Film, Media & TV / Films / Women and Gender

Wonder Women?: The Myth of Action Heroines in Film Shattering Gender Stereotypes

Does watching powerful women fight crime and kick ass on-screen inspire other women?  Does it shatter barriers of gender roles?

Last month, my fave blogger Melissa Silverstein at Women & Hollywood explored this very question: do women in action films break gender stereotypes?  She came across a new study that emphatically said no.  Silverstein examined the latest research from Katy Gilpatric, Department of Social Sciences at Kaplan University (“Violent Female Action Characters in Contemporary American Cinema”).   Gilpatric, who studied “the top 20 grossing films from 1991-2005 (300 films total),” found that in most instances, women in action films rarely led as heroes.  Rather, they served as props to the male heroes, usually assisting and serving as love interests.  She also found that women often meet their death, frequently by self-sacrifice, by the end of a film.  Rather than showcasing empowerment, Gilpatric concluded that women in action films ultimately succumb to stereotypical gender roles:

“Instead of breaking down gender barriers and portraying empowering female roles, most VFACs (Violent Female Action Characters) were shown as sidekicks and helpmates to the more dominant male hero and were frequently involved in a romantic relationship with him.  Over 40% of all VFACs were portrayed as girlfriends or wives to the male heroes in the movies.  The findings suggest that VFACs seem to be inserted into the story to support and promote the actions of the male hero.”

At first, I was stunned.  I mean, there are so many bold women in action films that I love!  Sigourney Weaver as Lt. Ellen Ripley (Alien, Aliens) and Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor (Terminator I & II) are fierce feminist film icons to me.  Both survivors, wielding weapons and using their strength and ingenuity, they embody empowerment.  Yet the more I mulled it over, the more I realized that Gilpatric’s conclusions might just be true.  There were very few films that came to mind (Kill Bill, Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, G.I. Jane, Thelma & Louise) in which a woman starred as the main protagonist.

I think many people are drawn to or intrigued by female action heroes because, in part, they run counter to the norm.  We are inundated with images of male protagonists so it’s refreshing to see women lead…and of course run around shooting things!  But I think something else is happening.  We live in a chaotic world dominated by patriarchy.  Women receive societal cues telling them explicitly and implicitly how to behave, look and speak.  Social norms dictate that women should be gentle, nurturing, and caring.  Subtly implied lies the assertion that women should support the men in their life, that they should not be too outspoken or too unruly.  In theory, women action heroes break that mold.  However, the reality is that most women in action films are still playing out gender norms where women serve men and stay out of the limelight.

Gilpatric told Silverstein,

“I think there is a misconception about action heroines in general.  We tend to think, as I did before my research, that action heroines are breaking down gender barriers and that they are empowering role models, especially for young women…the action heroines we see really do not draw upon any form of feminine power (however one might want to define that) but act in ways similar to their male counterpart…I was expecting to find a tough chick that could go toe-to-toe with male action heroes.  Then I found out most of them are just added to the script to serve the heroic acts of the male lead action character or serve as a love interest to him.  They end up rearticulating normative gender roles and stereotypes in a subtle, and I would argue even more insidious manner.”

I agree with Silverstein’s and Gilpatric’s criticisms regarding gender stereotypes in the film industry.  However, I disagree when Gilpatric states that many action heroines act like men, not using their “feminine power.”  What does it mean to be a woman?  Gender is a social construct; we perform gender identities within a social context.  For me personally (and I fully recognize that I may be the exception to the rule here), I grew up residing in both the stereotypical feminine and masculine realms, liking both Barbie dolls and Matchbox cars.  There are many women who straddle the feminine/masculine divide.  But does Gilpatric have a point?  Do we idolize strength and virility because we live in a capitalist patriarchal society?  Or is this perpetuating the same gender stereotypes by insinuating that when women act tough or violent, they exhibit male behavior?

However, there are action heroines utilizing female power…in the name of motherhood.  Of the few truly empowered women action stars, most are lioness mothers: Sarah Connor fiercely protecting her son and all of humanity, Ripley protecting young Newt in Aliens and even The Bride/Beatrix Kiddo is a vengeful mother in Kill Bill.  Gilpatric references previous researchers who found that:

“Violence can also take on a feminine form. Powers (1991) suggests that violence has been linked with the archetype of protectress. Similarly, Tasker (1998) has argued that female action characters draw upon a heroic maternal motif to create stereotypes of mother and wife who risk all to save children and loved ones.”

