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.