On Action Women


I read an interesting article the other day by Sarah Churchwell, a senior lecturer at the University of East Anglia (The Guardian, last week) about women in cinema.  She’d been to see the new Bourne movie, which has Julia Stiles in second billing, and noted sadly: ‘The most amazing thing Julia Stiles does in The Bourne Ultimatum is to get second billing. She has approximately three scenes, in which her character runs the gamut from  concerned to worried…she does nothing else of practical utility, except bring Damon a washcloth.’

It’s a familiar complaint – why do women in movies never get  heroic parts?  There are honourable exceptions – like Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs, and Jodie Foster in Panic Room; and of course,

 Sigourney Weaver in all the Alien movies.  alien.jpg

But the pattern tends to be – women star in chick flicks, while men kick ass.

Churchwell acknowledges that ‘there are some female action heroes these days. In TV shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena Warrior Princess and now Heroes, and movies such as Catwoman, Elektra and the Matrix films.’ But then she adds, ‘these are all science fiction fantasies, they take place in imaginary worlds, and several of them were notable flops.’

That seems just a tad dismissive.   Yes, Catwoman was a flop, but Elektra is a movie which has plenty of admirers (like Ariel, who wrote this about it) – and the Matrix was a huge huge hit.  But the key conclusion I would draw is that audiences for SF movies are not sexist, they positively like women to kick ass, and they are, generally speaking, proper grown ups. 

Even in the SF movie world, though, the best parts do tend to go to women (Trinity is not the lead character in the Matrix).  But there is a reason for all this.  Movie studio executives are not idealists, pursuing a secret cultural agenda; they are greedy money-grubbing so and sos.  And so if they thought there was money to be made out of making movies with strong, kick ass women at the helm – they would make those movies.  But their audience research tells them that spotty boys don’t like girl heroes, so they play safe, and they keep casting guys in the lead roles.

But is this true? Are viewers of the male persuasion really so narrow minded?  As an erstwhile spotty boy, I’ve always loved strong female characters in movies, novels, and graphic novels.  (My dream would be to see a movie solely devoted to the great heroine of my teen years Ororo, aka Storm of the X Men, preferably with Wolverine as her romantic lead.  Scene 1 would feature…okay, okay, I’ll get back to the point…) 

On a couple of occasions, when teaching large groups of screenwriting students, many of them in their twenties, I’ve done a straw poll of favourite films; and my anecdotal evidence is that most women of that age and many women of other ages love kick ass action movies as much as men.  The cliche (and it’s a brilliant cliche) in the movie Sleepless in Seattle is of a yawning chasm between women, who weep at soppy tear-jerking chick flicks, and men, who weep at The Dirty Dozen.  (Such a great scene!)  But my suspicion is that these days the dynamic is different, and there is a vast audience of women and men and boys and girls who would relish movies with strong, morally compromised, kick assing female heroes at the helm. 

Am I right?  Would you buy a cinema ticket if Matt Damon became the hapless, ineffectual sidekick in The Bourne Sister?  Would you turn on the telly if Dr Who were reincarnated as a woman?  Are the studio execs right in thinking there is no market for movies with female action protagonists?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.  I’d also love the studio execs to hear them, but that’s a tougher proposition….

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