As the conversation about making Hollywood more equitable has intensified, one of the proposed solutions has been to storm the gates of some of the movie industry’s biggest products. Cast Idris Elba as James Bond! Make a woman the titular alien in the long-running British fantasy series “Doctor Who”! And among the most celebrated developments have been opportunities for women to be the leads — or at least part of the core ensemble — in action movies.
Here’s the potential downside, though. There’s value in suggesting that — on-screen, at least — a woman can do anything a man can do. But if that means telling stories about women who behave exactly like men, focusing on making women the stars in action movies could produce more jobs for women without expanding the kinds of stories and perspectives that appear on our screens.
The turn of the century saw a proliferation of these sorts of movies. Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie), the main character in the “Tomb Raider” movies, a globe-trotting adventurer with the same absent-father issues that have plagued so many strong and silent types. Selene (Kate Beckinsale), the “Underworld” franchise vampire caught up in a war between her people and a race of super-powered werewolves, had the same fancy weapons and dramatic romances that a male action hero might have had in her place.
Men in the audience for action movies might have wanted to be James Bond or John McClane of “Die Hard.” The directors of the “Tomb Raider” and “Underworld” movies were careful to make Lara Croft and Selene characters those men would want to possess. They might have been as tough as the men who traditionally played those roles, but they wore alluring if impractical skin-tight outfits and exhibited the kind of sexual appetites that would give their devotees plenty of fantasy fodder.
Something far more intriguing can happen when an action movie puts a woman at the center — and the action changes as a result.
The recent wave of action movies that have focused on women often have stories that emphasize collaboration rather than the acts of a lone hero. And at times, these stories can be uneasy rather than triumphant, asking uncomfortable questions about the social conditions that made violent action necessary, rather than simply celebrating the hero who puts the world back to rights.
In “The Hunger Games” series, both the novels by Suzanne Collins and the movies adapted from them, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence in the films) is as adept as any man at fighting her way through the brutal reality competitions organized by the dictatorial government of the dystopian Panem.
But she takes no joy in her capacity for violence. And although she becomes a symbol of the rebellion against the Panem government, Katniss comes to believe that there is less difference than she might have hoped between the old regime and the new. Rather than ending the series as a conquering hero, she withdraws into private life, creating the peace and safety for her family that she couldn’t achieve on a national level.
While “The Hunger Games” has always focused on Katniss’s experiences, the “Mad Max” franchise was defined by Mel Gibson’s iconic performance in the title role — until 2015, when director George Miller turned his eye in a different direction. Max, now played by Tom Hardy, was captured in the opening sequence of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and the action shifted to Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), an agent of the dictatorial Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Furiosa betrays her boss to help rescue his wives, who have come to connect Joe’s brand of hyper-masculinity to the post-apocalpytic destruction that has surrounded them.
Miller told the Guardian’s Paul MacInnes that once he conceived the story, he knew the person helping Joe’s wives escape had to be a woman, because otherwise “that’s a different story, the man stealing five wives of a tyrant. She had to be female, she had to be an experienced road warrior. Of course with that simple idea the rest came organically. The feminist notions of the film simply came out of the character and her behavior.”
Between her gender and the prosthesis that has replaced one of her arms below the elbow, Furiosa is far from a typical action heroine. And the action that surrounds her isn’t typical either. In “Fury Road,” Miller has made a movie that emphasizes cross-gender and cross-generational collaboration rather than lone heroism. Furiosa frees Max; Max helps her steady a gun and fire; the older women who raised Furiosa team up to help the young wives fight for their freedom; and the wives help one of Immortan Joe’s brainwashed, suicidal War Boys, Nux (Nicholas Hoult) break free of Joe’s influence and find a cause he genuinely wants to fight for.
At a moment when the world has been destroyed on-screen with such frequency and grandiosity that the sight of a destroyed city skyline is more enervating than unnerving, “Mad Max: Fury Road” cared as much about solidarity and character growth as the fate of Immortan Joe’s citadel.
And most recently, “Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens” broke with the tradition of the previous six installments to focus on a young woman — Daisy Ridley’s Rey — with great power in the Force, rather than a young man like Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) or Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Like her predecessors, Rey grew up on a desert planet, knowing nothing about her talents until visitors from far away thrust them all into galaxy-wide conflicts.
But where Luke Skywalker yearned for adventure, Rey is reluctant to leave her home planet of Jakku. And if the Force has traditionally been a way to tell stories about the struggle to be a good man, Rey’s presence in the center of the new “Star Wars” trilogy gives the franchise an opportunity to explore what it means for a woman to step up to an unexpected destiny.
The critical and commercial success of these movies doesn’t necessarily mean that the old-fashioned, dude-centric blockbuster is a thing of the past. The “Fast and Furious” franchise, populated by muscley dudes, ride-or-die chicks, and fast cars is still going strong and finding new places to stage seriously reckless driving. Michael Bay’s “13 Hours” tells the story of Benghazi through the rippling muscles and extravagant facial hair of a group of ex-CIA contractors who are characterized mostly by their extreme skill at shooting guns.
But the contrast between these old-school action flicks and the new, innovative projects suggests that what’s good for women in action movies might also be what’s good for action movies themselves. Any requirement that action heroes be stoic, hyper-competent tough guys who act alone places just as many restrictions on men as on women.
Illustrations by Olimpia Zagnoli.