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Stu Presents, Men & Women Of Action: When Genre & Gender Collide!

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Intro



Well, I was just going to keep this multi-part essay confined to the other thread I was posting it in here, but then it started to really grow and take on a life of its own, so I figured it warranted a thread of its own in the General Discussion board, where more people will (hopefully) read and respond to it. You see, when it comes to movie genres, there is perhaps no more of a "boy's club" than the Action movie, which tends to be viewed as quintessentially male as, say, Romantic Comedies are seen as feminine, with the stereotypical cultural image of the genre including lots of massive, bulging biceps, super-macho leading men, and humongous automatic weapons that might as well be metallic extensions of those men's phalluses.

However, while there IS a grain of truth to this perception, the overall relationship between Action movies and gender is actually far more complicated than that, not just when it comes to the depictions of men inside the genre (as well as in the movies adjacent to it), but for the women as well, so I would like to use this series to take a look at the various aspects of this fascinating subject, whether they be negative (which is a lot of them, to be honest), positive, or somewhere in-between. So... get ready, ladies and gentlemen! Oh, and spoiler alerts are in effect for each and every movie discussed here, so consider yourselves warned, yo.

Index:
An Uneven Foundation
Embrace Of Masculinity
Female Fragility



I've posited this a few times over the years on this site that Death Proof is a chick flick and, for this particular crossover, can there really be a better example?

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5-time MoFo Award winner.



I've posited this a few times over the years on this site that Death Proof is a chick flick and, for this particular crossover, can there really be a better example?
Yes Seriously though, I wasn't a fan of DP, since I found it to be an island of one good car chase surrounded by an ocean of mindless, self-indulgent Taranchatter, and I also felt it started the trend of QT taking a hollow revenge narrative, and grafting a particularly charged historical/social context onto it to give it some illusion of substance, so I'm afraid I won't be writing about it in a positive manner here; Kill Bill, on the other hand...



An Uneven Foundation



First off, to better understand the relationship between Action movies and gender, we have to go back to the beginning of the genre in its modern form, which was (in my opinion) the 1960's. There, while the overall gender dynamics varied from film to film, whether it was the toxic masculinity of the men in The Dirty Dozen and The Wild Bunch, or the relatively "sensitive" characterization of Frank Bullitt, there was still a fairly consistent throughline to these films' gender portrayals, whether they were contemporary or period pieces; the men were the primary drivers of the films, while the women tended to be more on the sidelines, either as collateral damage, background dressing, or as supporting characters to the male protagonists, like Cathy in Bullitt, who has to take a step back from the violent world the titular detective inhabits when she stumbles onto the bloody aftermath of a murder scene:



And, while there were some more assertive female characters during the early days of the genre, they were still few and far between, and even some of those examples still got buried underneath the overall sexist attitudes of the films themselves, such as when the otherwise entertaining Goldfinger portrays Pussy Galore (ugh) as being won over by the personification of "Mad Men-era" chauvinism himself, James Bond, when he forces his extremely well-travelled penis onto her after incapacitating her physically, bringing her assertiveness to heel, in a manner of speaking. Additionally, the scene takes on an even more regressive light if you remember that Galore admitted in the novel that she was sexually abused by her uncle, which resulted in the "pathological malady" Ian Fleming's words, not mine) of her lesbianism, a condition that just needed to be cured by the touch of the right man, which is an aspect that, while not explicitly confirmed in the film, is still implied with her remark about being immune to Bond's manly charms. And, all of that's without even taking the allegations about Sean Connery's sexist personal views into account, either (although, while there's still progress for it to make, the franchise eventually started rejecting this by doing things like Judi Dench accusing Bond of being a "misogynistic dinosaur" in Goldeneye).



Movie Forums Squirrel Jumper
I don't think that that a male protagonist having a female supporting character to him like Cathy in Bullitt isn't bad though is it? We see this all the time in movies, even nowadays. I just saw Hitchcock (2012), and Helen Mirren was a supporting character to him. Not an action movie but still similar story structure, where the main character has supporting characters to be motivated by and react to.



