"Never hit a girl" is a familiar adage of Western civilization, a mother's mantra that has been traditionally enforced at least on celluloid, if not in the privacy of people's homes. Girls hitting boys, however, has never been taboo at the movies, and in the past year, several popular films have exploited its potential as a guaranteed crowd pleaser.
One of the strangest examples of the trend comes in one of the worst movies. In "Miss Congeniality," Sandra Bullock plays a geeky FBI agent working undercover as a beauty pageant contestant whose "talent" consists of inviting a male colleague (played by Benjamin Bratt) onstage with her and then, to the great amusement of the pageant officials, beating him senseless.
That Bullock, her beribboned black hair twisted into Danish buns over each ear, is dressed in a micro-miniskirt version of a dirndl complete with huge frilly petticoats and knee-high stockings only adds to the fun. And each time she nails Bratt -- in the solar plexus, intestines, nose and groin -- the audience, both in the movie and in the movie theater, is on its feet cheering.
It is the exact same reaction that comes at the point in "Charlie's Angels" when the Angels pound on an evil henchman to the tune of the Prodigy song "Smack My Bitch Up." Likewise during "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," when the flowerlike Jen (Zhang Ziyi) wrecks the putative bridgework of an entire barful of Chinese thugs.
These are familiar scenes in recent movies, as well as in TV shows like "WWF Smackdown!" "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Xena: Warrior Princess." Modern video games, like stereotype maker and breaker "Tomb Raider," featuring sexy ballbuster Lara Croft (who will be portrayed by Angelina Jolie in "Tomb Raider," the movie), are full of them. This brand of gender-bent havoc is new to a zeitgeist that has been consumed for most of the last century with an entirely different paradigm of feminine mystique.
At least it is new to unsuspecting Americans. In Asia, female cartoon heroines like Lara and martial arts movies featuring nonanimated women action heroes are quite common. "Crouching Tiger" star Michelle Yeoh is, of course, the premier figure in these, but there are many other female Jean-Claude Van Damme types working in Asia, including American karate champion Cynthia Rothrock, who has been a wildly popular action hero in Hong Kong since 1992.
But the woman as action hero is practically a brand-new concept on this side of the Pacific -- at least, woman as popular action hero. Until now, the majority of films that cast women in starring action roles have died a sad death at the box office. (We draw a veil over Pamela Anderson's 1996 bomb, "Barb Wire," in which the big-bosomed one played a "Crouching Tiger"-like freedom fighter. Or perhaps we should lift the veil just long enough to point out that this film's extreme unpopularity -- and the absurdity of Ms. Anderson in the role -- proves how radical a change in cultural perception has occurred since then.)
Barring the occasional Linda Hamilton à la "Terminator" gal to come down the pike, the world of film has usually consigned women in fight scenes to clonking bad guys on the head with vases -- and even that has been considered rather feisty behavior compared with the more common image of victim, rescuee or occasional scary man-dyke whose ability to clock the hero is a sure sign of her moral degradation.
Oddly, television has long been a haven for women action heroines. Emma Peel, Agent 99 and Lindsay Wagner as the Bionic Woman are early forerunners of the genus, followed by Xena, Buffy, Dana Scully and now Max, the stunningly beautiful, genetically altered, kickboxing action heroine of Fox's new series "Dark Angel" (although the latent lesbianism included in some of these ladies -- Xena/Gabriel, Buffy/Willow -- somehow makes their feats seem less threatening).
Movies, meanwhile, have generally reduced women crime fighters to gun-toting cult jokes: Tamara Dobson in the 1973 trash classic "Cleopatra Jones" and Pam Grier as the title character in 1974's "Foxy Brown." A best-case scenario for a female role with guts is that of the smart but duplicitous double-crosser, like Catherine Zeta-Jones in "Entrapment" or a rudely named James Bond heroine/enemy, famously portrayed by Grace Jones (as May Day) and Yeoh (as Colonel Wai-Lin), among others.
Unfortunately, even those women are exceptions to the general filmic portrayal of Woman as Invader of the Soul, a character arc that has long been a staple of American action movies. Sure, she is often disguised as the protagonist, but in fact, her role is that of enemy, temptress, bitch/goddess, what-have-you. That is (apparently) why she must be chased and terrorized and, eventually (if she's good and submissive, and not bad and bitchy), saved by someone like Mel Gibson.
With few exceptions, that's been the drill for action movies in the past decade. Indeed, for most of the Reagan-Bush era, one could hardly set foot in a movie theater without seeing a woman terrorized, menaced, raped and sometimes even killed for viewing pleasure. The correlation between the administration and the sensibility may not be clear, but there has certainly been an escalation of violence toward women in the movies. Prior to 1980, women may have been chased and victimized, but they were seldom skinned alive.
One very plausible theory suggests that this type of movie was the direct result of a late-20th century phenomenon known as the angry white male, which was, we are told, a byproduct of feminism, sexual liberation, the downsizing of the economy and the shutting down of factories and farms across the nation, not to mention the general sense of frustration caused by gender-empowering concepts like the ERA, EOE and RU-486, as well as stricter penalities for sexual harassment, domestic violence and deadbeat dadism. Who wouldn't be pissed off?
