Do Kick-Ass Action Heroines Move Gender Stereotypes Forward or Just Perpetuate The Current Ones?

by Melissa Silverstein on April 27, 2010

in Research

Last week I read a report in an Australian paper and from Yahoo in India about some important research done here in the US on female action characters in films.  I was kind of surprised not to see the research picked up wider so I went directly to the researcher (through Facebook of course) to try and understand her analysis better.

While we may want to think that films where there is a kick-ass heroine who maybe saves the world or maybe kills the bad guys is a place where there seems to be some gender equity because girls get to do what the boys do, the fact is according to the research this is so not true.   Women are second class citizen in films even when they kill people and kick ass.

This whole thing makes me sad and mad.  I’m sad because I too was duped into this whole mind set that if we had more films with women as action heroes that were successes maybe those successes could translate into other types of strong female characters.  I’m mad because I am tired of all this bullshit.

Here’s the deal: Katy Gilpatric from Kaplan University in her analysis Violent Female Action Characters in Contemporary American Cinema took the top 20 grossing films from 1991-2005.  That’s 300 films.  Only 112 of those 300 films (37%) had at least one lead female action character.  That led to an analysis of 157 female action characters.  Of those 157 “only 7% were what we might consider a true action heroine, such as Lara Croft who is the main action character.”

That means that 93% of female action characters were sidekicks to the male action heroes.

From the research:

Instead of breaking gender barriers and portraying empowering female roles, most VFACs (Violent Female Action Characters) 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.

Here’s the conclusion to the research:

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 re-articulating gender stereotypes.

Now I am more mad than sad.

I send Professor Gilpatric a couple of questions and here are her answers:

Women & Hollywood: Why do you think that we think that the action roles are the ones that help move women forward?

Katy Gilpatric: I think there is a misconception about action heroines in general.  We tend to think, as I did before my research, that action heroines are breaking down gender barriers and that they are empowering role models, especially for young women.  However, I found that with few exceptions, where there is an action heroine there is usually a more powerful and dominant action hero.  Face it, action heroes are the blockbuster attractions.  And to add more to that thought, the action heroines we see really do not draw upon any form of feminine power (however one might want to define that) but act in ways similar to their male counterpart, essentially propagating what bell hooks would term a “white, hetero, capitalist patriarchy”.

W&H: Are you surprised that even action heroes are gender stereotyped?

KG: Yes, I actually was quite surprised by the results of my research.  I was expecting to find a tough chick that could go toe-to-toe with male action heroes.  Then I found out most of them are just added to the script to serve the heroic acts of the male lead action character or serve as a love interest to him. They end up rearticulating normative gender roles and stereotypes in a subtle, and I would argue even more insidious manner.

W&H: What did you learn from the research in how we can think about women on film especially in action movies?

KG: I think I learned to be critical of what I see in the media in general.  I think norms are reinforced even more in media that is aimed at the masses, i.e. blockbuster action films.  It is on the edges that we see true transgressions and the breaking down of barriers.  One thing I found very interesting is how the comic books that inspired many of these action films were much more non-conformist.  Take for example the action character Dr. Jean Grey in X-Men.  In the comics she became one of the most powerful mutants that ever lived.  Of course, in the movie version she was not able to control her power and so Wolverine killed her – she even pleaded to be killed.  This particular scene in the film was quite disturbing to me and I think is significant in understanding that gender roles are subtly maintained through the use of female stereotypes.  This scene said to me that women cannot be entrusted to control their power so men should curb the power of women and it also reinforced notions of the self-sacrificing woman, even to the point of asking to be killed because she cannot control her own self.  What does that message say to young women in the audience?  I found this same theme of the self-sacrificing and dying female action character in many of the films in my sample.  Nearly 30% of the female action characters I analyzed were killed off in the movie.  This particular finding is driving my current research.

I know that this is just one study, but it is one study that has actually looked at the movies and the characters and analyzed them, so I’m gonna go with the person who did the work.

The good news for me is that I will never look at a female action character in the same way again.


{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris April 27, 2010 at 12:09 PM

Female action heroes/characters, imo, fail to ’empower’ women viewers whenever they’re sexuality is used as the main selling point. That’s the difference between ALIENS/KILL BILL and the phenom that is Lara Croft and unfortunately the problem is we have had far too much of the latter.

Chris Evans April 27, 2010 at 12:25 PM

“Female action heroes/characters, imo, fail to ‘empower’ women viewers whenever they’re sexuality is used as the main selling point.”

I completely agree with you!! Which is why what Melissa said about Hit-Girl was so on point–that part of the reason why she’s such a great action heroine is because she’s a little girl who cannot be sexualized.

Anika April 27, 2010 at 12:26 PM

I did a Women’s Studies Concentration at university and for my final project I made a music video of clips of female action heroes in animation. I ended the video with Mai Shiranui of Fatal Fury, one of the most hypersexualized female characters out there if also a “kick ass” action heroine, being picked up and carried away by her bigger, stronger, more heroic boyfriend who was able to defeat the bad guy she couldn’t quite. The project was entitled “The Search for Strong Female Role Models in Animation” and my conclusion was: keep looking.

I like what Katy has to say about Jean Grey — I will say that in the source material, while Jean is, yes, one of the most powerful mutants who ever lived, she can’t control her power and pleads for Wolverine to kill her all the time. And is currently still dead where countless male characters have died and returned while she languished. It’s not unique to the movie.

But all that said (and I am intrigued by this research), just because the female action hero story is not told as well as we’d like, it is far preferable to not being told at all.

