November 22, 2011
What Are They: Feminist or Feminine? Analyzing Women in Action Genre
Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.
This determines not only the relations of men to women,
but the relation of women to themselves.
— John Berger.
When most people think of an action hero, they imagine someone with huge biceps and guns; Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Jean Claude Van Damme would be ideal archetypes. For decades, their characters have served as a representation of heroic power in motion pictures produced by Hollywood. Their hyper masculinity served as a measurement of utopian male ideal (Wilkinson). Few people questioned the violence these characters depicted because the protagonist’s violent behavior is legitimized. However, female action characters came out of the trenches. They too engage in fierce hand fights, shooting guns, killing people, and destroying property – actions and behaviors once attributed exclusively to male heroes. In one word, these brave females engage in very masculine forms of violence.
The extensive research on the female action genre shows that critics are divided into three broad camps. The first camp is comprised of those who argue that the female action genre empowers women and challenges traditional gender stereotypes. The second camp consists of critics who insist that the genre reiterates the same old stereotypes about femininity. Finally, the third camp takes a neutral position on the issue. They embrace a duality of how female action genre represents women: on the one hand, these representations are promising enough to catalyze change; on the other hand, the representation of these women is sexualized.
In my literature review on how women are represented in motion pictures, I am going to analyze each camp individually. Furthermore, I will provide my own arguments about the female action genre. I believe that the genre’s popularity can be well explained by post-feminism; therefore, I will analyze the genre through the prism of post-feminist ideals.
It is important to understand why the female action genre attracts both men and women despite obvious sexualization of women and the disturbing violence female characters perform. Post-feminism might be the key to understanding the role of women in action genre and why the genre persists. For Rikkie Schubart the answer is clear: feminist ideals are utopia, whereas post-feminist perspective is rather practical. She agrees that men produce and construct a female action hero, but it is the viewers who interpret her actions and use them. Post-feminism defines a female character as an agent, as an active fighter for justice, while feminism defines her as “a victim of patriarchy” (Schubart 2). Susan Hopkins believes that media distribute an idea that “girls are reclaiming their very ‘girliness’ as a source of power […]. ‘Girl’ is no longer just an age and gender category – it’s an attitude” (2-4). This new idea promoted by media suggests that traditional feminist ideas need to be reworked. Hopkins argues that one of the alluring ideas of post-feminism is the idea of individualistic focus, which attracts many women, even older ones. Every woman wants to feel she is unique. Amanda Lotz finds the post-feminist framework as “an extremely valuable descriptor for recognizing and analyzing recent shifts in female representations and ideas about feminism” (105). Sherrie Inness in Tough Girls argues that tough girls attract women viewers because “they offer a reassuring fantasy” (8). In a society where women are victims of rape and abuse, women feel fascinated with such characters as Xena or Nikita who would not fear walking alone at night.
However, many women (and men) do not know or think (or prefer to ignore) that post-feminism is used by media to simply increase consumerism (Schubart), to embed cultural ideals where “film viewers are repeatedly presented with a specific kind of stereotypes, by a specific male dominance in the subject positions…” (Lindell 39), and to wipe off the sense of sisterhood by stressing individualism (hooks).
Now that we see how postfeminist framework can be implemented to understand the popularity of female action genre, I will now examine the three broad categories that critics associate themselves with in regards to the genre. As stated earlier, first category of critics claim that female action movies underline the changes in popular culture from women as housewives, caregivers, love interests, and mothers to women warriors, powerful heroes with magical abilities, unbeatable fighters, and witty detectives. These critics and authors argue that female action characters draw their powers from their sexuality or from their ability to be sexual, emotional, and strong at the same time. Such renewed attention to female sexuality combined with toughness allows women to express their sexuality without fear and see themselves as sexual subjects.
In her book Gladys Knight argues that female action characters grow in power and independence and they keep moving in that direction. These new portrayals of women are about heroines who can protect themselves and others, who are not afraid to rebel against injustices, and get what they want. Jeffrey Brown shares a similar sentiment. In his article “Gender and the Action Heroine: Hardbodies and the Point of No Return” Brown claims that compared to action films in 1980s, where men are active and women are passive, the films of 1990s offer more opportunity to deny any gender differences. Brown’s main argument is that such female characters pose a direct challenge to the conventional representation of women in media. He acknowledges that even though the “action heroine is often filmed to accentuate her body […] this new hardbody is not offered up as a mere sexual commodity” (56). The main function of such body serves primarily as a “weapon” (56). Teresa Geller insists that even though many female characters simply fight alongside male counterparts as partners and love interests, this combination “draw[s] new audiences and still meet[s] generic expectations [while] introduc[ing] stories that actually trouble the national imagery, that is, the way the state imagines itself as unified and coherent…” (10). These authors support an idea that these female characters not only challenge gender boundaries but racial and national boundaries as well. This challenge and resistance are achieved through the characters’ complex performance of gender.
