Heroes, Not Heroines: Women Kicking Ass in Contemporary American Cinema
Often we lament that there are not enough positive images of women in film—particularly American film. We see movies where the female characters reinforce negative stereotypes of women—the sex object, the passive victim, the virgin on a pedestal, or the evildoing whore. We also see movies where female characters—inadvertently or otherwise—work against the more important male hero, or at best marginally support him. Just last year we were at the PCA conference in Boston discussing strong women heroic until the final acts, final acts where men rush in to save the day the women were fully capable of saving themselves. And finally, contemporary cinema also gives us films neglecting women entirely. Is it a logical deduction that women are simply not seen as heroic in our culture, and therefore, that ideology does not translate to the screen?
The truth lies in the margins. No, our culture does not see women as heroic in a traditional context, but to truly understand the proclivities of popular cinema—and, for that matter, unpopular cinema—one must boil mainstream culture down to its essence. Everything that exists in the modern world is valued on a simple scale: that which is masculine and that which is feminine. Motion pictures are no different. It’s why we saw Schindler’s List instead of Irena’s List, and Michael Clayton rather than Michelle Clayton. Hollywood loves nothing more than a great hero, and that which makes a hero—be it punching, shooting, swashbuckling, or simply standing up for what is right—is labeled masculine. It would seem that women have no chance as heroes in today’s films without replicating male hero ideals.
An interesting evolution has taken place in recent years. The role of women in motion pictures has slowly but unmistakably morphed. In the past, and even in many cases today, women have been depicted in a decidedly negative context. More recently, however, there has been an emergence—small though it may be—of the Female Hero, one who is empowered to triumph over her enemies. This development has been a refreshing surprise and would indicate an unexpected willingness for Hollywood to regularly break stereotypes, a willingness to progress far beyond the traditional, reliable construction of the cinematic hero. But close observation of these new wave heroines reveals that maybe the construction has not changed so much after all. Yes, female characters have finally been permitted to take charge, and yes, they often triumph in the end; however, the methods by which they succeed are based on traditionally masculine molds.
We see on screen what is valued in our culture. And, in our culture, we value what is male—male strength, male virility, male vengeance, and male pride. If we want to see powerful women on screen, they must replicate what our culture values. And in motion pictures, if we value what is male, female heroines must be written as men. In Neil Jordan’s The Brave One, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse, Corey Yuen’s DOA: Dead or Alive, and Nimrod Antal’s Vacancy we are confronted with women who kick ass as ferociously as if they were men—and its fun to see. So the question then becomes: can we reconcile our desire to witness strong women depicted on screen with the overtly masculine construction of the contemporary cinematic female hero?
In the annals of film history—and really, in all of media history—there has never been any figure more heroic than the Superhero. Heroism is built right into the job title. And by traditional standards, superheroes are just that—heroes. Not heroines. We have Superman, Batman, Spiderman, and on and on. They are astonishingly indestructible and terminally unbeatable. Above all else, they are relentless in their pursuit of justice and truth. And, they are all men.
The interesting thing about The Brave One is that it plays like a gritty, unconventional, firmly grounded superhero movie. Directed by Neil Jordan, who previously played with gender constructions in a far more literal sense in The Crying Game and Breakfast on Pluto, the film takes a simple revenge storyline and applies it to a superhero structure. After all, what are superheroes but ordinary people who face incredible tragedy and dedicate the rest of their lives to avenging their victimhood by killing bad guys?
In the film, Jodie Foster plays Erica Bain, a New York AM radio host who philosophizes about the minutiae of life in the city, and who lives a happy life in a luxurious brownstone with her fiancé, David (Naveen Andrews). Everything is going wonderfully for Erica until one night, while walking her dog with David, the couple is hijacked by a group of thugs. After a long struggle, Erica is severely injured, the dog is stolen, and David is brutally murdered.
Erica breaks. Left without the man she loved and finding her pleas ignored by the authorities, Erica goes out one day, enters a guns-and-ammo store, and buys a gun—a gun that will become the equivalent of her waving red cape. She starts going out at night, stalking the city, waiting for her opportunity to defend the innocent. Even if she can no longer defend the life she once lived, she determines to defend the lives of other potential victims. A new superhero is born.
But this superhero is not a polished, high-gloss Superman type. No—this female superhero is imminently more masculine. Erica wields her gun with astonishing ferocity, inflicting brutal violence upon the “bad guys” without a tinge of sympathy. Her inner torture is exorcized by fighting crimes. She uses her radio show as an outlet to unleash her rage and her sorrow through a spiel of thickly-veiled platitudes and befriends a sympathetic police detective (Terrence Howard) in what could either be seen as a way of begging to be caught or as turning one of the ignorant police officers into an accomplice.
