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Babes in Action

The action heroine genre leaves many power and equality seeking women cold. But with gender disparity slowly receding there is more room in society and the big screen for ass-kicking females. And though the genre leaves much to be desired, things are looking up with flicks like 'Charlie's Angels' and 'Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,' proving that when estrogen meets adrenaline, bad guys had better beware.

Article by Katherine Brown
Illustration by Seth Friedman

May.18th.2001

Here's an idea: women as action heroines. Good action heroines. Neither all sex nor all brawn but a blend of the two with brains and humor thrown in for good measure. Doesn't sound so radical, does it? And yet examples of this feminine role model have been few and far between in the history of Hollywood. When women I know name the action movie heroines they admired, not only the same names but also the same few movies recur: Sigourney Weaver in "Aliens," Linda Hamilton in "The Terminator," my personal favorite Michelle Yeoh, in "Tomorrow Never Dies." There are a few others, generally in subordinate roles (Trinity in "The Matrix") or inferior movies (like "Barb Wire"), but the roster quickly grows thin.

While the idea of such strong women is not particularly radical, their scarcity is not particularly puzzling either. A number of obstacles have stood in the way of the proliferation of the big-screen tigress, even as her masculine counterpart has enjoyed a rich and substantial legacy. Historically, propriety has been first and foremost -- the idea that genteel femininity does not encompass running around in spandex, kicking ass, and takin' names has relegated women to the sidelines. When Errol Flynn was swashbuckling his way through Sherwood Forest with his band of merry men, it seems plain that the idea of Olivia de Haviland pitching battle herself was not in the minds of the movie makers.

Not so much has changed since 1938. Newly forged action star Cameron Diaz emphasized recently in Cinemascape that even today "most of the time when you see a woman doing action, she's defending herself ... and the hero comes and saves the day. The man is running the show."

Even today only a marginal fringe of feminist thinkers believe that there is no gender disparity in physical potential. Yet it has become fairly universally accepted that some women can work themselves into better shape than a great majority of men. Today's women surpass the achievement of top male runners of the past daily -- had Olympic record-holder Joan Benoit run her 2:24:52 marathon as late as the 1956 Games, she would have beaten all male contenders.) In other sports, the WNBA is no freakish sideshow. Men and women alike take an interest because the level of play is extremely high, as it is in professional women's soccer, softball, and so on.

And as the raw physical parameters of achievement have changed, so have (however slowly and imperfectly) society's standards of what femininity means, and what counts as transgression against it. Certainly female athletes and others for whom physical rigor comprises an important part of life and livelihood -- firefighters, soldiers, and action heroines not least of all -- owe a great deal to the women who fought for equality in the academic, business, and political arenas. Without the feminist struggle for de jure equality, and for equality of opportunity, in areas where nature gave them no disadvantage, few women would have been able to take the fields where muscle counted.

But the thinkers and political agitators owe something to the players, too. In their visceral glory, they have made an impression. The spectacle of a woman stepping up and performing physically has a visual and instinctual impact that few achievements in other field can drive home so instantly and powerfully. Traditionalists may criticize women for public displays of might, but those displays make it harder for them to claim that women are unsuited to athletics and other physical rigors. The spirit of competition with men, as well as with each other, seems to have increased with the flourishing of women's professional athletics. Witness US women's soccer star Mia Hamm's recent appearance in a series of Nike commercials that pitted her against Michael Jordan in a variety of playful sports contests, in which each gained the advantage at different moments.