Panty Buns April 27, 2010 at 12:47 PM

This is why we need more woman owned film companies, women scriptwriters, women producers, women directors and female reviewers like you. Just having some representation in a role here or there is not enough. It’s so sad that even after women got suffrage (the right to vote) and despite the 14th amendment specifying equal rights and privileges under the law, an Equal Rights Amendment was never ratified. Women are under-represented in Congress, the Supreme Court and in Hollywood.Keep up the good fight. Women need to use their majority to get equal representation and equal rights across the board.

Lee April 27, 2010 at 1:30 PM

Panty, I agree 100%. If we solve the discrimination problem behind the camera, the images in front of the camera will change.

Chris Evans April 27, 2010 at 4:02 PM

Also, this is why I always preferred Storm and Rogue to Jean Grey–they were much stronger characters. Although they had their problems too. Storm was always passing out/freaking out because of her claustrophobia, and Rogue was always whining about not being able to find a boyfriend.

Kate April 27, 2010 at 4:18 PM

@Chris: I always preferred Storm too, and still haven’t forgiven the movies for making her all pretty and sweet.

A trend I’m incredibly sick of in action movies is having the bad guy kill off the girlfriend in order to spur Our Illustrious Hero into action. What’s the comic name for that– “women in refrigerators?”

d April 27, 2010 at 6:44 PM

I’m going to break my thoughts up a bit w/ different replies, but I’m hitting the x-men first, since it seems quite representative of one of the problem spots I see in discussions of women in action specifically: I don’t feel like we pick our battles well, and shoot ourselves in the foot because we harshly critique things that are a great improvement over what has come. This picture is not as black & white as it would appear.

I find it interesting how the researcher described that scene – but seemingly w/ context of the other films and especially of the other books. I’m assuming that the first two movies were also included in the study? Firstly, Jean Grey was promoted to a doctor (Sue Richards I believe as well, although I am not as familiar w/ that franchise). I would think that is a step up. And I can see her assessment of how Jean is pleading for Wolverine to kill her to stop her, but this was only slightly different from what occurred in the books: her rigging a space weapon to go off when she lost control, because she couldn’t control her powers there either.

But what I liked about that last one was that her mutancy was MUCH closer to the powerhouse she was in the book than in the previous two movies. How was that moment problematic enough to warrant an example, yet the moment when Jean was easily handled by the Toad in the first (demonstrating powers weaker than her first appearance) was not? Also, context plays a huge role in all of these discussions. The storyline was compromised by sharing time with another one (the mutant cure), but also because the story of the Phoenix was initially a cosmic one, but understandably benched to appeal to a wider audience.

But what I thought the movie translated well was that Jean was out of control for a reason: Xavier’s meddling for the “greater good”. You definitely get the impression that if he hadn’t put blocks on her power, if he had simply worked with her during her childhood, instead of blocking that power from her, causing the schizo nature that arose in the 3rd film, she would be able to control it. And that seems very timely, and something I think many women can relate to: being denied power, being forced to be the “good girl”, being underestimated, like she was in the first film, so much so that it literally drives you crazy – not because of your inability, but because of people’s meddling, like a modern day Yellow Wallpaper.

And how how can you guys hate on Jean? :p I love her, but I love many x-women. And while I can certainly agree that some writers have over-emphasized those flaws at times, you need them. Jean is unfortunately the product of her time (being created in the early 60’s), but still very different from the other women in Marvel at the time. You want to see some cringe-worthy stuff, go look at early Invisible Woman (still called girl then). So it makes sense that Storm & Rogue, appearing much later, benefited from the changing views on how we saw women. But Storm can manipulate the atmosphere, is tough, and has a mind so strong she can fend off telepaths while not being one. I can forgive claustrophobia as a weakness, especially when it greatly defines her character, and she has at times been able to overcome it, even under stress (w/ Jean in a non-combat moment, when she was fighting morlocks, when she was under Black Tom’s castle, etc.). Rogue has Hulk-like strength, so they are going to amp up the cost for her powers (although yeah, did she whine too much at times!) Actually I think Rogue whined more in the movies, with not a stitch of the coolness that you see in the comics.

Chalking up Jean Grey’s continual death to gender is not quite right to me, since Psylocke has died and come back, as well as Magik(sp?), Maddie, and I’m sure other non-mutant characters.It baffles me too. I have theories a plenty, but that’s it, only theories.

But I could go on about x-women forever. They are some of the most complex, powerful, and just all around cool heroines I have seen in all forms of media; very few can touch them. And even when they are maligned, still come out ok. But you won’t see that unless you read the classic issues, and recent issues here and there. I think it’s funny because the movies only show about 10-20% of their greatness, but even their movie counter-parts outshine many of the other action heroines we’ve seen. That’s got to say something.

d April 27, 2010 at 8:35 PM

So, this study really reminds me of the one about the women being watched in front of the camera – a great first step, and it highlights many good things, but is just a first step and needs more in-depth study of various criteria before drawing conclusions. But how often does this get attention, like Melissa said. I have read lots of articles about studies that made me question how these people procured money for them in the first place – the subject matter seemed like such a retread, yet nary a peep from the media on this one. And like the other one, I am glad that researcher is doing another study on the death of action women. I look forward to seeing what the results. That being said, here are some of the general things I found problematic.

1) The study paints with too broad a stroke. One of the reasons I think Singer was liked as director for the x-men was because he did a successful ensemble piece. Ensemble pieces are either hard to do, or not generally liked, because we see few of them. Most films, regardless of genre, story or cast has the single focal point of the protagonist, and everyone else is more or less supporting him/her. So a female helming a piece as opposed to someone who is a supporting character is going to look very different. And so is the main male guy as opposed to his friend/sidekick for that matter. Maybe what we should do is compare male sidekicks to female sidekicks, and male heroes to female heroes, apples to apples so to speak.

