How Should We View Cinema's Violent Women?

The Fourth of July has officially passed, a wakeup call to those of us who sped through June without realizing summer’s really here. For some, the season means sand, surf, and as much out-door fun as the epidermis can handle. For the indoorsy types, 'tis the season of action movies.

Save your Oscar-contenders for the fall when we wear turtlenecks, drink Earl Grey, and contemplate our mortality. Right now, America wants to watch hundreds of evil movie extras get punched, run through, blown up, etc. and feel sweet nothing about it.

It used to be that men were the stars of action films. Yet over the years, the number of female characters with killer instincts has mushroomed. Nowadays, the “violent woman out for revenge” is as common as the damsel in distress or the femme fatal.

I generally like these deadly woman movies. They are fun for the same reasons as male-lead action flicks—they’re stylized, adventurous, and wholly liberated from the laws of physics. They reflect the oft-overlooked reality that women are just as capable of cunning, physical strength, and brutality (yay, victory?!) as men. Honestly, it’s just refreshing to see a lady protagonist.

At the same time, I can’t watch films about killer ladies without experiencing that gnawing feeling that I’m being placated or had. We’re supposed to rejoice because we’ve finally been given “strong female characters,” but what we have in reality are predominately male interpretations of what said “strength” entails. Natalie Wilson for Ms. Magazine points out that a panel from last year’s Comi-Con called Powerful Women in Pop Culture (aka Women Who Kick Ass!) was entirely comprised of actresses. What would a film about violent ladies that was actually written, directed, and produced by women look like? You can do your own IMDB survey, but my research returned Thelma and Louise (woman writer). Stack that against Kill Bill, A Long Kiss Goodnight, La Femme Nikita, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Sucker Punch, Natural Born Killers, Bonnie and Clyde, Colombiana—the list goes on and on.

For me, there’s a sad disconnect between deadly women flicks and reality that goes beyond the normal, obvious difference between real life and cinema. Sure, everyone knows Spiderman could never exist, but Peter Parker’s ability to defend himself is encouraged in men and boys. On the other hand, people love watching girls with guns, but once we exit the theater, we enter a world where save for the military and martial arts, women aren’t raised to know basic self defense, let alone how to chop someone’s head off with a samurai sword. True, most men aren’t taught the art of decapitation either, but I’ve always wondered why, in a culture that insists “men can’t help but rape” and where women are assigned blame for allowing assault to happen, more young girls aren’t taught to defend themselves. It seems we value kick-ass girls on screen, but less so in real life.

An equally maddening disconnect comes into play when you look at why most killer-women characters get physical to begin with. It’s usually because a bad guy has offed a lady's loved one, cheated, assaulted, or abused her. It feels like we’re being told violence is the only honorable response to these wrongs, that if we don’t seek revenge we’re wusses. The truth? The ways real women overcome such terrors are much more heroic, but few people value those stories.

Which leads me to the final disconnect: Women-lead action movies aren’t actually for women. In fact, as Manohla Dargis observes in the New York Times , they are practically the only women-centered films bros can watch without having to lie and say their girlfriends dragged them to it. I know I don’t even have to go into how male-gazey they are, but I will say, from Leon the Professional to Hanna to Kickass, the “women” seem to be getting younger. It’s funny we don’t see as many films about gun-toting pubescent boys...