This may come as a shock to some, but women aren’t perfect. We have setbacks at work, we gain and lose too much weight, we hurt people we care about. We make mistakes, we age, we develop. So why does Hollywood’s action genre insist on painting us as two-dimensional (white) femme fatales?
When it comes to action films, a meager 7% have a female lead. Instead, women tend to play the lead in comedies. The natural second is dramas, then horror and science fiction films. In an age where we want to stress the motivation and impact of women, we seem to only see our big screen counterparts as laughable or tragic.
Hollywood in general has been known to treat female characters differently than male ones. Female characters are more likely to have their relationship status known while male characters are more defined by their work. As a result, male characters often have career goals while women are focused on themselves. This is amplified by the fact that women only made up 26% of leadership roles in films.
The numbers only get worse when diversity is considered. In 2018, female leads in film increased by 31%. However, when assessing the top 100 films of 2018, 65% of female characters were white. Black women in starring roles only increased by 5% from 2017 to 2018, and Latinas lost representation by 3%.
What do we get when women are actually given the coveted lead role in an action film? Sadly, it usually turns out to be a supporting role in disguise. An article in TIME magazine called the era of female-led action films around 2010 to be “the team players,” noting that “too often these characters are there to have chemistry with the leading man or to round out the crew rather than move the plot forward.”
These are the Wonder Womans and Black Widows. Diana Prince was a marvel of female power, but the majority of her interactions throughout the film are with men. This includes romantic partner Steve Trevor who spends the movie telling Diana what the world is actually like outside her island paradise. The future of Wonder Woman on the silver screen is likely going to be within the expanding DCU alongside her male teammates.
As for Black Widow, her complete lack of a character arc proves that she is there to bring some estrogen to the team. In Avengers: Age of Ultron we did see a few minutes of Natalie Romanov’s past including spy training and ballet lessons. The audience even learns that she was sterilized as part of her graduation ceremony. But where does any of this come into the development of the character beyond her reasoning behind being okay with Bruce Banner’s inability to perform?
Critic and broadcaster for major British outlets BBC and Sky News Bidisha said it well: “On the surface, this all looks great: big films with one woman character at the heart, shouting and fighting, competing, gaining vengeance or justice or completing the mission just like the men. Perhaps there are even one or two women directors.”
Hollywood adds in a crime-fighting female and ticks the box for diversity. However, these characters are hardly relatable and tend to be what male directors and writers think a female lead should be. “The underlying, sexist rules are the same: the female action hero is always white, beautiful and sexy,” Bidisha wrote. “If she is older than 45 she must still look 25; her body is toned to ‘perfection’ and on display at all times. Above all, she is alone. She has no women comrades, no female friends, no sisters or women allies, no crew of homegirls.”
If you want a picture of the disparity between male and female action heroes, look no further than search algorithms. Search engines like Google rank results based on several factors, among them is popularity. When an ambiguous query “female action star” is typed in the first few pages are littered with “sexiest/hottest female action heroes.” Meanwhile, a simple change to “male action stars” yields results like “mesmerizing talent” and “are action heroes getting older?”
Gender and racial diversity are not the only areas where Hollywood struggles to represent. Ageism is a longstanding criticism of action films. Longtime film critic and Forbes senior contributor Scott Mendelson stated: “In Hollywood, if you’re a guy you’re never too old to kick ass. But if you’re a woman, you’re probably already too old to be the love interest or the tag-along girl.”
Over the past several decades, women have tried to break through the glass ceiling of action films with some impressive results. When it comes to highest grossing films, however, the strong white female hero reigns supreme. Four of the top ten action movies with female leads go to The Hunger Games and two are the new Star Wars films.
When The Hunger Games first premiered young girls around the world looked to Katniss as their role model. A mere teenager that overcomes the odds of poverty to repeatedly win a gruesome challenge should motivate the masses. Yet Katniss is largely defined in the books and films based on whether she is Team Peeta or Team Gale in that portion of the story. Not to mention she is white (check), young (check), and a professional archer based solely on animal hunting experience.
In the realm of being inherently good at everything you do, a non-standard trait of womanhood, few can surpass Rey of the latest Star Wars trilogy. As a scavenger from a desert planet, it is hard to understand how Rey is able to pilot the Millennium Falcon and learn lightsaber techniques faster than any of her predecessors. There is the concept that she is more gifted in the force than Master Luke has ever seen, but can we at least see a little failure here and there to latch on to? Beyond that, Rey is almost unlikable as her stoicism and “badass” demeanor gives us little to connect with.
Other action films with the standard strong female hero have the same issues. Furiosa of Mad Max: Fury Road has to team up with the title character to take down the bad guy. Atomic Blonde’s Lorraine Broughton turns out to be the villain all along, using her sexual appeal and social detachment to deceive her supposed partners. Tomb Raider Lara Croft leverages her privilege as a rich white girl to beat opposing treasure hunters to appropriated prizes. Even the groundbreaking Ripley spends the final scenes of Alien in a gratuitous underwear-clad, bra-less game of cat and mouse.
What do all of the above have in common? White female leads that either need a male counterpart to succeed or are solely crafted in the eyes of male writers and directors for maximum sex appeal and minimum thought-provocation.
Action films are not known for substance or depth of character. They are meant to dazzle us with well-choreographed fight scenes and exciting explosions. But female heroes are not given the same attention to detail as the more traditional caped crusaders. Bruce Wayne struggles with his need to be a savior because his parents were gunned down by thieves. Tony Stark descended into obsession and anxiety under the weight of his responsibilities. The Terminator films have an undercurrent of the importance of familial bonds. Indian Jones’ exploits usually land him in deep water from which his friends and lovers have to save him.
Hollywood does not need to keep churning out the same lazily-written female hero to boost audience diversity. Give us black, Latina, Asian, and Native American leads that use their heritage to overcome villainous threats. Intrigue us with middle-aged and older women that have to answer the call of duty to protect home and country.
Decades of giving that treatment to male leads has proven the film industry can write a compelling story within an action movie. Enough with the strong (white) female heroes. Take the time to write a character woman can see themselves in. Because the truth is, we’re complicated.