By Ryan Wilson

What is it about women kicking butt? Recently those interested in such activity could choose between mixed-martial arts fighter Gina Carano in Stephen Soderbergh’s Haywire and Kate Beckensale donning the leather pants for the latest Underworld vampire adventure. I’ll get to some thoughts on both of these new films, but first I’d like to explore how we’ve come to this point and whether or not it’s good for any gender.

I suppose to first associate women with action one must look at those early James Bond movies, since those films essentially invented the modern action film as we know it. Aside from Diana Rigg’s performance in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, most of the Bond Girls were interchangeably passive, needing a rescue or more often simply arm- candy for Sean Connery or Roger Moore as they ran down an exploding aqueduct. But then in the 1970s along came Pam Grier as a militant alternative, part of both the Blaxpoitation and the Women’s movements. Grier’s legacy in films like Foxy Brown literally blew the doors wide open for women of the 1980s to step through heavily armed. And though the 1980s is better known for its male heroes like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis, anyone with half a brain would take Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley character in the Alien franchise in a real fight. Weaver’s toughness was never displayed through the physical so much as through her sheer perseverance. She simply endured longer than any of the men around her by using her intuition.

But then in the 1990s female intuition wasn’t quite enough. We made women equally combative by showing that they too had a few roundhouse kicks in their arsenal, which is a dangerous bridge because suddenly the female action star also turned overtly sexual. Now we were in the territory of fetish, where we bust out those leather pants to make female action sequences synonymous with the act of sex. And the examples here are all too numerous, from TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Alias to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill to the rise of Angelina Jolie as Tomb Raider to her more recent role as Salt. We really haven’t moved much beyond this. In fact we’ve occasionally moved backwards, most notably in those Drew Barrymore Charlie’s Angels movies, where the heroes aren’t just kung-foo fighting but giggling like schoolgirls to ensure us how feminine they still are. How many contradictory messages does that send?

It would be impossible to lump every female action role into the same sexist or feminist package. Generally speaking someone like Joss Whedon pushes these female character forward while the Wachowski brothers and their Matrix trilogy keep their women as rigid as a dominatrix (literally). But the larger complaint, I think, is that the details don’t even matter anymore. The whole female action figure has become so common that it’s become boring, even cliché.

Which finally leads me to these new releases. First to Underworld, which keeps resurrecting Kate Beckinsale as the vampire Selene, as if she’s going to do something besides dodge bullets in that skin-tight leather suit and pretend she’d rather be playing Catwoman. It’s important to say that it’s not her fault. Fans of the franchise clearly want to keep watching her essentially do the same thing in every movie, sort of like how the children of the 1990s somehow wanted to keep watching Power Rangers. In essence this has less to do with feminism or sexism than is has to do with capitalism, which yes I realize reflects feminism and sexism.

But I’ll forgive Underworld as a franchise more that I’ll forgive a multitalented filmmaker like Steven Soderbergh for his new film Haywire. Mainly because Haywire only cares about showing off the fighting talents of Gina Carano, who plays a special agent double-crossed by her employer, played by a dull Ewan McGregor. Carano’s talents admittedly are considerable, but that’s actually part of the problem. It’s as if Soderbergh wants to shout at us, “See, she’s actually doing her own fighting.” But away from a few magnificent fights, most notably a brawl in a hotel room with Michael Fassbender, her character is underdeveloped, as is the plot that surrounds her. And this leads to a very large irony: in the fifty-plus years of evolving women as action stars, we still care very little for who they actually are. Yes, they can kick as much butt as men, more these days actually, but aside from that they’re still as empty as those original Bond Girls. This might be something worth fighting over.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College, Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2012