The first action movies I ever saw as a little girl were old James Bond movies. I would enjoy them, imagining what it would be like to have that kind of sang-froid, tools and skills, until the sexy lady showed up to be seduced.
Then, all of the sudden, I would feel this sense of displacement. I couldn’t imagine myself in her role, but her presence made it clear that I wasn’t supposed to identify with the hero, either. It would ruin everything (see also: Kingsman.)
Seeing Sigourney Weaver in Aliens thrilled me. Finally, I didn’t have to make the mental stretch of identifying with a character of a different gender in order to fantasize about being competent and heroic and tough. I adore female characters who literally kick ass, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sydney Bristow in Alias, Katniss Everdeen, Lagertha in Vikings, and Black Widow (WHERE IS MY BLACK WIDOW MOVIE?)
Some people have criticized the ass-kicking heroine, claiming that these characters never seem to be well-rounded. Sophia McDougall wrote about it in her piece “I Hate Strong Female Characters,” and more recently Juliana Gray’s piece in McSweeney’s satirized this type of character (“As the Token Female Member of This Action Adventure Team, My Job Is to Kick.”)
Really, I agree with a lot of what they’re saying. Most of us prefer multi-dimensional characters to flat ones. But the criticism still bothers me, because I don’t think we hold male action heroes up to the same kind of scrutiny.
If Jason Bourne were female, would we complain that her lack of memory meant she had no real depth of character and no real agency? McDougall criticizes Agent Carter for shooting at Captain America, but Thor hurls Mjolnir at Captain America, which is just as dangerous, and she doesn’t mention that.
Thor himself would face a lot of scrutiny if he were a lady. He’s a warrior with much more of a sense of honor than of irony, he’s basically good and strong all the time (except for his bad manners with Steve), and he does provide a lot of shirtless eye candy.
Columnists tripped all over themselves to tell me all the reasons why Katniss Everdeen wasn’t good enough. I’m not linking to any of them because they are wrong.
“She has to be the strong character who takes shit from no one,” Sarah Dunn writes in her piece in Mic about strong female characters. But haven’t we had dozens of male action heroes like that? Why can’t I fantasize about taking shit from no one, too?
I suspect some of the criticism of ass-kicking heroines comes from a simple, deep-seated discomfort at seeing women fight. Now plenty of people just don’t like depictions of violence of any kind, and I respect that. But I like fighting in my stories, and I want to feel included in the action.
Both McDougall and Gray point out that we need more women characters, period, and I couldn’t agree more. I don’t think the woman warrior should be the only woman of consequence in any movie or TV show, even if she’s Mako Mori. On Vikings, for instance, Lagertha is a badass shieldmaiden (and also a mom, a leader, a farmer, and sometimes a lover), but Siggy is a quiet, scheming survivor.
Women can be strong and tough in a lot of different ways, and admirable or fascinating in even more ways. But I still don’t see female characters kick ass often enough, so pardon me if I don’t feel like criticizing and analyzing it six ways till Sunday every time I do.