In a recent article I read on Vice regarding girl gangs in 1970s Japan — called sukeban gangs, the female counterparts of the yakuza — I was in complete awe of how they maintained a strict code of justice and upheld their loyalty within their gangs. For example, cigarette burns were considered a minor sentence for stealing a boyfriend or disrespecting another member. These women had the right to be "stupid, promiscuous, risk-seeking, adrenaline junkies, and violent as their male counterparts," according to Japanese crime writer Jake Adelstein. Sukeban gang members were known to conceal razor blades and chains beneath their long skirts and sailor shirts. In other words, don't mess with these women. The sukeban gang subculture inspired "Pinky Violence" films in Japan that featured violent women in films, but as more of an exploitation device catered towards an adult audience. Alicia Kozma, author of Pinky Violence: Shock, Awe and the Exploitation of Sexual Liberation, writes of the sukeban:
They became representations for the social, cultural, and political dichotomies that Japanese society was experiencing at the time. On a broader, more universal level, the idea of women 'behaving badly' has always been appealing to audiences, specifically because it is a challenge to the way women are universally taught to act. Seeing this type of resistance to those expectations is thrilling for most and cathartic for many."
Although the sukeban gangs in Japan consisted of real women, it made me think about the fictional women in Hollywood movies and TV series that could compare to these strong, independent Japanese women who lived life on their own terms, gaining both notoriety and respect. In a male-driven society, we tend to look at women as weaker and subpar to men, so it's refreshing to watch films and TV series spin the societal norms around, empowering women and giving them the upper hand.
One writer-director always comes to mind when thinking about empowered women: Joss Whedon. I fully respect this man for going against the norms and giving women the spotlight in media. For those who aren't familiar with his work, besides the first Avengers film, as well as its sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron, he created Buffy the Vampire Slayer starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Dollhouse with Buffy-alum Eliza Dushku, and Firefly (and its movie, Serenity). One thing in common with Whedon's heroines is that they are consistently portrayed as these ass-kicking women who have vulnerabilities and baggage, yet they still utilize their strengths for the sake of humanity.
Buffy: Not Just Sugar and Spice
Buffy is a prime example of this. She literally had the weight of the fictional town of Sunnydale on her shoulders, constantly fighting the "big bads" of the Hellmouth in each of the seven seasons. On top of that, she overcame death (twice!) and still managed to stay grounded on Earth with her loved ones surrounding her. What made Buffy special was that she had super strength and willpower to constantly fight vampires and demons, but still wanted a regular, normal teenage life. Buffy hoped to get to prom without any incident, have a steady boyfriend — and much later in the series — to take care of her sister, acting as the mother figure in the family after the passing of her own (in a very moving episode on confronting death). No one wanted to mess with Buffy and if they did, they faced the consequences of turning to ash.
Whedon's Take on The Avengers' Black Widow
You can also catch a glimpse of Whedon's extraordinary creativity on empowering women in the Avengers movies, especially in one of the first opening scenes of Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow. When you first catch Black Widow, she's tied down to a chair, held captive by a group of thugs. At first, the thugs look like they have the upper hand, beating her until Black Widow proves why she's an Avenger. She shows off her fighting capabilities and takes down each of the thugs while still tied to the chair. What I appreciate about Whedon's Black Widow is that he also developed her character further in the Age of Ultron film, giving the viewers more background to her story as a Russian spy, as well as her growing love for Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk.
How Abrams Redefined the Modern Woman
Another director with an amazing group of writers is J.J. Abrams, who created some of my favorite TV series before expanding into the excellent sci-fi reboots of Star Trek and Star Wars. Who can forget series such as Felicity, Alias, Lost, and Fringe? The female characters have a variety of traits that can give their male counterparts a run for their money. For instance, in Alias, female protagonist Sydney Bristow (played by Jennifer Garner) uses her femininity as a weapon. Disguised in a number of different outfits, Bristow uses her sexuality to infiltrate and complete her secret operative goals. The women of Abrams's series are also independent, such as Kate, Claire, and Sun from Lost, where they marched to their own beat, not always being in unison with the men from the island. Regardless of their looks and strengths, Abrams's female protagonists can also be sensitive and vulnerable, such as Olivia Dunham in Fringe, who wanted to be part of law enforcement after surviving an abusive childhood at the hands of her stepfather.
Whether people respect these members of sukeban gangs or not, these women can be seen as a symbol of difference and solidarity, sort of like a slap in the face of a male-driven society. Much like the sukeban, our fictional female protagonists on both the big and small screens give more than a slap. Anything a man can do, these women can definitely do better. I can go on and on about other women in TV and film who are making a difference, such as Marvel's Jessica Jones, Rey from the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens film, and Olivia Pope from Scandal, but I don't want to bore you. I have great respect for directors and writers such as Whedon and Abrams that place women on high pedestals to give viewers a better perspective of different situations, while still maintaining and developing a character that's relatable and who gives the film or TV series an edge.