It’s acceptable for women to be bad-ass if they’re doing so in the name of their children.  While the protector role makes action heroes, female or male, more interesting due to their vulnerability, the same template is not used for men.  But not all women are maternal as there is no universal womanhood; women invariably choose myriad identities.

It’s difficult for women to not only earn good film roles but to receive notoriety for them.  We in American society view women in films as residing only in the sphere of women’s interests, whereas men in films appealing to all of society.  All stories and issues should be humanity’s issues, rather than relegated to half the population.  I want to see more women in film; it’s necessary to tell women’s diverse stories.  We just need to be wary of the sexist message that may be delivered, even if it appears to be in a different package.  My hope is that more action movies will be made with strong, self-sufficient women, inspiring and reminding us to be powerful in our own lives.

 

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14 thoughts on “Wonder Women?: The Myth of Action Heroines in Film Shattering Gender Stereotypes

  1. For a truly empowering female character, one must look back to Cheri Caffaro who starred as sexy undercover ass kicking Ginger in 1971’s “Ginger” and, again, in the 1972 sequel “The Abductors”. In breaking up a drug ring (in the first one) and a sex slavery ring (in the sequel) Ginger uses none of her masculine qualities. She uses her wits, her agility, and her hard body. The 70s is a treasure trove for these type of characters. You need to look back, not forward.

  2. Also, let’s not forget about 80s sensation Cynthia Rothrock who may have flown under most (all?) radars. She was a martial artist who did her own stunts, no wire work. It’s a shame most of her work was underseen. I guess she wan’t that great of an actress.

    Seriously though, most female action stars are just there to titilate the guys. With the possible exceptions of Weaver and Hamilton (already mentioned in the article), who while attractive, are not stunningly beautiful (at least by Maxim’s standards). I mean, Rhona Mitra in Doomsday? The camera spends most of the runtime focused on her ass adorned in leather. The girl in those Werewolf vs Vampire pictures? Similarly leather clad. Guys think it’s hot to watch women kick ass. It’s pretty simple if a little disconcerting.

  3. You hit the nail on the head, Brian! That’s why I didn’t mention Kate Beckinsale in Underworld or many other women in action films. Filmmakers utilize women as eye candy…and as adornments as they feel women will accompany their spouses/partners to films if there is a woman in it. But I know I would like to see more empowering women, like Weaver and Hamilton.

    And I had forgotten about Cynthia Rothrock! Her contemporary counterpart is certainly the phenomenal actress/stuntwoman Zoe Bell (Death Proof, Whip It), whom I adore. I remember reading an article about her in which she discussed her lack of being a blockbuster action star.

  4. But let’s not forget the part of “Ripley” was written for a man…. I wonder how much it was changed, once Weaver came on board?

  5. Personally, i dislike the entire action/adventure genre, and regardless if it’s a male or female doing the ass-kicking, the characters all seem one dimensional to me.

    In films like “Terminator”, i almost find it distracting, in the sense, that the female lead almost over-compensates, to illustrate her toughness.

    I was watching, “Jennifer’s Body,” and one of the earliest scenes is Amanda Seyfried kicking an orderly in the face, knocking her teeth out.
    Amanda Seyfried!
    Wasn’t she the lead in, Mamma Mia?

    Women are complex, intelligent, beautiful & emotional.
    How is making them barbaric, empowering?

  6. @Sarah, I knew Ripley was originally written as a man but you ask a great question! So I did some research…

    Ridley Scott (director of Alien) was not the one who envisioned Ripley as a man. However, the original screenwriters, Dan O’Bannon & Ronald Shusett, wrote into the script that all of the characters, while written as men (including “Ripley” who was originally written as “Roby”), were in fact unisex and could be cast as either women or men, although they never pictured Roby/Ripley as a woman. Scott says in an interview that someone at Fox Pictures suggested making Ripley a woman. When producers Walter Hill and David Giler wrote the final draft of the script, Ripley was indeed a woman…huzzah!