I don't think that that a male protagonist having a female supporting character to him like Cathy in Bullitt isn't bad though is it? We see this all the time in movies, even nowadays. I just saw Hitchcock (2012), and Helen Mirren was a supporting character to him. Not an action movie but still similar story structure, where the main character has supporting characters to be motivated by and react to.
Having women be supporting characters behind male leads isn't automatically a bad thing, since that really depends on how they're used in their specific movie (it's why I singled Cathy out the way I did in that post, since her presence contributed a solid amount to the film she's in), and that's obviously going to be inevitable to a certain extent anyway, since it's not like they're ever going to start making every movie star a woman... but, if you're talking about the history of gender portrayals in Action movies, then the tendency of the genre (especially in the early days) to put the men in the spotlight and the women on the sidelines is something that's going to be impossible to ignore, even if it's just meant as a neutral, non-critical observation of the genre, because otherwise, I wouldn't be able to contrast that with the way that Action movies have brought women more to the forefront as they've evolved over time, and give them credit for that, you know?



minds his own damn business
I also felt it started the trend of QT taking a hollow revenge narrative, and grafting a particularly charged historical/social context onto it to give it some illusion of substance, so I'm afraid I won't be writing about it in a positive manner here; Kill Bill, on the other hand...
Which "historical/social context" are you referring to here? Because if you mean the historical/social context of misogynistic violence, then I have a hard time understanding how Kill Bill wouldn't be an exact precedent to that.
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"How tall is King Kong ?"
the franchise eventually started rejecting this by having Judi Dench's M accuse Bond of being a "misogynistic dinosaur" in Goldeneye).[/center]
I wouldn't say that. It's lip service at best, it's irony at worst : the "misogynistic dinosaur" is still the movie's hero and role-model, without the remark altering his ways. So for the public it's more like "misogynistic dinosaur lol (and that's why we love him)", a bit like when Bond is threatened by modernism in Never Say Never Again (he incarnates the sex and violence that the public expect and the new M loathes) or in the Craig movies (where the old battleship Bond still remains the surest weapon against evil). Not far from old police chiefs reproaching the action hero cop to be a loose canon or whatever.

Bond's first attempts to overcome its sexism can be found earlier, for instance with The Spy who Loved Me's major Amasova (amusingly, a completely unrelated adaptation of Fleming's most feminine and least sexist novel), supposedly a super badass soviet equivalent of James Bond. In practice, a little girl that Bond patronizes during the whole movie (oh god, that scene where she's at the wheel and Bond comments on her, it aims at friendly banter but comes off as unbearably condescending and also strictly one-way). There was self-awareness for a long time, but self-awareness isn't sufficient. The series' attempts at changing it always failed miserably, because sexism was just too deeply rooted in the franchise (and its cultural moments).

I love Bond movies, I really love them. But damn are they gloriously dumb on such aspects. Well-intended probably, but so dumb. And Judy Dench's lines weren't more significant than all these earlier half-arsed tries to get with the times.
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Which "historical/social context" are you referring to here? Because if you mean the historical/social context of misogynistic violence, then I have a hard time understanding how Kill Bill wouldn't be an exact precedent to that.
But Bill was obviously just trying to kill one specific woman for "breaking his heart", while Proof depicted a misogynistic serial killer targeting women at complete random because of their gender; yeah, there are surface-level similarities between the subject matters of those two, but the motivations of the antagonist are quite different, and that's what makes the fundamental difference between them.



I wouldn't say that. It's lip service at best, it's irony at worst : the "misogynistic dinosaur" is still the movie's hero and role-model, without the remark altering his ways. So for the public it's more like "misogynistic dinosaur lol (and that's why we love him)", a bit like when Bond is threatened by modernism in Never Say Never Again (he incarnates the sex and violence that the public expect and the new M loathes) or in the Craig movies (where the old battleship Bond still remains the surest weapon against evil). Not far from old police chiefs reproaching the action hero cop to be a loose canon or whatever.

Bond's first attempts to overcome its sexism can be found earlier, for instance with The Spy who Loved Me's major Amasova (amusingly, a completely unrelated adaptation of Fleming's most feminine and least sexist novel), supposedly a super badass soviet equivalent of James Bond. In practice, a little girl that Bond patronizes during the whole movie (oh god, that scene where she's at the wheel and Bond comments on her, it aims at friendly banter but comes off as unbearably condescending and also strictly one-way). There was self-awareness for a long time, but self-awareness isn't sufficient. The series' attempts at changing it always failed miserably, because sexism was just too deeply rooted in the franchise (and its cultural moments).

I love Bond movies, I really love them. But damn are they gloriously dumb on such aspects. Well-intended probably, but so dumb. And Judy Dench's lines weren't more significant than all these earlier half-arsed tries to get with the times.
While there's still progress that the Bond movies can make with their sense of gender equality, I don't think that means that nothing's fundamentally changed in the series since it began; I mean, can you imagine Craig's Bond dismissing Vesper Lynd (or any of the other recent Bond girls) by saying that it's time for "man talk", before sending her on the way by casually smacking her on the *ss like Connery did? Because I sure can't.



