By Ryan Wilson
What is it about women kicking butt? Recently those interested in such
activity could choose between mixed-martial arts fighter Gina Carano in Stephen
Soderbergh’s Haywire and Kate Beckensale donning the leather pants for the latest
Underworld vampire adventure. I’ll get to some thoughts on both of these new films, but
first I’d like to explore how we’ve come to this point and whether or not it’s good for any
I suppose to first associate women with action one must look at those early James
Bond movies, since those films essentially invented the modern action film as we know
it. Aside from Diana Rigg’s performance in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, most of the
Bond Girls were interchangeably passive, needing a rescue or more often simply arm-
candy for Sean Connery or Roger Moore as they ran down an exploding aqueduct. But
then in the 1970s along came Pam Grier as a militant alternative, part of both the
Blaxpoitation and the Women’s movements. Grier’s legacy in films like Foxy Brown
literally blew the doors wide open for women of the 1980s to step through heavily armed. And though the 1980s is better known for its male heroes like Stallone,
Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis, anyone with half a brain would take Sigourney
Weaver’s Ripley character in the Alien franchise in a real fight. Weaver’s toughness was
never displayed through the physical so much as through her sheer perseverance. She
simply endured longer than any of the men around her by using her intuition.
But then in the 1990s female intuition wasn’t quite enough. We made women
equally combative by showing that they too had a few roundhouse kicks in their arsenal,
which is a dangerous bridge because suddenly the female action star also turned overtly
sexual. Now we were in the territory of fetish, where we bust out those leather pants to
make female action sequences synonymous with the act of sex. And the examples here
are all too numerous, from TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Alias to Quentin
Tarantino’s Kill Bill to the rise of Angelina Jolie as Tomb Raider to her more recent role
as Salt. We really haven’t moved much beyond this. In fact we’ve occasionally moved
backwards, most notably in those Drew Barrymore Charlie’s Angels movies, where the
heroes aren’t just kung-foo fighting but giggling like schoolgirls to ensure us how
feminine they still are. How many contradictory messages does that send?
It would be impossible to lump every female action role into the same sexist or
feminist package. Generally speaking someone like Joss Whedon pushes these female
character forward while the Wachowski brothers and their Matrix trilogy keep their
women as rigid as a dominatrix (literally). But the larger complaint, I think, is that the
details don’t even matter anymore. The whole female action figure has become so
common that it’s become boring, even cliché.
Which finally leads me to these new releases. First to Underworld,
which keeps resurrecting Kate Beckinsale as the vampire Selene, as if she’s going to do
something besides dodge bullets in that skin-tight leather suit and pretend she’d rather be
playing Catwoman. It’s important to say that it’s not her fault. Fans of the franchise
clearly want to keep watching her essentially do the same thing in every movie, sort of
like how the children of the 1990s somehow wanted to keep watching Power Rangers. In
essence this has less to do with feminism or sexism than is has to do with capitalism,
which yes I realize reflects feminism and sexism.
But I’ll forgive Underworld as a franchise more that I’ll forgive a multitalented
filmmaker like Steven Soderbergh for his new film Haywire. Mainly because Haywire
only cares about showing off the fighting talents of Gina Carano, who plays a special
agent double-crossed by her employer, played by a dull Ewan McGregor. Carano’s
talents admittedly are considerable, but that’s actually part of the problem. It’s as if
Soderbergh wants to shout at us, “See, she’s actually doing her own fighting.” But away
from a few magnificent fights, most notably a brawl in a hotel room with Michael
Fassbender, her character is underdeveloped, as is the plot that surrounds her.
And this leads to a very large irony: in the fifty-plus years of evolving women as
action stars, we still care very little for who they actually are. Yes, they can kick as much
butt as men, more these days actually, but aside from that they’re still as empty as those
original Bond Girls. This might be something worth fighting over.
Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College, Quality Public Radio.
© Ryan Wilson, 2012