Erica’s ultimate desire is to find her fiancé’s killers and exact her revenge. Like most superheroes, Erica’s bloodthirsty inner rage drives her crime fighting tendencies, and like every superhero story ever told, she eventually comes face-to-face with her greatest villains. Yet in her final confrontation, Erica does not settle for legal justice. Unlike Batman, she is not satisfied with a stiff jail sentence for her enemies. True to her vengeful journey, Erica literally kills ‘em all. And once her journey comes full circle, Erica walks off into the night, an unknown future awaiting her. It seems as if she will surrender her cape, so to speak. But perhaps the cycle will never be broken, and this “hero” will go on forever.
As a film, The Brave One is a first-rate thriller about the nature of violence and the tenuous state of the human soul. As an example of a strong female heroine, it stays true to its conviction but surrenders to a distinctly masculine construction of violence and vengeance. If the roles were reversed, and the Erica were Eric, who snapped and became a vigilante hero after losing his wife to street punks, the film could ostensibly remain 100% intact, with nary a scene changed. Erica lives solely on the stubborn quest for vengeance and justice, which are two categorically male traits. Her continual gun wielding and the ease with which she immerses herself in the world of violence are also indicative of a male figure. In a way, Erica Bain is a woman playing the role of a Sam Peckinpah male.
Just as The Brave One simultaneously undermines both the revenge drama and the superhero movie, so does Grindhouse completely immerse itself in yet another genre, only in this case one that has not been seen in decades: the cheesy B-movie exploitation double-feature. Grindhouse consists of two short features, the first directed by Robert Rodriguez and the second by Quentin Tarantino. Both films bend traditional gender roles, and both infuse their female heroines with entirely masculine qualities.
Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez’s entry in the Grindhouse canon, is a heavily campy zombie flick, chock full of intentionally bad edit splices and deliberately artificial-looking blood and guts. The formula is simple: there are cannibalistic zombies on the loose and sinister forces behind them, and only a small band of healthy humans can save the world from the undead.
Rose McGowan plays Cherry Darling, a dancer who works at a sleazy strip joint who finds herself at the center of a battle between the last remaining humans and the increasing army of zombies who are taking over the Earth. Cherry has a close encounter with one of the monsters and loses one of her legs. But have no fear: through expositional scientific mumbo-jumbo, her leg is replaced with a prosthetic that happens to be a machine gun-slash-rocket launcher.
Cherry has a team of helpers in her quest to rid the world of the undead, including one prominent male in the form of Wray (Freddie Rodriguez), who is a master with weapons of all sorts—and is Cherry’s ex-boyfriend. But Planet Terror is firmly centered on Cherry, and everyone around her—males and females alike—function as helpmates, and especially when the oversized gun is affixed to her wounded stump, Cherry becomes the ass-kicking, zombie-killing, shoot-em-up queen of schlock cinema.
However, Cherry’s rise to heroism is supported by an ultimate masculinity. This time, the proof is in the description alone: she has a machine gun for a leg. It doesn’t get much more obvious than to save humanity using the most traditional of male bastion symbols.
Following Planet Terror on the Grindhouse double-bill is Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino’s ultra-cool combination of typical B-movie exploitation and Tarantino’s purposefully post-modern hipster dialogue. Whereas Planet Terror was a pure immersion into the ham-and-cheese zombie genre, Death Proof is a violent clash of the outdated and fully modern. It also makes no bones about allowing the central female characters to fully usurp all of the film’s testosterone and turn it against the male villain.
Kurt Russell stars as Stuntman Mike, who tells stories about his career as a movie stuntman, drives a “death proof” muscle car fully equipped with every safety device a stunt driver could need, and picks up innocent women in bars, takes them for a ride, and brutally murders them in severe car crashes. Stuntman Mike is a remorseless, sadistic, misogynist killer whose untouchable rise to ultimate super villain status can only be defeated by a person or group of persons who are able to trump his own towering masculine strength.
Tarantino structures Death Proof as two distinct acts. Act One allows Stuntman Mike to run amok, killing innocent women, while loving every minute of it. Act Two, however, introduces a completely new set of ingénues—Abernathy, Kim, and Zoe (Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms, and real-life stuntwoman Zoe Bell). And these ingénues refuse to let Mike do his thing. In fact, not only do they refuse, but they also completely turn the tables on him. “I’m gonna bust a nut up in this bitch!” shouts Kim as she speeds up to ram into Stuntman Mike’s once indestructible car, effectively stalking the stalker, co-opting traditionally male language in the process. “Let’s go kill this bastard,” deadpans Abernathy—and the chase is on. After establishing Stuntman Mike as the evil, freewheeling, death proof presence, Tarantino lets the women do the torturing, and they gleefully enjoy every minute of their rampage.
