In her introduction to TIFF’s 2015 fall series, Beyond Badass: Female Action Heroes, programmer Kiva Reardon states that the films she’s programmed “test the limits of feminism, but they also inspire us to think of women’s roles on screen and [in] society.” Seeing these female-driven action films placed side-by-side highlights the fight these women face to be taken seriously. Even more so, the Beyond Badass series draws attention to how far that battle has come, and how much further it still has to go. The female form has been a fixation of cinema since its beginnings and the body central to the action film. Examining the films within the Beyond Badass series brings to light that these women, no matter how awesome they appear, are still subjected to the same treatment on screen as other women in popular cinema.
The objectification of the human body is a central tenet of the action genre. The hero’s body is presented as an awesome machine, one capable of achieving superhuman feats, whether it’s the physical ability to take out a room of 100-plus men or the technical aptitude to shoot a man in the head from 100 yards away. These films are full of training montages of the hero building his hard body, fine-tuning the awesome machine he inhabits. Even when the action sequences remove the human element and focus on car chases and shootouts, the film associates the hero’s physicality with the power of the unstoppable machine. His strength, resilience and competence allow him to assert his dominance, and are always his defining traits.
This focus on this objectification would seem to make women tailor-made for the action genre, as “the female body as object” is a central theme to most popular cinema. On the surface, the women of action films compare quite favourably with their male counterparts. They are every bit as strong and competent, highlighted by their ability to defeat hordes of primarily male adversaries. The physicality of the female body, however, takes on secondary importance to another form of objectification. It may still be all about objectification, but women are allowed to be active agents only once they have been relegated to the safe and nonthreatening position of decorative object.
Where men are allowed to be human, women must always be, first and foremost, female, which is, as we all know from watching cinema, different from being a person. The number of essays written on Ripley’s panties in Alien is absurd. How many male action heroes have even appeared in their underwear?
With a few notable exceptions, female action heroes must first be physically attractive and sexy, only then they are allowed to be strong. Men are coded as sexy because they possess strength — women, in spite of it. Heroines like Charlie’s Angels, Lara Croft and Nikita are highly sexualized in a way that their male counterparts never are. Their films feature at least one scene where the heroine flirts her way to acquire sensitive intel or plays the victim, only to breakout a roundhouse kick and defeat a room full of baddies. Most importantly, she manages it all without smudging her makeup or mussing her hair, looking just as fabulous as before the confrontation.
It could be argued that these scenes where the woman emerges as dominant are commenting on the stereotype of women as weak, but that fails to acknowledge the manner in which these films treat the female body. Within the world of film, women might possess power and might, but from the audience standpoint, they remain subservient to the male gaze. Whatever else she might be, the female action hero must first and foremost be desirable, because common knowledge states that’s the only kind of woman interesting enough to merit her own story.
Where men are allowed to be human, women must always be, first and foremost, female, which is, as we all know from watching cinema, different from being a person. The number of essays written on Ripley’s panties in Alien is absurd. How many male action heroes have even appeared in their underwear? When men do appear half-nude, it’s to emphasize their physical dominance. When a woman is half-dressed, it’s presented as titillating, highlighting not her hard body, but her soft curves and femininity. She might be a martial arts expert and proficient marksman, but we are never allowed to forget that her most important trait is that she’s female, which automatically relegates her to being less than a person (read: male), even when she proves repeatedly that she’s equal to, or better than, the men around her.
The life of the Bride, from the Kill Bill films (who doesn’t even get a real name), is defined by her connection to Bill, until she discovers her daughter, giving her someone else to devote her life to. Her designation as simply the Bride explicitly ties her to female stereotypes and expectations. The Angels in Charlie’s Angels spend an abnormal amount of time in their underwear and their missions tend to involve flirtation or strip teases. Angelina Jolie and Milla Jovovich save the world in their franchises — Lara Croft and Resident Evil, respectively — in skin-tight clothes that show off their figures in the process.
Even when women are portrayed as just as strong, competent and kick-ass as their male counterparts, they’re never able to completely escape the confines of how women are framed by society.
This isn’t to take away from the strength and awesomeness of these women, but unlike their male counterparts, they’re never allowed to simply exist as people. They must be constantly identified as women — the default remains male and their differences and inferiority must be highlighted. Men can be awesome machines — functional and active — but women must always fulfill the priority of being decorative and only then are they allowed to actively participate.
This is why heroines such as Sarah Connor, in the Terminator films, and Ripley, from Aliens (not Alien), are so iconic. Both are allowed to inhabit the active role usually reserved for men, existing independently of their female forms. Their bodies are fascinating, not because of the feminine differences, but because of the remarkable feats they’re able to accomplish. This is particularly evident in the case of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. Even with her central role as mother, her body is never reduced to that of a passive object. The camera shows off her chiselled body and ability to physically overpower opponents, but she’s celebrated for what she can accomplish with it, not as some fantasy that exists to have things done to it. In the case of Ripley, the focus on female biology is shifted onto the alien queen, allowing Ripley to inhabit the stoic, physical role usually reserved for men. In Aliens, it is the men that take on the passive role, leaving Ripley to assume the lead.
But even in the case of these heroines, they’re only allowed to escape the sexualized treatment given to their peers by having their status as matriarch the driving force of the plots. Even when women are portrayed as just as strong, competent and kick-ass as their male counterparts, they’re never able to completely escape the confines of how women are framed by society. Unlike the male action heroes that get to be active persons first and everything else second, women are stifled by the all-important question, “Is she desirable?” before they are allowed to do or be anything else, even when all signs point to them being in control.