AWFJ Women On Film – The Week In Women, April 23, 2010 – MaryAnn Johanson

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Even lady action heroes get the blues…

EVEN STRONG GIRLS ARE SUBMISSIVE, DUH. Hit Girl. Salt. Lara Croft. Uma Thurman’s The Bride. Trinity. Nikita. It must surely be the golden age of female action heroes. Or maybe not. A new study by Katy Gilpatric of Kaplan University’s Department of Social Sciences — published in the journal Sex Roles — concludes that female action heroes don’t bust gender stereotypes, they reinforce them. The abstract:

This research is a content analysis of violent female action characters (“VFAC”) shown in American action films from 1991 through 2005. The analysis focused on three aspects of VFACs: (1) gender stereotypes, (2) demographics, and (3) quantity and type of violence. Findings showed that 58.6% of VFACs were portrayed in a submissive role to the male hero in the film, and 42% were romantically linked to him. The average VFAC was young, white, highly educated, and unmarried. VFACs engaged in masculine types of violence yet retained feminine stereotypes due to their submissive role and romantic involvement with a dominant male hero character. The findings suggest continued gender stereotypes set within a violent framework of contemporary American cinema.

Yeah, it’s a bit technical: that’s how academic studies work. But dig into the actual paper, and there are lots of readable and highly enlightening — if depressing and disappointing — tidbits.

Gilpatric opens by acknowledging that Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of Lieutenant Ellen Ripley in 1979’s Alien appears to bash some clichés into the ground:

It is now commonplace to see female action characters engage in hand-to-hand combat, wield swords, shoot machine guns, and employ high-tech weaponry to destroy people and property—behaviors once the exclusive domain of male action heroes. These tough female representations seem to have moved beyond traditional notions of femininity and have drawn attention from feminist theorists who have debated whether they are empowering images for real women (McCaughey and King 2001), represent the ability of women to draw upon their femininity as a source of power (Rowe-Karlyn 2003), or are a kind of “post-woman” operating outside the boundaries of gender restrictions (Hills 1999).

And Gilpatric admits that “[c]onsensus on gender stereotypes can be problematic,” and that the nature of Hollywood itself must be taken into account:

Instead of accepting female action characters as empowering role models, it is useful to take a critical view and understand that VFACs are a market-driven commodity. Mainstream movies are created to capture the largest audience possible (Sklar 1994). It is no accident that the most successful films adhere to gender stereotypes and strive to be nonoffensive in order to appeal to a mainstream audience.

Some of the data is impossible to parse without corresponding numbers regarding male action heroes:

Nearly 30% of all VFACs died by the end of the movie. Of the VFACs who died, four (8%) were main heroines. These included the two heroines of Thelma & Louise (1991), Captain Walden in Courage under Fire (1996), and Lt. Ripley in Alien3 (1992). Another 47% were evil and consequently killed as punishment for their bad acts, and 45% were categorized as submissive to the male hero. A critical review of these death scenes revealed disturbing imagery because VFACs died heart-wrenching deaths in the arms of male heroes.

A gut-feeling sense of how violent men are depicted onscreen suggests that some similar numbers would be found in a similar study looking at the depictions of men onscreen. (Male actors typically plays villains as well as heroes in action movies, for instance, and many male action characters die by a film’s end.) However, it’s unlikely that we would find many violent male characters who are submissive to violent female charaters:

Instead of breaking gender barriers and portraying empowering female roles, most VFACs were shown as sidekicks and helpmates to the more dominant male hero and were frequently involved in a romantic relationship with him. Over 40% of all VFACs were portrayed as girlfriends or wives to the male heroes in the movies. The findings suggest that VFACs seem to be inserted into the story to support and promote the actions of the male hero. The VFAC often appeared as a damsel-in-distress providing the impetus for a male hero to overcome obstacles in order to save her. This was more likely to occur if the VFAC was also linked romantically to the male hero. The exceptions were the few VFACs depicted as main heroines. Main heroines were less likely to be romantically linked to the male hero, and therefore less likely to assist or be protected by him. This was to be expected because main heroines took on the role of the central hero figure and therefore were less likely to exhibit feminine stereotypes of submission and affection.