In his essay, Marlo Edwards examines the movie Barb Wire with Pamela Anderson as a lead character. He states that many feminist critics, who claimed that the movie was a venue through which female sexuality is objectified, dismissed the movie. Edwards, however, argues that not only can the film be viewed from a feminist perspective, but also that the main character is a very strong, sexual, feminist being. He acknowledges that the movie simultaneously “celebrates and mocks the classic Hollywood film, the action genre, and the erotic commodity that is Pamela Anderson” (44). Edward’s piece explores femininity as more “performative” (he uses Judith Butler’s notion of performativity) than deterministic/biological because it questions such stereotypical gender roles as mother, caregiver, love partner or wife. Edwards argues that Barb uses her body and sexuality to manipulate men to get what she wants and to display her dominance over the male characters in the movie. Edwards uses the concept of “dominatrix, not sex-kitten” to explain that even though Anderson’s character likes to show off her body, she uses it in order to affirm her own authority rather than be viewed as a passive sexual object or decoration.
Even though warrior women are not a rare phenomenon on television, it seems that for such a movie to be successful, it has to have sexual women like Pamela Anderson or Angelina Jolie whose sexuality has been recognized worldwide. It might be true that Barb and other similar characters use their bodies to gain popularity and control over males, but, unfortunately, objectification of women seems to be the only way to gain power in the patriarchal society.
On the other side of the spectrum we have critics, writers, academics, and authors who are worried about the way women are sexualized and objectified through media. Female action genre is not only stereotypical and degrading to women, it also romanticizes violence. Adrienne Evans et al. argue that the genre has so much popularity because media serve it to viewers as stylish and something to be desired. It is no longer a passive, but “active, confident and autocratic sexuality” (115). Not only these women are confident, they are also cold-heartedly violent. In his article, Paul Duncum talks about how media trivialize violence to the point that people perceive it as a mere entertainment. Violence is very appealing to many, Duncum states, and many people enjoy when characters are tortured and “blown apart” (21). Violent portrayals become more intense from year to year while people are desensitized by watching so much media violence.
Some researchers note that viewers condemn female violence in media. Doug Meyer analyzed students’ perceptions of female violence and the ways viewers condemn or praise it. He found that viewers praised violent women for stereotypical feminine characteristics and condemned them for portraying real violence. He explains that such descriptions “reproduce traditional gender ideology in which women are punished for violating gender norms and rewarded for following them” (70).
To writer Lisa Rundle female action should not be about imitating men, killing bad guys, and smashing cars. Real feminist heroines “would wield the kind of power that can be shared – not the power to crush things or beat things up to a pulp or damage anything, but the power to be flexible, be steady, be yourself” (309). Another critic expressed a similar sentiment when she wrote that “the majority of female action heroes are not empowering images, they do not draw upon their femininity as a source of power, and they are not a kind of ‘postwoman’ operating outside the boundaries of gender restrictions” (Katy Gilpatrick 744).
This same concern is raised by Mary Magoulick in her article about the female action genre. She argues that “these female heroes, conceived of and written mostly by men in a still male-dominated world, present male fantasies and project the status quo more than they fulfill feminist hopes” (729). Magoulick raises another concern that is ignored in the genre. Only a few critics question the violent and unhealthy relationships these women have, where they have to fight for justice or their independence. Nobody questions that they get beaten and humiliated and “these patterns are most likely overlooked because abused, over-sexualized, and unstable women so routinely play a part in popular culture that we are [viewers] conditioned to accept them” (Magoulick 751).
Finally, the third category consists of those who situate themselves in between the first two camps. This group argues that female action genre has its pros and cons. By taking the “safe” third position on the issue, these critics are more likely to attract followers because they do not attribute themselves to the strict and limiting “either/or” standpoint. Instead, they acknowledge the duality, or rather, complexity, of the issue. This position allows for more than one interpretation. One of such critics, Hillary Neroni, argues that we as a society simultaneously are fascinated with and condemn violent women, because on the one hand, “we want to preserve our society against the threat of violent woman, but, on the other hand, her threat excites us because it involves overturning the ideological structures…” (x). Another author constructed her own concept called “in between” which “captures the dual nature of the female hero composed from stereotypical feminine traits (beauty, a sexy appearance, empathy) and masculine traits (aggression, stamina, violence)” (Rikke Schubart 2). A heroine then is in between two opposing poles creating fascination and ambivalence. Schubart further highlights the duality by stating that feminist perspective defines the position of “in between” as “a victim of patriarchy” while post-feminism defines it as agency (2).
Jennifer Maher argues that the abundance of material on gender and media “reflects a hunger for agency and the potential for cultural/social change” but sometimes these endorsements seem “overly-optimistic” (194). The author agrees that renewed attention to the female action genre adds valuable criticism to the fields of both popular culture and feminism. However, she is also “suspicious of representational ‘empowerment’ discovered via female characters who can run in high heels, fire a gun, and bed the boss” (195). Sherrie Inness claims that “popular media are still deeply ambivalent about how to depict tough women so that they do not challenge gender conventions dramatically” (5). She gives an example of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley who appeared bald in the third Alien movie. However, the directors allowed Ripley to be bald if she still looked attractive enough to the male viewers. Inness argues that American popular culture is filled with contradictions regarding female action genre: on the one hand, tough images of women suggest a “variety of gender roles open to women” (5), and on the other hand, the toughness should be softened by woman’s femininity. Thus, she suggests that media empower women to challenge stereotypical roles that have been assigned to women in earlier decades, but at the same time, media restrain women, because they represent unrealistic images of women. Few women can fight like Lara Croft and not many women look like Pamela Anderson.