Embrace Of Masculinity



So, given the fact that the testosterone-laden genre is the product of a historically male-dominated industry, it's no surprise that many Action movies tend to portray the "macho" aggression of their leading men in a positive manner by default, since that aggression both enables those heroes to triumph over the villains, and also entertains audiences of men and women alike with some crazy stuntwork in the process, in a win-win for both parties.

Furthermore, since those stunts were necessary to create the genre in the first place, this also ties into the tendency of Action movies to portray its leading men as not only willing to undertake the most death-defying of feats, but also to be relatively fearless while doing so, and this tendency applies even when such exploits are well outside of the men's range of experience, like when The Fugitive famously had Richard Kimble, a fifty year-old surgeon, not only take a jump off a 200+ foot dam, but also survive it, in a scenario that almost surely would've ended with his surrender or death in real life (this is also why it was so refreshing when Die Hard had John McClane, an experienced street cop, still plead-praying to God to not let him die as he jumped off of Nakatomi Plaza, but more on that movie later).



Movie Forums Squirrel Jumper
Having women be supporting characters behind male leads isn't automatically a bad thing, since that really depends on how they're used in their specific movie (it's why I singled Cathy out the way I did in that post, since her presence contributed a solid amount to the film she's in), and that's obviously going to be inevitable to a certain extent anyway, since it's not like they're ever going to start making every movie star a woman... but, if you're talking about the history of gender portrayals in Action movies, then the tendency of the genre (especially in the early days) to put the men in the spotlight and the women on the sidelines is something that's going to be impossible to ignore, even if it's just meant as a neutral, non-critical observation of the genre, because otherwise, I wouldn't be able to contrast that with the way that Action movies have brought women more to the forefront as they've evolved over time, and give them credit for that, you know?
Oh okay, but even in stories there is action, is it okay for the women to not get involved in the action, if it's logical for them not to do so in the plot? For example, in a a movie like Saving Private Ryan, you dont' see private Ryan's Mom picking up a rifle and joining the men in saving her son, because it is just not warranted for that type story.

So do a lot of stories warrant the female character not getting involved in the action in a logical sense?



Oh okay, but even in stories there is action, is it okay for the women to not get involved in the action, if it's logical for them not to do so in the plot? For example, in a a movie like Saving Private Ryan, you dont' see private Ryan's Mom picking up a rifle and joining the men in saving her son, because it is just not warranted for that type story.

So do a lot of stories warrant the female character not getting involved in the action in a logical sense?
Even ignoring the reduction to absurdity part of the Private Ryan example, that's still an apples-to-oranges comparison, because you're placing a historically-based War movie next to Action movies, a genre that tends to have little basis in history (and often a fairly soft connection to reality in general). For example, there's nothing about The Dirty Dozen that prevents it from having more prominent female characters, like, say, a female member of the French Resistance who helps the dozen infiltrate the château when they land in France, and in fact, such a character would actually be more historically accurate than the basic premise of the film, since up to 1/5th of the Resistance was female, while there's no credible evidence of the U.S. Army recruiting convicted soldiers for a "suicide mission" during World War II in exchange for pardons (or in any other conflict for that matter, as far as I know).



"How tall is King Kong ?"
can you imagine Craig's Bond dismissing Vesper Lynd (or any of the other recent Bond girls) by saying that it's time for "man talk", before sending her on the way by casually smacking her on the *ss like Connery did? Because I sure can't.
If I can't, it's because it takes place in a different era, where everyone around him would look at him like an alien. But, I could perfectly imagine him, himself, the character doing it. Especially given the consistently striking age difference between him and his bond girls.

But the Craig Bonds are very odd patchworks of modernism and ancienty, they make absolutely no sense temporally. And likewise psychologically : they start by making Bond sound worse than his earlier incarnations (with his cynically proclaimed preference for married women because "it keeps it simple") and they they try to give him an ark (with Vesper), that kinda brings him back to square one (ooh so that's how he became so cynical, uh, again), because it's also an origin story. About how he started his career by becoming too old for his job within 3 days. And taking place before but also after all his other missions. Or something. Bleh, who cared.

