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even lady action heroes get the blues…

The Week in Women — my regular column over at the Alliance of Women Film Journalists — this week looks at female action heroes, and how they actually reinforce gender stererotypes. Fun!


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  • RogerBW

    As you point out, this research is very sloppy: without comparing male characters, it really has nothing to say. What’s worse to my mind is the idea that being romantically linked with another character is a sign of submission; this says rather more about the writer’s idea of relationships than about the problems with films. A pity, because the subject is one of genuine interest.

    As for Salt, the same thing was said about The Avengers: some of the early scripts were written for any of several interchangeable sidekicks to Steed, depending on which actor was available, so Honor Blackman ended up playing roles that had been written for male characters. But that was the 1960s, and this is 2010…

    All right, what are some films in which a male character is rescued by a female one? Nothing comes immediately to mind.

  • http://paulliver.livejournal.com/ Paul

    While I agree that romance and submission are not necessarily linked in the real world, the female love interest is often submissive to the male hero.

    As for women rescuing men, think “Firefly.” Granted, a TV show, but what a show. It happened at least twice, once with Zoe leading the charge to rescue the captain and her husband, and once with River arranging the explusion of the episode’s villain.

  • Lisa

    what annoyed me about Lara Croft was the inability to show vulnerability or fear. It’s hard to warm to her character. Even Indiana Jones gets scared sometimes. John McClaine had his vulnerable moments. It’s like they have to make the female action heroes even tougher and yet even less interesting.

    think Jamie Lee Curtis kinda saved Ron Silver’s life in Blue Steel and look how that turned out let that be a lesson to you ladies.

  • Dustin

    Neytiri rescued Jake twice in Avatar and got to kill the bad guy in the end. The article mentions Ripley and Sarah Connor, and all three of these characters appear in James Cameron movies. Though I doubt he self-identifies as a feminist ally, he seems to be in a creative mindset where the concept of “female” doesn’t automatically signify “weak.” His films do further feminist goals, in the sense of normalizing among moviegoers the presence of heroic women who aren’t tokens and who succeed through traditionally “masculine” means. Hardly subversive, but helpful nonetheless.

  • MaryAnn

    As you point out, this research is very sloppy: without comparing male characters, it really has nothing to say.

    I didn’t say it was sloppy, actually: I don’t think it is. And it clearly does have something to say without including a similar analysis of male characters.

    While I agree that romance and submission are not necessarily linked in the real world, the female love interest is often submissive to the male hero.

    Bingo.

  • RogerBW

    I didn’t say it was sloppy, actually: I don’t think it is.

    Fair enough. That was my interpretation of your “A gut-feeling sense of how violent men are depicted onscreen suggests that some similar numbers would be found in a similar study looking at the depictions of men onscreen.” – it’s such a very obvious thing to do that not to have done it makes a mockery of the study.

    Similarly, while it may very well be true that “the female love interest is often submissive to the male hero”, that is not what was studied here; the author simply assumed that any romantic linkage is female-submissive.

  • MaSch

    Roger: Your assuming what the author’s assumptions were. Although I would have liked to see typical examples of the VFAC being in a submissive situation to a male character, just to see what this actually means for the author.

  • http://toniokruger.blogspot.com Tonio Kruger

    All right, what are some films in which a male character is rescued by a female one? Nothing comes immediately to mind.

    Don’t watch too many movies, do you?

    Leia frees Han from his carbonite prison in Return of the Jedi.

    Samantha Caine rescues the Samuel Jackson character several times in The Long Kiss Goodnight.

    Jamie Lee Curtis saves the day several times in Blue Steel–but as mentioned above, she doesn’t get much thanks for it.

    Joan Wilder’s career as an author proves more influential in winning over a band of South American bandits than her male companion’s more macho approach.

    The title character in Run, Lola, Run, of course, ultimately rescues her boyfriend, Manni.

    And, of course, both movie and TV versions of Buffy the Vampire Slayer involve her rescuing male characters–especially in the TV version.

    And, of course, there’s always Xena

  • http://toniokruger.blogspot.com Tonio Kruger

    Plus Faye Dunaway saves Jack Nicholson from what could have been a fatal beating or worse in Chinatown.

    Then, of course, there’s the scene in The Poseidon Adventure in which Shelley Winters gives her life to help save Gene Hackman.

  • CB

    Leia frees Han from his carbonite prison in Return of the Jedi.

