Sunday, February 26, 2006

Powerful or eye-candy?

Angelina Jolie became "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," Halle Berry choked on the furball that was "Catwoman" and now Charlize Theron becomes the latest Oscar winner to become a female action star as "Aeon Flux."

At times it seems like a cruel rite of passage for an actress to star in an action movie. If she's lucky she'll come sporting skin-tight outfits, and scantily glad ones if she's not. She'll talk tough and kick the butt of all the males that stand in her way. But is this women’s empowerment or just the same male fantasy dressed up for the modern age?

Critic Roger Ebert wrote of "Catwoman" that the film was about nothing more than “Halle Berry’s beauty, sex appeal, figure, eyes, lips and costume design. It gets those right. Everything else is secondary, except for the plot, which is tertiary.”

Berry, Jolie and Theron aside, there have been a lot of these lone female assassins lately from Jennifer Garner’s “Electra” to Kate Beckinsale in “Underworld” and Milla Jovovich as “Ultraviolet.” With the market so flooded by female assassins, you have to wonder how they all manage to stay in the-saving-the-world business.

In these films the female leads are eye candy. In the worst example of the female action genre, “Charlie Angels: Full Throttle,” it is through their sexuality that Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu succeed in their investigations.

In one scene the angels have to become strippers to get what they need. Surely, it would be more empowering to see intelligent women using their brains, not their bodies to save the day.

On a certain level, it can be empowering for women to watch females taking part in the heroics that were once left only to the males. For years women were merely a sidekick or love interest in the action film. Clearly, moving to the center stage is step in the right direction.

The problem is this step was made over 25 years ago in “Alien” in which the sole survivor of the film is Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. Her defeat of the alien isn’t some elaborate physical feat, but through ingenuity. She starts out the film weak and ends strong. That seems far more empowering than the female action stars of today.

Interestingly, Weaver stayed the center of the series until 1997’s “Alien Resurrection.” By the time she starred in this fourth entry of the series she was 48 years old.

While the series had degraded in quality by 1997, the franchise continued to explore the female action hero in interesting ways. In 1986’s “Aliens” Ripley was more or less just one of the guys, but also became a surrogate mother for an orphaned girl.

Similarly, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Conner in 1984’s “The Terminator” started out as a damsel in distress that was protected by a male hero. When the hero is killed, Sarah finds the strength to destroy Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. Much like Ripley in “Alien,” it is done through brains not brawn.

In “Terminator 2” Schwarzenegger’s villain has now become a hero, but Hamilton still remains a major presence and is more a second lead than mere side-kick. She is a tough warrior but also a mother and it’s this aspect that seems to counterbalance things. Just because she can be as strong as a man, doesn’t mean she has to give up her womanhood.

Of recent films, it is this aspect that added more weight to Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” films. “Volume 1” was mindless, albeit well-made and fun entertainment, until in “Volume 2” you see Uma Thurman’s brutal assassin soften upon realizing she is mother. But this softening doesn’t make her weak. The film ends with the image of a strong, single mother.

Certainly, having the female action also be a mother isn’t the only way to retain her womanhood, but Hollywood isn’t even attempting to find another way. The next step isn't being made.

Instead, it is dumb the actress down, hand her a sword or a gun, put her in a sexy outfit and have her kick ass for two hours. Welcome to the world of sugarcoated, socially accepted feminism.

1 comment:

Eygló said...

I never looked at it that way, but I totally agree with you. I like women action heroes (although James Bond remains my favorite), but there should be more to them than sex-appeal. One of my favorites is Geena Davis in The Long Kiss Goodnight, what do you think of her?