I’ve been saying repeatedly how excited I am for Political Animals, the USA Network’s six-hour show this summer about a First Lady turned divorced Secretary of State, and the trend of women politicians on screen in general. And now, we’ve learned that Sigourney Weaver is going to be playing the main character in that show, who is clearly based on Hillary Clinton. Given that she’s one of the most commanding women on any screen, large or small, I think Weaver will play the hell out of this part—she can credibly, and interestingly, give hell to just about anyone, be they head of a paramilitary strip-mining operation, insect-like alien, or recalcitrant foreign leader.
It also seems fitting that Weaver, who played a First Lady who had to endure the indignity of being cheated on in Dave, gets to come back and play the hell out of the next chapter in that real-life story.
I appreciate that we’ve gone from stories where the woman gets to be the President’s wife or girlfriend, as in Dave or The American President, to stories where she gets to be one of the most powerful people in the free world entirely in her own right.
Haywire, Stephen Soderbergh’s bone-crunching action movie starring mixed martial arts fighter-turned-actress Gina Carano hasn’t made its budget back yet, but Carano’s just signed up to star in another action movie, this one from director John Stockwell, who helmed surfing flick Blue Crush and thriller Into the Blue. Saorsie Ronan, who first came on the scene as a nosy child in period movie Atonement turned to action as a teenaged assassin in Hanna, signed up to star in Stephenie Meyer’s science fiction thriller The Host, and just, to some commentators’ surprise, just committed to star in a third action movie. Hailee Steinfeld, who came to prominence as a girl hunting her father’s killer in the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit will have another chance to hone her action chops playing female child soldier Petra in the adaptation of science fiction classic Ender’s Game. And Chloe Moretz’s outings as a pint-sized, foul-mouthed superhero in Kick Ass and a vampire in Let Me In haven’t prevented her from playing sweet and girlish in movies like Hugo. IConsidered together, that’s a pretty incredible crop of young action heroines on the rise. And it’s fascinating to contemplate what their collective impact could be on the industry.
In the past, it’s seemed like we can really only have one major female action star at a time, and that taking on that role can come with some limitations. Sigourney Weaver’s had that lock for her generation, and even when she takes on lighter fare, she ends up playing a heavy, or a character defined by her aggression. In You Again, ostensibly a female comedy, she’s a grown-up high school mean girl. In Red Lights, a paranormal thriller that was picked up out of Sundance, she’s a scientist defined by her intellectual certainty: she has a son, but the movie never gives us even the slightest inkling of a husband or partner or an explanation of whether she had her son on her own in the first place. It’s never a bad thing for an actress to get those kind of roles—I can’t say how excited I am to see Weaver play a vampire queen in Amy Heckerling’s Vamps along with Krysten Ritter and Alicia Silverstone—but being a competent action star shouldn’t mean that an actress can’t also nail a romantic comedy (or her male co-star in that action movie). Angelina Jolie’s allowed slightly greater range in her action roles, but seduction tends to get treated as part of her killer toolkit. When she takes on non-action fare, it tends to be as a historical figure like Mariane Pearl, or to play a woman in a different kind of extremis, as she did in Changeling.
I’d be curious to see if these younger actresses coming up a generation or a generation and a half behind Jolie can forge a new course, where they can do action movies and work in other genres. Some of it may simply be a chops issue: Jolie is just not a very funny actress, where as Moretz has charisma to burn in that particular space. And it would be nice to have female action heroes for whom action is an expression of other concerns. In the Mission Impossible movies, Ethan Hunt’s ass-kicking gets to be an expression of concern for his wife. James Bond’s womanizing and his action as a spy are both expressions of his lack of regard for himself—Daniel Craig’s elevated the act to a kind of exploration of self-harm. So it would be nice to see more female action characters with larger concerns other than lioness mode, who are allowed to protect people and interests other than small children. While I’m not a huge fan of the way The Hunger Games books ended, I do think that’s precisely the kind of franchise that could wed a woman’s ability to be a credible killer to a complex larger set of concerns.
It would also be nice to see more creative thinking about how to direct action sequences. I’m fine with certain female action stars getting choreographed the same way that men do, if they’ve got the stature for it to be plausible that they can plow through a crowd of heavies. But I also think it’s worth considering what kind of approaches slighter women would have to take to get the same result as male action stars who are bigger than them. Are there different schools of martial arts that would tip the balance? More inventive use of equipment? Differentials in vulnerabilities that female fighters could exploit? There are physical differences between men and women, and fight choreographers should think of that as an opportunity to try new things rather than as a reason to treat women as if they aren’t plausible action stars.
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.