Death Proof concludes with a furious, 30-minute car chase sequence replete with extraordinary stunts, crass dialogue, and one final nail—or boot—driven into Stuntman Mike’s coffin. The girls repeatedly wreck into Mike’s muscle car, turning it into junkyard material. They also thoroughly claim the high ground against Mike himself—they out-think him, out-drive him, and out-evil him. Once a cocky, unabashed chauvinist killer, Mike begins to whine and cry like a baby—or as some might refer to it, “like a girl.”
Abernathy, Kim, and Zoe finish what they started by pulling Mike from the wreckage of his car, taking turns beating him to a pulp. After sending Mike to the ground, the three women raise their arms in joyous, satisfied exultation, and the frame freezes as they stand victorious over their enemy. The film then flashes Tarantino’s “written and directed by” credit, but then cuts back to Dawson’s Abernathy as she raises her booted leg high into the air, whips it down, and crushes Mike’s skull.
One could argue that the final, brutal actions of this fearsome female triad do nothing but perpetuate the undeniable masculinization of strong cinematic females. However, the genius of Tarantino’s influence over Death Proof is the way he skewers several different stereotypes all at once. Yes, Abernathy, Kim, and Zoe exhibit overwhelmingly masculine traits, but Tarantino infuses each of them with just enough femininity to not only comment on the gender reversal, but also to comment on the basic societal constructions of gender in the first place. Whether it’s Zoe’s pink shirt, or Abernathy’s short skirt, or the extended tracking shot of the three girls’ sauntering backsides as they approach their debilitated victim, Tarantino allows the audience to see the femininity seeping through the cracks of his characters’ acquired masculine identity. Once again, one could argue that by showcasing such stereotypical female images, from the miniskirt to the color pink, Tarantino is merely exploiting the sexuality of his female characters. In reality, though, he is subtly commenting on the nature of gender constructions—both the ones he constructs for his characters, and the ones society constructs for all of us.
DOA: Dead or Alive is yet another foray into genre- and gender-bending filmmaking. Corey Yuen’s film is a tongue-in-cheek riff on the Kung Fu genre, only with a trio of powerful females at the film’s center. The film is about 70% ridiculous and 30% fun, but nevertheless, the film is about nothing more than highly choreographed fights, pumping techno-pop music, and ass-kicking females who act more like men than the buffed-up dudes they fight.
The three central heroines are Tina, Kasumi, and Christie (Jaime Pressly, Devon Aoki, and Holly Valance, respectively). They each have their own tiny shred of a back-story—either involving long lost love, long lost dad, or some other long lost entity—but their true function of this film is to be walking, talking, ass-kicking male clones. And walk, talk, and kick ass they do—a lot.
DOA is overloaded with masculine women, although in a martial arts film based on a video game, that is sort of the point. The Hong Kong imports from which this and many other Kung Fu flicks steal abundantly have long been known for their inclusion of incredibly strong women. The difference in this American version is that the women also must look like supermodels and/or porn stars. And if there is any one element DOA showcases even more than the martial arts, it would be the highly suggestive exposure of flesh. Such a mixture of masculine ass-kicking and overtly feminine sex appeal would seem to indicate a very strong male gaze, and indeed, DOA was directed by a man and written by four men (not sure how it took that many, but still).
But analyzing DOA’s portrayal of female heroes reveals an interesting cultural phenomenon that has only emerged with the Millennial generation, those teens and twentysomethings who have grown up in the age of internet porn and pop culture savvy. The central females of DOA are not only innately masculine because of the way they kick ass, but also because of their cavalier attitudes about said ass-kicking and even more cavalier attitudes towards flaunting their sexuality. The Millennial woman fashions herself as a post-modern feminist deconstructing typical feminine roles. Unfortunately, the central idea of millennial feminism seems simply to usurp the traditionally masculine role, thereby gaining social and interpersonal power—masculine is the new feminine. Millennial women transform themselves into cold, tough, and sexually open individuals. In DOA, the women are undeniably Millennials. While Kasumi is faithful to her long lost love, Tina and Christie flaunt their sexuality, reveal a significant portion of their skin, and take pride in their hardcore “feminism.” Christie especially falls into this category, as she not only uses her sexuality to win fights, but also uses it to bed a few men throughout the film. The only catch to such behavior is that while the characters appear to take pride in being women, they are actually taking pride in acting like men. Such is the influence of the Millennial generation: today’s women are discovering that to claim their own independent power, they must, ironically, defeat masculinity with masculinity.
A trend has developed among the films discussed in this essay. Each of them not only attempts to sabotage traditional male-female stereotypes, but each also buries itself within a very specific mode of filmmaking. As The Brave One was a superhero film and Grindhouse was…well, a grindhouse movie, Nimrod Antal’s Vacancy is a throwback to the hot-blooded, white-knuckle thrillers of Hollywood’s past. Its goal is to ratchet the tension to a fever pitch, and then let it quickly and viciously unwind itself. Yet another strong female character assumes an otherwise male role in the film, only this time the female is not simply a male proxy, but she actually functions as the male hero’s replacement.
Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale star as David and Amy Fox, a couple in the process of discussing plans for a divorce when their car stalls along the side of a deserted road. They hike to the nearest motel they can find—and luckily for the plot, they find the sleaziest roadside joint since Psycho.
Upon checking into their room, David finds a stack of videotapes sitting by their television. When he gets curious enough to insert one of the tapes into the VCR, he and Amy are hit with a rude awakening: the tapes consist of homemade snuff films—and the setting for said films is the room David and Amy find themselves in. David swiftly stops the tape, but upon switching back to the television, he discovers he is staring back at himself. Yes, David and Amy are the latest stars of the motel’s snuff films, and they must find a way to escape before they become two more on-screen victims.
Vacancy is a mild departure from the previous films—only gradually does the heroine fully come into her own. The film is a shared lead, with neither Wilson nor Beckinsale outshining the other at any given point—until the end. In fact, for the first two-thirds of the film, Wilson’s David acts as the rough-and-tumble hero while Beckinsale’s Amy fills a typical damsel screaming role. But in an interesting twist, the film never fully allows David to be the hero/savior he fashions himself to be. To the film’s credit, it builds tension by incrementally raising the difficulty level every few minutes. Every time David appears on the brink of escape, the mysterious villains continually squelch his attempts. And in the most surprising twist of all, David ultimately succumbs to the superior cunning of his captors when he is stabbedt and left unconscious, leaving only Amy to fight against the vicious motel secret society.
While she faces more than her share of close calls as well, Amy finds the resolve to overcome the bad guys, using strength as well as guile. She uses all of the weapons at her disposal—including a run-down car—to single-handedly triumph over the seemingly indomitable foes. In essence, when David is removed from the equation, Amy must step in to fill his shoes—only she fills them more effectively than he did. Both characters experience an intrinsically male killer instinct that compels them to fight for their survival, but Amy is the only one who is able to convert instinct into reality. She is also much more confident in the enactment of her instinct, while David slowly reveals himself to be bumbling, unsuccessful, and frail. The filmmakers do, however, effectively bait and switch the audience in the third act, making Amy the most unexpected female hero of all the films we have discussed.
Amy embodies a fairly realistic portrayal of a woman being terrorized. Her character is engendered with both masculine and feminine constructions—she does her damage using logic and emotion nearly as much as guns, fists, and automobiles. Vacancy proves the most effective of all these films by at least attempting to apply a mixture of masculine and feminine characteristics to its heroine, indicating that perhaps as more films like this reach the screen, audiences will respond positively, and the female hero will continue to evolve.
Or, perhaps not. For all its positive aspects, for all its intriguing subject matter, and for all its star power, Vacancy only grossed $18.9 million at the box office. It was released in April 2007, just one week after Grindhouse hit theaters. Grindhouse, by the way, only made $25 million. The Brave One, which opened in October 2007, was the most successful of these films, yet only banked $36.7 million. On the opposite pole sits DOA: Dead or Alive, which earned an astonishingly bad $480, 314 during a brief three-week run in June 2007. Is it a coincidence that these movies failed at the box office? No, apparently, there just doesn’t seem to be a market for films that challenge the male-dominated hero myth, even though said films are ultimately reliant on the same socially constructed male myth, turning the female characters into men.
Perhaps the real culprit of these masculine heroines is not the writers who create them, the directors who commit them to film, or even the Hollywood moguls who green-light them. Maybe the real culprit is the society that has created the gender constructions those writers, directors, and moguls cling to. For centuries, American culture has valued rugged heroism in times of distress—from firing a gun to throwing a punch. And for centuries, American culture has labeled that form of heroism on men. It makes sense, then, that when filmmakers finally choose to turn the tables on tradition, they apply the same heroic constructions the culture has celebrated for all of time, only they apply them to a different gender. And while even the mere attempt to create strong females in mainstream American films is laudatory, the fact remains that at least these attempts replicate the same masculine traits we have seen in films since the Silent Era—however genuine their intentions. The fact that their heroines are actually heroes is not a product of storytelling or filmmaking intentions—it is a product of the unwitting influence of societal gender constructions.
Herein lies the conundrum. Do we want female heroes so desperately that we take them in any form doled out? Is it truly “feminist” to have women play the heroic role when they only replicate what it is to be male—or what’s more, to celebrate it? Is it enough to sate our hunger to see women dominate the screen? Well…yes, by god, it most certainly is. For whether the image we see is constructed from male “supremacy,” at least it is still a female standing before our very eyes, finally, wielding power. We just wish, in time, women could make it a little more their own and that they could bring in the big box office bucks while doing so, for then, maybe society would begin to deconstruct what it really means to be male, what it really means to be female, and what it really means to be a hero.