Sunday, February 6, 2011

10 Clues You May Be a Female Action Hero

In the course of writing The Modern Amazons: Warrior Women on Screen, I did a lot of additional research that could not be included due to space restrictions. At the time there were very few books available covering to the rise of the female action hero and her origins, so I began to form a series of indexes and timelines to use as reference and decipher the significance of certain patterns. 

The title of the book was derived from the idea that most all modern warrior women in media and pop culture share the the archetype of Amazon women. Note: although both are deadly, the Amazon woman is NOT the same as the Femme Fatale, (which I covered in another book I wrote with James Ursini, Femme Fatale: Cinema's Most Unforgettable Lethal Ladies) Among other traits, the Amazon warrior woman faces her enemies in far more overt and physical confrontations, and usually has some sense of sisterhood with other women. The femme fatale is interested in just one person--herself, and she often prefers someone else to do the dirty work when it comes down to it, like a nice gullible, sex-crazed man. Inevitably though, some of the most iconic actresses of our time have played both roles over time (the indomitable Barbara Stanwyck for example).

In Susan Isaac’s book Brave Dames and Wimpettes: What Women Are Really Doing on Page and Screen, she includes a “Brave Dame Philosophy” consisting of seven articles of criteria to qualify as a brave dame. They include such concepts as: “A brave dame is passionate about something besides passion” and “A brave dame stands up to injustice.”
The warrior women selected in my book underwent a similar criteria system in order to decide which characters and films to feature from the hundreds of action movies and TV shows that have been released over the years. For the sake of this blog, I'm posting some clues that we can use to sniff out our warriors, and then I'll expound upon each topic in upcoming posts. I should probably note that "hero" may not be the correct word for all warrior women, as many "Modern Amazons" may not be categorized as on the side of "good" (at least in the patriarchal sense), but I'm counting them in anyway.

10 Clues You May Be a Female Action Hero
by Dominique Mainon

1) Are you wearing a catsuit, spandex unitard, or a leather corset?

A dead giveaway, right? Aside from the standard comic book superhero spandex unitards, Kate Beckinsale's corseted, leather catsuit ensemble in Underworld sparked a substantial trend of gothic chic that even penetrated the mainstream. And of course Britain's Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) of The Avengers made her black leather catsuit a trademark long before that.
Mystery Woman (Bai Ling) from Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
The suit itself may be inspired by the Japanese “zentai,” which  describes a “skin-tight suit that covers the entire body"…possibly a contraction of zenshin taitsu or ‘full-body tights’.  It first surfaced centuries ago in Japanese puppet theater, Bunraku, where the puppeteer appears onstage wearing a black tight fitting outfit so as not to distract from the performance of the puppet he is manipulating. Zentai also became popular in sports and in arts like dance largely because they accentuated the body of the performer so effectively while providing ease of movement for the performer. The Japanese also often utilized clinging synthetic materials such as spandex, pvc, and latex to enhance the sleekness of the wearer’s body. Today the catsuit is linked inextricably with the world of fetish.

Julie Newmar as Catwoman
It's debatable where the catsuit made its first appearance in pop culture. Some say it was in Alfred Hitchcock's 1946 film, To Catch a Thief, however it may be most unanimously recalled from Bob Kane's creation Catwoman. Kane and his stable of artists spent decades, beginning in the forties, working on the various costumes their feline comic heroine would sport. Gradually by the sixties Catwoman donned a version of the catsuit we are now familiar with due to  Julie Newmar, who first personified Catwoman on the screen in the sixties Batman television series. Newmar's character was almost scandalously tantalizing for television in the body-hugging suit. The combined visual elements and ease of movement have made the catsuit, in its countless varieties, a frequent favorite for warrior women and action heroes. 

2) Have you been genetically altered or cybernetically enhanced (perhaps against your will)?

 Max in Dark Angel, Seven of Nine from Star Trek Voyager,  Jamie the Bionic Woman, Sue Storm of the Fantastic Four, Maria the robot from Metropolis, Ghost in the Shell, and a number of comic book heroines and evil villains share the same dilemma of artificial enhancement (or tampering). Why are these women endowed with increasingly superhuman abilities?

Countless films depict strong women as threatening, even if tightly bound and defined in the accoutrements of male fantasy. Women that are complex, difficult to figure out, unpredictable, may be portrayed as part-animal, part-alien, mutated, or genetically engineered.  These half-breed or otherwise non-human women are exceptionally alluring and aesthetically perfect. Even in real life, extremely attractive women tend to be perceived as impenetrable “ice-queens,” emotionally unavailable and aloof. On screen they are revealed as androids, incapable of human emotion and true kindness--but at the same time highly sexualized. Their bodies are hard, smooth, and machine-like, clearly not child-bearing or reproductive in nature and certainly not soft and nurturing. Models-turned-actors  do well in these sorts of roles. Think for instance, of Natasha Henstridge in Species, Jeri Ryan as “Seven of Nine”, Kristanna Loken as a killing machine in Terminator 3, or Daryl Hannah in Blade Runner.

