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Cut the Reel: Women step up in a male-dominated cinema

By Andrew Sparling
On February 26, 2013

When people imagine the protagonist of an action film, they usually imagine a man. However, recent films are starting to change that perspective. Girls are no longer waiting for their man to save the day. They're fighting back.

The films The Hunger Games, Sucker Punch and Underworld focus on the concept of the warrior woman. Before, women were either innocent damsels in distress or seductive corruptors of the hero. Women are now able to hold their own in a fight and express themselves in more complex ways.

This is not a new concept, but modern action films seem to have difficulty in expressing complex heroines. Selene (Kate Beckinsale) from Underworld had a glaring flaw in her character: her lack of a personality. For all the amazing weapons, fighting moves and skill she displayed during the films, she never had much of a personality. 

When it comes to many action films with females who can fight, everything about them is usually expressed externally. If they are angry, they express that anger through hitting something or someone. If they are in love, they kiss or have sex with the love interest. If they are sad, they cry. These emotions are important because they help show that heroines are more than fetish-fulfilling plot movers, but they need to grow into these emotions.

In The Hunger Games Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) amazed audiences by demonstrating the strain of being forced into a barbaric battle to the death and showing strength in more than just how well she killed. She was sad and angry when Rue died and lashed out at her surroundings. Rue was only a little girl and was the reason why Katniss survived. When she made Rue a flower-wreathed funeral bed it was because she wanted to do something kind for her brief but unforgettable friend.

Women face a challenge that male action heroes are rarely scrutinized for. Everything from the way they look to the way they behave is designed to almost always show action heroines in a negative light. If they don't shed tears, they're seen as cold. Too many tears and they're weak. If they get captured, even if they escape, they are seen as idiots for getting caught in the first place.

However, this depends on who is guiding the story. In the live-action film Resident Evil Retribution, Ada Wong, a character who is consistently portrayed as intelligent as she is skilled in the video games, is captured near the end of the film. She does not make an effort to escape, and instead waits to be rescued. Wong was also captured in the animated film Resident Evil: Damnation, but rescues herself. Even when she was captured, she was still shown as being capable of holding her own. 

Plot convenience is one of the greatest antagonists that a strong female character clashes with. It comes in the form of a situation or action that effectively depowers the action heroine so that the focus returns to a male hero or moves the plot along. This can come in the form of falling into an obvious trap, a single bad guy getting the drop on her, or perhaps simply being killed because she's too skilled to realistically fall into the other two situations.

Female action heroes are some of the most critically analyzed and panned characters in film. In the eyes of film industry's status quo, they walk a fine line between being positive female role models to big-breasted clichés of incompetence with very little middle ground between them. When presented at their worst, they are branded as sexist trash. When they manage to break from expectations, they become proof that strength, intelligence and bravery are not gender or genre specific.

Women are fighting back. Actresses are expressing complex characters in every genre, especially the typically testosterone-filled action films, and audiences love it. Hopefully Katniss is the start of a long line of strong heroines to come who can fight, feel and endure without being marked off as simply weak or unrealistically strong. It's a new age where a villain grabs the princess in a dark alley expecting a scream, but gets a fist.

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