Yet direct physical competition between the genders remains rare: a few bouts in amateur boxing and wrestling, the rare female kicker permitted on the gridiron, and the equestrian sports at the Olympics. It's in the realm of fantasy, such as in those commercials or in the movies, that women do get their shot at men. And indeed, as the propriety/disparity barrier has ceased to be as daunting as it once was in sports and the workplace, women have made similar gains on the screen. Women warriors flourish in Hong Kong action movies, for a start; Michelle Yeoh merely tops the roster of females fighting, and winning, against men. The recent smash success of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (in which Yeoh plays a seasoned, disciplined martial artist opposite feisty ingenue Zhang Ziyi) sounded a wake-up call to those who doubted that those types of female roles would fly in America. Along with its Best Foreign Picture Oscar came a perhaps still more impressive nomination in the Best (Overall) Picture category. But whether "Crouching Tiger" was an exception enabled by lots of forces coming together on a particular project -- director Ang Lee returning to his roots after Hollywood successes; the casting of seminal star Chow Yun-Fat; and Yeoh's having established herself stateside in a fetching turn opposite archetypal babe-juggler James Bond -- or whether it's actually the opening of a conduit from the Hong Kong market remains to be seen.

The differences in the way the two film cultures deal with women could serve as the basis for a much longer article in and of itself. Women's gains in Hong Kong may not translate directly into Hollywood movies, and as American influence travels west across the Pacific as well, the issue will only grow more complicated. For now it may be enough to note that women are taking small but determined steps in American interpretations of the martial arts flick: Trinity goes stride for stride with Neo in "The Matrix," though she's sent home before the final battle. Jackie Chan's mother in "The Legend of Drunken Master" trains him, before being eclipsed by him. If women are still sidelined, at least they're not mere cheerleaders.

However it influences the Western conception of the woman warrior, the highly stylized world of martial arts -- in which characters break into fights with all the naturalism of Broadway characters breaking into song -- offers no hints as to dealing with the darker aspect of inter-gender violence. Hong Kong action movie characters fight honorably, for revenge or prestige, or oafishly for petty personal gain. Rarely are the conflicts undercut with the ordinary menace that women face on city streets.

To gain insight into this arena, it might be more profitable to turn back to a Nike advertisement -- one quite different from the playful Hamm/Jordan rivalry series. In the controversial ad, which ran briefly during the Sydney Olympics, sprinter Suzy Hamilton outruns a chainsaw-wielding pursuer whose face is covered in a hockey mask. He huffs and puffs, trying to catch his breath, and the slogan -- which perhaps pushed the spot over the edge -- comes up: "Why sport? You'll live longer." Yowza. Feminists put up a hue and cry, and Nike pulled the ad. But Ruth Shalit's exploration in Salon into the thought behind the commercial makes an interesting point. She writes of Nike's campaigns:

The ads targeting men were loose, playful and cartoonish, often tweaking or making fun of the very athletes they used as their endorsers. The women's spots, by contrast, were earnest, didactic, issue-oriented: "If you let me play... With the "Horror" spot, however, Nike seems to have stepped down from its soapbox. Hamilton is treated as an athlete rather than as a "woman athlete" who must be self-consciously fawned over and empowered.

Shalit goes on to quote Russell Davis, the planning director at Nike's ad agency, to the same effect -- that perhaps women have come so far, that their athleticism has become so well accepted, that it makes sense to leave petulance behind in favor of a humorous self-awareness.

Obviously, the darkness behind the spot is not physical gender disparity, but the threat of criminal violence. Given the realities of violent crime and in particular violent sexual crime against women in our society, it seems fair to say that Nike went too far its attempt at humor. But consider that violence is a threat that hangs over both genders and that caricaturing it in media and the arts can, when carefully deployed, be a means of subverting its hold over us. It's an argument that Gerard Jones makes in Mother Jones in his article "Violent Media is Good for Kids," supporting violent action movies and TV as a healthy release even for children. If action heroines can be forceful and athletic, yet retain the accessories of their femininity, from high hair to high heels, it's silly, yes -- but healthy.

This power is the critical currency of "Charlie's Angels." Big-screen heroines have too often had to sacrifice one power for the other. Demi Moore's "G.I. Jane" struggled to be just as good a man, which entailed pretty much giving up her femininity, and even Weaver's sexy Sgt. Ripley had to shave her head to lock horns with the Alien enemy in "Resurrection." It's a trade-off the makers of that series understood demonstrably well -- the second movie, "Aliens," boasted this delightful exchange between the male Private Hudson and the female Private Vasquez:

Hudson: Hey Vasquez, you ever been mistaken for a man?
Vasquez: No, have you?


