Most female action heroes in Hollywood aren't valued on their ability to throw unforgiving punches, but on their ability to throw punches in stiletto heels. While male characters get caught in reckless brawls, women tend to walk some sort of imaginary catwalk of badassery, gun in hand, shooting the bad guys with a fierce look and a sexy lip. Their hair impeccably coiffed, their makeup resistant to explosions, storms and car crashes, ladies are getting more involved in action movies but still seem too delicate and elegant to really break a bone.
When it comes to spies, it makes sense to entertain the idea that they'll always look better than the average Joe, even in the most gruesome of fights. Undercover agents can be exaggeratedly scruffy, but they tend to appear classy and polished, wearing the finest outfits from the most luxurious designers. Take a look at Mr. Bond, who's obviously not immune to injuries but still likes to carry on as if he barely got a scratch in his tailored suit, the sweat and dirt on his face adding to the powerful shine of a man in action.
But while it makes sense, then, to picture a top female spy in gorgeous trench coats and sharp heels, there's an overall tendency with female characters where movies forget to counterbalance the impractical fashion with proper fight scenes. As Michelle Rodriguez from Fast & Furious told the New York Times:
"Guys, when they write women and they want them to be badass, they still put them in lipstick and heels, and I'm over it."
Yet other women will argue that while they shouldn't be the means to an end, lipstick and heels do contribute to their character's powerful attitude. It's a debate that came up once more for Patty Jenkins's live-action Wonder Woman, in which Diana's battle armor includes boots with wedge heels. While some considered her outfit to be too skimpy, Jenkins felt that sexy attributes could indeed help her feel badass:
"I, as a little girl, took a huge amount of delight in the idea that for my power and my ability to stop that bully on that playground, I could also look like Lynda Carter while I was doing it."
In fact, the question of a female character's power shouldn't come down to how flat her shoes are — it should be about what else she's got to provide apart from her outfit. Getting rid of the lipstick isn't magically going to add depth to a character's story, just as much as adding lipstick to a fleshed-out character isn't going to take away from the credibility of her motivations. Get you a woman who can do both: flaunt the makeup and get her nails dirty.
Allowing a female character to be attractive without letting that be the core of her story arc is ultimately about letting her control when and how she wants to feel attractive. That entails also being the very opposite at times, shedding the doll-like sheen that a lot of female action heroes still seem to be wrapped in. Balancing both the attributes that tend to be associated with shallow female characters and the raw strength that usually only in comes in male form is a delicate act, but one actress is starting to truly excel at it.
Though she never really played the coy blonde, Charlize Theron pulled a Sigourney Weaver with Mad Max: Fury Road, raising the standard for female action heroes by another significant notch. Her head shaved, her arm missing, she still lent her character of Imperator Furiosa a regal quality that made her both as feminine as the group of linen-clad models she saves from their terrible fate, and as masculine as the most ripped members of the action-thirsty bunch.
The upcoming Atomic Blonde — by John Wick director David Leitch — continues down that road. Based on a graphic novel, it was produced by Theron's own production company Denver & Delilah Productions — and it shows. Finally, a female action hero who gets into fights so violent that she doesn't come out unscathed and at the same time doesn't have to give up the clothing she likes to seem credible during the whole ordeal. A character who can sustain bruises and wear heels.
As Theron told Variety, the bruises were especially important:
"A lot of times studios or producers are not comfortable with seeing a woman with bruises. We really wanted to pay attention to that authenticity."
Leitch obviously shared her vision, explaining to the New York Times that this Atomic Blonde had to be anything but precious:
"We wanted to ground the action and make it feel like it hurts, and sometimes people want to shy away from that when it's a female character. Part of the problem is that directors treat female characters too often as precious. They want to live in a fantasy world where they just do spinning hook kicks and knock out guys who are 6-4, and that doesn't work either."
None of this would be possible without Theron's incredible, exhausting performance, for which she trained four to five hours a day for two and half months leading up to the shoot, getting injured several times in the process. She did plenty of her own stunts for the movie as well and fell ill from standing around in the cold. But her co-star James McAvoy can confirm:
"Even when she was sick, she's wearing a little miniskirt and kicking ass."
With Alicia Vikander bringing back Lara Croft and the recent success of Wonder Woman, we can only hope we're finally on the right track for women to bring muscle to the big screen, on their own terms. She's not a female James Bond or a female John Wick, she's Lorraine Broughton, a female spy who doesn't need a man to look up to and definitely won't shy away from kicking the ass of a few — and look good while doing it. After all, that's the concept at the heart of feminism: the idea of deciding for yourself if you're going to put on stilettos or combat boots, combined with the knowledge that neither decision will affect your power.
Atomic Blonde is set for release July 28, 2017.