Equality in Violence: A Look at Female Action and its Ethics in Film
I have to give props to John Wick: Chapter 2 on so many levels that this would turn into another internet review from some random dude. But that’s not my goal with this blog. There’s only one kudos I am going to mention here because it connects with a larger thought I had. If you don’t like minor spoilers, leave now.
Stand out Performances
This is the second movie I have seen Australian actress, Ruby Rose in it. The first being Triple X: The Return of Xander Cage, and I have to admit that I was more impressed with her in John Wick. She plays a deaf, second-in-command to the movie’s main villain, Santino. And as such gets involved in one of the films final, but still terrific action sequences. And let’s just say she gets roughed up pretty good: Like border line, abusive good if she wasn’t already trying to kill John. Another actress who plays one of the assassins trying to kill John also does a brutally, excellent job.
The reason why these fights impressed me was how brutal and realistic it was (as much as a Hollywood film can be) for anyone involved in a real death match. While I have no issue with female heroines in film and don’t approve of violence against women, I do find many action sequences with female protagonists noticeably reserved.
Take the Avengers for example. Black Widow has some good sequences in the movie and Scarlet Johansson has clearly worked her ass off to make them look good. At the same though, there wasn’t any real believable blows that she takes for someone trying to kill her, like the other one vs. one duels in the movie. Hell, Hulk takes Loki and beats him like a fucking rag doll. Granted him being a god is the only reason he survived that, but well that happen to Ms. Marvel or Wonder Woman?
Don’t Touch My Face
Another movie where I noticed some reservation was Expendables 3 which debuted Rhonda Rousey as an action actress. Throughout the fights she had there wasn’t a single serious blow to the character. No serious opponents she had to seriously contend with for her character to rise to another level and show why she’s a bad ass.
On the one hand I do get it. You don’t want to see women being beaten around senselessly and end up indirectly promoting domestic abuse. Yes, people are that stupid. But, the worlds these characters inhabit are combative and brutal with no exceptions made, or so we are made to believe. Anyone regardless of whom and what they are can expect no mercy where your opponents are gods, mutants, super assassins, or just being jumped by several people at once.
Eastern Equality in Cinematic Violence
Up until John Wick, the only action actresses I have seen actually go into that place was another former women’s’ MMA champ, Gina Carino, Carrie Ann Moss, and Uma Thurman. These actresses are thrown against walls, mounted and beaten on and have to work hard to defeat their attackers and their characters are respected for that. It’s believable, and that’s what I liked about John Wick: Chapter 2.
Ruby Rose and the other female assassin are engaged in a fight where it’s not meant to look cool or badass: just one person is going to die and they are going to make sure it’s you, or be that person themselves. In my head, that’s real commitment. Even in a choreographed fight, you can still tell a fight be handed over to someone if it’s not done right and ruin the scene’s authenticity.
Interestingly enough, this isn’t as much a problem in many Asian action films where the heroine while looking more graceful at times than their western counterparts, still doesn’t have hand-me-down wins. Think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in the duel between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Zyi. While looking artistic, it still communicates through their bodies the intensity and brutal nature of their fight as it progresses. There's even a scene with one of their hands shaking from using an iron bar: an indicator of potential nerve damage. They work through the pain to achieve victory. Other actresses include Yanin “Jeeja” Vismistananda, and Maggie Q.
The potential issue here is what I alluded to earlier: public sensitivity to open displays of violence against women, or more specifically: violence against women by men. A perfect example of this being the furor rose when actress, Rose McGowan, attacked a billboard promotion for Xmen: Age of Apocalypse. It shows a scene from the movie where the villain, Apocalypse has one of the heroes, Mystique in a grip around her throat. Even though the scene was within the context of the world the characters inhabit, McGowan said that it promotes that being violent towards women was ok. The billboard was subsequently pulled down. There is good reason for this thin skin and awareness.
Women have been treated like second class citizens and employees for centuries. Some notable exceptions aside, historically speaking, the late 19th century and beyond is the first time where women have started taking a stand against this treatment. It’s beyond well-deserved.
At the same though, in the action genre, the issue is again authenticity. Part of the downfall of the 80’s/90’s tough guy action stars was that it became obvious to the viewers when the baddie was standing around doing nothing until his turn to get beat up came. It was the Asian style of action that restored their credibility because of the 2 or multiple -on-1 scenarios that their heroes were involved in: Scenes that routinely include receiving themselves in the process.
Many have argued that Hollywood has been politically correct for the last thirty years. They have been trying to diversify and become equal for a long time now and it is still continuing. How to negotiate women in physically-demanding situations has been one of those challenges, where the line between treating them like porcelain vases on pedestals, and legitimate warriors able to handle battle as well as Stallone and Schwarzenegger.
Men who are overly anal about this call this type of character a ‘Mary Sue’, meaning that women don’t have to grow into their greatness. It is just handed to them where as their male counterparts must work at it. Men have an easier time identifying with a character where they have to struggle to gain success. For whatever reason, it’s more acceptable if it’s somewhat based in reality. This is visibly obvious to movies viewers and if it looks fake, then it will be harder for them to respect female action stars for the talents they are.
Have the Cake or Eat it
There is a clear demand for more female heroines in this field and characters like Katniss, Rey, and Black Widow are a response to that. They are taking up the mantle held by their predecessors, Ripley and Michelle Pfieffer’s Catwoman. But in an environment that is PC-dominated, how much will these characters be allowed to undergo the same grueling situations and bruises as their counterparts? The Xmen billboard was a legitimate display of the scenario that Mystique was in and had nothing to do with domestic abuse at all. Proponents of more female action stars can’t have it both ways where they want the equality in action, but none of the risk shared by their male counterparts.
I hope that the John Wick: Chapter 2 sets an example to all other movies with heroines involved in some form of combat like Wonder Woman and Ghost in A Shell. Beating women is not good, but downplaying a dangerous situation because the star has a vagina does an injustice to the character they are portraying, the actress’s ability, and womens’ abilities in the action genre in general. A woman can still kick ass, while still being fair to the scenarios they exist in where their sex matters nothing in how they are treated, yet still overcome.