2) A broader time period might be needed to see where we are. I agree that things seem a bit stagnate. But I think they have actually changed considerably, but only in the context of looking at the stuff that came before it. By starting at 1991 they started right at the beginning, or near the beginning of the change (depending on if you count mid-80’s Sarah Conner and Ripley as the initiators). But I am sure the women, even in the more stereotypical roles of co-star, still have more agency than many of those action films starring Arnold, or Sylvester, or Jean Claude, etc. I feel like many more films during that time would look like Taken (where they used almost every gender stereotype, and none good), than say the Losers, who still has only a token gal, but can still wield a gun and actually commissions the project. And even something as caustic as rape is going to look very different in today’s action film, than say something from a Charles Bronson flick.

3) “…the action heroines we see really do not draw upon any form of feminine power (however one might want to define that) but act in ways similar to their male counterpart, essentially propagating what bell hooks would term a “white, hetero, capitalist patriarchy”.

So, I’m not even touching the ethnic lense, since that is a whole ‘nother discussion! But not only is it in the article, but she speaks about it, and I find that above all to be the most troubling of all the stuff in the study, from what I can tell. Because frankly, what does that even mean!?!

What I want to say is if we really feel that way, then this becomes moot, because an action film requires an aggressive active stance. And maybe we should just let these movies be and focus on other stories. What exactly is feminine power? When you are cornered and you have 20 guys pointing guns at you, are you supposed to “tend and befriend” as is often attributed to women, instead of fight or flight? And interesting how tend and befriend is still basically the same action, be nice to the potentially opposing force.

The reason why I have no problem with this is because basically I think there is no such thing. There are women who act like these action heroes and there are men who act like these action heroes. We don’t want a perfect version of a female heroine, what we want are women centric films where women have personalities and agency; in order to do that you need to show a variety of female personalities. Ripley, Connor, Croft, Ultraviolet, Flux, they aren’t acting like men; they are acting like people, and how I would expect or hope for them to act, depending on the situation.

But in order to have that, you need the corollary – the guy who is laid back, and who allows the woman to take control because she has the greater skill set, etc. And can we as women accept that? I think part of the reason we see a strong woman and a stronger man is because both men and women like this. I was thinking about NCIS the other day. Weatherly now has much more success playing the arrogant, obnoxious, entitled machismo guy (only out-machismo’ed by Mark Harmon’s character) than for playing the introverted, introspective, sensitive Logan who was clearly the Lois Lane to Jessica Alba’s Dark Angel, and more often than not ok with that.

I feel like the argument is basically women don’t act like that, so why is it in a film? But if we were comparing real life men to action men, do they compare? And if women say that they want to see this, does it matter?

And just to end for now, I do agree that we need female directors, actors, producers, and writers to contribute to flesh out and make the female characters more whole and realistic. But one of the main things that these action films need more than anything? FANS! People who will go and see them, who love them. We didn’t start getting great comic book films, a sub-genre greatly disparaged in the past, until fans proved that they had box office money to spend. Bruce Willis has great action films he’s starred in, as well as bad ones, but most of them made money regardless. If the mediocre to bad ones don’t make money, like male action films do, then there is no onus for production companies to invest in making good ones.


Bevin April 27, 2010 at 8:49 PM

I haven’t read the full report yet, so I’ll leave that aside. I’ve heard rumblings on this subject before and some very interesting topics have surfaced here and there on it, though not in any kind of official study capacity.

One point is the main point of the study: most female action roles are still playing second-fiddle to a male action hero.

Another point is one I saw raised above: most female action roles are also highly sexualized and are intended to be viewed by a heterosexual male audience, not a female audience.

A third one which I didn’t see mentioned, but that I may have missed: many female action roles who aren’t overtly sexualized, often don’t come across as particularly ‘female’ but feel like they’re written as male characters. Now, this point is highly debatable, because it’s difficult to classify what ‘true’ gender is and what socialized ideas of it are. There are women who behave in a very masculine manner simply as part of who they are, just as there are some women who behave in a very feminine manner. The problem here is that it seems like the masculine identities are the ones being validated, while ‘femininity’ (whatever that may be) is still disregarded or diminished. The more masculine a character behaves, the more worth they’re seen to have.

I have no answers to this stuff, but I think it’s really interesting to ponder. When was the last time I saw an action heroine who was the protagonist of her own movie, who was not overtly sexualized for the camera, but who still came across as identifiably female in character? I can’t really say.

Elise April 28, 2010 at 8:28 AM

Just on the subject of that last X-Men movie, which I found problematic in many ways — when Jean Gray wakes up from her coma or whatever and grabs Wolverine and starts making out with him, it’s the sign that she’s out of control. Sexually voracious woman = big problem. That totally made me mad.

Tootie April 28, 2010 at 10:02 AM

Yes, that bothered me as well when she is all over Wolverine. I thought, ‘This movie has now jumped the shark.’ I expected better of them.
It would have been good to have some dialogue between Jean and the Professor re. her early life and his intervention…
Anyway, we need more Ridley Scott, as Aliens was one of the best movies ever, best action movies ever, with the best heroine ever.

Vanessa April 28, 2010 at 10:06 AM

Thank you for your great work Melissa. I completely agree with the analysis you’ve provided. Your work is inspiring and so necessary!

Chris Evans April 28, 2010 at 1:50 PM

Of course Brett Ratner would fuck it all up.

d April 28, 2010 at 2:05 PM

Hi Tootie, did you mean Cameron? You said we need more Ridley Scott, but you referred to Aliens. Were you just talking about the fact that they made Ripley a female to begin with (and that would go to Scott or whoever was responsible during the 1st one)?