In his article “Gender, Sexuality, and Toughness: The Bad Girls of Action Film and
Comic Books,” Jeffrey Brown argues that because our society is always leaning toward binary interpretation of gender (either masculine or feminine), this discourse raises problems in discussing female action heroes. In their interpretations, people tend to strictly categorize gender and its appropriate features. Brown’s main argument is that both toughness and sexiness in female action movies provide an alternative interpretation of gender that questions stable gender identities. Such complex interpretation of character allows for rejection of the binary “either/or” perception of gender. To Brown, “the action heroine often functions within the symbolic realm of the dominatrix by both breaking down and exploiting the boundaries between the sexes” (50). He continues that by combining sexuality and toughness, action heroine “destabilizes the very concept of gender traits as mutually exclusive” (50). However, in his Dangerous Curves, Brown is not very optimistic about female action genre breaking down the stereotypes. He argues that the male action hero is also considered a sexual ideal, however “his desirability has never been the defining characteristic of his persona in the way it has been for [women]” (8). This combination results in the confusing nature of traditional gender expectations.
Brown’s counterpart Linda Mizejewski argues that characters of female investigators and detectives “aren’t useful measures of social change, but they’re good measures of social fantasy – in this case, fantasy about the place of women in high-level law enforcement, at the forensic autopsy or with a giant flashlight in the labyrinth” (16). To Sherrie Inness, the social fantasy is more real because she argues that female action characters enabled women to engage in sports such as boxing and weight lifting that were previously considered exclusively male (Action Chicks: New Images of Tough Women in Popular Culture).
So what do we have up until this point? We have three camps that have one thing in common: the female action character. However, they cannot agree on whether she represents feminist ideals, post-feminist ideals or ideals of both perspectives combined. What everyone is certain of is that society is not prepared to accept sexual ambivalence in male action heroes. There should not be anything even slightly feminine in a real hero. Since masculinity is exclusively associated with men, female action characters are left with a masculine version of femininity. Moviemakers approach the creation of the heroine with a great care. The process of creating a heroine reminds one of a cooking recipe: a heroine is a product of mixing the ingredients of the three-fourths of femininity and a teaspoon of masculinity.
Female action heroines’ masculinity is in many ways expressed biologically: these women are fit, have flat abs and six packs (think of Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgment Day), wear soldier clothes, carry guns or shave their heads to look more masculine (as Demi Moore did in G.I. Jane). However, masculinity is much more complex than just biological features. Masculinity is also expressed through a character’s toughness, assertiveness, cold-mindedness, independence, sometimes lack of emotions, etc. At the same time, heroes and heroines differ on so many levels. A hero needs a woman from time to time to satisfy his sexual desires (to make sure his image is of a heterosexual man), but there is hardly any emotional attachment. His main focus is independence and freedom to do good deeds. A heroine, on the other hand is almost always emotionally attached (or portrayed that she is or that she should be) to the hero. For her, it is more than just sex.
One might argue that these female characters empower women and girls to fight “evil” rather than wait for a male hero to rescue them. The question is not so much whether female action heroine is strong or not, but how she is perceived by the viewer. Each viewer has the answer that comforts her/him. Cinema is predominantly a male space and this should be taken into consideration when we analyze these movies.
In addition, it is important to recognize even the smallest steps that women take to debunk traditional stereotypes about women. Readers and viewers need to think more critically about how toughness is constituted in popular media and real life. Ingrid Lindell encourages viewers to “separate ‘art’ and ‘life’” (39). bell hooks urges people to recognize that we all “perpetuate sexism” and emphasizes the need to “let go of sexist thought and action and replace it with feminist thought and action” (ix). Others have suggested allowing for racial variety because other ethnicities are obviously underrepresented in the genre (Chris Holmund). Susan Hopkins asks viewers to be more critical of the “reality” constructed by media to represent women. She insists that young women are fully aware of their own power and know how to get what they want. They only need to choose the right direction to apply their power.
Representing powerful women has been quite problematic because such women are unavoidably perceived as threats to male power. Featuring strong independent women fighters has been quite rare; those that do get the privilege to appear on television must either be under a powerful and protective male characters or must rely on traditional sources of female power, such as physical beauty and sexuality. Therefore, producers and movie directors take a great care to make sure such characters are carefully crafted not to challenge major stereotypes. At the same time, media keep stretching cultural boundaries year after year. They keep experimenting with cultural representations of gender to see which combination will bring more profits. The problem with media is that such images are not educational; they are a mere entertainment. It is an undeniable fact that we see the emergence and growth of the female action genre, which can be positively related to the rejection of traditional stereotypes; however, the strive for equality and recognition cannot and should not be acquired through violence and re-sexualization of women’s bodies.
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