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How are women represented in the action movie genre


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How are women represented in the action movie genre

  1. 1. How are Women Represented in the Action Movie Genre? Empowered Female Role Models or Highly Sexualised Chicks with Guns? Introduction This essay will be looking at the representation of women in action films, a typically male dominated genre. The main focus will be Angelina Jolie's portrayal of Lara Croft in the 2001 film, Tomb Raider' and the 2003 sequel Tomb Raider II: The Cradle of Life'. The essay will also make reference to Resident Evil' (2002), Resident Evil: Apocalypse' (2004) and Terminator III: The Rise of the Machines' (2003), along with other action movie texts. The essay will be written from a feminist point of view and make reference to Laura Mulvey's theory of the male gaze' (scopophilia). What is Feminism? Feminism is the fight for equality for women, and has been a recognised philosophy for the last thirty years. Since the 70's there have been phenomenal changes in the roles of women in Western society. However there is still a lot to be done before the representation of women is completely accurate. The representation of women across all media tends to focus on the following: beauty, size/physique, sexuality, emotional (as opposed to intellectual) dealings and relationships (as opposed to independence/freedom). Laura Mulvey, regarded as one of the most prominent feminist film critics, is famously quoted as saying "narrative fiction film created images of women used for the gratification of men". However, as times have changed so have women's roles in society, and accordingly their representation in the media. Changes in Female Representation Media images still portray women as sex objects; as independent (but still sexy) career women; as doting mothers obsessed with food and clean football shorts. Women are still portrayed as objects to lust after; they are often the focus of the male gaze' ("Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema" Laura Mulvey), with camera effects, mise en scene and use of sound to accentuate their appearance. But the definition of attractiveness has changed. Images of women as dizzy blondes or mothers/nurturers have been replaced by a new breed. 50 years ago most males wanted a subservient doormat for a wife (which may explain the lack of empowered female characters; as opposed to damsels in distress/ femme fatales in older movies). Now men are looking for intelligent, confident, empowered, "ass-kicking babes", who manage to look perfect even after fifteen minute fights with chainsaw wielding robots/ flesh-eating zombies/ indestructible cyborgs. As one member of stated "Chicks can indeed be tough. It is inspiring to women in that it makes us think we can do more than we are taught to do." Representation The changes in representation of women can be seen in the Terminator' trilogy. In Terminator I' Sarah Connor, the main female protagonist is portrayed as hysterical, screaming and in need of rescue. Terminator II' shows her as a strong, empowered female able to hold her own. The two main female characters in Terminator III' are Kate Brewster, another damsel in
  2. 2. distress and the TX, a deadly but sexy killing machine who uses her sexuality as a weapon (e.g. inflating breasts to avert trouble from police). Both of the two cyborgs in Terminator', the Terminator himself (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and the female Terminator, the TX, are robots supposedly with no human feelings. However, the Terminator appears to have human characteristics, almost showing compassion and empathy, while the TX is portrayed as a bloodthirsty, evil, invincible killing machine. Role Models? These empowered, confident, sexy female characters could be seen as aspirational figures. Women are in need of strong role models and perhaps this surge of action movie heroines could be the answer? The movies used in this essay, for example show women taking action into their own hands, fighting (and beating) men, seeking revenge (and usually winning). Lara Croft (Tomb Raider') takes on an ancient cult (consisting entirely of men), Uma Thurman's character in Kill Bill' seeks revenge on a gang of assassins responsible for the murder of her husband and all of the guests at her wedding, Milla Jovovich (Resident Evil') attempts to bring down the corrupt corporation she works for, then spends the rest of the movie killing zombies, escaping from lasers and a self-aware computer virus. However, one must take into account that this portrayal is just setting different (yet equally high) standards for women to achieve. Media Theory Laura Mulvey used Freudian theory to explain the male idol-worship of female celebrities (not unlike the cult following of stars like Sigourney Weaver and Angelina Jolie). Freud stated that as a young child the male is overwhelmed by feelings of superiority and fear of castration' when he sees that a female lacks' a penis. In order to overcome this fear the male fetishizes a woman or parts of her body; this fetish acts as a substitute for the (missing) phallus. The Past Lara Croft of Tomb Raider' has often been described as a female version of Harrison Ford's character in the Indiana Jones Trilogy' (1981, 84, 89). It is worth taking a look at the female representation in Indiana Jones' (specifically Raiders of The Lost Ark') as a historical comparison, to see how it has evolved over the last twenty years. The one female lead in the film is Marion Ravenwood, played by Karen Allen. Jones seeks out Ravenwood, a former girlfriend to help with his quest to find the Ark of the Covenant. Marion is the daughter of Jones' former university lecturer, Dr Abner Ravenwood, an archaeologist obsessed with the Ark. One website ( describes Ravenwood's past: "when her father died in an avalanche in the Himalayas. He left her broke in Nepal where she had to struggle on her own to survive." Here it is important to note that Ravenwood was dependant on her father for survival. Despite this, she seems to have survived well enough, when we are first introduced to her character she is the owner of a saloon, winning money by out-drinking several of the male patrons. However, later on in the movie we find out that initially she prostituted herself, and only came to be owner of the saloon when the original owner of the bar went mad. Throughout the movie, Ravenwood attempts to prove herself a match for Jones. Her dislike for him (due to their history) is evident, while he appears to see her as a damsel who needs to