Or were you talking about Cameron and Aliens, who – say what you will about his personal beliefs and statements – he consistently makes incredibly strong women in his films, and he just makes them as a norm., no something to call attention to. You know I wouldn’t hold up Aliens either as the absolute, considering that it was highly trumpeted as the war between the two mothers. I didn’t really think people keyed in on this when I first saw it (I was younger), but as I became older, and read various commentaries, it’s what many people like, and that disturbs me that yet again, heroism is tied to some metaphoric or literal motherhood.

Yes, when Jean awoke, she seemed much more sexual. However, it does happen in real life that repressed people – and women specifically – when they become radically and quickly freed, become very promiscuous, or at least sensual. And you know, that makes sense. Tying it back to the other study Melissa shared recently, when you have more power you feel more confident that you won’t be assaulted and such. Actually I think it was a bit more nuanced than that in the film.

And btw, the whole sexual woman bad/chaste woman good was already clearly mined by Singer in the first two films: in the first one, when Mystique is clearly fighting him and making sexual jesters like liking her lips, and in the second one when she sneaks into his tent to try and seduce him.

If we are looking from a gender perspective, and not just a fan perspective, how is that not overshadowed by so many other things in X3. In the 3rd film Storm went from being inferred to as being powerful to being powerful. By the end of the film, Storm was running the institute and the x-men. That is BIG, and it’s also in line with the canon of the comic. Storm in fact was one of (if not the) the first woman to lead a team in marvel (I want to say comics period). And they kept that in tact by the end of the movie trilogy. Isn’t that a great thing for women? Kitty Pryde went from being a walk on extra to being played by Ellen Paige (very cool!) and actually getting a big moment where she outsmarts the Juggernaut.

So liked Bevin alludes to, we need to think about these things, or my fear is in pecking away at everything, we get nothing. What did we say when The Hurt Locker won, but people were annoyed it was yet another male war film? The general consensus was that you succeed in steps, and having the first female director win was a big needed step. I think we should look at women in action similarly.

Like what exactly is sexual violence? Or a character being sexualized? And how is that different from being “gendered”? What are the main things we want to see in an action female? What is the ideal list of things we want? And more importantly, what are the deal breakers, or the things we can fore go until we get to a better point of parity? X3, T2, Aliens, and Tombraider have all been discussed here, but I can easily make arguments strongly for or against all of those films. And since people are falling on different sides of the issue, then we are each negotiating the things we like against the things we don’t. And I think it’s that negotiation that we need to externalize to continue the debate.

thanks again!

d April 28, 2010 at 2:10 PM

Actually Chris, I don’t think he did at all, but to really get into that it’d have to be an in depth discussion on the x-men, what they were at the time (you know cite issues, storylines and the like…)

In a nutshell, just to give you an idea, I would say that he toyed with x-men canon, but it was no different than what Singer did, but Rattner had less freedom considering that he had to follow Singer, and according to production, that was going to be the last one. So either Bryan and Brett both messed up x-men, or they both did stories that only kept various parts of the x-men; to get a better and more complete version of them one would have to look at the various cartoons that have come out.

takingitoutside April 28, 2010 at 4:22 PM

I have to admit, though her use of statistics is nice, I thought this was pretty old news. Molly Haskell’s “From Reverence to Rape” was written in the mid-1970’s, but it covers the same issue and tracks it back to the fall of the studio star system. Her argument in short: women had more power in the star system, and therefore more control over their roles. When women could exercise more control over roles, we had more independent female characters. Yvonne Tasker’s “Spectacular Bodies” is also particularly useful and interesting. Tasker argues that threats to male bodies are mediated by female bodies (i.e. an action hero will be threatened by his girlfriend/submissive female partner getting beaten up), and threats to female bodies are also mediated by female bodies. It’s a no win situation.

Carol Clover’s “Men, Women and Chainsaws” is about slasher films (and introduced the concept of the final girl), but it also hints at that sort of thing. There are a number of academics working in the area of violent women in film, including Judith Halberstam, Judith Franco, Deborah Jermyn and Kirsten Marthe Lentz. All in all, it’s a very active area that I would encourage people to read. I should know, my thesis was in it:)

To d:

For your point 1: Prof. Gilpatric is comparing female action heroes to male action heroes, so she is comparing apples to apples. I don’t know how she did it, but even in an ensemble piece, there is usually one character who stands out more than others, and those are almost always male. Think Wolverine in the first X-men movie or G. Callen in NCIS: Los Angeles. However, if, as you say, ensemble pieces don’t show up much, then they simply aren’t going to skew the numbers much.

And for your point 2, I really would suggest reading Haskell’s book. Her argument is that female characters were more independent in the 1920’s and 1930’s – by far – than in the 1960’s and 1970’s. And she’s very persuasive. So if I take your suggestion all the way back to the beginning of film, what we have is women starting off with a fair bit of power, having that decline, and then having some, but not much, of it come back.

However, I don’t think that arguments based on improvement (or worsening) from the past are really relevant at this point. The simple fact is that this standard portrayal of women is neither accurate nor acceptable. And it is important to portray women accurately. I’m not sure what you mean when you say that men don’t act like action heroes, but as far as the types of action in question are concerned, men do act like action heroes. I’m talking specifically about things like deciding on one’s own to stand up for what’s right, not abilities like being able to beat up tons of bad guys at once. As far as that’s concerned, no, men can’t beat up as many people as Wolverine or Iron Man can. But when women are portrayed on screen, instead of getting the instant power up that men get, they are usually relegated to being the (normal) girlfriend – or Rogue, who is not super strong in the films, for all that I loved her. If female characters are stronger than the average woman, they are still not strong enough to beat the ultimate bad guy, just a couple minions or, on occasion, a separate female bad guy who is clearly subordinate to the ultimate bad guy.