It's a neat inversion, but like the most piercing humor, it plays close to truth. Vasquez's toughness is seen as threatening her ability to be fully female. It's a risk the Angels, with their hair-tossing and perfect nails, will never run.

But are Diaz, Barrymore, and Liu going too far in the other direction? Women waiting to see the new movie have had more than a few disparaging things to say about Diaz's boob-baring ensembles, as well as the general girliness of the three stars. If moviegoers were hoping for "Gladiator" or "Die Hard"-esque grit, the Angels' trailers are quick to debunk that notion. Does the fact that the Angels still fight in heels, and that at least one gets seduced into sleeping with the enemy, set back the feminist movement? Hardly. What these women do is to affirm a woman's right to be fabulous -- to perform in her own way, to exploit her own sources of power, and to be treated as the fully articulated characters that the best male action heroes are. Sometimes they risk ridiculousness but those shortcomings are more personal, accruing to each Angel for herself, than they are erosions of feminine power.

The movie's writing could use some help, certainly. Good possibilities go unused, and there are basic, gaping holes in the plot -- the abilities of the Angels seem tailor-made for the spot they're in; in some scenes, it takes three of them to down one man, while in others a single Angel can take on a gang successfully. But overall "Charlie's Angels" is a solid, entertaining, action movie likely to appeal to both men and women. In fact, it's doing slightly better amongst women than amongst men, as Cinemascore's exit polls attest, which implies its appeal goes a bit beyond mere eye candy. And that will ultimately do more for the proliferation of action heroines then any impeccably correct depiction of strong females.

The critical buzz on the flick has been generally negative. Yet these same critics have been quick to praise "Girlfight," a recent arthouse flick starring Michelle Rodriguez as a female boxer who takes on young men and beats them. I could barely sit through the latter; it was plodding and dull, a drag to both me and, to all appearances, most of the audience with which I shared the theater. Box-office figures are virtually guaranteed to reverse the critics' appraisal, and while those statistics may not be the be-all, end-all of movie evaluation, they are well worth considering.

At the very least, "Charlie's Angels" should be seen as a prominent notch on the belt of the action heroine. It provides three take-no-prisoners characters to the elite pantheon; it won't hurt the marketability of its stars at all. Barrymore and Liu are both still in building phases, career-wise, and this is Liu's first major outing on the big screen. They've blazed through and left the door open. If viewers come to expect and insist upon this standard, female presence in the genre shows all signs of expanding. Next year, for instance, will see the release of a movie based on the popular video game Tomb Raider. It will star Angelina Jolie, who may yet outdo her pale "Gone in 60 Seconds" role. She'll give real-life proportions to the Barbie-bodied Lara Croft, an archaeologist with energy to spare, hopefully adding one more steely yet distinctly female character to the list.

Action heroines must tread a careful tightrope, between conceding the field too much to men, irritating feminists, and trying too hard to fill male roles precisely thereby turning off viewers who know there are very real differences between the sexes. But armchair critics should not be so quick to condemn the efforts of the Angels and their ilk. With their camp appeal and unrepentant sexuality, they gain a space on the screen which has previously been denied to women. They make themselves fun to watch, and they seem to enjoy themselves both as their characters and as actresses commenting on their roles. It's easy to forget how recently women have gained the rights they have -- that today's issues demonstrate a sea change from the situation facing women of just a generation before.

Yet now that women have a spot on the starting line, it doesn't make sense to force them into a perpetually grave, beholden mode. We should be able to revel in what we've won, and campy movies that yet get to showcase an arsenal of sweet moves are one way to do that. So move over, Schwarzenegger: when estrogen meets adrenaline, bad guys had better beware.


A version of this article was previously printed in Reckon Magazine.




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