calling bullshit on: Owen Gleiberman at EW’s The Movie Critics…

…for deciding that two female action stars constitutes a “new normal”:

It’s amusing to realize, in hindsight, that Luc Besson’s funky-violent French art-house thriller La Femme Nikita, in 1990, and its rote American remake, Point of No Return, in 1993, were still treating lady-killer heroines with kid gloves. At that point, seeing an actress like Anne Parillaud or Bridget Fonda behave with a sniper’s cunning engaged the same exotic element of role-playing novelty that the band Heart did in the ’70s. Until Nancy Wilson, believe it or not, we hadn’t really ever seen a girl play an electric guitar before — it was a glass-ceiling-smashing, paradigm-busting cultural gear shift.

And guess what? It’s still rare to see a girl play an electric guitar. Or even a woman. Sure, there are more women playing electric guitars today than there were in the 1970s, but it’s still not the norm. Nowhere near. And two kick-ass female action heroes in movies playing at the same time — that would be Salt and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — is not a “new normal”: it’s a coincidence.

Gleiberman digs in deeper:

Back in the ’90s, if an action role tailored to Tom Cruise had ended up going, instead, to a prominent actress, that tidbit of casting gossip would have been dropped into the media to legitimize the then fairly out-of-the-ordinary prospect of a chick heroine leaping off speeding trucks and using human beings for target practice. Now, it has a subtly different effect: Instead of calling attention to the novelty of it all, it reinforces the casual, no-sweat nature of the gender flip. Jolie as a CIA assassin who can fashion a rocket launcher out of the contents of a supply closet, who kick-boxes her way out of every jam, who walks on ledges like Spider-Woman, who mows down adversaries (Russians and Americans) with such heartless efficiency that she makes Jason Bourne look like a wuss…well, of course. As a thriller, Salt offers a cutting-edge example of how big-screen action heroines have edged their way past novelty, through legitimacy, and into inevitability. They’ve become the new normal.

Except Evelyn Salt does not make Jason Bourne look like a wuss — not in the least. And as Gleiberman seems to appreciate but buries, it most certainly still is one helluva novelty for a woman to step into a role written for a man. It was worth mentioning in connection with Salt precisely because it hardly ever happens.

When half the action movies playing to mainstream audiences — The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has earned, over 19 weekends in North America, less than $10 million, and never played on more than 202 screens — feature action heroes who could just as easily be played by men but are played by women, then we can talk about a “new normal.” But here are the top 20 movies so far of 2010, in order of box office performance:

Toy Story 3
Alice in Wonderland
Iron Man 2
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
Shrek Forever After
How to Train Your Dragon
The Karate Kid
Clash of the Titans
Despicable Me
Grown Ups
Shutter Island
The Last Airbender
Valentine’s Day
Robin Hood
Date Night
Sex and the City 2
The Book of Eli
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Not one of these movies features a female action hero anything like Jason Bourne or Evelyn Salt… and certainly none like Lisbeth Salander. Only three of the movies feature female protagonists at all… and in two, Alice and Eclipse, things happen to Alice and Bella but they are rarely the instigators of any action; in the other, SATC2, is about shopping, fucking, and being an obnoxious overprivileged brat as a veritable right — and rite — of modern womanhood. None of these is a positive depiction of strong, confident, complex women.

More importantly, where women are shown to be at least somewhat strong — physically as well as emotionally — it is the very novelty of this that distinguishes these films. (I thinking of Scarlett Johansson in Iron Man 2 and Cate Blanchett in Robin Hood, and even the alt-Fiona in Shrek 4.) And these women are not the focus of the stories: they are there only for what they can do to bolster or thwart the male protagonist.

Many of these movies feature no female characters of any dramatic significance at all.

So no, Owen Gleiberman, there is no “new normal” when it comes to female action stars. We’re a long, long way from Angelina Jolie and Salt being anything other than a novelty.

And if the Hollywood version of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo doesn’t water down Lisbeth Salander, I’ll be totally stunned.

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Tue, Jul 27, 2010 6:30pm

While video games get a bad rap for their sexism, they do seem to be doing a much better job of promoting women to leading roles in action-based dramas… dramas which would easily pass the Bechdel test.

Tue, Jul 27, 2010 10:53pm

And, in the spirit of “movies that seem like video games,” I present this (apparently with a female protagonist):

Not quite on the same level as River Song, but I may give it a look-see.