How are women represented in the action movie genre
How are Women Represented in the Action Movie Genre? Empowered Female Role Models
or Highly Sexualised Chicks with Guns?
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women as dizzy blondes or mothers/nurturers have been replaced by a new breed. 50 years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 www.filmthreat.com 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."
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
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.
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.
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)
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 (www.acmewebpages.com) 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
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,
www.askmen.com 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.")
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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'
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.
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