In other words: the protagonists in movies intended to appeal to mainstream audiences are not expected to be submissive or affectionate, and because we expect those qualities to apply to men but not to women, this accounts for the lack of female action characters who primarily drive a film’s plot through their own overt actions.

Gilpatric concludes:

The debate continues as to whether the few action heroines that we are familiar with, such as Lt. Ripley, Sarah Connor, or Lara Croft, have broken down gender barriers in action films. This research provides evidence that the majority of female action characters shown in American cinema are not empowering images, they do not draw upon their femininity as a source of power, and they are not a kind of “post woman” operating outside the boundaries of gender restrictions. Instead, they operate inside socially constructed gender norms, rely on the strength and guidance of a dominant male action character, and end up rearticulating gender stereotypes.

We can translate this as well: Even the most violent of women (like the ones in the most over-the-top action movies) are still submissive to men. Mainstream movies do not, therefore, represent the reality of human experience. In real life, some women — not many, perhaps, but some — are stronger, faster, and more violent than some men. In real life, some men — not many, perhaps, but some — are more affectionate, more submissive, and weaker, and less violent then some women. But we never see this onscreen.

It’s an interesting metric through which to reconsider Hit Girl, too. The Kick-Ass character has been praised by some as a positive depiction of a strong female. But she’s a child, which would naturally make her submissive to adults anyway, but then she is additionally burdened with a psychologically abusive relationship with her father: she is entirely under his sway, entirely submissive to his needs and his desires for revenge. Hardly a rallying point for female self-determination.

SALT IN THE WOUND. As if to underscore Gilpatric’s study, this week Scott Mendelson at Salon let loose on the upcoming film Salt, which has been hailed as a new crossroads for the depiction of strong female action heroes. The film stars Angelina Jolie as a CIA agent accused of being a Russian spy (the movie must be set in 1985!) in a role that was originally written for a male actor. Taking to task an article about the film that appeared in Entertainment Weekly, Mendelson snarls:

Much of the article is a group pat on the back for the supposedly amazing progressiveness of the fact that Angelina Jolie ended up playing an action hero originally written for a male star like Tom Cruise (who bailed when the script began to too closely resemble a “Mission: Impossible” picture). Fair enough, but such a thing really shouldn’t be a big deal in 2010, and the fact that the filmmakers are falling over themselves in self-congratulation is the very opposite of progressive.

Mendelson then quotes the EW article (which does not appear to be online) for its jaw-droppingly idiotic comment from director Phillip Noyce:

“In the original script, there was a huge sequence where Edwin Salt (the original male protagonist) saves his wife, who’s in danger,” says Noyce. “And what we found in the new script, it seemed to castrate his character a little. So we had to change the nature of that relationship.” In the end, Salt’s husband, played by German actor August Diehl (‘Inglourious Basterds’), was made tough enough that he didn’t need saving, thank you much.

Mendelson’s kicker:

So, hidden in an article on how “Salt” is oh-so-empowering for female action heroes is this tidbit. The filmmakers believe that it was perfectly OK for the spouse to be rescued from mortal danger if said love interest was a girl, but not if the romantic partner was a man.

It doesn’t surprise me, and it sure wouldn’t surprise Gilpatric. And it probably shouldn’t surprise us that Entertainment Weekly — a corporate entity devoted to promoting the output of other corporate entities — wouldn’t call out Noyce for his comment… or for compromising his character as he did.

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MaryAnn Johanson

MaryAnn Johanson is a freelance writer on film, TV, DVD, and pop culture from New York City and now based in London. She is the webmaster and sole critic at FlickFilosopher.com, which debuted in 1997 and is now one of the most popular, most respected, and longest-running movie-related sites on the Internet. Her film reviews also appear in a variety of alternative-weekly newspapers across the U.S. Johanson is one of only a few film critics who is a member of The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences (the Webby organization), an invitation-only, 500-member body of leading Web experts, business figures, luminaries, visionaries and creative celebrities. She is also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. She has appeared as a cultural commentator on BBC Radio, LBC-London, and on local radio programs across North America, and she served as a judge at the first Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Film Festival at the 2003 I-Con, the largest SF convention on the East Coast. She is the author of The Totally Geeky Guide to The Princess Bride, and is an award-winning screenwriter. Read Johanson's recent articles below. For her AWFJ.org archive, type "MaryAnn Johanson" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).