3) Do you prefer any of the following weapons: bow and arrow, throwing stars/knives/darts/chakram, exotic poisons,  blades or impalement objects, martial arts or maybe killer sexy dance moves to take out your enemy?

Probably the most archetypical weapon is the bow and arrow, which we see used far more by women than men in action films. Even in futuristic sci-fi films we’ll see interesting modifications of the traditional bow and arrow such as in Serenity (2005). Considering that weapons of the future would be highly sophisticated, it wouldn’t seem likely that an archaic bow might fit in. However, we see modified cross bows and very elaborate compound bows also used in movies like Elektra (2005) and Blade: Trinity (2004). 

Throwing weapons are also popular, whether it is Xena's circular chakram (which makes an ideal decapitating weapon and as such alludes to castration according to Freudian theory) or throwing stars, favored by warriors such as Sin City's "Deadly Little Miho" (Devon Aoki). Swords and blades certainly make frequent appearance also. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and Jen (Zhang Ziyi) go through a whole rack of different blades as they fight each other woman to woman over “The Green Destiny,” the famous sword stolen by Jen from Shu Lien’s beloved man, Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat). 

The sword is symbolically male, a phallic weapon of impalement. The usage of swords by women in films is usually very interesting. It appears as a form of phallic empowerment, putting them on a “man’s level.” In warrior women movies we first see female samurais wielding swords in many such films as Lady Snowblood and The Crimson Bat, produced as part of a series in Japan in the seventies. In the last decade they have appeared far more frequently in the hands of Western warrior women. Kill Bill Vol. 1, the unsheathing of swords, though no doubt a form of homage to other films also, does take on a very male ritualistic effect. The slow, sensuous unsheathing of the sword is a ceremony, a prelude to act of life or death. During Quentin Tarantino's
Poison and illness come into play in several female comic book inspired characters such as Typhoid, who appears in Elektra and comes closest to killing her with her deadly poisonous kiss. Even Rogue in X-Men seems to have a body that is a form of poison in itself. Many of these beautiful women who make people sick from touching them are a throwback from the fifties when scare tactics were utilized to discourage sexual contact between teenagers. We can't forget about the use of venom also. Shortly after Budd (Michael Madsen) insults Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) with a blond joke in Kill Bill Volume 2, he is struck in the face with a deadly black mamba snake, whose transference of venom is “gargantuan” as Elle sadistically points out to him. 

Of course guns always come into play (especially big ones), but in the warrior woman film the gun is often handled in a slightly different way in comparison to men. Women wrap themselves around big guns in some cases. In the case of Tank Girl, she straddles a huge tank gun, positions it right in the face of her enemy as he is driving a truck and asks, “Feeling a little inadequate?” Women are also often depicted holding guns up near their mouth, maybe even blowing on the tip. Perhaps it is more phallic than the sword, since a gun can actually even go off. 

One weapon that men have yet to duplicate is the killer dance moves. From Salma Hayek's unforgettable striptease as "Santanico Pandemonium" in From Dusk 'Til Dawn to Zhang Ziyi's graceful but deadly dance in House of Flying Daggers. And of course we can't forget the smoky-voiced Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) and her combination of kung-fu, tai-chi and dance movements that served as her secret weapon in The Avengers TV series.

4) Are you dressed in drag? Do you have a shaved head?

As if things aren't challenging enough for the warrior woman, on many occasions she has to disguise the fact that she is female in order to get a place in the fight. Joan of Arc is the precedent for most of these depictions. Case in point: Eowyn (played by Mirando Otto) in The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. As interpreted by Jackson and Otto she is an aggressive warrior who demonstrates her expertise with arms in several early scenes. In the final battle for Gondor, Eowyn is denied permission to fight by her uncle, and commanded to stay with the women and children. But she deceives her uncle and dresses like a male warrior, obviously echoing Joan of Arc, and not only kills the dreaded Nazgul to protect the king, which none of the other men are able to do. 
Eowyn (played by Mirando Otto) kills the dreaded Nazgul in The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
 Disney’s animated feature Mulan (1998) tells a similar story from Chinese folklore of a young woman who poses as a man to join the army and help defeat the invading Huns. Stories abound in all cultures of women posing as men to defend their peoples which leads researchers to believe that the incidence of cross dressing by women in order to take on the roles of men in both work and war was not insignificant and far exceeded the rare instances of it recorded in historical documents.

