Thursday, 16 September 2010

The power of a woman: female action heroes

bionic womanThe onscreen hero underwent some remarkable changes as a result of women’s rise to power.

The traditional action hero is courageous, morally righteous, physically strong... and male. Vulnerable and partially clad, women were generally passive characters who looked to males for protection and rescue, and provided an assumed male audience with romantic and sexual interest.

Powerful women appear in most ancient cultures, but usually as goddesses rather than mortal heroes. A famous exception in the West were Amazons of ancient Greek myth, who were disapproved of by the sexist society of Greece. With the transition to Christianity, the small role allowed to women by pagan religion and myth was swept aside — the principal female role model became Mary, a virgin and mother defined by caring, not action.

The beginning of the 20th century saw great forward steps taken by women in social and political terms. But the ‘male hero’ stereotype persisted into the postwar era. The characters ranged from meatheads who used brute strength to overturn evil (as portrayed countless times by Arnold Schwarzenegger), to more sophisticated types such as James Bond. Suave secret agent and playboy, Bond strode large upon the world stage, overthrowing mad geniuses, drug barons, the Soviets and other enemies, conquering women as he went. Women in the Bond films — Bond ‘girls’, as they were patronisingly termed, and given absurd porn-star names — were always younger and were seduced by him, rescued by him, and cast off by him. He was a symbol of male confidence and potency.

Breaking the mould

One of the first characters to break the mould was Wonder Woman, a comic book character who first appeared in 1941. Wonder Woman, for all her faults as a superhero, represented early steps of female empowerment, being described by her creator as a “distinctly feminist role model”. It was no accident that she appeared during the Second World War, a time when women had entered the workforce en masse and were needed to stand firm for the war effort.

It was in the 1960s and 1970s, i.e. coinciding with the feminist movement, that the trend for female heroes took off. Wonder Woman hit the small screen, along with the Bionic Woman, Charlie’s ‘Angels’, Emma Peel of The Avengers, Foxy Brown and so on. Women like these entered the worlds of espionage and crime-fighting and weren’t afraid to get into a scrap.

In the 1980s, women heroes acquired a new edge, making fewer concessions to female stereotypes. Ripley from the Alien saga and Sarah Connor in the Terminator films are good examples. This is unsurprising, as traditional femininity offered hardly any precedents for decisive, independent women. The trend towards emulating male role models more closely is well illustrated by the 1997 film G.I. Jane, when Demi Moore snarls “Suck my dick!” at a male officer.

In the 1990s the floodgates began to open. It was becoming more and more acceptable for women to be courageous, determined, and physically violent. The characters are many: Nikita, Xena the Warrior Princess, Trinity from The Matrix, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and others normalised female violence. Women appeared amongst male cohorts — e.g. Sanchez in Aliens — who equalled her comrades in machismo and aggression. Lara Croft, in the Tomb Raider computer games and movies, provided an Indiana Jones-esque role model for a female adventurer. Any doubts as to whether a slim, alluring female could physically punch her way through fierce and well-built male foes were swept aside by a simple application of magic or martial arts, or ignored altogether.

guinevereBy the 2000s, audiences were being offered a plethora of no-nonsense female leads such as Sydney Bristow in Alias, Selena in Underworld and Alice in Resident Evil, who threw punches, kicked butt, crushed testicles and defeated evil on the small and big screen. Traditional characters like Maid Marian and Queen Guinevere were recreated in fighting roles and male characters, such as Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica, were recreated as female ones. There seemed to be as many, even more, female action heroes than male. Women had finally proved they could do anything a man could.

No wonder that as early as 2002 a male critic could lament:

“Since the late 1960s… the masculine hero has been in decline, with the exception of the cartoonish action hero. The staples of today’s dramas are men who are insecure, hesitant, angst-ridden, self-centered, ineffectual, and immature.”1

In 2002 this was an exaggeration. In 2042 it was correct, except that even the “cartoonish action hero” had disappeared. As the 21st century progressed, women took over as the number one sex for onscreen action and violence. Men in the movies tended to be passive and ineffectual, women fearless and indomitable. And audiences loved it.

action heroes
Nine reasons to be very afraid. Top: Ripley (Alien), Sarah Connor (Terminator), Lara Croft (Tomb Raider). Middle: Aeon Flux (Aeon Flux), Sydney Bristow (Alias), Varia (Xena: Warrior Princess). Bottom: Selene (Underworld), Alice (Resident Evil), the Baronness (G. I. Joe).

