Blockbuster Month is celebrating the true titans of the genre. In the weeks ahead, you’ll read through a variety of features digging deep into the greatest hits of Hollywood, from popcorn classics to underrated gems. Today, Jenn Adams traces the rise, evolution, and many tropes of the female action hero.
Action movies are the bread and butter of the summer blockbuster. There’s just something about spending a hot summer night in an air-conditioned theater, watching jaw-dropping explosions and epic fight scenes. At the center of these movies is the Action Hero. The trope has been through many iterations over the years. From the brute strength of Rocky and Rambo to the realism of Jason Bourne. The tech savvy of James Bond, the wit of Will Smith, and the otherworldliness of Superman. But arguably the most iconic action star of all time is Arnold Schwarzenegger. He epitomizes the extreme masculinity, strength, detachment, and one-liners we associate with this type of character. Hell, he was chosen as the iconic representation of the trope in 1993’s Last Action Hero.
The Female Action Hero is much more rare. Like Eve, she was born out of her relationship to her male counterparts, and held to such narrow expectations that we have few successful examples. The first female action stars can be described as women taking on the accepted male characteristics of strength. We see this literally in Alien’s Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), a character originally written as male. But they have evolved over the years and are beginning to tell their own stories. This is an exploration of how these powerful women have stepped up and out of the shadows and are beginning to come into their own.
Disclaimer: Without writing a book on this subject (on my bucket list), there’s no way I can thoroughly cover every female action hero. So, to paraphrase one Harley Quinn, it’s my theory, and I’ll tell it like I want.
My favorite movie of all time is Terminator 2: Judgement Day. I grew up watching my edited-for-TV VHS copy almost every day, and it feels real in a way other movies do not. Growing up, the movie’s heroine, Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton) was my ideal of feminine strength. She’s strong in a way that I wanted to be, and she isn’t afraid. As a mother, she fights for her son, but instead of comforting him, she coldly protects him even at the cost of their relationship.
Her male counterpart in the film is The Terminator (Schwarzenegger), a machine not programmed for empathy. His arc revolves around learning what emotions are and why humans experience them. Sarah has a similar journey. In order to survive, she has had to turn these instincts off in herself, and she struggles with turning them back on. They are both learning to love, but The Terminator’s arc is presented as extraordinary while Sarah’s is a return to the established order. No one expects The Terminator to love a child, and Sarah is not expected to do anything else.
Male Action Stars
Because our early iterations of female action heroes were anomalies, the way society knew to accept them was to give them the qualities we prize in our male heroes. Sarah’s weapons are guns and she fights like The Terminator. They communicate as a well-oiled machine because they speak the same combat language. But her coldness presented as an obstacle to overcome, whereas in The Terminator, it’s his strength to embrace.
Since its inception, Hollywood has rarely allowed women to be more than either mothers or sexual objects, and so the female action hero must have those traits as well. But The Terminator doesn’t have to live within those limitations. He can exist only to kick ass. Women are not allowed to act like men for very long without facing punishment. To borrow from the horror genre, at some point they must drop the knife and step back into their place in the patriarchy. It’s too uncomfortable for us to let them rise above.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith
A prime example of this is Angelina Jolie, an actress who made a name for herself starring in dramas like Gia and Girl, Interrupted. But with Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, she became an action star capable of carrying her own movie. This worked well due to the actress’ qualities. While there’s a lot to love about Angeline Jolie, there’s no doubt that her extreme features and mysteriously aloof persona lend themselves to the type of emotional coldness seen in male action stars.
This is on full display in Mr. and Mrs. Smith where she stars with Brad Pitt as married assassins both assigned to kill the other. They essentially play the same emotional role. Both willing to turn their feelings off when necessary. This is a step forward in that she is still presented in relation to a man, but here they are on equal footing. And she is able to use her more classically feminine qualities as an asset rather than a hindrance.
Kill Bill and Resident Evil
Uma Thurman as The Bride is another interesting milestone in the female action hero subgenre. The star of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2, there’s no doubt she broke the mold playing an assassin seeking revenge. She is a unique fighter with an iconic look, and the film itself presents multiple diverse women capable of defending themselves.
The Bride is complex in that she is both a murderer and a mother complicating traditional archetypes. And she fights on her own without a direct male counterpart. However, her entire arc is ruled by a man. Her focus revolves around Bill, who gets the title of her movie. We don’t find out her name until halfway through Volume 2. While groundbreaking, she and the other female assassins are fetishized by director Quentin Tarantino and his iconic ideas of what strong and feminine mean. They are presented as unique-looking bodies to tear apart in interesting ways.