Personally, I’m still hoping that the recent massive box office takes by a number of women-focused films will remind the movie executives that women want to see interesting female characters in good stories, but we’ll see…

Allison April 28, 2010 at 8:39 PM

As has already been mentioned, female action heroines are often sexualized. I already saw an item on the Entertainment section of Huffington Post about Scarlett Johannsen wearing her skin tight catsuit. So female action heroines, often wearing skin tight or revealing costumes, are not there to make women feel empowered. They are there for men’s erotic titillation.

Even Sarah Conor and Ripley were objectified. We got a boob shot of Conor in the first Terminator, and we got a shot of Ripley in tiny underwear in the first Aliens movie.

Bevin April 28, 2010 at 10:39 PM

A further thought on this topic that occurred to me after my previous post. In regards to my own musings on seeing a non-sexualized (by this I mean sexually objectified, not sexual in general), “recognizably female” action heroine, I think what I was actually talking about is a character who seems human. Female action heroines tend to fall into the Lara Croft camp, where they’re competent, confident, and intelligent, but constantly displayed visually for erotic gratification, or they fall into the Sarah Connor camp (ala “Terminator 2”) where they’re less sexualized, but also fall into a stereotypically “macho” ideal– men with breasts, basically. There are probably exceptions to this, but from my non-researched memory, these are the two that stands out to me. Neither of these categories comes across as a real, human person. Male action heroes can fall into the same problem, of course, but there have been more roles that tend toward the John McClain type from “Die Hard”. Women haven’t had a Jane McClain role, who can be vulnerable and make jokes and feel fear and all those things that human beings do when they’re in stressful situations. Maybe there are some, but I can’t really think of any, and they tend to be the exception and not the rule. So by “recognizably female”, I think what I really wanted to say was “identifiably human”.

d April 28, 2010 at 11:03 PM

Thanks for the detailed response taking! :)

When I say apples to apples, this is what I meant. If 93% of women in violent action films are sidekicks of some sort (romantic or no), then how do we know that the weaker portrayal is because they are female or because they are sidekicks? Any big action star has a support friend,partner, etc. who is male who doesn’t get to take out the main bad guy either. But if he still comes across as stronger, then you can see the gender dichotomy. But without comparing leads to leads and sides to sides, how would we know? Surely we can point to the differences between Mary Jane, Padme, and Trinity, who I think would all be considered female action characters in the study.

And is there exactly a difference between an action star and a violent action star?

Thanks for the book suggestion, I’ll be sure to add it to my list. Off hand, that makes sense, and I can completely agree with it. But what I wonder is if it is applicable to the specific genre we are citing here. I could see women being more independent in terms of drama, or comedy. But what about action films? The action film itself is fairly new, a hybrid of a couple of genres.

According to Action Speaks Louder (book by Eric Lichtenfeld) what we call the action film is a combination of the film noir and western genres. In that sense, when we talk about film noir, I would agree, even though I know very little film noir. I think that makes the conversation very interesting though. There were some mighty powerful female characters in film noir. But weren’t they also very sexualized as well? Westerns become tricky, and is really grey. Sometimes I see female character so weak they can’t get off a coach w/o assistance. At the same time, some of those roles are very meaty, and pivotal to the plot, considering they usually carry the moral line – at least in the early movies and tv shows I have been watching recently. But in either genre, were women a part of the physical violence/action, other than the signature moment perhaps?

So that’s why this depends on whether we are talking about the 93% supporting cast, or the 7% that holds the center of the narrative. The girlfriend character from an earlier movie could wield more power and importance. But a lead character would look like either a female detective, or a female sheriff/outlaw, etc. And were there any of those around in older films? Annie Oakely?

Looking at heroines in action films who specifically lead is like looking at a brand new species of character. That is why I thought it was great that they started looking in 1991. I would say the oldest forerunners would be african american women in films like Foxy Brown and the like.

I also think we need to determine what is better and what is worse, because if we don’t then we are shooting in the dark (w/o night vision). I just don’t think we can say to someone it’s inaccurate and unacceptable, unless we can tell them how and why and enable them to change it: then we are merely consigning them to failure, and frustration, and possibly omitting female characters altogether.

More generally, I know I am all over the place on points, but the more we talk about the subject the more it opens up different avenues. I just think it is a much trickier thing to discuss. Take for example the Iron Man sequel coming out. Is it sexist? Probably, I think Stark is a sexist, but don’t follow Iron Man closely enough to say that with certainty. But them putting the catsuit on her doesn’t necessarily point to that sexism, especially when that is her attire in the comics. If anything it speaks of the problems in comics, so maybe we should take that critique to the source. Then again, it stands out because she is against a guy in a metal suit who looks especially big and bulky. Would it stand out against Spidey, in his suit? Or the Fantastic Four, and they all wore the skin tight suits, or Superman? I think it would be bad for us to ignore these women because they are dressed up in revealing clothing, when with a little tweak here and there can turn into powerful role models for children – especially girls.

And what was your thesis on specifically taking? :D

d April 28, 2010 at 11:27 PM

Thanks for your additional thoughts Bevin. Frankly, since it wasn’t sure what people mean by “feminine power”, I was only guessing and speculating what it could mean. Your bracket gives me a nice frame of reference.

I think Die Hard might be in some rarified air, which would explain why so many people list it as one of the great action movies of all time. They do somehow combine nicely the fantastic and the real with Bruce. I actually think Bonnie’s character is great too. She has every woman dimensions, and shows strength and courage of her own. Her fear seems real, and not overplayed.

