The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why female portrayals of power on screen need to evolve

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In “Tomb Raider,” which opens Friday, Alicia Vikander channels her inner Indiana Jones, with a dash of Rambo thrown in: affecting just the right number of scrapes and cuts and a no-nonsense gaze, she vanquishes small armies of men with just her wits, physical strength and a quiver full of arrows.

Vikander presents an earthier, more realistic version of Angelina Jolie’s impossibly voluptuous video-game heroine Lara Croft — a character that launched a hugely successful franchise around the same time Milla Jovovich started kicking tush in the “Resident Evil” spinoffs. As the daughters of such action heroines as Sarah Conner in “The Terminator” and Ellen Ripley in “Alien,” and the godmothers of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” these hard-bodied heroines have become familiar cinematic tropes, one side of a coin that includes the unapologetic bitch, most recently personified by Frances McDormand in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and Allison Janney in “I, Tonya.”

It’s telling that both performances earned an Oscar this year: Each seemed to tap into the same vein of inchoate anger that propelled both the outcome of the 2016 election and the response to it. And there’s no denying the subversive frisson inspired by watching actresses go full harridan, especially when it comes to traditional ideas about female agency and the approving male gaze. Next to McDormand’s literal bomb-thrower, Meryl Streep’s aristocratic Katharine Graham, who came into her own in “The Post” and claimed her due far more quietly, had nary a chance.

As cathartic as badasses and bitches can be as expressions of female power on screen, both for actors and audiences, that paradigm feels just as played out as the damsels in distress and helpless love interests of yore. What was once liberating now feels limiting, reducing our notions of power to hysterically pitched burlesques or tough-as-males drag. Are these really — still — our best options?

One answer to that question can be found in the documentary “Mankiller,” a film about Wilma Mankiller, the first woman elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. As a young person who was relocated from her ancestral home in Oklahoma to California, Mankiller came of age during the 1960s and 1970s, when the Native American, labor, civil rights and women’s movements were helping millions of Americans find their voices. After returning to Oklahoma, Mankiller overcame her self-doubt to become a brilliant community organizer, working with often mistrustful tribe members to help bring social and economic change, whether in the form of badly needed water lines or horticultural businesses. (The film, which was directed by Valerie Red-Horse Mohl, is airing on PBS throughout March.)

Interestingly enough, “Mankiller” was produced by Gale Anne Hurd, whose movies “The Terminator” and “Aliens” helped make Sarah Conner and Ellen Ripley household names. Those heroines, she said at a February screening of “Mankiller” at the Athena Film Festival, “don’t realize the power and the strength and the leadership abilities they have within themselves. And that was very much, I think, [Wilma’s story]. Wilma always considered herself an ordinary person. She overcame extraordinary challenges and found that ability within her to inspire others.”

In the movie about her life, the soft-spoken Mankiller, who died in 2010, credits her success to an ever-widening set of “reciprocal relationships” and an instinct for resolving difficult issues “in the least divisive way possible.” As someone who led by empowering others, one observer notes, Mankiller “turned the telescope around,” exemplifying how much can be accomplished simply by letting go of ego and allowing those affected by a problem to identify and solve it.

It’s just that kind of power that Gloria Steinem said made her at first a fan and then a close friend of the Cherokee leader. At the Athena screening in New York, Steinem — who appears in the film — described Wilma’s enduring legacy of “representing one’s values, and seeing that they influence every act that you do. That you keep your community, and you keep understanding that the paradigm of life is a circle, not a pyramid, not a hierarchy. That we are linked, not ranked.”

It’s the addiction to ranked-not-linked thinking that still informs most cinematic depictions of power, whether it’s wielded by men or women. Having been formed by images of Great Men, lone rangers, righteous vigilantes and Mr. Smiths going to Washington, movies habitually reduce history and heroism to single-person “arcs.” For one thing, it’s more practical, and easy to digest for an audience. Not incidentally, linear, zero-sum ethos fits neatly into mythologized American ideals of individualism and rugged self-sufficiency — which are just as bogus when they’re embodied by a woman as by a man. “Hollywood, like most of the country, is still defining power as power over,” Steinem noted at the “Mankiller” screening. “And Wilma, and many others, defined power as power to.”

Is it possible to reimagine a new iconography of power, untethered to archaic paradigms of virility and conquest? Can we make inclusive circles as sexy and inherently cinematic as top-down pyramids? Some recent screen heroines point the way. In Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time” the film’s heroine, Meg Murry, embarks on a classic hero’s quest and survives not by brute strength or deploying massive firepower but through intelligence, intuition and embracing her own faults (all supremely Wilma-esque values). We can see evidence of similar reframing in “Wonder Woman” — in which Diana’s superpowers of empathy and direct action are directly related to Wilma’s superpower of listening and ground-level practicality — and especially “Black Panther,” in which the ferocity of Danai Gurira’s Dora Milaje warrior is offset by Lupita Nyong’o’s more communicative and collaborative diplomat and Letitia Wright’s brainy problem-solver, Shuri.

These are all small, one-step-forward hints of progress at a time when women’s representation in front of and behind the camera promises new ways of understanding heroism, and at a time when our most ubiquitous images of power are collective, whether in the form of the #MeToo movement or #NeverAgain: Imperator Furiosa, meet Emma González — and the thousands of students she has helped galvanize.

“I have never, ever, ever in my life seen the degree of organic, self-willed, diverse, not-gonna-go-away activism that I see now,” Steinem noted, “objectively, quantitatively, energetically [or] spiritually.” The question now is whether Hollywood can turn the telescope around and discover a new kind of heroine, capable of evolving beyond muscles, machisma and mimicking the good guy with a gun.

Mankiller will air on MPT at 1 p.m. on March 25 and on WHUT at 9 p.m. on March 27.