The breasts and brawls of Foxy Brown (1974), Coffy (1973) and Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! (1965) proved that fighting and titillation go hand-in-hand for audiences, but the days of violent women being B-movie fare are gone. Now, strong women packing a gun or a crossbow are commonplace. It's the staple diet of blockbusters like The Hunger Games, Kick-Ass, and the harder edged Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Even artier gambits like Spring Breakers are getting in on the fun.
Which is fine - let's face it, violence is entertaining, and unless you believe that violence on screen breeds violence on the streets, there's no real problem. Is there?
Well, yeah. I take issue with the way violent women function in these films as a sign of how far we've come. Look, Modern Filmmaker X says, women can be brutal, too! Yet what seems progressive on the surface is actually the opposite – female leads like Katniss and Hit-Girl might be wearing more clothes than the women fronting exploitation flicks of the 60s and 70s, but their violence has been neutered and they seem far less subversive than their foremothers.
Katniss Everdeen, the bow-toting heroine of the Hunger Games is the figurehead of the discussion. On the surface, she's feminism's wet dream: she's physically and emotionally strong, she's politically engaged, her love life comes low down in her list of priorities so we know she's got more on her plate than just yearning for a boyfriend. She's basically the antithesis of the polarizing Bella Swan, who often seems passive and boy-obsessed to the point of being a cipher. It helps, of course, that the much-beloved Jennifer Lawrence, who plays the character shows a similar distaste for all things girly: coyness, celebrity dating, dieting, and all the game-playing that sometimes seems part and parcel of being a thespian in Hollywood.
All the same, this right-on tomboy doesn't come close to being as in control as the heroines and anti-heroines of exploitation movies. At first, these women may seem like unlikely candidates for being archetypes of strong female characters. They dress like a male fantasy, in low cut negligees and push up bras and they're not archers or assassins, but usually hold down jobs in line with archetypes of male desire: erotic dancers, nurses, models. However, on watching these films, we come to realize these females are subverting expectations of women for their own ends.
While Katniss is close to her mother and sister, she believes they're both weaker than her and in need of her protection. All the people in her world she looks up to are male (her best friend/crush Gale, her stylist Cinna, to some extent, her mentor Haymitch) and perhaps as a result, she's obviously uncomfortable with outward shows of femininity. This is never more obvious than in the makeover scene – it's only at Cinna's cajoling that she relents and acknowledges a makeover could help her, but not before she eye-rolls her way through a good part of it.
This contrasts with Pam Grier's makeover of sorts in Foxy Brown. When she infiltrates a drug ring by being recruited to act as a high-class prostitute, she succumbs to the makeover they give her with apparent relish. We discover why when she teases and finally humiliates her first client, a corrupt judge she's supposed to be bribing via sex for the drug pushers. In Foxy's book, the better she looks, the more devastation she can wreak. A recurring pattern in Griers' films is her characters subverting men's expectations of women for their own ends – ostensibly seducing a man or forcing them to lower their guard by acting the ditz only to then kick their asses. In this way, Griers' characters suggest that women using their beauty to win the day is no different to a brawny man using his strength to his own ends – if you've got it, why not use it? We see the same pattern in Faster Pussycat where throughout the movie Varla uses her beauty to seduce or to flirt with men to either distract them or to lower their guard so she can kill them.
Similarly, these exploitation stars seem self-made women, powered wholly by their own volition. In contrast, almost all of the modern day violent women seem to have an older male figure guiding them or teaching them how to fight – Katniss has Haymitch, Hit-Girl has Big Daddy, Hanna has her dad, City of Bones' Clary has Jace while the Spring Breakers have James Franco's white rapper/gangster Alien. Katniss is a particularly significant example as her success is the result of a whole band of males – Gayle teaches her how to survive in the wild, Cinna makes her visually striking, but all the same, Katniss only becomes desirable to the public when the viewers watch Peeta falling for her. This gives us the curious sensation that the Girl on Fire, the strongest female in recent blockbuster history, isn't in charge of her destiny.
This poses a striking contrast with Grier, who pretty much fends for herself in Coffy and Foxy Brown. When Foxy's cop-boyfriend is murdered thanks to her no-good drug addict brother, she has no one she can rely on – not her her family and not a lover. She has to become, in the words of the marketing for Coffy, 'one chick hit squad'. Similarly, Faster Pussycat's stripper-killers may work in a trio, but they're never dependent on each other – Varla cheats on her lover Rosie with a farm owner to achieve her own ends, while the third go-go dancer, Billie, eventually turns against the other two. They’re introduced as fully-formed entities – women who know how to fight without being taught.
Ultimately, these B-movie stars' power is this: these women are strong enough or mad enough to scare us in just the same way a violent man might scare us.
There might have been lingering shots of Foxy Brown in the buff, but Foxy’s still a subversive character: Foxy presents her enemy, Catherine, with her boyfriend's penis in a pickle jar at the film's finale and refuses to kill her because 'death's too easy'. Standard B-movie shocker fare? Hardly. Earlier in the film, the camera focuses on Foxy getting undressed, lingering on her breasts. It then swings to Catherine's hapless boyfriend, who, just like us, has been watching Foxy. Our gaze and his become aligned. As such, when he loses a significant part of his anatomy, it offers up a menacing message to viewers: passive watching is all very well, but it might get you hurt one day. The end of the film corrects our first vision of Foxy in the film, who we get to ogle stepping out of a negligee: don't make the mistake of objectifying me, she seems to say - I'm too dangerous for that.
Similarly, Faster Pussycat might have been the 1960s go-to flick for soft porn girl-on-girl fumbling, but director Russ Meyer never neuters what his women can and will do: when the strippers' ringleader kills an amiable ogler with her bare hands it's extreme enough to act as a similar corrective to any passive enjoyment of their bodies. Their bodies become instruments of threat as much as they are of pleasure.
Perhaps the problem is that the violence in these new films is never really disturbing – at least, not the violence imposed by the female characters. Violence becomes part of these films' moral universes. Messiah-complex sufferer Katniss kills so she can free her people from oppression. Lisbeth Salander forcibly tattoos her rapist so justice will be served. Mindy Macready kills because she had a disturbing childhood and was taught to and/or they deserve it. Violence becomes too comfortable for the viewer to watch because there's always a good reason for it - and isn't that the most disturbing thing of all? At least when boils a pet bunny rabbit to death in Fatal Attraction or Hedy Carlson stabs her flatmate's boyfriend to death with a stiletto heel in Single White Female, they're volatile and crazy and violence remains threatening. But these films cosy up to the viewer and whisper: sometimes girls just like us have to hurt, and that's ok.