Thursday, 10 August 2017

The Farce of Female Led Action Movies

Letterboxd recently did a site-wide participation thing innocently titled 'Wonder Women'. A simple task, choose your favourite fictional lead characters - but they must be women. I'm sure you can guess who was at the top, here's the full list anyway. This planted a seed in my head that came into fruition yesterday after I got out of the very mediocre Atomic Blonde at the pictures.

Atomic Blonde
I am sick of having to give a film a chance, my money, my time, because the maker has been gracious enough to make their male written, male designed character a woman. Is the decision to make a main character in an action film a woman a hard one? Not if you don't have to bother with any of the you know, feelings or conflicts that come with including their experiences, as a woman, in their character! You can achieve this by making the lead an icy, unemotional robot. It's totally the easiest way to absolve yourself from any and all sexist, misogynistic tropes in your film without having to actually put any effort in. It's embarrassing. It has to stop.

We are thankfully living in an age where issues around diversity are more and more important (don't go wild now, we've still got a really long way to go). The MTV awards no longer distinguish between actor and actress. Some women are now bigger, bankable action stars than their male counterparts. If you think about it, if you think of solid action blockbuster stars now, who comes to mind? Scarlett, Charlize, Jennifer Lawrence? The woman action star has seeped into public consciousness, from films started in the 80s these have only grown stronger, now this is the norm. But, not too much the norm. because you still have Ghostbusters 2016 causing a massive shit storm. We can't ever step too much out of line or we will be put back in our place (probably by having our nudes leaked).

Return of the Jedi
Because of how liberal we all are now, it's actually quite hard to have a discussion regarding the fact that women are constantly naked or in costumes their male counterparts would not be wearing. If you hate the scene with Leia in her bikini, isn't it you who is really the sexist? Let's get things cleared up once and for all, the issue is not with nudity. I am all for an actress doing a nude scene or wearing whatever she wants, as a big fan of eroticism, softcore, pornos, I would be a hypocrite otherwise, but the difference is whether a movie really has a requirement for this. The male gaze is a hell of a powerful thing when it comes to making movies, it dictates nearly everything that ends up on the screen, because practically everyone making action movies is a man. 

A camera pans up a woman, nude or in a skintight outfit. We've already suspended disbelief that a woman needs to wear next to nothing or a skintight catsuit to fight, that she needs to be wearing heels, but the camera's lecherous lingering on her body is always present, and you know what tells you, as a woman? It tells you that you might be invited to this party, but it's never going to be for you. Not really. Why do you think women like Thor more than men do? Because Hemsworth is treated to the male gaze in every film. Thor is a superhero movie, but it was never intended for men (a conspiracy thread etc etc).

Even our beloved Ripley, championed as a bastion of feminism, the character that thrust female-led action into the limelight, has to fight her final boss in her underwear. If you type 'Ripley' into google, 'Ripley underwear' is the second search result down. This was no accident, this was not the naivety of Ridley Scott here, this was intentional, making the unattainable, professional captain of a ship and reducing her to her nipples and tiny pants. Because how else are you going to get the rewatchability if you don't have a scene to come back to? I have always found Ripley's reduction to eye-candy to be the most bizarre tonal shift in a film.

You cannot open a discussion on women's roles in action films without tapping in to the wealth of female superhero characters and their mistreatment. Superheroines as a form of media have always been flawed, created as a way to sell comics to girls, or more comics, since we are used to getting involved and obsessed with male-centric media (what choice do we have?), their adoption by men came at a cost, skimpy outfits, rape scenarios, what's more thrilling than a strong woman being stripped of her power? It's a tantalising concept (there's enough rape fantasies involving Supergirl on porn sites to attest to this market), but what happens when this crosses over into big blockbuster media? Mainly the above pose, or a variation of it.

Dark Knight Rises
The Avengers

This is a very specific pose saved just for superheroes, because they can do it during battle but it still shows their subservience to the male-gaze and the audience. You can have as much ass-kicking as you like, but the women are not shot to be powerful. These women will use their sexuality to get out of sticky situations, but they still play right into this rape fantasy at the same time. 

Superheroine costumes are always a hot debate, there is no shame in enjoying an outfit constructed for a character, but it's always worth remembering, why are they fighting in corsets? Is it really that comfortable to fight in heels? When Jurassic World came out the biggest stink caused mainly by male viewers was the fact that Jessica Chastain wore heels throughout the film. Jessica Chastain in Jurassic World is maybe the only time it's been acceptable for a woman to be in a perilous situation and wearing heels. Chastain's character was not a crime fighter, her character was a PR exec for a huge company who dressed appropriately for an ordinary day in the office. The fact that she was thrust into a situation where she has to fend off dinosaurs is neither here nor there, I don't see many women wearing work boots the office. So why is this criticism not levelled at superhero movies? Maybe it's because Chastain was never portrayed as a desirable woman in Jurassic World. Sure, she is beautiful but her sexuality was never the intended focal point of the film. Perhaps if a woman is not there to titillate then she shouldn't be wearing heels, and she deserves our scorn for daring to do so?

