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?
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