Guest Post: Why Female Actions Heroes Need to Be Role Models

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by Inkoo Kang
June 6, 2012 1:01 PM
12 Comments
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This blog post was created in response to a question I asked after reading the piece Are Recent Action Heroines Really Role Models? in Boxoffice Magazine.

We need female action heroes to be positive, inspirational figures because there's a whole lot of us who want -- and have been waiting for decades -- to see more female protagonists distinguished by their heart, courage, and smarts -- i.e., role model attributes -- instead of their cup size. It's easy to lob the accusation that female action heroes will never be truly "feminist" because they'll also always have to be beautiful. But Robert Downey, Jr. (Iron Man), Mark Ruffalo (Hulk in The Avengers), and Andrew Garfield (the new Spiderman) are pretty attractive too, and no one is accusing their hotness of diminishing their heroism.

Moreover, the conventional attractiveness of today's action heroines can serve an important purpose.  Body image issues are unavoidable in any discussion of female role models in a visual medium like film, and female action heroes can go a long way in showcasing the wonder and might of female physical power by going against the grain of Hollywood's current standard of beauty which implicitly prizes physical weakness via the super-thin bodies of most most young actresses. In the end, having pretty women in commercial film is inevitable. Having actresses lend their pretty faces to make muscles on female bodies more appealing (i.e., the Michelle Obama effect) is awesome.

It must be granted that many of today's action heroes are largely immune from the moral scrutiny that accompanies the arrival of most action heroines on the big screen. People love Iron Man for being a self-absorbed grumposaur, but Katniss Everdeen has Manohla Dargis, arguably the country's most important female critic, wringing her hands about how the actress who plays her might be too curvy.  But a playful superhero figure like Iron Man comes after decades and decades of "role model" action heroes like Superman, Spiderman, and Captain America. Iron Man, Hancock, and their snarky ilk are counterreactions to the square, goody-goody "role model" heroes of yesteryear.  Hence, contemporary male action heroes are, in a sense, excused from having to be role models, since so many other characters already fit that niche. But with female action heroes, we're still at square one. We don't already have a Superman, a Spiderman, or a Captain America, so we need to start with the first step of creating "role model" heroines.

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Inkoo Kang is a Boston-based writer and regular contributor to Boxoffice Magazine whose work has appeared in Movieline, Pop Matters and Screen Junkies. She reviews stuff she hates, likes, and hate-likes on her blog THINK-O-VISION.
 

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12 Comments

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  • Robert | June 10, 2012 1:37 PMReply

    If you want a realistic portrayal of an female action hero, look no further than the underrated Queen of Swords who is never portrayed as physically stronger than her male opponents only more skilful or using the element of surprise. She is also portrayed as revengeful, jealous, makes mistakes but always does the right thing in the end.

  • Jessica | June 8, 2012 6:26 PMReply

    worthy argument in the 3rd paragraph, though i still think there's a larger range of body-types that can serve to showcase powerful women, and we shouldn't stand down just because beautiful faces are 'inevitable' .. but yes to the call for action heriones who are driven by their intelligence & good character. my favorite in the collage is sarah connor -- Arnold and Eddie Furlong got all the attention in the Terminator movies, but she was by far the real hero.

  • Kyle | June 7, 2012 2:00 AMReply

    Don't you feel you might be urging creators down a narrow path? Captain America and Superman are products from a stunted era of storytelling. They're wooden, simple archetypes that are too perfect to be compelling and have almost no room to grow as characters. A strong, confident - but flawed - modern character like Legend of Korra's Korra is infinitely more interesting.

  • Bachelormum | June 7, 2012 12:11 AMReply

    Beautifully stated. Besides attractive people r attractive because they appeal to the human eye, albeit subjective, many of us like looking at gorgeous looking people, it's pleasurable. Combine it with strength and sass and u have a good mix.

  • Burt | June 6, 2012 7:30 PMReply

    Lets not forget it is all fantasy - so both representation of men & women are not 'real'. I question any 'positiveness' in 'powerful images of muscle women beating up the bad guy is diminished by young girls (and boys) knowledge that it is way over in the 'unreal' genre.

    It is the representation of women in films that claim to represent reality that has the greatest influence on our young people and it is those which need our monitoring and modification - even reality TV isn't real

  • Sabrina | June 6, 2012 5:36 PMReply

    I agree that we need more female action figures, but disagree that they must be "positive, inspirational figures." Millions of women are unlikely agree on what counts as positive or inspirational, especially when it comes to action heroes. Also, the many complexities that make us human tend to get erased when the single role model standard is applied. For example, Ms. Kang criticizes Hanna and Lisbeth Salander as robotic and aloof, and finds it depressing that both are damaged young women who seek revenge. To me, their lack of conventional "feminine" emotionality as well as the fact that they are avenging their mistreatment, is precisely what I find inspiring! Finally, the role model standard has the effect of categorizing the female-driven action movies we DO have as not measuring up (which I saw happening in Ms. Kang's article.) She concludes, "Despite the irritation of having girl heroes who are either too wooden, too sexy, too princessy or too perfect, at least we're getting a variety of them—even if we are teaching a generation of girls that, like Rapunzel, they can grow out their hair to zipline across forests." I think we should allow female characters and female-centered stories to be mixed; then talk about what we liked, what we didn't like, and what we would have done differently in a given movie. Let's write more scripts, make more movies, and have more conversations just like this one. I plan to write more about this issue on my blog, Pygmalionsfantasy.com. Thanks for reading.

  • Budmin | June 6, 2012 4:13 PMReply

    It makes little sense for a female protagonist to throw herself body and soul into countless suicide missions armed with little more then that classic machismo swagger popularized by the Schwarzeneggers, Stallones and Willis'es of the 90's action genre. Men are more accepting of their roles as disposable commodities then women are. Our concepts of morality directly reflects the contempt we have for our status in society so watching a Male "Hero" break all the rules becomes a cathartic experience.

    Your typical Hollywood starlet could never truly encapsulate the nihilism of a John McClane or John Rambo. To the best of my knowledge most female action heroes are usually depicted as survivors trying to escape the violence.

  • Inkoo | June 11, 2012 4:21 PM

    In what way(s) are men "more accepting of their roles as disposable commodities than women are"?

    Also, that's a great point in the last sentence of your comment, that many female action heroes tend to be survivors (or a variation of the Final Girl), and thus reactors, not actors in their own right.

  • Patricia | June 6, 2012 3:42 PMReply

    I saw "Snow White and the Huntsman." I really like this film because it portrayed Snow White as a feminist and a strong woman. Two men were in love with her, but unlike most fairy tales brought to the screen, she didn't have to "choose" between either of them. And the movie didn't end with her getting married, either. The best portrayal of Snow White ever! I'm glad to see strong female characters in film, whether it's an action story or an interpretation of an old fairy tale.

  • Patricia | June 6, 2012 6:43 PM

    Inkoo, I didn't see it as a lack of resolution. I saw the "no wedding" ending as a way to tell girls that marriage doesn't have to be the only option or choice in life.

  • Inkoo | June 6, 2012 4:12 PM

    True, SWatH didn't end with a marriage. But the lack of resolution on the love story felt like a set-up for a sequel, as opposed to be a deliberate subversion of the fable.

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