A similar character is Resident Evil’s Alice (Milla Jovavich). Loosely based on the survival horror game, Jovavich has maintained the same longevity of franchise success as stars like Sylvester Stallone and Tom Cruise, but on a smaller scale. The Resident Evil franchise is genre horror that never quite broke through to the mainstream, beloved in a community already known for embracing non-conformity. Though Alice has no male counterpart in the movie, she is inspired by fetishized characters from a gaming world who are literal images controlled by others.
An important evolution in the Action Film genre is the emergence and domination of comic book movies. And while characters like Mystique, Black Widow, and Captain Marvel are notable, Wonder Woman is arguably the most empowering. Beginning as the counterpart to Superman, the newest iteration, played by Gal Gadot, has taken on a life of her own.
While Wonder Woman’s journey across No-Man’s Land may be a bit on the nose, it always brings tears to my eyes. Sometimes you have to say the truth out loud, even if it sounds obvious or overly sentimental. When she says, “I believe in love,” she is taking a character trait long thought of as weakening women and using it as powerful motivation to keep fighting. She is creating an ideal where the power lies not in strength, but in empathy and succeeds not in spite of being a woman, but because of it.
Though quieter, the line I’m most moved by is spoken to a man giving her an order. “What I do is not up to you,” she says. It’s only a moment, but it caused me to question how often I wait for permission from others to be who I am out loud.
We see evolution in the way she fights as well. While Superman and Batman basically just smash each other into building after building, she fights with flamboyant style as do the Amazon women of her homeland. Her strongest move is a defensive one. She crosses her arms in an X and is able to reflect the power of her attacker back at them, a protective gesture I use often as a reaction to a physical trigger. She is setting a boundary and sending back the negative energy rather than absorbing it as women are so often asked to do. Her interactions with Steve reveal that the rules the patriarchy has constructed to hold us in check don’t actually serve any of us.
Birds of Prey
2020’s Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is another significant step on the road to empowerment and representation. Directed by Cathy Yan, this film is about imperfect women kicking ass in their own ways, listening to their intuition instead of taking orders from men. Featuring a diverse cast of women, it’s led by Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), whose transformation from 2017’s Suicide Squad is striking.
In Suicide Squad, she is sexualized almost constantly. Existing to pine for The Joker who clearly views her as his own property. Two club scenes perfectly illustrate this dichotomy. In Suicide Squad, she dances sexily and teases a man for the amusement of Mr. J. But in Birds of Prey, her dancing is rave-like, her clothes are more androgynous, and she even throws up in a stranger’s purse. She is allowed to be human. Beautiful, but flawed. Iconic, but relatably unique. In Birds of Prey, she’s no longer pining for the Joker, but for a breakfast sandwich. Learning to stand on her own, she becomes more than just a pretty face.
But she is not the only one seeking freedom. Birds of Prey tells the story of five unique women breaking away from the systems that have controlled them. Their relationships with each other are complex, but they succeed by fighting together. (The moment when Harley gives Black Canary a hair tie always makes me cheer.) They are all unique. While some dress sexily, none are over sexualized — and they fight in different ways.
Harley’s weapons of choice are glitter-loaded smoke bombs and roller skates. The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) takes a more masculine approach with her motorcycle and crossbow. And Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) uses her voice as her most powerful weapon. Harley uses her voice as well, unabashedly telling her own story in her own way. An empowering cinematic choice in a world where women’s voices are too often silenced.
Dark Fate / Bright Future
One reason we don’t see female stars lead decades-long action franchises is because Hollywood traditionally does not allow women to age in the same way as men, relegating women of a certain age to more matronly roles. However, we’re starting to see iconic women like Jamie Lee Curtis and Linda Hamilton reprise their roles, anchoring legacy sequels like Halloween 2018 and Terminator: Dark Fate. A matriarchy is emerging along with an important change in our perceptions.
By embracing our favorite heroines as human, gray hair and all, we can let everyone else off the hook as well. In Dark Fate, we see that The Terminator has become a husband figure who helps with the groceries and designs drapes for children’s bedrooms. While played for laughs, it’s an important step, a commentary on our reluctance to let male stars explore different elements of their personalities as well. Like women, we strive to make them ideals rather than human beings. And this is how the patriarchy hurts everyone. When we lose the rigid guidelines of who we are supposed to be, we can all show that our strengths lie in our uniqueness. We can take our stories in our own hands and tell them the way we want to.
While Dark Fate is directed by a man, it is feminist in showing a diverse matriarchy made up of complex human beings. Sarah now leads a group of women who don’t see themselves as necessary only for the existence of a male leader. They see that they are the ones who can lead. If we are brave enough to follow, we will see what Sarah Conner knew to be true all along: There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.