  3. 3. be saved and ridiculed. The only time Jones shows a flaw in front of her is when he is faced with a cave full of snakes, however, she is also reduced to a hysterical mess. Ravenwood rejects Jones' sexual advances throughout the movie, before falling for the hero at the end. The last scene where we see the pair shows Jones lying on a bed with Ravenwood adopting the typical nurturer role, tending to his wounds. Before dismissing this movie as sexist, one must take the historical context into account. The movie was set in the 1920's a time when women did fulfil the stereotypes of nurturers/mothers/damsels in distress etc. One historical example of an empowered female protagonist is Sigourney Weaver's character Ripley, in the Alien' movies. It is clear that the representation of Ripley in these movies has had a strong influence on the use of and portrayal of women in action movies. Since 1979 when the first film was released the genre has seen a surge of strong female characters, Linda Hamilton (Terminator I'), Cynthia Rothrock (China O'Brien', Lady Dragon'), Milla Jovovich (Resident Evil'), Uma Thurman (Kill Bill') are just a few of the examples. However, Weaver's acting talents often lose priority to the way she looks in her movies, is just one of several websites where Weaver is not commended on her portrayal of the character as much as she is on her appearance ("not to mention, she looks great in a body suit.") Institutions Tomb Raider' was made by Paramount. The casting of Angelina Jolie, already a noted female action star, is an example of the use of star power. The filmmakers knew Tomb Raider' would be a success due to the popularity of the video game which the film was an adaptation of. Resident Evil', also an example of a video game transformed into a film, also uses star power to sell the movie. Media Language A look at the first five minutes of Tomb Raider' tells an audience a lot about the representation of Lara Croft and about the rest of the film. As with the rest of the film, the first five minutes spend a lot of time focussing on Lara's body. The establishing shot of her face is shot from a low angle, perhaps to demonstrate her superiority over the scene and over the audience, but more likely to emphasise the size of her breasts. There are several examples of gratuitous shots of Lara's crotch and thighs; later on in the film there is a crash zoom that appears to zoom into nothing but the gun holster around Lara's thighs (one cannot help but think that most of the audience is not actually looking at the holster). Many of the shots cut off mid-thigh or just below the breasts, emphasising Lara's body. The first fight scene is also highly sexualised. Lara is pictured rolling across the floor with her legs open several times. Another shot depicts Lara on her back, legs open, struggling; the robot she is fighting leaning over her, nearly overpowering her. This shot could be said to be alluding to a rape scene and definitely displays the (male) robot's superiority over Lara. However, she does manage to fight off the robot and deactivate it. The diagetic sound in this scene is obviously exaggerated- Lara's grunts; moans and screams are clearly louder than the non-diagetic music in the scene. The next scene of the film displays Lara in the shower, a scene featuring no action, no purpose to plot, character development or to the film at all. The sound, lighting and camera angles are all used to emphasise Lara's sexuality.
  4. 4. The same combination of implied (and often not implied) sexuality and innuendo (Hello boys, you're all wet') features in the second film, Tomb Raider II: The Cradle of Life'. The first shot shows Lara in a skimpy white bikini riding on a jet ski (the males in the scene are all fully dressed or in diving suits). Obviously here the audience is supposed to focus on Lara's body. Lara's typical costume is a tight vest top and tiny shorts, which emphasis both her exaggerated breast size and her feminine curves, thus supporting Mulvey's theory of voyeurism. Costumes are also used to direct focus on the body in Resident Evil' where the main character wears a short, flimsy dress and in Terminator III' where the TX is pictured in a skintight red leather catsuit. This is also true in the publicity for Tomb Raider II', billboards and posters depicted Lara in a skintight catsuit, the tagline Come and Get It' has strong sexual connotations. Mulvey explains the appeal of scenes like the ones mentioned above to both male and female audiences. Both the male gaze, referred to as voyeuristic pleasure' (i.e. pleasure in looking) and the female gaze, narcissistic pleasure' (i.e. pleasure in identifying with a character) are focussed on the body. Also important when looking at in appearance is the seeming lack of injuries sustained during the fight scenes in Tomb Raider'. Lara is shot at innumerable times; jumps over a waterfall; takes part in four violent fight scenes (including against a robot with chainsaws for hands and an army of soldier monkey statues); escapes from an underground city as it collapses around her; fights with a mechanised model of the universe; falls through the floor into a lost city and passes through time with no damage to her makeup at all. Her hair does fall out of place, which, arguably, adds to her attractiveness. The only injury Lara receives is a scratch to her arm, which is almost instantly healed by special Buddhist tea'. This is not true, however of movies like Kill Bill' and Resident Evil' where the characters are seen