Do women make the best ac­tion heroes?

At last, fe­male ac­tion heroes rule the big screen. But are they a tri­umph of girl power – or a male fan­tasy made flesh?

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - In This Issue - Robbie Collin

To fully com­pre­hend the mess our cul­ture is in right now, you have to wrap your head around Pam Grier’s tongue. Specif­i­cally, I mean its life-sav­ing ex­ploits half­way through the 1974 film Foxy Brown, at the point our hero­ine wakes up lashed to a bed­stead in a back­woods heroin lab, the pris­oner of two swel­ter­ing hill­billy rapists.

Spot­ting a ra­zor blade on the bed stand, Foxy cranes over, her mud-stained blouse torn open to the navel. Then out pops that tongue, which tick­lingly coaxes the blade across the ta­ble – un­til it, and the prospect of es­cape, are clasped be­tween her lips. Is this a spiky fe­male em­pow­er­ment vi­gnette or tan­ta­lis­ing S&M peep show? Any­where else, the two cat­e­gories would be poles apart – but in the cin­ema, things aren’t so sim­ple.

It’s cer­tainly true that we’re living through a golden age of fe­male ac­tion stars. Per­haps fore­most among them is Char­l­ize Theron, who ap­pears in the lat­est Fast & Fu­ri­ous ca­per along­side Michelle Ro­driguez and some men – and, later this sum­mer, Atomic Blonde, from one of the di­rec­tors of the Keanu Reeves as­sas­sin thriller John Wick. Theron may not have set the move­ment rolling, but in 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, she played its great­est char­ac­ter to date: the crop-haired, bul­let-bit­ing Im­per­a­tor Fu­riosa, an in­stant screen icon to stand be­side Ellen Ri­p­ley, Sarah Con­nor and The Bride.

Star Wars, the big­gest fran­chise go­ing, has made fe­male leads a habit, first with Daisy Ri­d­ley’s Rey in The Force Awak­ens, then with Felic­ity Jones as Jyn Erso in Rogue One. This year has al­ready yielded three woman-led ac­tion films – Un­der­world: Blood Wars, Res­i­dent Evil: The Fi­nal Chap­ter and Ghost in the Shell – with Alien: Covenant and Star Wars: The Last Jedi also still to come. Oh, and Won­der Woman: the first solo fe­male su­per­hero film lm in 12 years.

You could look at this as a tri­umph for gender equal­ity. Se­ri­ous pro­mo­tional mus­cle is geared to­wards en­sur­ing that we do. But 43 years on from Foxy’s tongue-based get­away, it’s still un­clear if these hero­ines re­ally are as­s­kick­ing mis­tresses of their own destiny – or just pneu­matic fan­tasy ob­jects, passed off, disin­gen­u­ously, as “strong women”. It was Grier who minted the mod­ern-day ac­tion hero­ine in all her con­tra­dic­tions – both in Foxy Brown and its 1973 spir­i­tual fore­run­ner Coffy, in which a nurse turned “bad­dest One-Chick HitSquad that ever hit town” (as the film’s poster had it) takes down the drug push­ers who made her sis­ter an ad­dict. Twenty-four year old on Coffy’s re­lease, Grier was a grad­u­ate of the wom­enin-prison film scene – the kind that fea­tured lots of bad girls in com­mu­nal show­ers. But her re­gal bear­ing and stat­uesque dimensions had marked her out as a hero­ine-in-wait­ing in the eyes of Jack Hill, her direc­tor on The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage. So when he had to find a star for a re­venge thriller cen­tred on an African Amer­ica woman, he knew who to call.

There had been fe­male ac­tion stars be­fore Grier: swash­buck­ling se­rial queens such as Pearl White and He­len Holmes, who’d thrilled crowds week after week in the 1910s. But the fall of the Mo­tion Pic­ture Pro­duc­tion Code in the late Six­ties had ush­ered in a new era where women on screen could be vi­o­lent – and have vi­o­lence, of­ten graphic and sex­ual, en­acted upon them.

