I was watching Alien over the weekend with some friends, and one thing that struck me was the extent to which Sigourney Weaver’s allowed to cry, and freak out, and shake, and her having an emotional reaction to the fact that a giant alien is eating everyone she knows, and threatening her cat, and one of those friends turns out to be a semi-evil android is treated as if it’s in no way incongruous with her ability to absolutely kick ass.
We’re in this moment where there are a lot of action heroines, among them little girls, who execute extremely badass things, but with extreme calm and detachment. Hit Girl may take some deep breaths before she absolutely decimates a hallway full of mobsters, and she may cry when her father dies, but she appears to have very little emotional reaction to the things that are going on around her:
Similarly, the heroine of Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming Haywire reacts to Michael Fassbender’s (and other people’s) attempts to kill her — which I know at minimum would make me pretty sad, not to mention totally panicked — with fairly impressive aplomb:
I don’t know if Angelina Jolie’s the reason for this trend in female action stars who wreak enormous amounts of havoc while maintaining perfect composure, but she is certainly among the most effective practitioners of the form — in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, she only gets tearful when the fight is over:
I’ve been sort of skeptical of Colombiana, on the grounds that it’s yet another portrait of a traumatized killing machine, but I’m prepared to be a bit more enthusiastic if the movie uses the main character’s freakouts less as a juxtaposition with her efficiency than as an illustration of the cost of the violence that consumed her family, the tally she’s adding to now:
Of course, given that I don’t have a lot of experience in any of these circumstances, maybe the dichotomy in emotional reactions makes sense, and revenge killings are much less anxiety-inducing than being stalked by a psychosexual nightmare direbeast.
I wouldn’t want to go so far as to say that I think female killers in pop culture should bear a burden their male counterparts don’t, of anchoring us to the reality of what it would be like if the explosions and the blood were real. But Ripley and Alien are a reminder that sometimes, action sequences are more effective when they’re earned, when victory requires a lot of sweat and struggle, and sometimes, the only reward is your own continued life.