Should female action heroes have an inferiority complex?

Are men and women identical? Do they have the same motivations?

I think the obvious answer would be “no” to both questions. So should we expect the genders to be portrayed the same way in popular entertainment?

Women have been making pretty good inroads as action heroes for awhile now. In 1979 Sigourney Weaver became a film icon with her portrayal of Ellen Ripley in “Alien.” She may have followed in the footsteps of leading ladies like Linda Carter (“Wonder Woman”) and Lindsay Wagner (“The Bionic Woman”), but her role was a benchmark for women who had, up to that time, mostly taken the backseat behind such characters as James Bond– and when a character is given a name like Pussy Galore, it’s arguable whether or not those roles did women any favors.

It has been a hard fought road for women as they take the leading role. More often than not they’re still cast as the cute-but-slightly-ditzy career woman convinced she doesn’t need a man, but secretly longs for her soul mate. So one would think that women would universally embrace their butt-kicking sisters whenever they appear in any kind of out-of-the-box role.

But that doesn’t always seem to be the case.

A recent conversation with a friend brought up the topic of whether or not female heroes are more flawed than their male counterparts. Common feminist opinion on the subject seems to be in agreement that they are. But should we be looking at men and women in an apples-to-apples comparison?

Even though I grew up with heroines like Wonder Woman, and appreciated what women like Sigourney Weaver brought to the big screen, it wasn’t until Linda Hamilton flexed her well-toned arms in “Terminator 2” that I realized that women could really find a place in a pantheon that was usually reserved for imposing men like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. She made me a believer. But the character was also portrayed as obsessed and a little crazy– were those traits meant to be particularly feminine imperfections?

What if we bring other women into the discussion? The recent release of “Iron Man 2” has sparked conversations about sexism in film with special emphasis on Scarlett Johansson’s character of Natasha Romanoff. Her sins include her tight leather costume and some lingerie shots; though little is made of her self-assurance and fighting skills.

Or how about someone like Xena (Lucy Lawless)? Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie)? Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Sarah Michelle Gellar)? What weaknesses could we attribute to those characters that are particularly sexist in nature?

To be honest I’m kind of stumped when I’m asked that question. Perhaps I don’t see characters as male vs. female because every character is flawed in one way or another.

When I look back on Linda Hamilton’s role in “Terminator 2” I think about what she represents in that film. She’s the film’s memory. She’s the only one who has seen the danger and knows what’s coming. Even Schwarzenegger character wasn’t part of the events of the first film and the only person who shared her experience is dead. The knowledge she carries can literally save humanity. Who wouldn’t be a little crazy if they carried that around? But she perseveres because of her son. That one element, in my opinion, elevates her beyond a simple cliché.

But it’s so easy to skew the conversation when we only talk about the women. What about the men? The character of Tony Stark from “Iron Man” is an excellent example of an extremely flawed male character. He’s likable and we’re able to overlook his narcissism because he’s entertaining. But is he someone you’d trust in real life? Not very likely. And it’s easy to write a list of manly-men from the big screen who make great heroes but don’t do so well where they’re not dodging bullets. A very typical portrayal is that of the unreliable womanizer, like James Bond, or the too-obsessed-to-carry-on-a-relationship type like Batman. Let’s face it, these guys are not generally played as well adjusted family men.

Clearly, each gender has their stereotypes– but do women have it worse than men?

I’d argue that action films have been very kind to women. When women are cast as the hero, they’re given power. They’re presumed to be able to hold their own against the bad guy and though they might grudgingly have to accept some help from the men now and then, they’re generally not dismissed as dimwitted ornamentation. Sure, they’re often dressed up in tight, revealing costumes, but how is that worse than putting a woman in a bikini and putting her on the cover of “Maxim?” There seems to be a curious trend to accept the representation of women as desperate and flustered as long as it’s they’re featured in a romantic comedy. Women can be airbrushed until they’re wrinkle-free waifs and plastered on billboards, and that draws surprisingly little ire– but put a comic-book representation of a woman with exaggerated attributes on that same billboard and watch the complaints roll in.

The thing is, action movies aren’t about male or female empowerment. They’re pure escapist fare. To spend to much time looking for hidden messages or a sexist undercurrent is to give it all too much meaning. And if we’re being really honest, movies that target female audiences rarely feature women as self-assured as the ones we see in good, old shoot-’em films. When a woman is a prostitute as in “Pretty Woman,” she needs a man to save her. When a woman is a prostitute in a movie like “Sin City,” she’s likely to have a machine gun. Something to think about.

2 comments to Should female action heroes have an inferiority complex?

  • Charles Gramlich

    Most action heroes seem to be dressed in revealing or tight costumes. Think of all the ripped shirts Arnold was shown in. I think male and female action heroes are treated more similarly today than they have been in the past, even fifteen years ago. I think the fairer and better treatment of women in action films started with Ripley in Alien and Sarah Connor in Terminator.

  • Great piece Theresa. I have done my best to try and make sure my female characters are balanced. Lots to think about.