I guess what I was thinking, when I thought of unrealistic was something like Eraser. Arnold’s also supposed to be an every day law person like McLane, although I think he was a fed of some sort, not a cop. But there is a scene in which this huge piece of metal punctures his leg, and he maybe grimaces before pulling it out and continuing on with his carnage to save the day. Or Lethal Weapon (maybe the 1st), where Mel chases down a car I think. Or something like Rambo, where he is just supposed to be a really good Vietnam vet, but what he does goes way beyond that. Or even something like Taken where he pretty much did no wrong throughout the entire film, and hardly broke a sweat. Though they are in every day situations, I don’t think they behave like normal human beings.

And that could be the reason I have a hard time with the above mentioned critique. When I look at Sarah Conner I don’t see a man with breasts. I just see a woman. A woman that is hardly depicted in movies, but a woman nonetheless. What makes her a man, the ability to do chin ups? The ability to detach from a situation and look at it with a cold, rational bent, a woman with an ambivalent and cold relationship to her son? Am woman who can be rash, and who resorts to violence first? All these things I have either seen first hand, or knew of real life women who do that.

And I guess I would really love to hear other’s thoughts on what “sexually displayed” means. And how much becomes too much? I can think of about a couple of suggested scenes in the first Tombraider that would qualify. But also in that same movie, we have another scene in which Daniel Craig is totally objectified, and we see more of his skin than hers. I also notice too that we never talk about the sequel, I guess because it didn’t do as well. But I noticed that there are even less scenes like that in it.

And in terms of actual clothing, we support SATC, and their clothing is way more impractical, sexually suggestive and revealing. Is the difference really that men may like the one over the other?

Julie Kerr April 29, 2010 at 1:29 AM

Yeah, this isn’t really news to me either. I’ve noticed this in action films as far as female action heroes.


But, a light of hope: Tim Burton’s Alice and Wonderland: Alice slays the dragon and not sexualized at all. There’s some action and adventure for you.

Buffy: I know it went off the air but she’s still kicking ass in the comics. I’d kill to see a Buffy movie with all the old actors and characters.

Batwoman: She kicks ass and takes names and is the central figure in the latest Detective Comics series.

Ok, the last two were comics references, but I’m trying to be a wide eyed optimistic filmmaker here.

takingitoutside April 29, 2010 at 1:23 PM

For an explanation of what it is for a female character to be sexually displayed, try Laura Mulvey’s article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. It should be pretty easy to find – it’s been republished everywhere since it first came out in Screen. It’s dense, but fascinating, and pretty much all the critical work on female characters since has built off of it.

D, if 93% of women in action films are sidekicks, then the portrayal is sexist. One of the harder parts of sexism to pin down is when something that wouldn’t be sexist done once or twice or half the time becomes sexist. If movies are arguing that 93% of the time men take prominence and women are just sidekicks, that is sexist. It says that women almost always follow, and men almost always lead.

You asked about what constitutes a violent action star, as opposed to an action star, and that is that the character uses violence. She might fight hand-to-hand, with a sword or in some other way, but she fights. So Mary Jane wouldn’t be a violent female action character (at least in the first two films) because she never fights. She exists to be fought over. Getting back to your point about sidekicks, Gilpatric actually made the results look better (i.e. less sexist) by excluding non-violent characters, because she cut out all of the wives, girlfriends, daughters and friends who get kidnapped or killed without ever fighting back.

Questions of genre are always fun, but don’t apply to Haskell’s work too well. She looks at all genres of film in that book. I think you might be conflating being depicted as physically violent/victorious with being depicted as independent/with agency/et cetera. I did a bit of that myself at the end of my last comment. Gilpatric is looking at things like acting on one’s own compared to doing what one’s boyfriend tells one to – being active/independent instead of submissive – and that shows up clearly in Westerns. Clover’s “Men, Women and Chainsaws” positions slasher films as an update on Westerns, and she shows a lot of continuity in those genres that you might be interested in, as do some of the other academics I mentioned before. (I built off of their work in my thesis, which was an application of film theories about female characters in action films.)

From your example, the girlfriend character from an early Western might well be one of that 7% that holds the narrative, and she might be shown toting her rifle to protect her own ranch while her boyfriend is off doing who knows what. What Haskell is pointing out is that nowadays most of the girlfriend characters have nowhere near that agency. Haskell ends with the Foxy Brown-type films that you mention, so she’s proving that what you argue are the forerunners of current action movies are the low point in representations of women. It’s a very interesting, well-researched and informative book that I highly suggest you read, since it sounds like it would be right up your alley.

What I’ve been trying to get across is that there is a lot of literature on this subject; it isn’t a matter of people just saying that something is inaccurate or unacceptable without saying how to improve it. There is tons of scholarship explaining precisely what is wrong and why. Likewise, there is plenty of information on how to improve films – for example, multiple people on this thread have mentioned putting more women in positions of power in making movies as something that would help. To say that complaining about sexist portrayals might get movie makers scared of failing at something they’re already failing at and cause them to leave female characters out entirely seems silly to me. The movie industry is a tough place, and its members deal with bad reviews every single day. One more won’t terrify them into abandoning Angelina Jolie, Helen Mirren et al. Moreover, they simply can’t remove all female characters from films – no one would go see them.

For your more general point, no one is saying we should ignore these characters. Everyone is, in fact, reacting to them very strongly. At the same time, you can’t just say that because one work is adapted from another it has a free license to be as sexist (or racist or whatever-ist) as the original. Directors, actors, screenwriters and so on all bring something to the film, or else why would we be watching it? My work focuses on Japan, and I’ve actually found that adaptations of comics to film/television in Japan usually become more sexist, not less. I think (though I’m not certain) that adaptations of American comics have the opposite tendency, and I applaud that. Films involve a wider group of people and tend to have to meet more generally-accepted norms than comics or books, which is another way of saying that they can be less edgy. “Less edgy” in Japan means more sexist, which is disappointing. I would hope that it means less sexist in America. That does not mean that I’m not going to push for films that feature female characters who actually do things of their own volition, successfully. That is what this study is about: not skin-tight or revealing clothing, but whether women can do things on their own.