As black women, Coffy and Foxy were un­der­dogs twice over – which, in the age of James Bond and Dirty Harry, made their ac­tion ex­ploits dou­bly ex­otic. In a 1997 in­ter­view for the re­lease of Jackie Brown – Quentin Tarantino’s fond ode to her god­dess-un­der-pres­sure screen aura – Grier de­scribed those early roles as “hero­ines of the women’s move­ment”, who “showed women how to be as­sertive and self-suf­fi­cient, not pas­sive vic­tims”.

That’s in­con­testable. But these hero­ines were also fre­quently shown in their un­der­wear or less, in con­texts that were ei­ther sex­u­ally de­grad­ing, or made them look dom­i­nant and in­sa­tiable. This fell in line with the comic-book tra­di­tion of “good girl art” – and, from the Nineties on, the more

If it turns men on, a show of fe­male strength may still be an act of sub­mis­sion

ex­plic­itly threat­en­ing “bad girl art” – in which semi-dressed hero­ines struck un­abashed poses for a straight, male, sex­u­ally ner­vous read­er­ship.

Cast an eye over some re­cent su­per­hero film posters and you’ll see the trend was, un­til very re­cently, still preva­lent enough for par­ody. In 2011 the Amer­i­can car­toon­ist Kevin Bolk drew a group por­trait of Mar­vel’s male Avengers per­form­ing the kind of bot­tom-flaunt­ing con­tor­tions reg­u­larly de­manded of Scar­lett Jo­hans­son’s Black Wi­dow. The pic­ture, which went vi­ral, is very funny – but it also lays bare the he strange and queasy para­dox built into so much ac­tion hero­ine im­agery: a show of fe­male strength on screen, if it turns men on, iss still ul­ti­mately an act of sub­mis­sion. The critic Laura Mul­vey iden­ti­fied this back in 1973, writ­ing that a woman in a nor­mal nar­ra­tive film “tends to work against the de­vel­op­ment of a sto­ry­line, to freeze the flow of ac­tion in mo­ments of erotic con­tem­pla­tion”. I’d kill to read her on Trans­form­ers.

Or Lara Croft, for that mat­ter. Video-gamers had been star­ing at their hero­ines’ back­sides for years, thanks largely to the Tomb Raider fran­chise, which in the Nineties pi­o­neered the con­cept of a lead char­ac­ter play­ers could ogle. Hol­ly­wood cot­toned on quick. First came an of­fi­cial Tomb Raider film (and later a se­quel) of­fer­ing Won­der women: Char­l­ize Theron in Atomic Blonde, above; Uma Thur­man as The Bride, below; and Sigour­ney Weaver in Aliens, left An­gelina Jolie from all an­gles – and then the Un­der­world and Res­i­dent Evil se­ries, in which Kate Beck­in­sale and Milla Jovovich’s lithe forms are un­am­bigu­ously of­fered up as part of the spec­ta­cle.

You’d imag­ine the forth­com­ing Tomb Raider re­boot, star­ring Ali­cia Vikan­der, will be a lit­tle more sophisticated about it, though an ac­tion film that de­nied its au­di­ence the plea­sure of watch­ing the hero’s body in mo­tion – fe­male or male – wouldn’t be much of an ac­tion film at all.

Not that “ph­woar” is the only pos­si­ble tar­get. Last year, Paul Feig’s bril­liant all-fe­male Ghost­busters re­boot al­lowed its leads to de­ploy their full comic ar­se­nal of fum­bles and prat­falls, while dress­ing them in sim­i­lar baggy boiler suits to the all-male Eight­ies squad. Ig­nore the charge of ru­ined child­hoods: the film upset that male seg­ment of the au­di­ence for whom Mul­vey’s erotic con­tem­pla­tion felt like an en­ti­tle­ment.