Sigourney Weaver as "Ripley"
Even if she doesn't do full drag, the warrior woman may need to at least blend into an all-male environment and assume a type of camouflage in order to not to disturb or confuse male egos with such enticing female traits as a full head of hair.  This ritual is shown in G.I. Jane when Demi Moore's character defiantly shaves her head in order to become one of the boys and thus successfully completes SEAL training.  Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien3 has her femininity stripped away and head shaved while dwelling with a male penal colony on a remote planet, and Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton) doesn't even need to shave her head when she famously transforms in Terminator 2: Judgement Day into a a much more powerful, butch, gun-toting warrior. 

5) Are you part of a gang of women or all-female organization? 

The quintessential Amazon woman is part of a tribe, a sisterhood. The movie D.E.B.S. (2004) featured plaid-skirted schoolgirls groomed by a secret government agency to be an elite national-defense group. Foxfire also featured a gang of teenage girls, intent on getting revenge on their science teacher who sexually harasses young girls in his class. Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) was Russ Meyer's bad-girl gang fantasy, and the women of the Kill Bill series were originally part of a gang called Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DiVAS).

The all-female organization pops up in many places. In Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005), we take note that Angelina Jolie’s character seems to head up an organization that is exclusively female (which is never really explained). Girl Gangs are abound in movies, together for bad and good purposes. Charlie’s Angels is the type of series where it gets a little cloudy. On one hand, three extremely capable women are the center of the story and make up all of the action. However, they have a central male figure that they are subordinate to. We’ll see this sort of a “daddy” character very frequently in pop culture. At the end of the day, the male psyche can rest easy that the women will switch back to the traditional gender role and try to cook them dinner – even if it does get burned a little in the process. After all, the normal-girl persona is also part of their cover.

6) Do you have relationship issues with men? Was your last boyfriend a bad guy or villain? Are you always left alone in the end?

Rarely has this aspect been fully explored outside of exploitation films. We see most aggressive women depicted as emotionally-isolated and dysfunctional in relationships, maybe only engaging in casual flings. Or they are far too angry and bitter to even desire a man and appear more asexual instead. It’s interesting that women who are so courageous display such fear of intimacy. But this is a hallmark of the popular rape-revenge theme also.

How many powerful female action heroes go home at the end of the day to a loving partner to enjoy some down time after a hard day kicking butt? Can you name any right off the bat? If anything, love of a man will be the warrior woman's undoing, her one weakness--her "kryptonite".  At the end of the day, the warrior woman rides off into the sunset alone.

7) Do you have lesbian, bisexual or bi-curious tendencies?

Lesbian or bisexual tendencies may well be implied or hinted at, but not absolutely confirmed. Xena and Gabrielle, Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as characters from Sailor Moon and Dark Angel. While sapphic love between warrior women in media is not always shown explicitly, there is no doubt that many warrior women have sworn off men and either live completely asexual lives, or maintain a less physical form of sisterly love between one another. This may be in part due to audience sensibilities and censorship in earlier decades.

In Foxfire, Angelina Jolie's character "Legs" is a powerful personality who dominates the screen as soon as we first see her enter the classroom in the early moments of the movie. The relationship between Legs and Maddy (Hedy Burress) is particularly powerful with lesbian connotations. Far more overt in lesbian love is the movie Bound (1996) with Gina Gershon and Meg Tilly as lovers who outwit the mob to escape together with a stash of money.

More recently, Steig Larsson's popular trilogy adapted to film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo / The Girl Who Played with Fire / The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nes portrays a true feminist hero character, Lisbeth Salander (played by Noone Rapace) who has both female and male lovers.
Actor Noone Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest
8) Are you from a planet ruled by women, or lost civilization?

“I named this island "Paradise" for an excellent reason. There are no men on it. Thus, it is free from their wars, their greed, their hostility, their... barbaric... masculine... behavior.”
-Queen Hippolyte, The New Original Wonder Woman (1975)

Traditionally Amazon women exist in remote lost civilizations. It might be an island, which the male lead will wash up on one day to find himself in the midst of an exclusive society of women, as did the lucky Steve Trevor (Lyle Waggoner) in the TV pilot for The New Original Wonder Woman TV series. The island was home to the Amazons: beautiful, ageless women with great strength, agility, and intelligence. Amazon princess Diana (Lynda Carter) rescues the handsome Trevor and nurses him back to health.

In Fellini’s City of Women, it was a surreal town that was accessed via a strange train stop and walk through a forest. Jungles are largely featured of course, as the theories of Amazons living in South America were abundant throughout literature also. However, with notable frequency, the fantasy of matriarchal societies occurs quite often in space, upon female-dominated planets as created by science fiction writer Leslie F. Stone in the thirties and the creator of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry. Although the “Amazons in Outer Space” theme is usually more of a spoof or satire.

9) Do you have daddy issues? 

