MARION, the dark-eyed, sweet-faced heroine of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," instantly contradicts her appearance as she belts down one jigger of whiskey after another, drinks her hard-boozing Mongolian competitors under the table -- then socks her ex-palooka, Indiana Jones, square in the jaw. Princess Leia of "Star Wars" guards Han Solo and Luke Skywalker with both her laser gun and razor wit. In "Superman II," Lois Lane scrambles up the Eiffel Tower and sandwiches herself between the bars running under its moving elevator just to get a scoop. Melina, the current Bond girl, shoots an arrow into an assailant's chest, thereby saving 007's life in "For Your Eyes Only." And Valerian, the heroine of "The Dragonslayer," masquerades as a boy while trying to enlist the aid of an old sorcerer to kill the bothersome beast.
Prime movers, all? New women? Hollywood heroines worthy of N.O.W. and the E.R.A.? At first glance, it would seem so. Because, exceptions like "National Velvet" and "The African Queen" notwithstanding, most films of the past rarely provided us with patterns such as that of the female jockey winning the race or the feisty spinster sabotaging the Nazi warship. In fact, while women like Jean Harlow, Mae West, Roz Russell and Joan Blondell made it both a point and a tradition to wisecrack their way through the talkies of the '30s and '40s, they survived more by their wit than their wits. And the point of their wit was to provide verbal peacock feathers -- that is, to provoke a man to be the conqueror. Rarely did these movie heroines exist to perform heroic feats or to move forward the action of the picture. Instead, they were ornamentation for the male designated hitters. Even in the jungle, Jane hardly ever dared swing on a vine of her own; she preferred Tarzan's big strong arms.
Indeed, the traditional Hollywood philosophy might best be summed up in the following exchange from one of the more popular women's pictures of the '40s, Kurt Weill's musical, "Lady in the Dark" (1941). When sucessful high-fashion magazine editor Ginger Rogers seeks the help of a psychiatrist to exorcize her private demons, he cleverly points out her ailments: "You've had to prove you were superior to all men; you had to dominate them." When Rogers asks, "What's the answer?" the good doctor suggests, "Perhaps some man who'll dominate you." Taking his wisdom to heart, Rogers later announces to a friend: "I'm giving up the magazine. I'm going to live my life as a woman -- I want someone to lean on and take care of me. I want to live my life as other women do."
Clearly, the Hollywod heroine has seen the light since "Lady in the Dark." It's doubtful whether either Princess Leia or Lois Lane wants to live her life "as other women do." Both, after all, feel the power of position -- Leia as the bossy on the Daily Planet. Consider, too, Melina, the Bond heroine, who is by far more aloof, more serious, and surprisingly less flirtatious than any of her predecessors. Or "Raiders'" Marion, the spirited proprietress of a bar in, of all places, Nepal. Still, are these spruced-up heroines as modern or gutsy as they seem?
What are we to think, for example, when Superman's mere presence makes Lane forget her deadlines and her independence, as she melts into a buttercup for a man of steel? And isn't it strange that this modern reporter can sap her man's strength as completely as Delilah did Samson's 3,000 years ago? Both Princess Leia and Marion, too, when stripped of their sarcasm and their spirit, function mainly as old-fashioned damsels in distress, one kidnaped by Darth Vader, the other held hostage by a Nazi villain, and both requiring last-minute rescues in very much the same manner that previous film maidens did when tied to railroad tracks. Indeed, what's a heroine for, these movies keep asking, if not to be dangled perilously over a pitful of 6,000 snakes ("Raiders"), perched atop an elevator shaft ("Superman II"), or dumped in a seaful of sharks ("For Your Eyes Only") -- then plucked from danger by her brave knight? Yes, even in 1981.
But perhaps most indicative of these adventure tales' essentially reactionary vision toward women is the Walt Disney-Paramount co-production, "The Dragonslayer." Since its bizarre premise involves a wicked dragon who remains a pussycat only as long as the neighboring community supplies him with a yearly sacrifice selected form its latest crop of virgins, one wonders why there isn't a heathen among the maidens -- just one spirited lass who decides to fling her virginity to the winds and so remove herself from jeopardy. Interestingly enough, our heroine Valerian chooses to travel quite the opposite route: she disguises herself as a boy, and during that part of the film appears brave, sensible, and clear-eyed. Apparently it's the clothes that make the man, however, for the moment Valerian puts on a skirt, she becomes shy and simpering. Only late in the film does she again begin to show some mettle, and when she volunteers to try to slay the dragon, she offers as an appropriate credential her life in drag. "I'm not afraid. After all, I was a man, remember," she tells her boyfriend Galen. But though Valerian's intentions are good, neigher she nor Galen ultimately kills the beast -- that task is left to an old necromancer, Ulrich, a character with more experience and no gender confusion at all.
Perhaps, however, everything isn't quite as bleak as it seems for our feisty "new" women. Certainly we can still find a glimmer of hope in current films, even if we do find it in the most unlikely places and with the most unlikely of heroines. Chief among them is Dr. Lazarus of "Outland." As played by Frances Sternhagen, she is a sharp-tongued, sharp-thinking woman with a keen moral sense. She operates in an almost totally male environment, but partly because of her age and partly because of her stern appearance, not as an "object" in any sense of the word. Indeed, Dr. Lazarus' power emerges not as a function of her sexuality, but of her competence and morality as the spaceship's doctor and the only person aboard who is audacious and free enough to align herself with the new captain, the outsider. Because the tension between them is not sexual, it's refreshing and amusing. Moreoever, here is finally a woman of independent means and independent thought, a character so original that she alone give "Outland" a jaunty sense of modernity.
Yet, for the most part, while this summer's heroines may demonstrate true grit, they are strikingly short on true wit -- to say nothing of true valor. In fact, if comparisons were made, TV's "Maude" and "Rhoda" register as funnier; certainly Diana Rigg's Emma Peel in "The Avengers" seemed braver; and even Angie Dickinson's "Policewoman" and Charlie's three Angels were more integral to the motions and direction of their equally broad and silly plots. Appearances to the contrary, our comic-book damsels in distress have a long way to go toward becoming truly active heroines.