Sucker Punch
Sucker Punch, a film I hate so passionately it almost hurts, gets away with its blatant fetishism of young girls, vulnerable individuals and misogynistic with the ol' SATIRE label. Sucker Punch might make you upset or feel weird and gross when you're watching it, but that's totally the point, get it? Sucker Punch's main plot points revolve around multiple rapes, forced sex work and running around in lingerie or school girl outfits, but it's fine because the director is IN ON THE JOKE, GUYS. I don't buy it. Snyder should be ashamed of himself for marketing this as an empowerment film when everything screams towards it being blatantly sexist. On top of that, it's just not a very good film anyway, it's boring. Maybe Snyder was making a wider commentary on the fact that women being abused but still "having the power" because they hold a gun is boring, but I doubt very much he is that clever. 

Atomic Blonde
Often what goes hand-in-hand with a female led action vehicle is fetishised lesbianism. I am all for more lesbians on film, I am here for every representation of queerness in mainstream cinema, but why do lesbians have to have it so bad? A lesbian sex scene is not for lesbians. Not in porn. Not in mainstream cinema. Lesbians in movies exist entirely for male satisfaction, again, because why wouldn't they with such a dire lack of female directors? Lesbians are not even here to enjoy each other in indie films, and then once they have been exploited one of them will probably end up dead. Hollywood has a problem with lesbians, but not with their naked flesh.

Blue is the Warmest Colour
Black Swan
Sometimes a film will come along that will break the mould and hit all the right notes, and surprise surprise that film is directed by a woman. D.E.B.S is a spy/action film based around four teenage girls. It's actually all a construct to tell a story about two girls falling in love, and it works so well that you would be hard pressed to find a person who has a bad thing to say about it. You would also be hard pressed to find many people who have watched it, because D.E.B.S was a schoolgirl outfit wearing, lesbian kissing story that was marketing to women. Completely dismissed by the wider public, it exists in it's own universe, it's a beacon of hope that no one yet has managed to come close to.

Female action leads can differ wildly from their source material. Often taken from graphic novels, anything interested is stripped out of the character to make room for love interests or something equally boring. Let's look at Aeon Flux specifically. The Aeon Flux cartoon was great, a dominatrix espionage centred around a character completely in control of her surroundings. She was a cartoon but she was always shot as the one in power. Sexy on her own terms which happens to also be sexy to us as the audience. Aeon Flux was weird and appealed to everyone who was weird too. 

Sounds like a good thing to turn into a movie, right? I guess, if you want to do this to her:

What's funny is Charlize is wearing more clothes than the cartoon, but how she is portrayed throughout is anything but empowered. Floating around a half-baked universe with an even more undercooked story, she is not in control of her own destiny within the film, they tell her where to shoot and she does it. Aeon Flux tried to get by on it's promo shots of Charlize in spandex with guns, butt in the air, no jagged edges, everything safe, but it wasn't enough to save the film from being a flop. And you know what gets blamed when this happens? Female characters. It's so perfectly corrupt and unfair that this is the reason is has taken so long to get Wonder Woman up on the big screen. Got a shitty film that's underperforming? It's obviously because men don't want to see a female led action film. Which is completely unfair to women and men, because that simply isn't the case. Look at Alien, or Terminator and Kill Bill. If a woman can adopt and see herself in Harry Potter, of course a man can do the same. It's absolutely laughable when you really think about it.

Because of Aeon Flux, because of Ultra Violet, because of Tomb Raider time and time again action films with women in are axed, and that's being generous, that's just action films with a lead who happens to be female, one that includes the experiences of an actual woman? The chances of that ever reaching you on Netflix are even slimmer.

Mr and Mrs Smith
We all watch films to escape into a fantasy world, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. There is nothing wrong with fancying a person in a film, everything is geared towards you wanting them or wanting to be them, so it's what you're supposed to do. But think for a second if the fantasy wasn't to fuck someone, but the fantasy being portrayed was success, or kindness or any of the traits that make me love the human race. Imagine what we could inspire kids to do if instead of seeing Harley Quinn punched in the face they saw She-Hulk doing her lawyer shit. Is that only boring to us now because we are so conditioned to seeing faceless 'bad' guys being killed, that our thrill comes in waiting for the nip-slip out of that costume to come that never happens? Are we not worthy of more as a species, and especially as women, to get some fucking complex backstory over here? I want an action lead who smiles and cries and is strong and sexy without having to ever prove herself, who doesn't have to step into an army crew and arm wrestle to gain respect, I want to live in a world where women can just be and that there are so many more of us up there, different races and identities. Maybe we can achieve that sometime in the future.

Ghost in the Shell

Robyn is one half of Bimbo Movie Bash, an avid fan of Angel Delight and a Pee Wee apologist.


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