag on the phone from some removed location, or as the token representative of womankind (see the Smurfette Principle), I can’t help but pore over each new one that promises something different. (My most intense curiosity is reserved for David Fincher’s take on The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and its feminist avenger heroine, a character I've never been as fond of as the rest of the world seems to be, for reasons similar to the ones touched on by this blogger.)

The Times duo does point out some positive recent examples, all from indies, two of which happen to be from female directors: Michelle Williams’ prairie bride Emily Tetherow in Meek’s Cutoff, and Jennifer Lawrence’s teenage ad-hoc gumshoe Ree in Winter’s Bone. They’re both characters I love, and ones whose undeniable toughness arrives in line with their fleshed-out personalities. Dargis and Scott debate the scene in which Williams draws a rifle to protect the Indian taken prisoner by her fellow pioneers—a great moment, but less interesting to me than an earlier one in which she takes the Indian’s shoe from him and repairs it.

It isn’t really an act of kindness; the new Mrs. Tetherow has not miraculously developed a 21st-century view on other races in defiance of the prevailing attitudes in 1845. It’s an attempt to give him a touch of Stockholm syndrome, to create an obligation in him and make him feel like a part of their group, and therefore invested in their survival. “I want him to owe me something,” she says, and having seen how unsuccessful the threats and bluster from other members of the group have been, it seems like the canniest move any of them makes. 

Ree is similarly seen skirting a larger, rougher conflict in which she’d prefer not to participate if she could figure out another option: the different clans in her area battling it out over the local meth business. Her relentlessness, the beatings she takes, and the danger she puts herself in have nothing to do with bravado or a need to prove herself—what she needs is to keep a roof over her family’s head, and that motivation of necessity rather than grandiosity is affecting. Teardrop, her terrifying uncle, tells her she shouldn’t tell him if she ever finds out who killed his brother, her father, because he’d have to go after them, even if it would likely kill him. Ree, it’s clear, wouldn’t waste her time or risk abandoning her siblings avenging the man who did his children no favors, even though he is family, and in Winter’s Bone, that comes across as the legitimately rebellious, powerful choice.

Does it require a female director and writer to create a convincing and, yes, strong female character? No, not at all, though you’d think the chances of having more of the latter would increase with more of the former working, particularly in studio films. Until then, we can all just wait for a movie centered on a girl with a gun, a fab mini, and a developed personality. Now that would be badass.

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