So it's all over the place, mixing incompatible elements together, contradictory narratives and visions, like a fan fiction co-written by people who don't get along at all, with all evolutions ending up Penelope tapestries. In the end, a send-away bottom slap would surprise me much more from Ethan Hunt or Jason Bourne than from the craigbond. But I wouldn't be surprised either by this Bond lecturing about how he'd never send a girl away by slapping her bottom, and even saying that between two send-away bottom slaps. Because his movies are so conflicted about their universe and what they wish to be, he has zero coherence.

Aaaaand I'm not a big fan of these reboots.

Part Two: Embracing Masculinity
Now, maybe beware of essentializing the genre : it had different competing models running simultaneously, with different takes on vulnerability and situation mastery. I'm not giving examples because they may be addressed in your future entries, but just pointing out that they are not strict chronological sequences : different models run in parallel (between and within countries).



Movie Forums Squirrel Jumper
Even ignoring the reduction to absurdity part of the Private Ryan example, that's still an apples-to-oranges comparison, because you're placing a historically-based War movie next to Action movies, a genre that tends to have little basis in history (and often a fairly soft connection to reality in general). For example, there's nothing about The Dirty Dozen that prevents it from having more prominent female characters, like, say, a female member of the French Resistance who helps the dozen infiltrate the château when they land in France, and in fact, such a character would actually be more historically accurate than the basic premise of the film, since up to 1/5th of the Resistance was female, while there's no credible evidence of the U.S. Army recruiting convicted soldiers for a "suicide mission" during World War II in exchange for pardons (or in any other conflict for that matter, as far as I know).
That's true, that's a good point. Where Eagles Dare came out two years after The Dirty Dozen and that had two female characters helping the two men fight the Nazis. Would that be a good example of females in an action movie, in comparison to something like The Dirty Dozen?



If I can't, it's because it takes place in a different era, where everyone around him would look at him like an alien. But, I could perfectly imagine him, himself, the character doing it. Especially given the consistently striking age difference between him and his bond girls.

But the Craig Bonds are very odd patchworks of modernism and ancienty, they make absolutely no sense temporally. And likewise psychologically : they start by making Bond sound worse than his earlier incarnations (with his cynically proclaimed preference for married women because "it keeps it simple") and they they try to give him an ark (with Vesper), that kinda brings him back to square one (ooh so that's how he became so cynical, uh, again), because it's also an origin story. About how he started his career by becoming too old for his job within 3 days. And taking place before but also after all his other missions. Or something. Bleh, who cared.

So it's all over the place, mixing incompatible elements together, contradictory narratives and visions, like a fan fiction co-written by people who don't get along at all, with all evolutions ending up Penelope tapestries. In the end, a send-away bottom slap would surprise me much more from Ethan Hunt or Jason Bourne than from the craigbond. But I wouldn't be surprised either by this Bond lecturing about how he'd never send a girl away by slapping her bottom, and even saying that between two send-away bottom slaps. Because his movies are so conflicted about their universe and what they wish to be, he has zero coherence.

Aaaaand I'm not a big fan of these reboots.

Now, maybe beware of essentializing the genre : it had different competing models running simultaneously, with different takes on vulnerability and situation mastery. I'm not giving examples because they may be addressed in your future entries, but just pointing out that they are not strict chronological sequences : different models run in parallel (between and within countries).
Well I can't imagine Craig's Bond doing that, partly because I don't remember him doing anything that casually/dismissively sexist (or even anything remotely close to it) so, while I respect your take on the newer Bonds, I still feel that they've generally done an effective job of updating the character for modern sensibilities, especially after the extreme cheese of Die Another Day, and I'm also just a fan of the newer movies in general (the good ones, at least), so we might just have to agree to disagree about 'em. Anyway, as for the warning against essentializing the genre, I think you're getting ahead of yourself; after all, the genre's embrace of masculinity is an unavoidable topic if you're talking about gender in Action movies, we're still early into this series, and I'm planning on tackling the more positive tropes (like female empowerment, rejection of masculinity, embrace of feminity, etc.,) towards the end, so we end this on a high note. So don't you worry, because this is going to get more balanced out in good time.
That's true, that's a good point. Where Eagles Dare came out two years after The Dirty Dozen and that had two female characters helping the two men fight the Nazis. Would that be a good example of females in an action movie, in comparison to something like The Dirty Dozen?
When compared to Dozen, yeah, that's a better early example of Hollywood trying for more gender equality in an Action movie (and without the sexism of the 60's Bonds either), so you might just see me mention that later in this series...





Movie Forums Squirrel Jumper
Oh okay. Well my favorite action movie with female leads is Set It Off (1996) if that counts. However, it seems it has never gotten better than that, and no female action movie has measured up to that one so far, in my opinion.