    I found the original (http://www.dailyscript.com/scripts/alien_early.html) and final scripts (http://www.dailyscript.com/scripts/alien_shooting.html) and read through both of them. While the scripts differ, particularly in that Ash the android is not in it, Roby and Ripley are surprisingly similar, sharing similar dialogue and eventually asserting their authority through decisive actions. SPOILER!!!!…For example, both don’t want to let the injured person (Standard the Captain in the original script / Kane the Ex. O in the final draft) onto the ship as they might be infected and get slapped for it. Although interestingly, Ripley stands her ground and doesn’t let him in while Roby caves. Also, both remain the sole survivors of the crew.

    Another interesting point is that in the final script, Ripley was to have a sex scene with Dallas the Captain. However, that is never filmed, which is great because it means that Ripley is defined in her own right and not by a relationship with a man.

  7. Aww, you beat me to the punch mentioning Zoe Bell and Death Proof, as good a female-hero film as any in modern cinema. Tarantino definitely likes the idea of the Femme Fatale, women more than capable of getting things done on their terms. There’s not a lot the last few years that kept me on the edge of my seat as much as Zoe Bell riding on the hood of that car while being pursued by Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell).

    And Julian: Jennifer’s Body? Really? Having not seen the movie, I can’t REALLY judge you, but you’d have to strap me down and pry my eyelids open a la Clockwork Orange to make me watch that.

    P.S. Aliens is one of my favorite movies, and Ripley pretty damn close to the perfect hero in my eyes. Hope the rumors are true and she does another Alien movie, because cinema would be all the better for it.

    • “Jennifer’s Body” was kickass!

      It had a lot of witty dialogue (I think the writer of “Juno” was involved with this aspect of the script), was very funny (very dark humor), and the gore scenes were pretty sensational.

      The cherry tomato on the salad, was the uber-gorgeous, Megan Fox as “Jennifer.”

      I’m not a ‘Maxim’ reader, but damn…

  8. Not to be contrarian or anything but, besides riding on a hood of a car and *spoiler” stomping on Kurt Russell’s face, what did Zoe Bell do in Death Proof that was so action hero-ey? Was she really a great character? I guess her accent was sorta hot.

    To me a great action hero has to bring the personality. I’m not sure we’ve topped John McClane from Die Hard I & II.

    • Let’s not forget miss Catriona MacColl, the female lead in Fulci’s, “The Beyond” and “The Gates of Hell.”
      Not only was this woman accidentally buried alive, and forced to endure a “maggot-storm” to the face.
      She also fended off an endless parade of zombies and saved two children (one in each film).
      While most men would be pissing their trousers, Catriona as “Mary Woodhouse”, ventured into the crypt of a suicidal priest, in hopes of closing the open portal to Hell, thus saving all of man & woman-kind.

  9. Julian, I’m about to watch Fulci’s The Psychic for the first time? Have you seen it?

    It seems like Horror movies routinely cast females in the lead while action movies generally stick with men. So, I guess I find it interesting when either of these genres go against the norm. Although, I’m not sure I want to see a topless Bruce Willis running from an axe wielding unstoppable maniac, but you get my drift.

    • Excellent observation, Brian!

      Within the Horror genre, women are normally cast as the leads, and they are usually the sole survivors, as well.
      Some would argue that a male co-star is cast, to provide the cliched romantic interest, and also to “save” the woman, at certain points of the film (only to be killed off in the final act of the story).

      Amy Steel was extremely strong, in the second “Friday the 13th” (my personal fave of the franchise).

      Revisiting “The Beyond,” late Sunday night, it also struck me how good Catriona (aka Katherine) Maccoll was, and how Fulci used her to great effect.
      She seemed to have the most expressive eyes, and she had that great balance of feminimity and fearlessness.

  10. Thanks for your research, Opinioness! I’m really glad that the parts were written as unisex, and that very little changes were made.
    You’re right, Julian, about how horror movies (at least the ones I’ve seen) tend to end up with a woman being the sole survivor. I wonder if this is done because they are usually morality tales at the core, and the woman alive at the end is supposed to symbolize a fresh start for the world, leaving behind all the naughty influences of sex, drugs, & rock & roll in the past.

  11. Pingback: Strong Females and Heroines in Films by Ridley Scott | Approaches to Lit and Culture

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