So, there’s a new study out that purports to find that conventionally attractive women are considered better role models than less attractive women when they’re in action roles. I wouldn’t be remotely surprised to find out that was the case. But the study seems really wonky. There were just 122 people in it, which is not a particularly big sample size. And more importantly, the examples in the study seem to bias the outcomes pretty heavily. It’s not just that Angelina Jolie and Kathy Bates are totally physically different. It’s that Tomb Raider and Primary Colors aren’t really comparable. Jolie in Tomb Raider is a very straightforward, sexy action heroine:
Bates’ character in Primary Colors has spent a lot of time hospitalized as a result of her mental illness. In the scene where she brandishes a gun on a sketchy Arkansas lawyer, she explicitly uses the fact that everyone thinks she’s crazy to make her threat to shoot his genitals plausible. “I am a gay lesbian woman! I do not mythologize the male sexual organ!” she hollers at him. The violence in Tomb Raider is abstracted, necessary, presented as if it’s cool, whereas the threat of it in Primary Colors is visceral and ugly, not strictly necessary, presented with a combination of wry admiration and disapproval. There’s no way both movies would seem comparable even if Jolie played both roles.
I’d actually like to see a study like this that’s based in more viable comparisons. If we can find a way of presenting women kicking ass that helps expand audiences’ sense of what women can do, while still making for awesome action movies, it would be wonderful to be able to advocate for it. But I need better evidence than this.