Tuesday, June 12, 2007

She's a maniac, that's for sure. When I heard about Nathaniel R's Action Heroine Blog-a-thon, the first thing that popped into my head was Kim Basinger in Batman. Batman irritated the hell out of me because Kim Basinger spent the entire film screaming her head off. For a photo-journalist, a profession which requires a certain level of moxie, she certainly couldn't handle the criminal underbelly she was so desperately trying to chronicle. Except for Catwoman, you could argue that no Batman heroine has ever been especially daring or self-sufficient, but at least Katie Holmes saved that little boy from the psycho-gas. Look at Kim in this promo picture; she look like she's thinking, "Don't ask me, I'm just a girl!" So much for being a heroine.

I had a very long post planned about how all action heroines are, in essence, Kim Basinger in Batman. I was of the opinion that Hollywood cannot in good conscience create an action film heroine completely divorced from traditional sex roles. It's just too threatening. As a result, almost every action heroine has a characteristic that specifically identifies them as feminine and, consequently, non-threatening. Lara Croft had the gigantic breasts and skin-tight outfits so that, even though she was cold and crafty, she was still basically a sex symbol. The Charlie's Angels agents may have been slick kung fu artists, but at the end of the day they sat around in bikinis painting their toenails and gossiping about boys. Traditional gender roles even play into the motivations of the remarkably non-traditional heroine The Bride as she seeks revenge over the death of her child.

I thought that, no matter how many guns they wield or men they kill, action heroines are fundamentally feminine. Even the action heroines I liked were still imbued with gendered markers absent in their male counterparts. Selene has the pleather unitard and a lovey-dovey subplot. Leeloo wears the decidedly-awesome yet still-skimpy bandage dress and can't save the world without the love of a good man. Strong-willed and brave Princess Leia is quite bouncy running around the Death Star in A New Hope because Carrie Fisher was not allowed to wear a bra during filming. Even my favorite action heroine Trinity, who I adore mostly because of this, has the requisite skin-tight catsuit and the my-man-is-my-destiny motivation.

I'm not necessarily advocating that action heroines be portrayed as cold-blooded psychopathic killers, but why do they always have to be so darn gendered? The typical action hero doesn't need a clear-cut motivation to be accepted as strong, brave or heroic, and no one seems to have a problem with that. I mean, Batman's motivations were kind of sketchy: He was fighting for redemption, right? Or was he seeking revenge for the death of his parents? Or was he after justice? Or did he simply suffer from rich man's guilt? No one seems to question whether James Bond deserved to be designated a hero, and what was his motivation? Preservation of freedom? Securing the safety of the British people? Sleeping with lots of hot babes? Hollywood doesn't need to saddle action heroes with weighty back stories which explain why they should be admired, yet their female counterparts require considerable explanation or lots of cleavage. Why do Lara Croft, Selene, Leeloo and Trinity--all of whom are fighting for decidedly noble causes--need to run around in those skintight outfits?

However, a friend read the above rant and proceeded to prove me wrong. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that Angelina Jolie, of all people, in Mr. and Mrs. Smith proved to be the heroine for whom I have always wished. Her character is a professional, ambitious, fearless assassin who leads an all-female team, while her male counterpart Brad Pitt has the always-bumbling Vince Vaughn and that grandma-secretary. Her operation is more professional and state-of-the-art than Brad Pitt's, and she is consistently shown to be smarter, faster, and all-around better than her husband. The best example of this is the scene in the minivan where Angelina has taken over driving duties while Brad hesitates in taking the shot that will eliminate the henchmen they are trying to escape. Tired of his lack of confidence, Angelina whirls the minivan around and finishes the job herself while Brad looks on in amazement. Let's see Kim Basinger do something like that!

Mrs. Smith is just as slick, crafty and strong as any James Bond-type hero, and she does not have a well-developed back story--or any back story whatsoever--to justify her profession. Furthermore, she is thankfully free of skin-tight catsuits (except for one scene where she must dress up as a dominatrix to infiltrate a secure area). The only distinctively-feminine touch is that she fights most of her battles wearing diamond earrings, but that's more for the sake of character-consistency than to dumb her down or soften her image.

