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In the past, women have been depicted on screen with negative stereotypes. They have been subjected to the male gaze by men in films like Gilda and Psycho (Smelik, 2009). A study by Bazzini et al. (1997) has shown that younger women in US films before the 1980s were more favoured as their older counterparts were underrepresented and considered less attractive and smart (as cited in Neuendorf, K. A., Gore, T. D., Dalessandro, A., Janstova, P. & Snyder-Suhy, S, 2010). Feminism is the fight for equality for women, and has been more recognised after the third wave of feminism. Since then, there have been phenomenal changes in the roles of women in Western society, alongside the rise of female characters in action films, creating the new action heroine archetype. These female characters defy traditional stereotypes by engaging in violent behavior like fighting with bare hands, swords and weapons (Gilpatric, 2010; Smelik, 2009; Brown, 1996; Stasia, 2004). Images of such women empowerment brought about increasing acceptance of this action heroine archetype (Brown, 1996). Thus, as times have changed and so have women’s roles in society, there are expectations that women will be represented accordingly in film as well.
However, have women actually been given a fairer representation in film? Are they no longer sexualized or subservient to men? Have women actually achieved progress in breaking stereotypes on screen? This paper aims to prove that there has been limited progress for women in film and there remains a stereotyped portrayal of women in action films.
Before delving further into the portrayal of women in film, it is important to have a clear distinction on the differences between the attributes of masculinity and femininity. Recognized standards of gender traits for both masculine and feminine stereotypes (Eschholz and Bufkin, 2001; Lueptow et al. 2001; Twenge 1997) will be used for this research paper. (as cited in Gilpatric, 2010). Stereotypically, feminine terms include words like: submissive, affectionate ,emotional, and gentle ; while masculinity is associated with traits like aggressive, independent, ambitious, and self- confident (Eschholz and Bufkin, 2001; Lueptow et al. 2001; Twenge 1997, as cited in Gilpatric, 2010).
Sex still sells. Fault of the audience?
Despite the introduction of action heroines, women are still sexualized in film. The film industry faces a continuous struggle to find a suitable method to balance both the sexualization and empowerment of strong women (Brown, 2004). One classic example would be Lara Croft from the movie Tomb Raider. The camera focused on Lara’s incredible athleticism and weapon proficiency in defeating the enemy. During the fight scene, the camera focuses on the physique of Lara, zooming in on her breasts and bottom before she finishes off the enemy (Smelik, 2009). Most of these female characters have exaggeratedly feminine bodies, resulting in a constant focus and fetishism of the features of the female body (Brown, 2004). The action heroines would usually wear tight costumes to accentuate their hyperfeminine body (Smelik, 2009; Brown 2004). Cristina Lucia Stasia, a doctoral candidate with experience on film theory and constructions of femininity, states that the costumes remind the audience that even though these female stars are strong, they are still there for “erotic pleasure” (Stasia, 2004). Moreover, film directors have also fetishized the use of weapons by females. In the opening credits of the film Blue Steel, an erotic atmosphere is created with use of music and lighting, showing an extreme close up of newbie cop Meghan Turner’s weapon, focusing on the curves and contours of the weapon before moving on to Turner dressing in her new police attire as she admires herself in the mirror (Brown, 1996). The James Bond film series have also depended on attractive female characters who are usually tough and intelligent (Neuendorf, K. A et.al, 2010). Instead of female empowerment, the action heroine might rather be seen as a fetishization of violence (Brown, 1996; Brown, 2004). Most of the action films are adapted from video games and comic books where the audience typically consists of adolescent males (Smelik, 2009; Brown, 2004). The film industry is market driven and casts well-known sex symbols as tough action heroines and combines both sex and violence to appeal to its main adolescent male market (Brown, 2004). Sklar (1994) argues that mainstream movies are made to attract a large audience and it would be wise to stick to time-tested gender stereotypes to maintain its appeal (as cited in Gilpatric, 2010). The studios are more concerned about tapping into a lucrative market for higher profits rather than giving their support for feminism (Stasia, 2004). Audience demand is part of the reason why women are still sexualised in action films today.
Patriarchal film industry
There are other reasons for this continued sexualization of female characters as well. Jill Cherneff, a research scholar with extensive experience in studying women in film, observed that studio executives in the film industry has viewed direction as a male domain as the qualities required to direct films successfully are omniscience, omnipotence and strength. Rohther (1991), a reporter with The New York Times, gave the view that since a director is required to show authority and control over the whole set, production companies are skeptical that a female director will be able to maintain control over the cast and the crew (as cited in Cherneff, 1991). As men have traditionally dominated the film industry, Laura Mulvey, a British feminist film theorist, believes that film is presented through the stereotyped eyes of the ‘male gaze’ (as cited in Smelik, 2009, p.180). According to Mulvey (1984), the camera films from the view of a male character when he is looking at a woman. The audience would adopt a male position and look at the woman through the eyes of the male character bringing about “a threefold “male” gaze: camera, character and the spectator” (Smelik, 2009,p.180). The sexualisation of women portrayed on action films is partly due to the patriarchal film industry and it undermines the ability of women to break stereotypes as their other qualities are overlooked.
