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.