The film world's answer to the AWM's perceived powerlessness was the fem-jep catharsis -- fem-jep being short for "femmes in jeopardy." It was coined in 1974 to describe a certain type of bondage pornography and then adopted by Hollywood as shorthand for a movie featuring a terrorized woman.
Another creative outlet of the AWM has been the vengeful, misogynistic and wildly popular music of bands like Guns N' Roses, Eminem, Limp Bizkit and three-quarters of the rap acts that have topped the charts over the past 10 years. The AWM theory also does much to explain the emotional meltdown at Woodstock 99, where there were eight reported rapes, two deaths and 123 people hospitalized -- not to mention numerous eyewitness accounts of groping, touching, sodomy, molestation and rape by instrument in the mosh pit and the portable toilets.
What does this have to do with cinematic women warriors of 2001? A lot, I think, because the badass women who have arisen, slowly, throughout the '90s are one road on a map of the confusing psychological landscape of these times. They are a reaction to oppression -- or at least a transmogrification of the angry white male into the docile white wuss. Either way, the fact that these women have emerged from anime-ridden imaginations of savvy film directors is not nearly as startling as the fact that they are being received in a positive fashion.
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is on track to become one of the higgest-grossing foreign language films ever shown in America -- commanding hourlong waits in line at the theater -- which is amazing when you consider that it is essentially a movie about the voluntary emasculation of a male action hero. (You know: Chow Yun Fat gives his powerful "sword" -- nudge, nudge -- to a lady whom he is incapable of sleeping with; she fights over it with another lady and gives it back to him, and he drops dead.)
Judging by the ecstatic reception of "Tiger" in the malls of Middle America, one can assume that audiences are thrilled to see women assuming physical superiority over men. And it doesn't take a genius to make the following leap of logic: Perhaps the sight of women beating people up is pleasurable to men because it reinforces their secret belief that women are the ones in control of our society.
And heck, maybe women are. At least enough progress has been made in the battle of the sexes that women can now be seen as aggressors without being jokes or asexual -- and that is a good thing. But there's a not-so-thin line between crouching and hiding and kicking some male ass. It's worth bearing in mind that the fount of all female action heroines is China, and China is not known for its equal treatment of the sexes. Perhaps "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is a triumph of guilt-driven fantasy. To envision women as warriors at that time is the imaginative equivalent of, well, envisioning women as warriors now.
Today's America may not be as oppressive as the Ming dynasty, but for all the Lara Croft-inspired imagery one sees in movies today, the examples of such prowess in real life are disappointingly few, and that could become a problem if the boys begin to perceive girls as fair targets.
There is some evidence this has already happened. Dreadful news stories about boys ganging up on junior high school girls have begun to emerge, while in Susan Faludi's recent book "Stiffed" -- a now-familiar treatise on the powerlessness of the modern American male -- a teenage member of a gang called the "Spur Posse" explains why he and his buddies prey so cruelly on their female classmates. "Girls," he says, "have all the power. If you hear a girl scream, are you going to come running? Yep. But if you hear a guy scream, who comes running? Nobody."
Girls, he adds, "are going to start getting up their courage in a couple years and going head to head with the guys. Fighting them and shit. And girls are going to have to get knocked out. That's how it's going to be, dude."
The interview took place in 1994, and in a twisted way, at least half of this prediction has come true -- at least in the movies. No longer are women being portrayed solely as victims in action flicks; more and more, they are becoming the avenging angels, law enforcement agents, evil villains and lethal weapons. They used to be the moral force behind many a complex plot twist; now they are a physical force as well. They are the iron fist, coming down hard on the working man, whether he deserves it or not.
Is this a good thing? Well, yeah, in a way, if only because there are few things more enjoyable than watching the impossibly fragile Ziyi battle Chang Chen in a bloodless duel on horseback in the sands of the Gobi Desert in "Crouching Tiger." Even Bullock and Bratt's faceoff on the training mat of their police academy has its lowly appeal to the baser senses.
In fact, what these scenes and others like them have is an entirely new sensibility toward violence. In them, violence isn't violence as we know it. This violence lacks testosterone, but it also lacks the viciousness that we tend to associate with fighting, leaving in its place an almost healthy feeling of catharsis. There's even a sense of beauty to some of the sequences. Stripped of danger and cruelty and the ugly and mean competitiveness that taints the violent actions of the male world, these fight scenes can be watched with total equanimity. They feel liberated from the bonds of gender and the tyranny of fear.
That is one way of reading the situation. Another way, however, is more sinister, because most of these scenes are sexually charged. Bullock beats up Bratt in order to seduce him (a wooing tactic she also is shown using -- albeit unsuccessfully -- on the playground at the age of 9). The Angels use karate like cheap perfume. And for Ziyi and Chang, there is little difference between fighting and making love.
In all these movies, love and violence seem more closely allied than ever, and that development, though shamefully appealing to our primitive side, is dangerous. For if women can beat down men in the movies, how long will it be until the reverse becomes perfectly acceptable -- first in the movies, and then in real life?