Tootie April 29, 2010 at 3:55 PM

Allison, everyone is in their undies in Aliens when they wake from hypersleep. To says that scene objectifies Ripley is silly.
And Sarah Conner is topless, but they’re having sex for heaven’s sake. She’s having sex. Let her have sex. She’s in love with a guy who risked his life to meet her because she in the future is a legend of strength, knowledge and determination. I would have sex with that guy too, especially Reese.

d April 29, 2010 at 4:27 PM

Hi takingitoutside, just a few things more.

I’m not saying it’s not sexist to make 93% of women sidekicks. But are they making characters sidekicks out of sexism, or does the sexism run so deeply that even if you make a womancentric film, they still don’t get to take out the bad guy? If it is the first, then that is an easier, or at least more straightforward fix: agitate for more female leads. If even as a female lead, the guy still seems to take the dominent role (and the old movie Red Sonja comes to mind as an example of that), then that is a much tougher nut to crack. What I was saying was w/o seperating female leads from female supporting players, that would be hard to determine. If she does elaborate about that in the full study, then that’s great.

When I was talking about us defining it, I wasn’t necessarily talking about the literature that was out there. I was referring more to the things I read here, as well as the off-line conversations I have regarding this.

We can agree to disagree on the reticence of moviemakers. It may not be said in official circles, or in something that is quotable, but I have heard it informally. There is a tendancy to create what you know, and many people who step outside that, if they are heavily criticized for it, will simply go back to the safer subject areas. And this is for other things as well. I’m not saying it’s right any more than sexism is right. I’m just saying it is, and personally I would rather reward a good faith attempt than criticize it – generally speaking.

Oh, and I guess my last comment was more in reference to the ideas that women heroes are just there for the male gaze. I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think they exclude the male gaze, but from quite a few of the comic authors/artists themselves, they see these characters as strong, and powerful, and good models for males and females alike.

And I would never want to give any source material carte blanche to be as sexist, prejudice, classist as it wants to be. I just don’t think you can say it’s sexist that The Black Widow is in a catsuit. If anything, what points to the gender bias for me is not her attire, but the fact that in many of the commercials I see she hardly gets a menaingful moment where we actually hear her speak, despite her being a major player in the marvel universe. But I also think you should respect source material, because hey I am a big fan of things! What if they made Sex in the City and changed two of the characters to men? You just shouldn’t change things to accomodate what a non-fan, more general audience member would want- unless it really doesn’t violate the story, which would have to be determined on a case by case basis. If the source material is that bad, I’d rather then that we just not make it, and just focus on present day stories where you don’t have that baggage.

So for me, I would not want the Black Widow to have a costume change – that is her iconic outfit, and frankly a lot more clothed and textured than other female heroes. But what I hope, and the hope is thin considering what they turned out in the first film, is for her to have agency, depth, and really great action scenes – and a few good and cool quotable lines.

But thanks for the clarification of the other stuff, and again the references. Really interesting about horror being an off-shoot of westerns, good food for thought.

Bevin April 29, 2010 at 7:04 PM

And here we get to one of the major problems with determining what a universally sexist or a universally feminist role model is: everyone views things a little differently. Some women feel really empowered by Lara Croft, some feel really empowered by Sarah Connor, some people don’t like either, some people like both. I don’t think there’s just one right answer, and the best solution I can come up with is to have a variety of women action heroes– sexy ones, super tough ones, smart ones, funny ones, pick traits and mix and match. And other female roles, to boot, while we’re at it. Women in more leading roles is a good thing in general, even if there are problematic elements to the roles. Variety in those leading roles is even better.

And I agree with the Laura Mulvey essay, it really changed how I look at how women are viewed in visual media. I’d also recommend “Ways of Seeing” by John Berger, which is more about representations of women in art, but still covers the same ideas. There are loads of great articles out there on how women are constructed in different art forms. It’s really interesting stuff.

takingitoutside April 30, 2010 at 5:11 PM


What do you mean by woman-centric film? Precious, for example, is a woman-centric film, but would be irrelevant to a discussion of action films. If you mean a film featuring a solo, female action hero (like the Tomb Raider films), then by default a male character will not be taking out the bad guy, so I’m not sure what you’re getting at.

The reason I mentioned the literature is that it already covers a lot of the issues you’re raising. What is written here reflects and builds off of those theories. Violent action character, for example, is pretty well defined. Similarly, the question of the male gaze is complicated if you haven’t read Mulvey’s article (or even if you have… it’s dense). The argument is that all female characters are presented for the male gaze, without exception, not that they cannot be physically strong, a good role model, et cetera. A creator or fan might see a character as a good role model but she is still presented for men’s viewing pleasure, as are all female characters.

You don’t need to tell me that movie makers can be skittish. However, arguing that all creators might get so very, very worried about harsh reviews that they childishly make worse female characters or just leave them out entirely is silly. We can both praise the successes and criticize the failures – this isn’t an either-or kind of thing.

As I said before, I’m not talking about anyone’s clothes. For what it’s worth, I think a lot of things contribute to a sexist portrayal, including both clothing and lack of lines. Pointing out problems with both lines and clothing is fair, though I have not been doing either.

That said, the size of comic book audiences is different from and far smaller than the size of movie audiences. Movie makers must please general audiences in order to make money, particularly if they’re making costly special effects extravaganzas like superhero films. That’s a simple economic fact. Most adaptations do stick to the source material pretty closely, but the very nature of adaptation means that some things must change. More than that, though, I really, really question your argument that changing a woman’s clothes is equivalent to taking a property whose plot revolves around female growth and friendship and putting half the focus on men. THAT would be changing the story.


