ByAbi Toll, writer at
Abi Toll

Following the recent release of the intelligent action feature Gravity starring Sandra Bullock, I thought it would be apt to mark the success of the film by tracing the steps of the growing female-led action film genre.

The 'action film' is the gender-reversed mirror image of the 'chick flick': a film made by men, starring men, for men.

Whilst the plight of women in action is a relatively recent phenomenon, it seems like the tide is finally turning, at least in terms of how frequently they are being made - and who is toplining. It's no longer about celebrating the rarity of female action stars, but accepting them as a given rather than a novelty.

Here, Edition.CNN describe the gender dimension of the lead character Dr. Ryan Stone, played by :

If ever there was a costume that erased gender, it's got to be an astronaut's suit. Big, bulky, with a uniform shape and reflective mask, it's pretty hard to tell whether the person inside is male, female, or Ham the chimpanzee.

Bullock's portrayal of an astronaut adrift in space focuses not on the objectification of the female body but embarks on a deeper, more erudite exploration of the internal human mindscape.

This is not a female action film- it's a human action film.

The simple eloquence in which Bullock explains the gender significance of this film highlights the tendency for Hollywood to sublimate gender into categories:

There is a female and male in it. The point of view is everyone's point of view, it just so happens that I have a female body and I fortunately got to do the part.

We were very conscious to not make it about the sex- we made it about the situation and the adversities, rather than 'this is a woman in adversity' or a 'man in adversity.' Anyone can put themselves in my character's situation and feel exactly the same.

Sandra Bullock in Gravity

Those familiar with Bullock's past roles will know that Gravity is light years away from the 'FBI agent-turned-bombshell in 2000 chick flick Miss Congeniality, or the executive trying to marry her assistant in 2009 rom-com The Proposal'.

In fact, CNN explain that:

Her 2010 hit The Blind Side...earned her and Academy Award for best actress, also becoming the first film with a sole female lead to take over $200 million at the U.S. box office.

It's incredibly exciting to think that, like Bullock, actresses traditionally thought of as shackled to a career of stereotypical and gender-specific roles could wind up pioneering a whole new epoch of smart, female-led action films in cinema.

Meryl Streep

, for example, is another acting institution you wouldn't ordinarily consider a rival to action hero alpha male . However, producer has recently gone on record as stating that Streep, , and are all in talks to lead the cast of Expendabelles and be the equal counterparts to stalwart action stars Stallone, , and .

If this line up is indeed realized, then the age of the female action hero would enter a whole new realm, and in doing so, establish action films as being equally for women, redefining the genre as one which is more intelligent and complex for men and women alike. If the success of Gravity is anything to go by, then wouldn't this new direction surely lead to greater box office success?

From one female astronaut to another, a representation of early cerebral action is the 1968 camp comedy action Barbarella. A response to the entrenched sexism of the 1950's and '60's, it was a commentary on the burgeoning sexual emancipation of women in this era.

The state that:

For the past five decades, the action genre has undergone a similar but less remarked-upon shift, as female characters have slowly but steadily evolved beyond the universal 'hostages, victim, or conquest' archetype and became the heroines of their own action sagas.


While Jane Fonda's portrayal of Barbarella wasn't physically tough per se, 'the sexually progressive and confident space adventurer' (Bitch Media) exceptionally tackled oppressive gender structures with intelligent humor. Aspects of it are reminiscent of Huxley's seminal novel 'A Brave New World', with the panoptic forces wishing to detach its people from the distractions of sexual pleasure, it illuminates the motif of female sexuality and reproduction in female-fronted action.

In this vein, an iconic action heroine who deserves a key mention is 's Ellen Ripley in the Alien franchise, whom describe as having:

Paved the way for nuanced-but-tough heroines—so well-written and acted that the character wasn't just a benchmark for female-led action films, she was a benchmark for the action genre, period. Ripley's immortal cry to the Alien Queen in Aliens— "Get away from her, you bitch!"— is so powerful because it's the cry of a mother protecting surrogate daughter Newt from the threats of a dangerous world.

As with Gravity, Barbarella and Alien, sexuality and maternity are common threads linking many in this genre, making use of the unique female reproductive system which contains a world of plot potential. Kill Bill: Volume 3 is another playing on this theme, where 's quest to avenge her massacred family and reclaim the years of motherhood which were wickedly stolen from her while she lay comatose. 'The Bride' in Kill Bill: Volume 1 not only suffers this horror, but when waking up from her inert state, she discovers that the hospital staff have been soliciting men in order to have sex with the unconscious women. So from one trauma to another, as you can imagine, the pissed off Bride's plight for the rest of the film involves slaying all of those who dare to cross her.

Lucy Liu and Uma Thurman in Kill Bill

The 'subjugation and victimization of womankind' (, as illustrated in Kill Bill, is in itself emblematic of the patriarchal nature of Hollywood and the wider culture of the entertainment industry.

Like Thurman's character, the female protaganist Lisbeth Salander in the American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a darker, more complex heroine. Based on the novel by the Swedish author Stieg Larsson (and later film adaptation), originally titled Män som hatar kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women), Salander falls victim to a social care system that fails her in the most grave way. A supremely intelligent woman, evidenced by her talents as a computer hacker, she is tortured by a fractured childhood and those who are supposed to protect her. It is after suffering the most heinous sadistic assault by her legal guardian that Salander embarks on a rape revenge rampage.

Rooney Mara in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The brooding film is impressive in its characterization of subversive Salander, who exists on the peripheries of conventional society. In light of this, the marketing for the remake seemed incredibly at odds with the premise. One of the posters released at the time depicted a highly sexualized image of and that hugely conflicted with the powerful female origins of the novel. It's as if the marketing team didn't trust the true merit of the film premise to sell itself. Instead, due to its 'obvious impediment' of having a female lead, there seemed to be no other choice than to have the actress protected by the 'stronger' male supporting actor- and of course he just happened to be holding her across the chest while still revealing a bit of nipple. How convenient.

Advertising campaign poster for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

As with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the film Hanna shares entirely original properties with 'strong, well-written female leads to match' (, yet still retains the ability to stand on its own without glib sexualization.

Straddling the UK and Germany, the premise is centered on Hanna () who from the age of two is trained to be a skilled assassin. Inspired by Grimms' fairy tales, the young Hanna is multilingual and well-educated. Due to her 'training away from civilization, she has never come into contact with modern technology' ( or culture, and is unaccustomed to music.

With innovative and genuinely thrilling plots which smash the boundaries of formulaic action structures such as ripped abs, shooting rampages and fast cars:

These movies have a contemporary, refreshingly progressive tone that speaks to the changes in the genre (

Saoirse Ronan in Hannah

While it's important to recognise that women are making waves in the action world, there is still a long way to go before equality is truly established. We all know that there are still huge payment disparities between male and female Hollywood stars: take a look at this infographic created by the New York Film Academy as an example (via Indiewire):

Gender Inequality Infogoraphic

But surely:

For all the bluster about Hollywood's political agenda, in the end its goal is the same as any other industry: to make money. If audiences respond to action movies starring women, Hollywood will continue to make action movies starring women (

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, for example, which stars as a teenager who is forced to battle other teenagers to the death in a televised display, should act as one isolated example which serves to undercut 'every industry myth about women-led films being unprofitable' (Indiewire). The film made $155 million in North America alone, setting up the franchise to be profitable and successful not just as a female-led franchise, but as an action franchise, period.

It's easy to become complacent when considering equality in the movie business, however, the overwhelming fact is evidenced by the majority of studio-produced blockbusters. Gender discrimination still continues to be felt by the most famed female stars to 'journeywomen actresses', women directors, and screenwriters resulting in 'a skewed male-to-female ratio of 5:1 of people participating in the film industry' (Indiewire).

It beggars belief that this is still a pressing issue in 2013, but alas, with still so far to go, men and women who collectively believe in the base principle of fairness will hopefully make an effort to implement change and with it will inevitably come more incredible films.





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