None of this, of course, was an accident. Ever since the women’s movement of the late nineteenth century, women had slowly become empowered. From the First World War onwards, modern society could no longer afford to keep one half of its potential workforce at home in the kitchen. It needed female labour and it followed that women gradually became educated and acquired independent means. This created an alternative to the ‘fifties housewife’ stereotype. As the process accelerated and women began to enter male worlds, so too they adopted aspects of male behaviours because they supplied a discourse of power. On one level this meant wearing trousers and going to work to earn a wage. On another it meant women being portrayed as both violent and heroic in popular culture. Characters like the Bionic Woman were resurrected in the 21st century because they expressed the rising power, and threat, of women.

Inevitably, these female heroes were more sexualised than male ones, typically wearing skin-tight costumes, and partly marketed to titillate young males. Lara Croft was more famous for her large bosom than for her archaeological prowess. Film-makers shunned well-built women, preferring their characters to conform to the slim beauty ideal of the time. The writers and directors were mostly male, as were the creators of the comics that so many of the characters were based on.

So female heroes were still ultimately being defined by men. But female heroes were sexualised because it helped men contain such strong women who were at least their equals. Women would prove able to break those bounds.

kahlan and cara
Women to the rescue: Kahlan and Cara from Legend of the Seeker.

Women take over

As the genderquake deepened, the empowerment of women onscreen did too. By the middle of the 21st century, when in the real world women had become the dominant sex, male action heroes were very few indeed. Film and television were now dominated by female managers, writers, film-makers and other creatives. In general society, men had sunk to second-class status in education and the workplace. This set the scene for an extraordinary reversal to take place.

As time progressed, female heroes got tougher relative to men, to the point where they overtook them. Where the female heroes of the early 21st century were allowed a certain equality with men as long as they pouted and wore a catsuit, those of the mid-century onwards were of a different kind: not men’s equals but their betters, routinely portrayed as powerful, strong and assertive, occupying every position of authority. Now the last forlorn advantage men had over women, their physicality, was stripped away too. Men were limited to passive, supporting roles, looking to women for protection and leadership.

The logic of this was clear. In the new female-led society, if you wanted someone to fix your car, to perform surgery, to lead a political party, to teach your children, to build your house, etc, you would call upon a woman. So who would you call upon to save the world?

No longer considered worthy as opponents, males had to watch from the sidelines as women engaged in titanic contests between good and evil. Now it was invariably a male victim whom the (female) hero had to rescue from a (female) villain, and who would fall gratefully into the arms of his saviour. This was a metaphor for the reality of everyday life, in which the male was domesticated and prettified and the female provided financial stability and leadership.

xenaForerunner of the Amazons: Xena, the Warrior Princess

A fine example of this was Amazonia, a TV series that ran from 2031-2040. The show revisited the ancient myth, but freely reinterpreted it, basing its five seasons upon an ongoing struggle between the warrior women of Queen Myrine and male Greek interlopers. The Greeks were determined to destroy the Amazon nation because its existence blatantly contradicted their claims of male superiority, yet every attempt was overcome by the superior martial and intellectual powers of the Amazons. The assumption of female superiority was expressed in the climax of season one, when the chief Amazon warrior, Clymene, enters a series of contests against the best of the Greeks, Lysander. She defeats him at boardgames, in tests of resourcefulness and in gladiatorial combat. Humiliated, the Greeks are forced to withdraw, with Clymene’s taunt ringing in their ears: “Get back to your wives!”

The Amazon society, unlike in the myth, did contain males, but they lived utterly in the shadow of the women, who strutted, sculpted, caroused, philosophised, raced, fought and ruled. People of earlier decades might have doubted the potential of such a concept, but in fact Amazonia was a huge international hit. Girls wanted to be Clymene; boys wanted a girl like Clymene.

