If Female Action Heroes Need To Be Role Models, What Should They Model?

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I’m normally of the belief that in pop culture, equality comes in two stages. First, members of a minority group, or of a group like women that are a majority but are poorly rendered in that space, get to be presented as admirable. Second, when they’ve achieved enough penetration into the culture, every portrayal of members in that group can stop being limited by the need to be admirable, to represent for everyone else. I tend to be impatient to get to the second half of that stage, because it’s often more interesting. The current Avengers continuity’s found ways to make Captain America melancholy and funny, but I’d probably rather spend time with Tony Stark.

Over at Women and Hollywood, Inkoo Kang argues that we still don’t have enough female action heroes to be at that second stage, and points out that at least some observers are still stuck on analyzing action heroines’ bodies rather than looking at their personalities:

It must be granted that many of today’s action heroes are largely immune from the moral scrutiny that accompanies the arrival of most action heroines on the big screen. People love Iron Man for being a self-absorbed grumposaur, but Katniss Everdeen has Manohla Dargis, arguably the country’s most important female critic, wringing her hands about how the actress who plays her might be too curvy. But a playful superhero figure like Iron Man comes after decades and decades of “role model” action heroes like Superman, Spiderman, and Captain America. Iron Man, Hancock, and their snarky ilk are counterreactions to the square, goody-goody “role model” heroes of yesteryear. Hence, contemporary male action heroes are, in a sense, excused from having to be role models, since so many other characters already fit that niche.

I wonder if part of the challenge here is that while male action heroes are heightened version of ideals and traits men are already supposed to aspire to—strength, decisiveness, acting as protectors. If you’re going to put women in those roles, you’re both having female characters take on male-affiliated traits, and then heightening them.

And that raises the question of if action heroines are supposed to be role models, what, overall, are they supposed to model? Should female action heroes just fit into the same sorts of slots represented by men, whether it’s the teenaged glee and snark of Spider-Man, the struggle for self-control of the Hulk, the patriotism and ethics of Captain America? Or should we argue that, just as action choreography for women would be more interesting and creative if it draws on different styles and acknowledges differences in strength between men and women, action heroines should model different behaviors and priorities, too? The Alien franchise got a lot out of portraying the redirected maternal force as a tremendously powerful force of nature. And in The Avengers, Black Widow’s the person to recognize when force is no longer the solution, and to use tact and cleverness to turn off the source of the attack at its spigot—violence is useful in that it helps her get where she needs to go, but it is not actually the solution to the attack. The Avengers don’t beat Loki’s forces: they out-manuver them. It’s terrific to model that strength and protectiveness are qualities that don’t belong solely to boys or men. But more thoughtful movies about what femininity brings to the table in fraught situations would make for more interesting storytelling, and more nuanced role models.