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FIGHTING FEMALES: EMPOWERMENT OR FETISHISM?
Snow White in Armor
Role model or harmful trend?
There’s a modern trend in movies and television regarding women which I wanted to comment on. Over the past decade or two, it seems that most movie and TV writers/producers can’t conceive of the idea of a strong woman who isn’t physically powerful and a great fighter. Is this trend challenging obsolete gender roles or is it a reinforcement of traditional macho male roles as the only acceptable way to be strong and independent?
Now don’t get me wrong. I love strong, smart, independent female characters. Dr. Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) on the X-Files; Chief of Staff C.J. Craig (Allison Janney) from The West Wing; M (Judy Dench) from the James Bond films; Dr. Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) on House, MD; Even young Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) from the Harry Potter stories. Formidable females are fun.
What annoys me is that most females in modern drama/sci-fi TV shows and films, all seem to be portrayed as super-tough fighters. It’s become an all-too-common cliché of modern times that a woman needs to be able to physically dominate those around her in order to be a strong woman. Some people may say that this is female empowerment. But is it really a good message to send to young girls that if you really want to be empowered, you have to be able to physically beat people up? Do women have to become like men and overpower them hand-to-hand to be on equal footing? Where are all the female role models who show that strength is more than just punching and kicking?
Yes, sometimes it does make sense, plotwise, to have a super-strong, butt-kicking leading lady; For instance, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Sarah Michelle Geller); Xena Warrior Princess (Lucy Lawless); Emma Peel from The Avengers (Dina Rigg); Wonder Woman (Linda Carter); the Bionic Woman (Lindsey Wagner) are all examples of women who logically needed to be able to outfight their opponents. I loved all these ladies.
However, more often than not these days, it’s just an unnecessary cliché that shows the limitations of a writer’s or producer’s ability to write a woman as strong and independent without being a female Rambo. It reflects the industries inability to evolve enough to understand and reflect the genuine changes in women’s roles in society.
Look at the women on TV. In the Battlestar Galactica remake, it wasn’t enough that Starbuck (Katie Sackhoff) is the best pilot and strategic thinker of the crew. She can also get into the boxing ring and easily out-punch men twice her size and weight. In Smallville, Clark Kent’s paramour Lois Lane isn’t just the best reporter in Metropolis; she’s also a kick-boxing gal gladiator. And it’s not just an American phenomenon. In the recent BBC version of Robin Hood, Maid Marion adopts the sword-swinging identity of ‘the Knight Watchman’ to battle the Sheriff and his men. Let’s look at the new Dr. Who, which is about a pacifistic male hero who out-thinks his opponents, but in a recent episode, the Doctor’s young, petite sidekick Amy—who never used a sword before—grabs a cutlass and fights off a whole group of pirates, while the Doctor just stands and watches her.
On TV, even nerdy women are great fighters. Nerdy men on TV are always portrayed as wimps who are easily intimidated and get beaten up. But female nerds are powerful. Take the female protagonist of Bones, Dr. Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel). Being a beautiful and brilliant anthropologist, forensic expert and author wasn’t enough for this character. (That should be enough for anyone.) Our brainy leading lady can also do martial arts and shoot guns well. All her male lab co-workers (Hodgens, Zack, Sweets) are harmless dorks.
Look at films: In the Robert Downey version of Sherlock Holmes, Irene Addler (Rachel McAdams) is no longer just shrewd and cunning, as in the original stories. The film makers are no longer satisfied with the fact that Irene was the only person to outwit Sherlock Holmes. Here, she is able to easily outfight two large thugs who harass her. Being smart apparently isn’t enough without being a great fighter, too.
Look at recent revisionist interpretations of female fable or storybook characters. Tim Burton’s Alice in wonderland gave us a sword-wielding Alice leading an army against the forces of the Red Queen. In the last remake of King Arthur, Guinevere was a Xena-type warrior Princess. The latest Robin Hood film had Lady Marion riding into battle on horseback. The new 3 Musketeers film gives us the once-wily Lady De Winter leaping around, sword-in-hand, doing Crouching Tiger style stunts. Previews for the upcoming Snow White and the Huntsman show us an armor-clad Snow White in battle. The new TV show Once Upon a Time portrays Snow White as a Robin Hood type forest vigilante fighting the forces of the evil Queen.
I think young males tend to respond to this image of the battling bad-girl even more than young women do. There is a fetishization of these action girls because they combine hyper-masculine tendencies of violence with feminine beauty. Males prefer Laura Croft over the Ghost Whisperer. It can be argued that the sexualization of violence through these fist-fighting, gun toting, sword-swinging super-girls can undermine the potential for portraying new models of female autonomy.
So the question is...Is this movement toward hyper-aggressive females a positive challenge to the male oriented genres of action films and TV, or is it subconsciously reinforcing traditionally male behavior as the only way for women to achieve a sense of cultural autonomy?