Mad Max: Fury Road was even more rad­i­cal – though it spoofed the cliché with an in­ten­tion­ally lu­di­crous scene in which the vil­lain’s es­caped harem spritz them­selves, wet-T-shirt-style, un­der a hosepipe in the mid­dle of the desert. Tom Hardy’s Max sur­veys them from a dis­tance – and when they no­tice, Rosie Hunt­ing­ton-White­ley’s heav­ily preg­nant Splen­did Ang­harad strides over to con­front him, hold­ing the still-splut­ter­ing noz­zle at belly height. Freud would have dropped his hot dog.

It took a while for Hol­ly­wood to rec­on­cile vi­o­lence with moth­er­hood

Itook a while for cin­ema to rec­on­cile ac­tion vi­o­lence with moth­er­hood. There’s a flicker of ma­ter­nal in­stinct in Foxy Brown, whose ul­ti­mate mis­sion, be­yond re­venge for her boyfriend’s mur­der, is to make her neigh­bour­hood safe. But the fe­male-led ac­tion tele­vi­sion se­ries that fol­lowed, like Won­der Woman and Char­lie’s An­gels, pre­ferred their women fluffily pris­tine. It took Ellen Ri­p­ley to shake things up.

The hero of the Alien films was, fa­mously, orig­i­nally writ­ten as male – un­til direc­tor Ri­d­ley Scott re­alised flip­ping the gender would up­end his au­di­ence au­di­ence’s ex­pec­ta­tions with it. In the orig­i­nal Alien (1979), Ri­p­ley risks her life to save her pet cat – a de­ci­sion that would have had to be played for laughs if she we were male. And in James Cameron’s 1986 se­quel Aliens, she be­comes a sur­ro­gate mother to a young girl, and her ma­ter­nal in­stinct, once kin­dled, spurs her on to ever-greater feats of hero­ism.

Fol­low­ing closely was the Ter­mi­na­tor fran­chise’s Sarah Con­nor, an­other iconic James Cameron sin­gle mum. Played by Linda Hamilton in the orig­i­nal 1984 film and its 1991 se­quel, she was trans­formed by moth­er­hood from a hap­less wait­ress into a war­rior god­dess in a black vest top. Moth­er­hood is also the mo­tor for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill dip­tych, in which Uma Thur­man’s as­sas­sin, known as The Bride, em­barks on a re­venge spree against the four for­mer squad­mates she holds re­spon­si­ble for the death of her un­born daugh­ter. Skirt­ing spoil­ers, let’s just say the end­ing is an un­ex­pect­edly happy one – though not for the fa­ther, who as else­where is very much an op­tional part of the ac­tion hero­ine fam­ily unit.

See also The Long Kiss Good­night (1996), in which Geena Davis’s soft-hearted mother re­alises she used to be a gor­geous and glam­orous CIA as­sas­sin – a per­sona that surges back to the sur­face when she has to res­cue her daugh­ter from the girl’s bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther. In the realm of psy­cho­anal­y­sis, the male strug­gle to rec­on­cile those two im­ages of wom­an­hood is called the Madonna-whore com­plex, and is a cause of sex­ual dys­func­tion. In the mind of Shane Black, it’s a great premise for a script.

Is it un­fair that cin­ema’s ac­tion women have to ne­go­ti­ate this kind of psy­cho­log­i­cal Kryp­ton Fac­tor while their male coun­ter­parts flounce lightly past with a ma­chine gun tucked un­der one arm? Well, ab­so­lutely. But when it comes to great char­ac­ters, don’t mis­take a strug­gle for a dis­ad­van­tage.

Tough love: Daisy Ri­d­ley as Rey in The Force Awak­ens

Genre- defin­ing: Pam Grier, left, in 1973’s Coffy, which was among the first films to put an all- out ac­tion woman on screen

Who you gonna call?: The all-fe­male Ghost­busters re­boot al­lowed its leads to show their hu­mor­ous sides

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