Since Jaws’ original theatrical release in June 1975, summertime at the box office has been synonymous with Hollywood event films. And in addition to bloated budgets, high grosses and often sophomoric scripts, a common thread among most studios’ summer entries is a pretty blatant sexism. Like the opening scene in Jaws, when a beautiful young woman is quite literally eaten alive, the modern action movie has relegated women (with few exceptions) to variations of the damsel-in-distress or hyper-sexed sidekick stock characters. (Think Megan Fox in last summer’s highest grossing monstrosity, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen.) The most commanding and vital stock role—the action star—is practically always saved for the Harrison Fords and Will Smiths of the world.
But this isn’t a post about the lack female action stars. What I want to talk about is the uniquely sexist way most Hollywood films often depict the female heroines that have been able to break the glass ceiling and become action stars.
At this point, before I go any further, allow me to politely interject that I’m not out to ruin summer action movies for anyone. I know there are plenty of Tomb Raider and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle fans out there. Hell, there are probably just as many, if not more, fans of the Transformers series, some of which probably see Megan Fox’s character as anything but mere eye-candy (after all, she is a motorcycle repairwoman!). Point is, I’m not trying to tell anyone how or what to like. What I’m talking about is a different perspective.
In nearly all female-driven action movies, like the two mentioned above, one of the most common and pervasive feminine stereotypes is always at the forefront: sex appeal. Now before you roll your eyes, I’d like to point out that I know how obvious this is. In fact, it’s this very obviousness that makes the truly sexist elements of the modern female action star so easy to miss.
To clarify, let’s talk about the one thing most of today’s movie stars, men and women, share: looks. Strong, sexy, drop-dead good looks. A common and easy feminist argument (and, not coincidentally, one that turns a lot of guys off of any sort of feminist ways of thinking) against the depiction of women in Hollywood films is, simply, that many female stars are just too damn attractive. You know the company line: these beautiful women create impossible standards for young girls and influence women in general in ways more negative than positive. This is all well tread territory. And while there is truth to this argument, it’s becoming more and more apparent that the physical beauty of stars of both sexes affects viewers of both sexes. In the age of Photoshop and performance-enhancing drugs, young men, too, are falling under the spell of the chiseled action star or stud athlete.
So this kills the obvious sexist argument, right? I mean, if the beauty of both male and female action stars is exploited, this is no longer a uniquely feminist issue, right?
Like many issues across the feminist landscape, this is a case where an obvious point (no matter how true) actually obscures a more malignant problem. Think for a second about the modern action film from a directorial perspective (as oxymoronic as it may sound, the artistic perspective). Like all movies, the stars of actions films are presented to viewers through a series of camera shots. A commonly overlooked element of these individual shots is their subjective nature.
I know, I know, this sounds like a bunch of film school mumbo-jumbo. So let me put it another way. Like pictures in a magazine, each camera shot in a film suggests something about the character being photographed. When we see a man constructing a suit containing jet packs and missile launchers (Robert Downey, Jr. in Ironman), it’s clear the director suggests ingenuity, brilliance. When we see a grown woman waking up, taking out her retainer, and dancing across her bedroom in a t-shirt and underwear not unlike that worn by adolescent boys (Cameron Diaz in Charlie’s Angels), it’s clear the director suggests a playful, girlish sexiness.
The stereotypical ways directors choose to present their action stars often goes unnoticed in modern action films. The sex appeal, the allure that frames both male and female action stars, is a product of these presentations, these directorial suggestions. For male action heroes, the sex appeal comes first and foremost from his actions. We see Ironman destroy the villain; we see Spider-Man stop the train before it careens off the tracks. We see, in other words, the acts of a heroic man and thus find him appealing; his body comes second. For the female action hero, we first and foremost see her body—beautiful and deeply sexualized—captured lustily by the camera. Think of Angelina Jolie as Fox in Wanted or Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider films. Think of any of Charlie’s Angels. The bodies of most of our female action stars are subjected to the same exploitative directorial shots that practically define the Megan Fox’s of the world; only a veil of heroism shrouds this exploitation. For female action stars, the body comes first; their acts come second.
This is why I miss Sarah Connor so much.
I’m talking about the most emphatically feminist action star of the past few decades, that’s who. As anyone who has seen Terminator 2: Judgment Day can attest, Sarah Connor (as portrayed by Linda Hamilton) is probably the most physically intimidating—badass—female presence to grace the screen since the heyday of Pam Grier. But unlike Grier’s blaxploitation films, and most of female-driven action films of today, Hamilton’s body is never, not for a moment, the subject of the camera’s gaze. In fact, the only time the film shows-off her physique is when we see her doing pull-ups, a typically “masculine” exercise, in her hospital room.
Sarah’s dress and appearance also go against the grain of the stereotypical hyper-sexed action heroine. At the start of the film, she appears seemingly without make-up, wearing only nondescript hospital sweats. Later, Sarah dons black cargo pants and a black tank top (see the above picture). Does she look good? You bet your ass she does: cigarette in one hand, semi-automatic rifle in the other; sunglasses on and a holstered knife adorning her belt. She looks like… she is an action star. Her wardrobe works in conjunction with the development of her character and the arc of the film’s story. Sarah Connor is as tortured and flawed as she is heroic. She exhibits true pathos. So to see this hardened figure preparing for battle, a viewer cannot help but think of the events that led her to this point and the badass fight she’s about to enter. In other words, Sarah’s actions come to mind first. Any sex appeal she gives off derives from these actions.
Take a look now at Lara Croft as portrayed by Angelina Jolie.
What we have here is not a female action hero but a male fantasy. In the Tomb Raider films, Lara Croft is a sexist caricature of a female heroine—beautiful almost beyond words, wealthy, and completely one-dimensional. It’s easy to focus on her solely on her looks because, really, there’s not much else to her character. Look at her short shorts, the accentuation of her breasts; see the garter-like weapons holsters and her pouty lips. Lara Croft’s appeal is exclusively sexual and not limited only to her classic outfit. All of clothes she wears in both films highlight Lara Croft’s otherworldly beauty. Even her movements, whether she’s walking, working out or fighting, are smooth and seductive. Any feelings of empowerment Lara Croft provides are partly empty because the character remains solely a male sexual fantasy masquerading as an action hero.
This sort of viewing perspective is useful for guys approaching feminism because it brings attention to one of the most common exploitations that feminism speaks out against: objectification of the female body. I’ll be the first to admit that, as a guy, female objectification is not always the easiest thing to catch. After all, guys are a primary audience for badasses like Sarah Connor and hyper-sexed icons like Lara Croft. We’re supposed to like them both, a lot. So it’s easy to get suckered into the false conclusion that all of today’s female action heroes represent greater parity—in quantity and quality—among women in action films simply because they exist at all. Like I mentioned in the last post, it’s no longer enough for a woman to simply play the role of action hero; now the question becomes, ‘How well does she do the job?’
An action hero’s true authenticity is a product of how the hero is presented. So the next time you watch a female action hero command the screen, ask yourself what are the camera shots are suggesting about the heroine. What does her wardrobe suggest? Remember, feminism and physical beauty are not mutually exclusive. But as the Sarah Connor/Lara Croft comparison proves, the presentation of an image often demands just as much attention as the image itself.
Note: this article originally appeared in the author's blog, The Guy's Guide to Feminism