And for audiences out there who crave female action movies, none of them watch this one, or even mention it it seems.



Registered User
The action genre (and tales of heroes, in general) has historically helped males manage the terror of being male. Look at the long history of the world's many many wars. What proportion of them was fought by men? Which proportion of the population is more likely to rob, or rape, or kill? As offender or defender, men have a biological advantage (weight, strength, size, speed) which translates to "action." Also, men have testosterone, which has a causal relationship to violence. At any moment, as a male, you might be called to go fight in some king's war for no better reason that you are a subject, or you may be placed, by honor or physical or necessity, in combat when someone offers a grave insult or when something goes bump in the night. The male, imagining himself as strong man, an action hero, momentarily has a release from such fears in being able dominate, rather than be dominated. This makes sense as this terror-tory has historical been the province of men.

Women kicking ass has to do with shifting gender roles and gender perceptions. A women without a protector (and in the age of "don't need a man" this is valorized), face the same terrors that beset men. Having to settle things with violence, increasingly has become the province of women. And we have seen endless depictions of the 90 pound wonder-chick beating the ever-loving crap out of large hulking male baddies.

Of course, in the real world, these fantasies should still be recognized as fantasies. Equity in film does not create equity in reality. A 90 pound woman will be much better off with a conceal carry piece or run or travel in safe company than to engage in fisticuffs with a 215 pound man. Likewise, most men are better advised to use caution and cunning in the real world, because they are not bad ass (very few of us are competent with violence in the real world), and even "winning" a fight can send you to jail. Fantasies are great as a release, but kids tend to think that action films show realities (e.g., I should raise my hand and note the stupid conversations I had with my friends in the 80's about the reality of efficacy of Ninjitsu complete with Shiruken for personal defense, LOL). Thus, we should ask questions about the messages we're sending (e.g., these never-ending idiotic superhero films where proto-fascists solve their problems with their fists and mutant powers).

Increasingly, we're seeing the baton handed off in film. Lighting McQueen hands off dominance to Cruze Ramirez. Old man Logan hands the baton to X-13. The savior of the Terminator franchise shifts from John Connor is replaced by Dani Ramos. The coding in each of these cases is white male replaced by hispanic female. In the UK, the coding is a little different and it appears that Mr. Bond will be replaced by a black female. There is thus an erasure of whiteness, but particularly maleness in this fantasy space (e.g., He-man supplanted by Teela). There is, of course, enough of an audience left for stupid male action films to remain (and hey, you can always play the bad guy, fellas). The pattern is never perfect or complete, but we can see a definite shift in the coding of these films. Whether is good or bad is a different question.



Movie Forums Squirrel Jumper
The thing I don't like is women replacing James Bond or John Connor for example. I wish they would just make original female action franchises rather than hijack exist franchises. I love a good female action movie, but I still like James Bond too. It's like how sometimes I am in the mood for Japanese Food, sometimes I am in the mood for Mexican. But I don't want all the Mexican restaurants to be taken overy by Japanese cuisine. Can't we just have both, and go back and forth to whatever we are in the mood for? This is why I prefer the idea of original female action franchises.



Registered User
The thing I don't like is women replacing James Bond or John Connor for example. I wish they would just make original female action franchises rather than hijack exist franchises. I love a good female action movie, but I still like James Bond too. It's like how sometimes I am in the mood for Japanese Food, sometimes I am in the mood for Mexican. But I don't want all the Mexican restaurants to be taken overy by Japanese cuisine. Can't we just have both, and go back and forth to whatever we are in the mood for? This is why I prefer the idea of original female action franchises.

The problem here is that new franchises have to compete against old ones. It is difficult to create new icons (e.g., there's a lot of pilot TV shows, but not a lot of multi-year shows like Friends). If you're a studio and you own a property, you will want to play it safe and make another "X" film. And old franchises have the embarrassments of their past (e.g., recent Bond films are obviously uncomfortable with their Mad Men era "evergreen" hero). Old franchises have pressure to be responsive to criticisms that come with tropes that belong to your grandpa. Finally, today's writers have a message (time's they are a changin') and it is much more direct to reframe the old into the new. Otherwise, these safe spaces for antiquated thinking endure as something with which your message must compete. It's much easier to replace heroes in existing franchises, than to take the risk of doing something new. Even if you fail (financially), the icon itself is transfigured, and you succeed in doing the work (i.e., changing the coding). And any failure can be blamed of the defective morals of the audience (they're racist, misogynist, etc.).