I’ve never heard of “Ways of Seeing”, I’ll have to check it out. Thank you.

LR Jeffrey May 3, 2010 at 7:48 PM

Wow, thanks for a really interesting article followed by thoughtful and interesting comments.

I started writing a fantasy novel a year ago without much intention of breaking female hero stereotypes, but that seems to be what happened. All I wanted was a fantasy starring a female instead of village boy on a quest with some magical power or a super macho mutant with sexy sidekicks.

I was confronted with this when my readers objected to me making my protagonist a “super woman.” I was surprised, because that had not been my intention. I showed her struggling and triumphing, like any good hero story. Then I realized that I had simply had my heroin do what any normal male hero would do. But evidently a woman doing the same thing stretched plausibility for my readers. Interesting how deeply ingrained these assumptions about superiority and weakness are.

Another great piece of evidence is the TV series “Lost.” Prime example of the white knight and female characters who exist solely to be the cute sidekick or the damsel in distress. We just naturally assume this is how society should be set up.

This discussion makes me even more excited to finish and publish my novel. There might be an audience out there that is willing to read about strong women that might not be a D cup!

Kimi May 5, 2010 at 5:19 PM

“a place where there seems to be some gender equity because girls get to do what the boys do”

Ugh. Why do we buy into this whole idea that girls can be “as good as” boys. Doesn’t that just set everything up as girls being less than? Why are we not concentrating on uplifting the societal value of all the things that girls do better than boys do? All of the things that have been diminished in our society much to its peril. Stop letting male standards be the paragon. It’s demeaning.

“Dr. Jean Grey in X-Men. In the comics she became one of the most powerful mutants that ever lived. Of course, in the movie version she was not able to control her power and so Wolverine killed her – she even pleaded to be killed.”

This is the universal storyline for women’s power. I hadn’t realized it applied in action hero stories, too.

Rosa Lowinger May 16, 2010 at 3:25 PM

This is very enlightening. I’ve just finished writing a young adult western with a kickass, witty, 17 year old female heroine who is 100% empowered, not a sidekick (the sidekick is a 12 year old boy) and it’s designed to break these stereotypes. Know what my book agent says? Make her more of a romantic heroine, so teen girls will relate to her.

Sarah June 5, 2010 at 4:13 AM

I realise this is an older blog post but I feel compelled to point out a couple of things:

1. This discussion about sexualised VFAC seems to ignore the fact that these days it’s absolutely okay for a woman to be and feel sexual and to flaunt that sexuality as much as she wants. Outside of the concerns of women in Hollywood being forced to wear costumes they may not want to – because this is talking about characters, not actors – most of the time, when I see a sexualised VFAC, I don’t think of her as a sexualised woman, I think of her as a woman who is sexual, sensual and not ashamed of that fact – and still able to take an active role in her life and make moral and logical choices for the benefit of herself and the innocents she is saving – and of course to kick ass and take names like any action star must do. :)

2. If you can’t get past the sexualisation, let me point out that a lot of male action stars are just as sexualised – think of Jason Statham in… um… any movie he’s ever starred in. Think of James T. Kirk in TOS. How often did their shirts come off and expose a bare chest for the audience to admire? Countless other male action stars are sexualised just as much as the female action stars.

I’m sorry if someone else made these points already, there was a lot of commentary there and I might have missed it!

pandora uk December 1, 2011 at 2:41 AM

You had some nice points here. I done a research on the topic and got most peoples will agree with you

catyiopciex July 20, 2012 at 7:52 PM

pharmed solutions en mexico – cheap acid cigars cuban mexico cutter and sports medicine and richmond
capital family and sports medicine – cheap backwoods cigars canada estate medicine cabinet
broken medicine ball nba – university of illinois school of medicine
sarah in pharmacy – cheap but good cigars medicine in the middle ages
keats pharms – ways to make a cheap cigar humidor college sports medicine physician jobs
medicine lowers blood pressure decrease metabolism – cheap humidors cigar cutter reviews ordway pharmacy
pharmacy 2 home – cigar smoking for sale cheap affiliate pharmacy programs by j ratliff
antique drugstore neon – cheap cigarettes uk express narrow styel medicine cabinetes
canada veterinary pharmacy valuheart – link pharmacies se portland
about complementary medicine – buy cheap cigars online uk havana sports medicine products
selling natural medicines online <a href= – acid kuba cohiba cigars cheap rise in medicine
pain medicine doctors miami florida <a href= – sell backwoods cigars cheap e pharm company
location men’s health pharmacy <a href= – fpgee exams pharmacy examinations
paul ferraro hc pharmacy <a href= – cheap but good cigars automed mail pharmacy
medicine man regalia <a href= – lakota medicine wheel
integrative medicine <a href= – cheap cigar pocket humidors custom compounding pharmacy pembroke pines fl
advanced technology for medicine science <a href= – cheap cigar bsamplersb keetoowah pillay internal medicine associates pllc mi
hines pharmacy <a href= – buy marlboro cigarettes uk cheap integrative medicine hospital
start up pharmacy business plan <a href= – link sex medicines
drug city pharmacy <a href= – chemistry and medicine

download western front armies June 14, 2014 at 7:47 PM

Pretty section of content. I just stumbled upon your
web site and in accession capital to assert that
I acquire in fact enjoyed account your blog posts.
Any way I will be subscribing to your augment and even I achievement you access consistently fast.

yddfrtqehs September 2, 2014 at 2:44 AM

Do Kick-Ass Action Heroines Move Gender Stereotypes Forward or Just Perpetuate The Current Ones? | Women & Hollywood

Leave a Comment

{ 6 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: