Girls kick ass. That’s the message that’s been quite firmly reinforced in recent years by Hollywood, and on the surface, it would seem to be a good one. It’s the pseudo-feminist catch phrase of the 90s, pop empowerment that millions of girls of a generation latched onto and brandished with pride. Girl power. Girls Rule, Boys Drool.

But how much ass is a girl actually allowed to kick? That is, at what point does a powerful onscreen heroine (particularly within the action or science fiction genres) cease to be exciting or compelling and become actively threatening to the masculinity of the audience, who are likely (statistically speaking) to be male? What measures will be taken to reduce this perceived threat back to something more manageable?

When we are taught about the male gaze, it is someone like Elle Woods, protagonist of this semester’s selection, Legally Blonde, that we are encouraged to think of. For a character to fit within the bonds of the male gaze as it is popularly thought of, she will be merely an instrument of objectification. Laura Mulvey, whose 1975 article “Visual and Other Pleasures” first invented the concept of the gaze, would argue that “various features of cinema viewing conditions facilitate for the viewer both the voyeuristic process of objectification of female characters and also the narcissistic process of identification with an ‘ideal ego’ seen on the screen.”

And it is hard to imagine a single character who would more epitomize that ideal ego than someone like Elle Woods. Even as a character within a so-called chick flick, whose audience was primarily female, she still manages to reinforce the images of the ideal women that we are meant to picture. Perky, vacuous, tan and well-endowed, and above all else Blonde, she overcomes all obstacles in her path with seemingly no more weapons than a blindingly bright smile, all while maintaining her inner equilibrium and stunning fashion sense. Any girl watching from the audience is presumably meant to come away from the film inspired by the thought that maybe, perhaps, one day, she will be able to marry the twin virtues of style and perseverance the way that Woods does. And perhaps these goals are to be appreciated. But what other messages does Blonde send? That it’s okay to be smart, as long as you also stay true to yourself, no matter how frivolous that self might be? That serious court cases (such as a capital murder trial) can be won on the basis of no more than an impressive knowledge of hair care? That being serious and diligent is alright as long as you also know how to accessorize?

Even the images of the movie themselves, completely separate and apart from the text, serve to further a male agenda. Any mainstream heterosexual male viewer in the audience will probably be ill at ease amongst all these icons of feminine silliness and empowerment, so it is arranged that he will have plenty to look at, nothing that threatens his masculinity. All of the lingering, loving shots of Ms. Witherspoon’s impressive assets, all the outrageous and embarrassing costumes and footwear that she’s subjected to, are all tailored to the dual purposes of giving men something exciting to look at, and reinforcing the idea for women that this is what they must look like in order for men to find them exciting. It marginalizes even as it pretends to empower.

We live in a society that goes faster and faster every day. Everything must be reduced down to what can be consumed most quickly, with the least amount of fuss. The current movie-going audience (at least, the part of it which has the most disposable income and is most useful to advertisers and studios) has become accustomed to having their films tailored specifically to their attention span. A large number of films made in recent years conform to this structure, most notably the recent trend for movies made from video games and vice versa. A company that owns the rights to one of these properties makes their money twice: once when a theatre-goer forks over their money at the box office, and again when they do the same thing at their local Best Buy. This is what synergy is all about. “The way in which Hollywood blockbusters structure narrative action increasingly resembles that of video games,” Belton (p 398) tells us, and that certainly does seem to be the truth. Gone are the days where character development was taken slowly, with quiet or subtle (or surprising) revelations, and when a plot actually needed some sort of coherent flow. Now, all you need to know about a character is telegraphed within the first few moments of meeting them, and a story is made up of a series of disjointed locations and action sequences. Neil Gaiman, a popular science fiction/fantasy author, refers to this style of storytelling as “plot coupons”, where the protagonist is made through some contrivance to travel to multiple exotic locations to collect a number of somewhat arbitrary objects, and basically “collect a set and redeem them for the end of a story”.

This sort of narrative method works well for a video game, particularly one of the role-playing variety, but should it also dictate how a story is told in other media?

There’s a new breed of action heroine in the multiplex. She can be seen in any one of dozens of films released in the last 5 years. She is proficient with weapons, has sultry eyes, and is usually the love interest or rival to the hero of the piece. She displays an unusual propensity for dressing in leather. She is, thanks to the joys of trick photography, faster than lightning and can probably hold her own in a stirring fight, at least for a little while. She is no damsel in distress, we are meant to understand, does not need to be rescued, even if, in the final reel, she does. She is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena, Warrior Princess, Daredevil’s Elecktra, Catwoman, X-Men’s Storm, Resident Evil’s Alice. She is a box office draw, or at least parts of her anatomy are. She is woman, hear her roar.

It is this author’s opinion that this new action heroine, so effectively epitomized by Angelina Jolie in her Tomb Raider movies, conforms just as much to the expectations levied by the male gaze as does Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods, if not more so. Perhaps it is because the majority of the audience for Tomb Raider is expected to be male. It’s a fine line that film-makers have to walk, how to make their heroine powerful and effective (with the maximum of sex appeal) without alienating their target audience by having her be too powerful or too effective and therefore threatening. A pretty significant portion of their demographic is of a mindset that can be cowed and threatened by a dominating woman, so they must find some way to curtail both her sexuality and her non-sexual power. This is accomplished in the most basic way possible, by objectifying her. In both movies, Tomb Raider and Tomb Raider 2: The Cradle of Life a scene is shown that depicts Ms. Croft absolutely nude, which doesn’t even begin to cover the multitude of scenes in which she is dressed in relatively scanty clothing, clothing completely inappropriate to the situations in which she finds herself (rappelling down cliffs, raiding an ancient Cambodian temple, fending off sharks and other marauders in an underwater Grecian temple), clothes that none of the male explorers would possibly even consider subjecting themselves to. How, pray tell, are Daisy Duke short-shorts practical gear for an intrepid adventurer? Or an ultra-thin skin-tight wetsuit? Or even her impractically long, but oh-so cinematic river of hair, that we are shown more than once is easily grabbed by villains in fight scenes, to be used against her? Wouldn’t it make more sense for Ms. Croft to cut her hair, tape down her boobs (which are majestic in the way that the worlds largest ball of twine is - aesthetically a feat of engineering, yet ultimately functionless), and wear clothes that cover her skin when she’s going into a knife-fight?

But that wouldn’t be attractive to the legions of slobbering fanboys. And for female audience members, she presents a standard to live up to, even one as impossible as the feat of trying to emulate someone like Angelina Jolie. A girl, watching this new action heroine, gets the message “It’s okay to kick ass, honey, just so long as you take care to jiggle.” The actresses playing these women are the cream of Hollywood, some of the most impossibly beautiful women in the world, with armies of personal trainers and stunt choreographers and costuming and makeup departments backing them. A girl can emulate these movie icons, but she can never (at least not in normal life) really come close to attaining anything like their image (or, to be fair, their adventures- unless it is revealed tomorrow that mutants, superpowers, and ancient curses walk among us).

Works Cited

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual and Other Pleasures”, originally published 1975. Indiana University Press, 1989.

Gaiman, Neil., October 13, 2002.

Belton, John. American Cinema/American Culture. 2nd edition. McGraw-Hill, New York, 2005.

Pally, Marcia. “The Object of the Game.” Multicultural Film: A Reader, Florida State University, Fall 2004.

Cahill, Ann J. “Feminist Pleasure and Feminine Beautification.” Multicultural Film: A Reader, Florida State University, Fall 2004.

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