It’s Not Just About Arnold Anymore

For decades, action heroes in films were the exclusive domain of a series of “manly” men: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jackie Chan, and so on. Women in these stories, just like in most Hollywood scripts,  were relegated to the “hostage, victim, or conquest” stereotype.

Revenge is in the air. Slowly but surely studios have been waking up to the realization that female-led action films can be potent box office successes. Notable among the game-changers in this category are the recent Haywire and Underworld: Awakening. Notes Melissa Silverstein on her Women and Hollywood blog, “Haywire does what has been done before for the dudes – make a female athlete a movie star. The action is not toned down because she is a girl. In fact it’s ratcheted up because she is the best and no one can figure out how to kill her.”

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo isn’t purely an action film, of course, but when Lisbeth does take action, Scott Meslow points out, it is deeply cathartic in a similar fashion. Meslow has a lot more to say about the trend toward big-budget, female-fronted action movies in a recent essay on TheAtlantic.com. A few highlights:

It’s long been accepted in popular culture that that the traditional “action film” is the gender-reversed mirror image of the “chick flick”: a film made by men, starring men, for men. But today’s female-led action films can be seen as a direct response to decades of suppression by both Hollywood and society as a whole: the subjugation and victimization of womankind, primarily by men. It is perhaps no coincidence that the plots of both Haywire and Underworld: Evolution hinge on the strong female leads being betrayed by men that they trust. And then there’s Lisbeth Salander, the icy, revenge-driven character from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo who has quickly become a contemporary fictional icon. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo isn’t strictly an action film, but the unconventional Lisbeth makes for a deeply compelling heroine, and when she eventually does take action, it’s satisfying in part because of the deeper, more cathartic feminist implications….

Of course, not all female-led action movies can be held up as groundbreaking or thoughtful. There are undeniably brainless, sexist, female-led action movies that continue to routinely appear in theaters (see the last year’s ugly, regressive Sucker Punch). The most insipid entries in the genre, like the Resident Evil series or the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movies, tend to be based on modern video games—a reflection, in part, of the fact that prospective sources for action films starring women didn’t really exist until recent years. The storied superhero and super-spy movies that hit theaters each summer, which comprise most of the action roles available to men, are based on properties that are decades (and sometimes centuries) old. By contrast, the three best-reviewed female-led action movies in recent years—SaltHanna, and now Haywire—are completely original properties, with strong, well-written female leads to match….

Hollywood, like the rest of the country, still has some work to do before the opportunities offered to men and women can truly be called equal. But for all the bluster about Hollywood’s political agenda, in the end its goal is the same as any other industry: to make money. If audiences respond to action movies starring women, Hollywood will continue to make action movies starring women.

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