As we’ve already mentioned, one objection to the new female heroes (which had been made since at least the days of Xena and Buffy) concerned physical strength. Whatever their relative social status, surely men will always be stronger than women, so showing women ploughing victoriously through muscular male opponents is simply unrealistic?

There are a few responses to this. The first is that one should not exaggerate the difference between male and female strength. There is an overlap — some women are stronger than some men — and a man is vulnerable in the groin. The second is that these characters had usually received martial training that offset any physical disparity. The third is that fighting is as much about the mind as the body. These characters were the product of a society that took it for granted that women were more intelligent and capable than men, and had almost a born right to rule. They were encouraged to be confident, aggressive and ambitious. Men were encouraged to be the opposite; few post-genderquake males had the nerve to confront a determined female. And lastly, heroes have always been fantasies, gifted with unusual strength and other powers. Their role in culture has never been to depict people as they really are, rather to depict how we would like our leaders to be. The triumph of female power onscreen was really just a metaphor for their social, political and economic power off it.

The new female hero threw off the sexualisation that had dogged her since the 60s. She could still, of course, be sexy — but her sexuality was on her own terms. She was not being marketed to appeal to the sexual desires of males but to the ambitions of women. In Amazonia, for example, the Amazons dressed as true warriors, not in bustiers and bikinis as in similar series of old: indeed, unlike males in historical Greece, they were never seen in skirted garments. They were also no ‘size zeros’, being relatively well-built because of their military training. In Amazonia it was the sedate males who wore the dresses, jewels and makeup, reduced to using their sexuality to try and manipulate the powerful women around them.

Just as men used to scorn women, the female heroes in Amazonia scorned maleness. In the Amazon worldview developed for the show, men were a provider of seed for a woman’s offspring, and otherwise pretty useless — a source for amusement or companionship who kept a warrior’s home clean. Femaleness was a blessing and honour, conferring the great and terrifying power of childbirth. The universe was created by a goddess, and women were Her privileged children on earth.

Broadly, in 21st century society the traditional male behaviours had been adopted by females, and vice versa. This swap was not straightforward, because the histories of men and women are different, as are their biological roles. There is a difference between how heroic characters and real people behave — although the female hero was brash and combative and often put men in their place verbally or physically, that doesn’t of course mean that every woman behaved like that in real life. Men were not the mere servile slaves of women any more than women in the 1950s were merely the servile slaves of men. But the shift in power during the genderquake meant that society saw strength, assertiveness and heroism as female virtues, and this was expressed in culture. The butt-kicking female heroes onscreen provided female qualities in spades.

1 Don Feder, ‘Wimps whiners weenies: men in movies today’, 2002


  1. Interesting article and I see your point as TV and movies will shift as women become to take over in Hollywood behind the screen and in the audience. As women beocme the finacial power there tastes will become more important than the less important men. Ultmatly money rules and what makes most money will become the norm. Women will want to see heroines like them, not the simpering arm candy of today, instead it will be the males reduced to the form of arm candy, male actors will be expected to be pretty and young while women actresses will be able to work far longer with better parts writen for them.

    All the classic's will be rescripted for women to play. As the traditional parts are swapped,can't wait to see this happen.

  2. An excellent blog, which is almost prophetic.

    The entertainment industry is one, amongst many, where women are becoming increasingly dominant - just look at the credits and compare them to credits of 30 or even 20 years ago.

    Men nowadays are portrayed as being at best likeable idiots who need a woman to guide them or at worst villians to be destroyed. Women are portrayed as being at worst competent and at best superhuman.

    As women become more powerful in the real world, they want to see female role models who are as strong, capable and successful than they are (or preferably more so). What woman of the 21st century would want a simpering, swooning maiden as a role model?

    The entertainment industry will only be too pleased to cater for the tastes of women, who are fast becoming the main breadwinners and heads of their families.

    Women will become the leading ladies in every sense of the word and take the strong, superhuman roles. Men, long since the second sex and feminised, will be the simpering, swooning beauties.