covered with blood and gain injuries they do, however, still manage to look attractive. Females in Relation to Males Now this essay will go on to look at the relationship between males and females in the films. Lara Croft of Tomb Raider' appears to be a character who can hold her own against the males who seek to destroy her; from the cult she fights in the first movie, her butler who attempts to feminise her by asking her to wear a dress, to the male lead in Tomb Raider II' who turns out to be Lara's ex-boyfriend. We are first introduced to this male lead when Lara says "I need Terry Sheridan". Lara also appears to have a dominant relationship over another archaeologist, Alex. This dominant female/submissive male contradicts Mulvey's theory of the male as active/female passive; however, one must note that a dominant, sexy female is a popular male fantasy. As the first film progresses we find out that Lara does have her weakness, her father. Her relationship with her father appears to be one where she has elevated him to idol status. Several times throughout the movie Lara is recognised and referred to as her father's daughter. Lara's knowledge comes from her father, as do the plans that she follows to resolve the conflict of the movie (i.e. she follows plans laid out for her by her father). This is also true in Terminator III' where Kate Brewster, the female protagonist, is implicated in the storyline because of the work her father does in the military. Also, when Kate is captured by the two male protagonists she says "I have a fiance, he's gonna be looking for me" i.e. needs to be rescued by a man.
  5. 5. Genre One must remember that the topic of this essay is the action genre. A genre in which the main convention is a tough protagonist. However, the typical action film narrative contains several of Propp's key characters, the hero, the dispatcher, the princess and the treasure. For example in Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark', Jones, the hero, is dispatched by the museum to find the Ark, the treasure, and in the process rescue the princess, Marion Ravenwood. It is nearly always the case that the hero has a princess to rescue. However, Tomb Raider' features a hero, dispatcher and treasure, but no princess/rescuee. Also, one must ask the question why can't women be feminine and still strong? Why do these women have to take on male characteristics (i.e. give up their female identity) to be recognised? Lara refuses to wear a dress claiming that she is not a lady, she is also unable to cook (a common stereotypical female attribute), and drives cars and motorbikes fast (a common stereotypical male trait). Other action movies, such as Kill Bill' and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' (note both films are directed by Quentin Tarantino) are refreshing as they include female characters in the same roles as men would conventionally be given, without their femininity ever really becoming an issue. Audience As previously mentioned Tomb Raider was an adaptation of a video game. Typically the audience for video games are male, aged 12-19, of all socio-economic groups. Although by changing the medium, from video game to film, the audience will be wider, it is still predominantly male. Since the game was very well-known the kind of narrative and image associated with the lead role was established before the film was created. However, the way in which the film represents the character of Lara clearly shows the influences of male filmmakers behind the scenes. An article from a videogame magazine attempted to describe the appeal of Tomb Raider' as both a film and a game: "Lara had something that hooked audiences like nothing has before. At the centre of Tomb Raider' was a fantasy female figure. Each of her provocative curves was as much a part of the game as the tombs she raided. She had a secret weapon in the world of gaming well actually, two of them!" (Lethal and Loaded', 2001). Although statistics show that cinema audiences are made up of approximately 50/50 males and females Tomb Raider' appears to be a film aimed mainly at men. Although the image of Lara Croft is essentially emphasised to sell the film to the audience, the portrayal of the protagonist is aimed at an audience dominated by males, which supports the patriarchal structure of the film industry. The highly sexualised representation of Lara Croft can be explained by the fact that (as we have seen here) the film is targeted primarily at a male audience. Males in Similar Roles As previously mentioned Indiana Jones' is an action movie featuring an attractive male protagonist. There are several examples of films where males are placed under the female gaze', for example in Terminator III' when the Terminator lands on earth, naked, the first place he finds is a male strip club, where the audience consisting entirely of females make sexual advances towards the Terminator. Another example is Bruce Willis in the Die Hard'
  6. 6. movies. Willis' character is often seen as an object to lust after, both within the narrative of the films and in the audiences of the films. This has done no harm to the popularity of the movies, but has to be noted as over sexualised representation in order to increase media popularity does not just apply to women. Conclusion Of course there are people who will question the opinions made in this essay and in feminism as a whole. One of these is the question: why can't women be portrayed as strong, intelligent and empowered as well as being sexually attractive? This essay is not trying to say that women have to be either stupid and pretty or ugly and clever; it is not saying that beautiful women can't be empowered and vice versa; what it is merely questioning why the film makers feel the need to spend more time focussing on the body, appearance and sexuality of the female characters than they do the male characters; more focus than on the character's intelligence or ability; really more focus on the aesthetic than on the plot itself. Which, really, is the reason most people go to watch a film in the first place.