Welcome back, tough women! Where have you been?
The idea of a strong competent leading woman is not necessarily a new thing, but with female-oriented action films like The Hunger Games and Snow White and the Huntsman coming out this year, it looks like the ladies are finally getting a strong foot in the door of the blockbuster arena.
A few years ago, the News of the World ran a regular feature where they would review a film from a man’s perspective and then give the contrasting woman’s opinion. Inevitably, the man (uber-hack and poster-quote prostitute Paul Ross) would love anything with shooters and explosions while the lady would not be able to wrap her head around anything that didn’t feature Hugh Grant and/or bonnets. Although this was a reductive editorial decision made by a paper otherwise known for good taste and sensitivity, it also reflected the way movies were made and publicised: men like action movies, women like to cry and stuff.
Katniss Everdeen and the new Snow White might not be the most original we’ve ever seen, but they’re in rare company when it comes to the world of movies: they’re female action heroes that look like they’ve not just been written for teenage boys, but with a young female audience in mind.
It could be argued that the first wave of female action heroes came with the exploitation boom of the 60s and 70s. Self-appointed ‘king of the nudies’ Russ Meyer had made a name for himself with campy sex comedies the likes of The Immortal Mr Teas (“A ribald film classic!”) but as his career progressed, his films started focusing on assertive women (with large breasts) in stories that could be construed as somewhat feminist. While the women in his films were certainly portrayed as sex objects, they also didn’t shy away from running riot and mixing it up with the men. Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (above) featured a group of go-go dancers who go on a minor killing spree and con a lecherous old man out of his money. Later exploitation heroines like Foxy Brown mirrored their male counterparts, taking down drug dealers and cleaning up the streets (“She’s brown sugar and spice but if you don’t treat her nice… she’ll put you on ice!”). While these women were not afraid of kicking butt, they were still enormously sexualised. These movies were unquestionably made for a predominantly male audience for whom the cinema was one of the few public places where you could see that much cleavage.
Leather & Lace
While the gratuitous levels of nudity from Return to the Valley of the Dolls never quite made it into mainstream movies, many aspects of the exploitation heroine have carried over into modern blockbusters. Movies like Aeon Flux, Catwoman (pictured above, on all fours), Elektra and Sucker Punch all share the same vaguely misogynistic DNA. While their stories are superficially about strong female characters, their tragic back stories and skimpy outfits are constructed to fit a common male fantasy. If ‘The Matrix’ is a world where characters project their self-images into a computer construct, are we to believe that every woman imagines themselves in a PVC catsuit? When these women get down to the business of fighting, the violence isn’t so much glamourised as it is fetishised. Sure, Lara Croft is an accomplished archaeologist and can take care of herself in a fight, but would any real woman choose to wear short shorts and figure-hugging tank-tops when their job involves sliding about in filthy crypts? Film-makers claim these women as paragons of feminism while at the same time reminding the cameraman to get a close-up of their butts.
When the movies haven’t been busy sexualising your action heroines, they’ve often gone in the opposite direction and neutered them, making tomboys out of them. Between Terminator 1 and 2, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Conner transforms from a petrified waitress into a lean, mean, future-fighting machine. She might be kicking ass to protecting her son, but she’s sacrificed her feminine identity to do so. She’s the Joan of Arc of the robot-killing set, if you will.
In the end, it comes down to female action characters often being so poorly developed. Indiana Jones is cool because he can get hurt like a regular guy and he continually manages to scrape by. John McClane is so beloved because he’s just a normal working class Joe who wants his family back. While these male heroes are often funny and relatable, our female heroes are usually vamps or ice queens (see Underworld, Resident Evil). We understand that they’re hard as nails, but couldn’t they be a little easier to like?
The Next Generation
Right now, we’re feeling the first rumblings of a sea change. Earlier this year we had Haywire, the action-thriller from Steven Soderbergh starring MMA fighter Gina Carano. She plays Mallory Kane, a badass ‘independent contractor’ who is on the run after she’s betrayed by her agency. While Carano is an attractive woman, her character is neither a tomboy nor a harlot. She is not beneath having casual sex with Michael Fassbender and not above having her limbs broken in a foot chase. If we accept the (plausible) premise that she’s a lethal weapon, then we find a pretty believable woman in Mallory Kane.
Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous hero of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo can also be considered a part of this group. With her piercings and avant-garde hair, she straddles the line between sexy and grotesque. At the beginning of the story, she’s under the thumb of her state-assigned guardian, domineering sadist who forces himself upon her in some very difficult scenes of a violent sexual nature. However, with cunning and brute force, she manages to extricate herself from this horrific situation.
And then we have The Hunger Games.
No matter what you think of the book or the movie, The Hunger Games is crucial in determining the future of blockbuster films. Save for all the killing she does, Katniss Everdeen is actually a pretty suitable role model for young girls. She’s a solidly portrayed character with clear and fairly noble motivations. She enters into a deadly tournament to protect her family, using her wits and her skills with a bow to overcome internal and external conflicts. Unlike certain other teen protagonists, she’s not defined by which boy she has a crush on or how good she looks. Although incidentally, she has two boys after her and she cleans up real nice!
The most significant consequence of The Hunger Games’ success comes from it being a big-budget action blockbuster with a primarily female demographic. This is something that is almost completely unprecedented. While the source novel has a popularity that spills between ages and genders, it’s pretty much a girl’s book and therefore the core audience for the film is also young women. Traditional thinking would suggest that as a group, ladies would be put off by the violence and bloodshed but the fan reaction from young women has been one of resounding approval.
In only a week, we’ll be seeing the release of Snow White and the Huntsman (above) which is also an action movie skewed towards women. If we’re to believe the press release, Snow White will feature Kristen Stewart as an independent and resourceful young woman who fights with swords while rebuffing romantic overtures from Thor.
Screenwriter William Goldman famously said that that when it comes to guaranteeing success at the box-office, “nobody knows anything.” Despite this, studios are constantly trying to predict what films will score well with the crowds in two years time. The Hunger Games has taken over 600 million dollars at the box-office so far. While that is good for the studio, it also means that action films for women are here to stay. The market has spoken, demanding more action movies for women. And that is what they will get. Hopefully this will be the new standard and not just a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon that will be forgotten once talking cat movies come back into fashion is a year’s time.
As the old advert said: “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Let’s just hope you get to stick around this time.