So there you have it. There is a new type of heroine afoot, one whose strength does not need to be justified or curtailed by increasing her femininity or squeezing her cleavage. Here is a heroine that would probably shake Kim Basinger and tell her to get a hold of herself. A Jennifer Bond, if you will. I am heartily impressed.


Stinky Foot said...

Well I was going to comment as well. First off, you can not count Batman's Girlfriend's as heroines, for they were more objects of Batman's affections as well as plot devices to give batman a reason to climb up that tower, or go into the abandoned warehouse, other then to just simply get the badguy. In that sense, these girls fit the stereo-typical girl role perfectly (although if we really wanted to get into things, we could talk about how batman and robin were outted by the senate in the early 50's, so a girl might not have been the "right" motivation). Also, we can not forget the first female heroine ever, Wonder Woman. Granted her outfit was "skimpy" and her methods have been paralelled to S&M more often than Batman has been linked to "Making" little boys turn gay, but she symbolizeses "Girl Power" to a t, and has been since her inseption in the 1930's. Coming from the planet of Amazonia, which was dominated by all women, she was sent to earth to save it from the corruption of men. I am also pretty sure that she never succame to the "whiles" of love or sex, at least not until she was around long enough for people to feel like comic books were getting stale and needed to be changed. She was just straight-up kick-ass and nothing could be done to stop her.

Plus, Buffy was/is a heroine who let go of her "girlish" tendencies to kick major ass, never once flinching or veering (I am talking of course of the original film, and the first few season of the show before it started to become more about the romance triangles).

I could go on, but I have homework to do.

The Liz said...

I think you missed my point. My argument wasn't about whether action heroines could kick ass; my point was that they always seem to be half-naked while doing it. WonderWoman was still wearing the skimpy outfit (it's basically a strapless bathingsuit), and she always had perfectly-done makeup and hair and was perfectly accessorized (gold bracelets of power!). WonderWoman is completely gendered.

Also, I was only talking about film, not television. And if you remember, in season 1 Buffy wore criminally short skirts. Just sayin'.

Joe Valdez said...

A lot of women in action movies function as accessories, no question, but for every Kim Basinger in Batman, I think you could find a female character who isn't defined by her sexuality. I watched Aliens last night and there's not a frame where Sigourney Weaver tries to be cute or sexy. I admire your defense of Mr and Mrs Smith, a movie I thought was terrible, but after your comments, I'm willing to give another shot.

Hedwig said...

Isn't the objectification and glossing up of bodies a characteristic of action movies, period? As I recall, action heroes often get shirts torn or just take them off, and their muscles are shot just as lusciously as action heroines' breasts and legs.

Fundamentally, action heroes and heroines both are physical creatures, and action movies celebrate this physicality.

I do agree with you that action heroines are often made less threatening by making them more obiously "girly" in other respects (my biggest annoyance by far with Charlie's Angels) or by emphasizing their motherly protectiveness, but I think you might be too paranoid of the male gaze in other cases.

Anna said...

Terrific, thought provoking post. I sympathize with much of what you say. And you are right, I think, about Wonder Woman - I can't get past the outfit - eye candy for men. And visuals are SO powerful - its where characterization begins and ends, to a great extent.

I think there are movies - albeit off the beaten track - with genuine heroines - but you make some great points. Gutsy post.


agreed with Hedwig that the bodies are part of the genre

agreed with Liz that those skirts on Buffy criminally short. But then Buffy had a pretty schizo wardrobe throughout that series.
a moody girl when it came to her presentation, wasn't she?

Bob said...

The problem might be that female action heroes are still a pretty new idea for Western culture, so that the heroine's femininity or lack thereof inevitably becomes the subject.

It's sort of in the same way that most of Sidney Poitier's films inevitably made his blackness a big part of the story. It took many years before Hollywood could even begin to think about casting a black actor in a role where his ethnicity was only incidental or even immaterial. It still pretty much applies for Asians and, to a lesser extent, Latinos.