Subservience to Men
The female characters shown in action films are still depicted as subservient to men and usually play supporting characters. A study done by Magoulick (2006) revealed that action heroines usually play as the romantic interest of the male hero who usually has some form of control over them (as cited in Gilpatric, 2010). In Gilpatric (2010)’s study, only 15.3% of action heroines were portrayed as the main character in the film while 58.6% were depicted to be submissive to the male protagonist. Additionally, few female characters in the Bond film series were considered prominent and focal to the development of the plot (Neuendorf, K. A et.al, 2010). Examples of passive female characters include distressed loved ones of the male protagonist while some serve as dispensable love interests that give male protagonists the perfect excuse for excessive violence (Brown, 1996). These examples show that female characters were nothing more than an excuse for the hero’s motivation (Brown, 1996). The continued stereotyping of action heroines as subservient can be explained by Mulvey (1975)’s claim that men are the active agents that advance the storyline while passive women pause it (as cited in Brown, 1996). Women in action films tend to slow down the narrative by serving as objects of erotic desire as there’s a need for transition in between the action scenes (Brown, 1996). By continuing to pale in the shadow of their male counterparts on the screen, women still remain stereotyped.
However, many critics have welcomed the proliferation of such roles as taking up of weapons and saving people from dangerous situations is considered a breakaway from the traditional subdued roles. Hopkin (2002) suggests that such images of girl power is a boost for feminism and the action heroine reifies the third wave of feminism into the slick visuals of violence with girl power messages (as cited in Stasia, 2004). These tough representations of women seemed to signal a change beyond the traditional definitions of feminine traits (Gilpatric, 2010). Yet, it is debatable whether action heroines actually celebrate femininity when feminine traits are overlooked. Gilpatric (2010) argues that action heroines are just the female version of the characteristics of a dominant male action character. Masculine traits like self-reliance, competence and control are reinforced within the movie (Brown, 2004). Research conducted by Escholz and Bufkin (2001) suggests that the violent acts committed by action heroines is highly correlated with masculine traits (as cited in Gilpatric, 2010). Nothing seems to suggests that the presence of action heroines actually break stereotypes. Instead, masculine traits are favoured. Tasker (1993) asserts that action heroines answer questions of gender identity through the masculinization of the female body (Brown, 1996). This is evident in heroines like Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 and Ripley in Aliens as they possess icons strongly related to masculinity: guns and muscles. The visual muscular appearance of Sarah Connor was explicitly compared to the archetypal Rambo persona (Brown, 1996). Sarah Connor’s body was not sexualized, but positioned as a “killer body” where the arms and shoulders were packed with muscles, no ass and bosom; she wasn’t just portraying masculinity through her role but symbolising it physically, erasing any traces of femininity completely (Brown, 1996). It seems that action heroines have to behave masculine in order to be validated and seen as important, with scant regard for femininity. Even if femininity was used as a tool for action heroines, film chooses to focus on the feminine body aspect of the heroine. One example would be Barb Wire, where the heroine’s violent response is directed to men who assume her sexuality is on display primarily for their pleasure (Brown, 2004). Either women have to act tough or they are sexualized. This goes to show that women have not achieved much progress as they are perpetuating gender stereotypes in the action films.
It is not fair to assume that all the action heroines shown on film are stereotyped. There are a few characters in movies that broke stereotypes. One example would be Kiddo from Kill Bill. She signified a complex form of empowerment for the females where the film shows her long process of the years of training and plotting for revenge as a warrior and during the final scenes of the film, Kiddo was finally happy after a long period of time as she embraces her daughter (Smelik, 2009). Throughout the movie, Kiddo was not subjected to the voyeuristic gaze (Smelik, 2009). Another example would be Ripley from Alien. She embodies a form of a feminist statement where her authority as a marine commander over the crew wasn’t challenged as authority was given to people irrespective of their gender and she wasn’t shown to have any sexual relations with any man (Brown, 1996). Instead, she was shown to use her intelligence and strength to be the last surviving person to eliminate the monster (Brown, 1996). However, such characters are few and far between due to audience demand. Archetypes portrayed in movies today tend to gravitate towards the new action heroine where the heroines depicted are not threatening to the fantasies of heterosexual males who made up most of the audience, the action genre as a typically male genre and the male gaze (Stasia, 2004). It seems that the audience is more concerned about the spectacle of the action scenes rather than the consequences of the potentially stereotype-breaking actions of the heroines, limiting progress of women getting a fairer representation on screen.
In conclusion, despite the emergence of action heroines in film that seemingly break time-tested gender stereotypes, women are still sexualized and portrayed as subservient to men. Masculine attributes present in action heroines are being preferred and validated. Women can only be violent under certain parameters largely set by the extent of the tolerance of men and if they are not threatening to man’s fantasies. Thus, portrayal of women in action films has seen little progress and remain stereotyped.
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