Badass girls on film

By Gina Arnold


Salon Staff
January 27, 2001 7:05AM (UTC)

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Gina Arnold concludes her article by saying, "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?"

I do wonder how long it will be. I wonder how long it will be before American women whose taxes fund the military are allowed to serve in it on equal footing with their male counterparts. I wonder how long it will be before a woman isn't excluded from a conversation because it's too rough for her delicate ears. I wonder how long it will be before this country gets over the notion that women should be protected more than men.

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Before we (women) can be accepted as equals, we have to be willing to be treated as equals. Issues of domestic violence shouldn't be ones of gender, and our reasons for abhorring it should not be that it's wrong to hit little girls. Domestic violence is wrong because it is violence against another human being, period. Gender should not be part of the issue.

Protecting one gender over another doesn't make that gender equal, and I am continuously amazed by the number of feminists who think it will.

Don't stop these kick-ass women from hitting because you're afraid they'll get hit back. Show them getting hit. Show them kicking the ass of the person that hit them. Most rapists interviewed confirm that they pick their targets because they were easy targets who didn't fight back. Teach women to fight back. Teach them that they can be feminine while defending themselves. Teach it in movies, in television and in schools. Teach women not to be victims, and women will no longer be victimized.

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-- J.C. Smyth

Gina Arnold hasn't got a clue. She describes movie depictions of female-on-male violence which "lacks the viciousness" and is "stripped of danger and cruelty." That's just because, as a woman, Arnold is identifying with the female aggressor in the movie. I wonder if she'd feel the same if she identified with the (male) victim. Would the violence still give her a "healthy feeling of catharsis"?

The way to read these movies is far simpler than Arnold lets on. They say that female-on-male violence is OK. In so doing, they send a dangerous message to women and promote an increased sense in males that violence against women is OK because women can defend themselves.

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For a long time, movies have portrayed female violence against males as normal and justified. From face slaps to crotch kicks, men "can take it." Fortunately, actual women seem to know better than their fictional counterparts the limits of safe behavior.

-- Robert Franklin

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OK, let me get this straight: After centuries of men raping and beating up women, they're going to start doing it MORE because of a few movies and TV shows depicting women as tough? And Gina Arnold finds it sinister that there is an element of sexuality in some of these physical encounters? Guess what: It happens in real life in every abusive relationship, almost always with the woman on the receiving end, and it's not going to get worse just because of a few empowered female characters in the entertainment media. Arnold is following in the footsteps of others before her who have argued that watching TV causes people to do stupid things, when in reality it's poor parenting and underfunded school systems that allow kids to grow up thinking that girls are going to start picking fights with them for no reason.

Arnold talks almost wistfully about the days when the Useless Screaming Female was the only role available to women in the action genre. Perhaps she wasn't aware of the violence that was being committed toward women even way back in the days of "CHiPS" and "Simon & Simon." If Arnold is so concerned about violence against women, she should go volunteer in a crisis center instead of whining about what some punks said in an interview seven years ago.

-- Amita Guha

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One thing that should be kept in mind here is the cartoonish nature of TV and movie violence. Xena jumps 15 feet in the air. Charlie's Angels spin-kick off the ground in slow motion. This isn't real violence. Anyone who thinks it is will lose a lot of fights.

As for the tough girls, there may be a lot of women beating on men on the screen, but you can probably count on one hand the number of men who would lose in hand-to-hand combat with these mostly size-zero models.

-- Brandon Heathcotte

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Gina Arnold presents an interesting picture of the growing trend of bad-guy-beating sweeties. However, I want to comment on her use of the word "lesbianism" to describe the fondness these badass babes have for the women in their lives or beds, as it may be.

The single most intriguing thing about the Gabrielle/Xena relationship has always been, for many, "Are they or aren't they?" I've heard it said, "Well, they can't be, because (pick a girl, either will do) had that relationship with a guy that they talk about in episode X."

Excuse me while I pound my head on the table.

Just because Gaby is getting Xena off after they've put their little girl to bed, or Willow and Buffy are messing around when the guys aren't around, doesn't mean that they are lesbians or that there is a taint of lesbianism to their badass-dom. No fewer bad guys suffer broken noses; no fewer demons/gods/vampires die.