Another side effect of being a warrior woman is that you likely have some major daddy issues. If your father is not already dead, leaving you an orphan, then he is negative influence on your life somehow.  Father issues ensue in warrior woman TV shows and films such as Attack of the 50 Foot WomanMillion Dollar Baby, Kill Bill Vol.2, Charmed, Lara Croft - Tomb Raider, Tru Calling, Elektra, Alias and so many more. Fathers may be former or current evil villains, and whether good or bad, the warrior woman-daughter has a strong urge to please and impress him.
Jack Bristow (Victor Barber) a not-so-great father to Sydney (Jennifer Garner) in Alias
“Fathers mean NOTHING!!!” Legs in Foxfire says, urging that the girls in her group turn away from their traditional families and form an all-girl alliance with each other, breaking the patriarchal hold over them.

10) Do you have a special affinity for cats or snakes?

Historians trace the worship of the cat and its association with the feminine principle all the way back to ancient Egypt. The Egyptians deified the cat in the form of the mother goddess Bast whose purview included love, fertility, birth, music, and dance. In relation to warrior women, we see comparisons of cats and women used very often.

Halle Berry in Catwoman
Popular media picked up the cat symbolism in the twentieth century and developed its sexual dimensions. Physically many warrior woman carry cat-like traits of feline grace. Producer-writer Val Lewton made one of the most memorable movies on the subject in 1942—Cat People. In the film the main character, Irena (Simone Simon), has repressed her sexuality and turned frigid out of fear of triggering her “cat genes,” projected as an untamed leopard creature that lurked beneath her surface, ready to claw it’s way out when her emotions or sexuality was aroused. “Don’t ever make me angry or jealous” she begs her husband.  
Remake of the Val Lewton classic

Since then we have had multiple manifestations of Catwoman on film. Even when the story theme does not directly revolve around cats, we do see cats strategically placed in a number of elements.

In the pilot episode of Dark Angel, Jessica Alba’s character Max uses her enhanced vision to spot a small statue of the cat-headed Goddess Bast in a building next door. She later dresses in tight black suit (basically a catsuit) and leaps across to the other building and like a cat-burglar breaks in and steals the statue. Even the clever Hermione from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) turns herself into a half-human half-cat hybrid creature by mistake temporarily when a spell goes wrong. She is embarrassed by the transformation though, and hides out until it passes.   
Throughout time women have also been associated in myths with serpents in the form of snakes, dragons, and hydras. In Asian culture there are numerous stories about women-snakes who are often beneficial and are willing to grant wishes to those who pamper them. In ancient Greek myths the Pythia, named after the Python Apollo slew, were the oracle-priestesses of Delphi who delivered the prophecies from Apollo to pilgrims who sought their aid. In Minoan culture snake goddesses/priestesses led rituals in the sacred city of Knossos. Icons of them in mid-dance survive to this day. It is only with the development of the Judaeo-Christian mythology over the last two millennia in the West and its obsession with repressing female power that snakes suddenly turned evil.   
Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) from Blade Runner
  The Western cinema took up the Christian equation of female = snake = evil and over its history has projected out into darkened theaters various images of evil women with serpent-like qualities, particularly in the genre of horror with films such as Cult of the Cobra Woman (1955), The Gorgon, and in 1971 Jack Hill, director of the Pam Grier warrior films Coffy and Foxy Brown, co-produced in Mexico Isle of the Snake People with Boris Karloff. (1964)
In Blade Runner (1982), Ridley Scott places his Amazon replicant Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) in a futuristic strip club where she danced with snakes. And, of course, in 1996 we are introduced to “Santanico Pandemonium” (Salma Hayek) an exotic dancer /vampire/Aztec goddess who performs with a white python in From Dusk 'Til Dawn
In more specifically warrior women films, Roger Corman places his valiant Viking women at peril against a sea serpent in Saga of the Viking Women (1957). In Conan the Barbarian (1982) the Amazon Valeria (Sandahl Bergman) is the only thief who has successfully entered the sanctuary of the snake cult and is later impaled through the chest and killed by a snake arrow which takes on symbolic overtones. Quentin Tarantino takes a more modern and feminist perspective in his Kill Bill films. He returns snakes to their mythical source by associating them with female power. His band of assassins, The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DiVAS) members take on snake code names, The Bride AKA Black Mamba, O-Ren AKA Cottonmouth, and Elle AKA California Mountain Snake. 
 (Note: This post contains excerpts from The Modern Amazons: Warrior Woman On-Screen, by Dominique Mainon and James Ursini. For information contact  Other books by Dominique Mainon include:    Cinema of Obsession: Erotic Fixation and Love Gone Wrong in the Movies (Limelight)  The Modern Amazons : Warrior Women on Screen (Book)  Femme Fatale: Cinema's Most Unforgettable Lethal Ladies (Limelight) 

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