The 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.
By 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.
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.
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.
Forerunner 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