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And for cryin' out loud (but not too loud, because throwing a snit would be too girlie and undermine my appearance as a strong chick in my personal and professional life), just because I can appreciate the merits of a guy in my life, beyond the standard uses as jar opener and top-shelf reacher, doesn't mean that I don't have a certain amount of appreciation for the women in my life or my bed, as it may be.

-- Jenna Lynn Scott

Ignoring the glaring inconsistencies in this article -- perhaps "Barb Wire" bombed at the box office because nobody could take either the film or Anderson seriously (see also "Tank Girl"), and Linda Hamilton really did kick ass in "Terminator 2," and the author completely ignored Weaver in the 1986 Cameron film "Aliens" -- let us pause for a moment and ask why guys like watching women beat up guys in film.

I would suggest that guys like to see women who can kick ass on film because they're less likely to do something dumb that jeopardizes them and any/all other protagonists in the film. This doesn't mean that somebody won't do something dumb (sending the Cleaner in "La Femme Nikita"), it just means that some guy like Mel Gibson won't be responsible for sorting the whole mess out. Mel Gibson probably sleeps better at night. Anyway, the point is that if a non-reality-based film is given a somewhat believable heroine lead, there's a good chance that the script is more thought out and less formulaic than the average action fare. (And even if it isn't, most guys would rather look at Liu and Jolie for a couple of hours than Clooney and DiCaprio.)

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The author did't mention that there is a difference between the hero/ine doing violence and the villian doing violence. Consider that if a woman is a protagonist, then anybody who does violence to her is a villain (who is not likely to survive the movie).

Is it safe to say that in a well-adjusted society, people don't want to be villains? I am familiar with the Spur Posse the author mentioned and I'm very confident in stating that they fall outside of well-adjusted society. Further, they cannot be used as a film-backlash example, as they made the news before the current tide of films -- save Cameron's -- featured aggressive women. (I believe I heard of them in late 1994, maybe 1995.) Maybe, just maybe, their excuse of trying to subdue women before women built up "courage" was nothing more than a lame rationalization for unjustifiable behavior, which, not entirely coincidentally, points to the fact that women need stronger role models so they won't be taken advantage of by abusive sociopaths like the Spur Posse.

Or maybe parents should be more concerned with how they raise their little boys to be civilized in the modern world of quicksand role models instead of constantly stressing over how they'll raise their girls while repeating "boys will be boys." But I don't want to suggest anything too outlandish here.

-- Name withheld

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Ms. Arnold should read Camille Paglia.

-- Genevieve Parente

This article suggests that there has been some kind of change in the movie audience that now "accepts" butt-kicking women. No. Audiences have always loved the good guys beating the bad guys, and they don't much care about the gender of either.

If there's any blame to be laid, it's all Hollywood's fault. For decades, audiences have been cheering when a heroine knees a villain in the groin or when scream queens like the young Jamie Lee Curtis manage to take down "unstoppable" horror-movie killers. They cheered Sigourney Weaver killing aliens; they cheered Honor Blackman throwing Sean Connery into the hay; they cheered Carrie Fisher strangling Jabba the Hut.

But Hollywood didn't get the message -- or perhaps the major studios were too committed to action movies with male stars. A male star would never let himself be eclipsed by a woman; so the rise of women in action movies unsurprisingly coincides with the rise of women in the Hollywood power structure.

It has nothing to do with the audiences -- moviegoers, both male and female, are perfectly adept at identifying with the good guys, no matter what gender those "guys" happen to be. A movie like "Charlie's Angels" would have been an equally big hit in the '60s, '70s, '80s, whenever. Good-looking women and big explosions -- what's not to like?

-- James Alan Gardner

This article was quite interesting and brought together many different subjects. However, I would like to call the author on her cursory treatment of the genre of martial art films and Asia in general.

First, the country of China has vastly improved the role of women in the 20th century; concubinage, foot binding and several other traditional exploitative practices have practically been extinguished. Second, Asian martial arts movies are different from American action movies in that graceful, artful fighting and ego-negating themes are central. In this genre, gender plays a much smaller role than in the American action movies, whose whole point is to be masculine-ego affirming.

