One of my readers, Carl, asked me to provide my thoughts on an article by Tasha Robinson of The Dissolve on strong female characters in action films: http://thedissolve.com/features/exposition/618-were-losing-all-our-strong-female-characters-to-tr/.
I cannot directly respond to Tasha Robinson’s article as I have not seen all the films to which she refers, but I do agree with her main point that there have been of late a slew of intriguing female characters in action movies with nothing to do. So I’m going to challenge this opinion with, “So what?”
It annoys me, too when female characters are dressed up as the strong type, yet end up doing nothing and are there just to be rescued. Katness of Hunger Games is a prime example. The most heroic act she performs is volunteering to take her sister’s place in the Hunger Games, but during the games, she cheats on her ‘boyfriend’ and gets rescued every time she gets into a tight bind. She’s not even the hero in her own story yet everyone touts her to be a ‘strong female character’. She is strong, but she constantly needs to be rescued.
Maybe we’re looking at this all wrong; maybe being rescued is strong.
I have seen the LEGO Movie to which I will say this: the reason Wyldestyle is useless is because she never actually did anything in the movie to start with. She found Emmett and led him around LEGOLAND, and got him to see life in a new, more depressing way. Emmett did very little himself, if I recall accurately; he mostly got dragged along for the ride.
Wyldestyle was quirky and interesting, but she was dating Batman who was selfish and abusive, so what does that say about her character? She only falls for Emmett when he toughens up, as would any woman, but he was a nice, happy guy before she came along and destroyed all that.
Her purpose was to instill faith in Emmett that he was the chosen one and mission accomplished. He wanted to win her affection by being the kind of man she believed him to be. Isn’t it enough for Wyldestyle to be the catalyst and motivation for Emmett’s growth? At least she went along for the ride, some girls would stay at home and beg her boyfriend to stay with her out of fear of getting hurt.
What exactly are these strong female action characters expected to do?
Tasha too made the point that it’s not easy to get a sidekick to do stuff. Look at Robin in Batman; he’s useless, but Batman needs someone to talk to. Robin is a sounding board, a means for delivering internal monologues. So why must we expect these strong female action sidekicks to do more than that? And what’s so wrong with being the love interest anyway? This is Hollywood, after all; the land of dream-making. Movies are a reflection of reality and while it’s preferable that female characters aren’t bimbos, sluts, whores and bitches, reality too has its fair share of them. Sometimes a movie just need a hot babe (male or female).
Strong female characters are prevalent in action films, but when your focus is on the lack of them or how they become marginalized or victimized or any other kind of ‘ized’, that tends to become all you see. I’m all for showing strong, complicated and intriguing women, but I’m also going to say what no one wants to admit: action movies are targeted toward a male audience and men want to see certain key elements in an action film to be satisfied. Seeing a strong female character do stuff throughout the film may be nice, but it’s not top of the list.
Believe me, a man isn’t coming out of an action film saying, “Yeah! That movie rocked, but what was up with that female character? They built her up to be so strong and then she did nothing but get rescued for the third act. I hate it when they put female characters in action films with nothing to do.” More than likely, they say, “Yeah, that movie rocked! That chick was smokin’ hot!” Perhaps this is exactly the kind of reaction Tasha is aiming to squelch, which is certainly admirable and worthwhile.
Why can’t action movies perpetuate the stereotype?
Transformers 3 for example hired Rosie Huntington-Whiteley to essentially be action-movie eye candy. What I found surprising and pleasing were the little moments that showed her strength of character: she never cheated on Sam when her handsome boss gave her a Mercedes, she risked her life to be with Sam by jumping off a building to get to him, she held her own while the Decepticons chased them down without losing her femininity. She didn’t need to be physically tough or bitchy to be strong. She didn’t constantly scream or ask for help or wait to be rescued. She spoke her mind and took care of herself. That is a quality woman, but she didn’t actually DO anything in the story. She was Sam’s girlfriend, the thing that was at stake for him, that’s it. Does she really need to be more?
What could she possibly do to satisfy the need to ‘do something’ in the film? Well, she could hit someone over the head, sneak into a high security warehouse to steal something to save the day, shoot something, blow something up, drive a car to rescue her man, negotiate with the Decepticons (oh, she did that). Truth be told, Sam didn’t do very much either.
There are plenty of action movies with kick-ass female characters who do stuff throughout the whole film. Pretty much anything Angelina Jolie has been in to start (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Wanted, Tomb Raider). James Bond, for all its blatant sexism had some very strong women: M (Judi Dench) was incredibly strong and did stuff, but she usually hid behind a desk; Vesper (Eva Green) was so strong that she sacrificed herself to save the man she loved, but she was also his romantic interest and cowered in the shower when she saw Bond kill two men with his bare hands. Does that make Vesper weak? No, she’s strong enough to reveal her vulnerabilities to a man who seemingly has none when all along she’s been a tough nut to crack.
No matter how tough a woman is, she will always want a man who is tougher. She cannot respect him if he’s not. It’s just human nature.
Why do people watch action movies anyway?
Men like action movies because they can vicariously feel more manly. Action movies appeal to the innate masculine need to protect, defend, fight, conquer and win. Not being a man, and not having the time to conduct a poll of action movie fans, I’m going to take the liberty of guessing what fans wants to see in an action film, because chances are, they’re pretty close to what I want to see. Here’s where I start to get a little controversial for feminists.
- Stuff blowing up
- Car chases
- Action scenes never shown before
- Stuff blowing up
- Hot men with ripped abs and no shirt (yes, I think men want to see hot men with muscles too gay or straight)
- Hot women (yes, I want to see hot women and I’m not gay)
- Hot passionate romance and/or sex between these hot people
- Car chases
- The man saves the day and gets the girl aka ‘romance’
- Stuff blowing up
Action movies appeal to women because they like to see men doing these things…including rescuing the girl. It’s a bad thing to say these days when women claim they don’t really need a man, but Sex and the City admitted it and it’s true; women just want to be rescued. Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman declared she wanted her man to climb up the fire escape to rescue her and then ‘she rescues him right back’. Oooh, how empowering coming from a tough-as-nails refined prostitute.
Why do women want to be rescued? Because women need to feel their man can protect them. Women don’t need to be victims to be vulnerable and feminine nor do they need to be foul-mouthed, denim-and-leather-wearing, gun-toting muscular bitches to be strong. We have to stop expecting women to behave like men, even in the movies. Yes, give them something to do, but they don’t have to go into battle every time. A strong woman should be able to be feminine, vulnerable and allow a man to rescue her too.