  3. I liked this post. As the 21st century continues you may see the differences in muscular strength disappear completely or reverse itself. I happen to be an atheletic woman and in the local gyms here there are probably more than 5 women for every male member. More girls are playing sports than ever while more guys just play video games.

    I see someday a complete role reversal. I started a fictional log about a future gynarchy, you might want to check out.


  4. Don’t forget the feminist heroine in “The Girl with the Dragon Tatto.” A movie not for the faint of heart.

    While you excellent post considers Hollywood’s imaginary heroines, real heroines are being trained in school gyms every day. It is amazing to see the level of girls involved in competitive wrestling who are winning over boys in grade school and high school. Little boys across the world are having their male egos crushed as girls pin them to the mat. Here’s a few videos of what is going on:

    This high school girl dominates this guy who humiliates him by giving him a little kiss as he struggles to escape her pin which he can’t.

    A five year old Princess of Pain Lexy

    Another five year Princess

    There are hundreds of videos of girls beating boys. Times are changing.

  5. Hi,
    I think you will like this blog on the same thema, women being the dominant sex

    see this for example

  6. Thanks for these contributions.

    I don't think women would get physically bigger and stronger than men. They could get more martial, more aggressive, better trained. But the difference in average size and strength between men and women is a genetic thing. I mean you'd have to reprogramme the DNA of the human race. How? And why bother?

    Still, each to their own.

  7. To Ms. Victoria,

    I love your blog also, but I think here you touched a point that you never touch there. Your blog talks about the COMING Gynarchy but you are talking here about your day-to-day little bit of Gynarchy.

    That's very important, not just as a roadmap, Mam. It's important because see, what we need today are Women like you who feel superior, dominating, and can make use of their good heart and mind to see men for the pussy-whipped sweet little things put by nature to their service they are.

    I REALLY think what we need is a COMMUNITY of like minded people who will come and make this into a lifestyle, just like Lesbians and well, gays, have...

    I think we should all start a blog together that is NOT about the future, or about fiction, or anything like that, but that's an actual community of like minded individuals ... the Women should lead that though...

  8. I'm going to play Devil's advocate here. It seems to me that the womens rights movement was for gender equality, right? women want to be treated just like men. but all i ever hear from "activists" of this movement isnt about equality at all. they talk about dominance. isnt that hypocritical? the activists say it isnt fair that one sex has all the control, yet they demand that people be more lenient with them in the workplace, the military and in the court system. if the activists want equalty, then stop preaching about how the women are gonna take over the world and start living up to the original principals that started the womens rights movement and stand by your man, not try and put him under your heel

  9. Activists of the feminist movement want equality with men and do not ask to be dominant over them.

    As I point out very early on, this blog is a fantasy. I don't really think women are taking over the world nor do I think it is a good thing for either sex to dominate the other.

  10. I love the idea of a female dominated world as a fantasy scenario but as a submisssive male, my perception of that world would be very different to the reality. The women wouldn't wear uncomfortable tight leather, corsets and high heels for the benefit of their men's submissive desires. They would just wear what they want and not waste time pandering to their males fantasies. We would be expected to do what we were told, straight to the point, no 'punishment whipping', 'cruel bondage' ect.

    One thing that always occurs to me is that why do women seem to aspire to the same dominant ideal as men; money, physical power, violence, success in business? These are to my mind the misguided and damaging goals of a male dominated society. The world would be a much better place if powerful women blazed their own trail, championing love, compassion, peace and community, things that are womens natural strengths and things that will allow them to take control in their own way. Interesting scenario to imagine this...

    1. Thanks for the comment. I'm sure you are right that women would not pander to male fantasies, though my conception here is precisely such a male fantasy, so my hands are tied.

      I don't think money and power are 'male' and love and compassion 'female'. You are treating behavioural conventions like things that exist outside of culture. That's a mistake. Women have no 'natural' strengths - rather, some qualities are conventionally attributed to women and others attributed to men. Over time, those qualities may become important parts of men's and women's self-image. But they are not innate.

      It's not possible to become the dominant sex without wielding power. It makes no sense.


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