Most of the phenomena that the article discusses reveal the greater impact not of a new idea of women but of a different idea of action cinema, which has entered American cinema and formed movies with hybrid themes and imagery. As an Asian-American woman I like the trend; I am sick to death of the geisha stereotype and would love to have some more interesting stereotypes enter the American playing field. It looks like Hollywood will not let any Asians or Asian-Americans star in its mainstream movies, but screw them. The kung-fu ghetto is better anyway!

-- Hannah Hawkins

Has Ms Arnold ever:

  • Watched any period Hong Kong martial arts movies?

  • Watched "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"?

  • Watched "Xena, Warrior Princess"?

  • Watched "Miss Congeniality"?

  • Watched "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"?

    Because bloodless violence in movies of the genre she attributes to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (though it straddles genres, in fact) is typical. It does not have a link to gender.

    There is no lesbian subtext in "Buffy." There is a lesbian relationship, and Buffy's not in it.

    There is no lesbian subtext in "Xena." It's gone way beyond subtext.

    Bullock's character in "Miss Congeniality" never uses combat for seduction. She fights three times -- twice to assuage her offense, and once to demonstrate female potential.

    Sometimes a sword is just a sword. To focus on "Crouching Tiger" as a parable of emasculation is to ignore the main plot, which is about achieving internal peace and honesty. It is also to ignore the heartbreaking love story of honor-bound warriors. And it is to equate fighting with masculinity.

    -- Name withheld

    OK, the writer is obviously on crack.

    She writes: "Prior to 1980, women may have been chased and victimized, but they were seldom skinned alive." Obviously, the writer has forgotten the ever so lovely slasher flicks of the '70s, such as "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "Halloween" or "I Spit on Your Grave."

    This article was a disjointed rant and barely readable. Apparently, seeing a woman skinned alive is equal to watching Drew Barrymore and her stylish fight scenes.

    Watching "Xena: Warrior Princess" is not going to cause little boys to start hitting little girls. Wouldn't it be more likely for a child to learn this at home, watching his father hit his mother?

    -- Monica Gaudio

    Just wanted to make a few comments regarding Gina Arnold's article.

    1. There is no lesbian subtext on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Willow is a lesbian (or at least bisexual), yes, but she is not a badass. Buffy is the badass, and she's had male love interests from the show's first season to its most recent, with nary a potential female love interest on the horizon.

    2. With regard to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," Shu Lien did not get the sword back from Jen. The two women were both good fighters and equally matched. However, Li Mu Bai was a better fighter than both of them, and he was the only one who was able to retrieve the sword both times after it was stolen.

    -- Eme O. Akpabio

    I think Gina Arnold has some Issues, with a capital I, with maleness, femininity and what it means to be a feminist, as evidenced by her narrow, negative vision of the world in film. She nails her list of the heretofore quite limited parameters of female action film roles (women could play the victim, or maybe the gal with spunk who knocks out a villain using a handy nearby vase), but fails to experience any of the glee of watching those restrictions finally opening up. Arnold cheerfully restructures plotlines to support her theories, such as stating that Sandra Bullock's character in "Miss Congeniality" tries to woo a classmate at age 9 by beating him up, as she later does with Benjamin Bratt's character. No! That's not what happened at all. At age 9 she beats up her crush's tormentor, not her crush -- not till her crush rejects her, that is, at which point she angrily socks him in the face. That's a different scenario entirely.

    I agree with the point that the plot of "Miss Congeniality" hinges on Bullock being a woman and Bratt being a man, and Bullock beating up Bratt as a supposedly comedic demonstration of the very "unfemininity" that eventually wins over the "womanizing" Bratt. But to liken that movie to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is as ludicrous as it would be to liken "American Pie" to "Rushmore" on the basis that both center on boys in high school. Arnold fails to mention that in almost all of the films and TV shows she cites to support her point (including "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Charlie's Angels" and others), the female leads don't just kick the shit out of men; they do so to anyone who's asking for it, be they man, woman, demon, vampire or what have you.

    It seems that Arnold has mixed up her points. Perhaps what she meant to write about is the question of why most villains are male, not why an increasing number of heroes are female. She should think about that question for a while and let someone else write an article about the lush gorgeousness of Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi flying across rooftops together in mutual pursuit.

    -- Catherine Avril Morris


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