    Then is immediately captured (letting her rescue Han was just a trap), chained up in a sexy outfit, and has to be rescued by Luke. Okay so she does take the initiative to use the chain to choke Jabba to death while the rescue is underway so we’ll call this one a draw. :)

    Samantha Caine rescues the Samuel Jackson character several times in The Long Kiss Goodnight.

    Hm. I’m not sure if it should count when the woman makes an explicit reference to having male, um, attributes. I’m thinking of that terrible phrase near the end: “Suck my dick, every one of you!” I mean, isn’t a common criticism of female action heroes that don’t enforce feminine stereotypes do so by, in essence, becoming men?

    No, wait, I don’t think it should count because that movie was Awful, and that awkward line was just the capstone of Awful. :)

    The title character in Run, Lola, Run, of course, ultimately rescues her boyfriend, Manni.

    Foreign film. So, less of a problem outside Hollywood?

    And, of course, there’s always Xena…

    Yay Xena! =D

  • bitchen frizzy

    In Casino Royale, Vesper saved Bond’s life. Twice.

  • Mo

    Zoe on Firefly has been making me think, what definition of submission is that study working with?

    Because for instance Zoe is completely submissive to Mal, but it’s because she’s a soldier. Soldiers follow orders. Many, many male action heroes are soldiers and have orders and superiors. I wonder what percentage of them would be seen as submissive?

    Again, Zoe’s married so you could look at her in the love interest context- she’s created so the geeky guy gets the ultimate girl, but there’s definitely nothing submissive about that relationship.

    I do think that that study makes a legitimate point, but I guess the biggest thing I’m wondering is how often did characters subverting the stereotypes from within fall into the stereotyped category in that study?

  • Lisa

    Demi Moore said it in GI Jane and I just cringed I hate that line

  • http://paulliver.livejournal.com/ Paul

    I never saw Zoe as “submissive” in the way the previous article asserts. A soldier, as you say, takes orders. As a wife, she is not submissive. Thus Zoe has compartmentalized her personality traits depending upon her role, just as many of us do in our daily lives. What about the guy who is the boss at work and comes home to a wife who makes him smoke outside?

    As for Buffy, she isn’t submissive and rescues lots of guys, but the show also shows the strange ways in which her strength rubs society the wrong way; there is a lot of friction in the show because people, sometimes even her, don’t know what to make of her strength.

    At the risk of revealing my geekiness, I specifically remember Connor asking Faith why only girls were Slayers (remember that many die before they reach 18, and Buffy surprised people with her longevity making it to 22ish). Faith supposed that girls were better at it, but I think the real reason the original council choose a girl was if they gave Slayer powers to boys, the slayers would have been far more, perhaps too, comfortable with that power and harder to control. Of course, that is mere supposition on my part. I can’t read the writers’ minds.

  • CB

    I never saw Zoe as “submissive” in the way the previous article asserts. A soldier, as you say, takes orders. As a wife, she is not submissive. Thus Zoe has compartmentalized her personality traits depending upon her role, just as many of us do in our daily lives. What about the guy who is the boss at work and comes home to a wife who makes him smoke outside?

    The episode “War Stories” (which I just re-watched, hoo-ah!) looks at this issue, and doesn’t have an easy answer either. Zoe obviously isn’t submissive to her husband, but she is, in a chain-of-command way at least, to Mal.

    Wash: I’m the one she promised to love, honor, and obey!
    Mal: She promised to obey?
    Wash: Well, no, but that’s the point! You she obeys! There’s obeying going on right under my nose!

    So while Wash doesn’t expect subservience from Zoe, the concept is still vaguely tied into his views of marriage and as such he feels threatened by Mal, talking about “obeying” as if its a form of infidelity.

    I don’t see how discussing that within the show could negate Zoe as an a-stereotypical warrior woman. That’s about how the writer’s think. And when a writer wants to be sexist and write Action Gals who are nevertheless appropriately submissive to men, they don’t have men in their stories actively discussing their insecurities and unrealistic expectations of women. You just write the stereotype and never question it. :P

  • Lisa

    As far as I can remember, Buffy ultimately rejected the current Watcher’s Council and those desert guys

  • Dokeo

    In Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Alice rescues male characters. AND she doesn’t end up being a “reward” in the form of a girlfriend for the main male character, either! Instead, she earns the right to chose an interesting life of challenging adventure.

    I know Alice didn’t get much love on this site, but I was really excited by the empowering message when I saw it. Then I looked around the theater and saw lots and lots of BOYS in the audience! I’m glad it made a lot of money, because I hope it will make it harder for studios to keep insisting on the BS line that boys/men aren’t interested in stories about girls/women.