Friday, April 1, 2011

The Last Action Heroine

Feast your eyes on that ripped specimen of womanhood to the right. As you should know, that's Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator II, one of my very favorite movies. It's also one of the only depictions of a female action hero that I actually buy. Hamilton went through intense physical training not only to develop those bulging muscles but also to learn how to handle weaponry and just generally kick ass. The result is a highly memorable role in one of the best action films of all time.

Though Hamilton achieved both an amazing physical transformation and an excellent portrayal of a guerrilla warrior, unfortunately her role's memorability must be partly ascribed to just how rare it is for action heroines to have muscular physiques. Though it is certainly possible to be strong in a wiry kind of way, willowy women are routinely shown kicking ass alongside men three times their size, and it just makes no sense.

It's not like women can't bulk up. I'm no body-builder, but in just six months of roller derby training, I've put on two pant-sizes worth of pure muscle. We do have some rather thin women on the team, but massive freaking thighs are the norm. Female Olympic athletes are generally visibly muscular, though this does admittedly depend on their sport. And, perhaps most to the point, there are highly underutilized muscular actresses out there who could totally rock an action film role; Chyna is at least as good at acting as Vin Diesel.

The problem is that action heroines are usually there to serve as lust objects for straight men, and not so much for compelling the audience's admiration. Sometimes I suspect that ultra-thin women are chosen for these roles partly because the cognitive dissonance induced by a woman wielding firearms that weigh more than she does places the film firmly in the realm of fantasy, allowing dudes to ogle her without feeling remotely threatened. This, like so many other problems with mainstream cinema, will only be solved when Hollywood takes its head out of its ass and finally starts serving up female roles with real substance and depth, and when more men realize that it's okay to identify with women, rather than objectify them.


  1. As I was reading this I couldn't help but think how right you are. There are actresses out there, such as Angelina Jolie, who keep getting cast in these action roles where they can kick ass physically, but they are complete waifs. I feel like if Jolie tried to punch me I would laugh. And on the other hand, I'm pretty sure any of us derby girls could hip check into next year. So it isn't totally believable when she can kick a grown man's ass in a movie. Maybe one day hollywood will come around and cast physically strong women in moveis but I doubt it. One exception I have to point out is that I loved how completely awesome that tween girl was in Kick-Ass.

  2. True! I wonder how being derby players affects our perceptions here. We're surrounded by really physical women all the time, many of whom are not small, and are extremely powerful. They're inspirations for me - as is Ripley. I mean, I have an orange cat named Jonesy, so.

  3. I also think we need to get Heather Cassils in an action movie, stat.

  4. Omigod. Drool. Someone needs to come over and help me get my jaw off the floor.

  5. I know, right? At least we have her in Gaga videos.

  6. You're right about Hamilton and Weaver, two of my favorite tough as nails roles, although Moore played a decent role in GI Jane.

  7. People keep telling me I need to see GI Jane. I should catch up on my movie homework.

  8. Your comment about increasing pant sizes due to muscle gain reminded me of an article about ice dancer, Tanith Beldin ( She had disordered eating for years (not uncommon among female figure skaters and ice dancers), but finally sought help and went through a program to build strength.

    My own thoughts on depictions of women's bodies are two-fold:

    1) We need a huge expansion in the diversity women's bodies depicted in media. While not unproblematic, I did like it when some Olympic broadcasters showed the height and weight of female athletes (in addition to the men). I think it's good to see ripped female athletes and know that they are not 5'9" and 110 pounds (e.g., Mia Hamm is 5'5" and 123 pounds, only 14 pounds lighter than 5'5" 137-pound gymnast Paul Hamm).

    2) We need to recognize what women are capable of without being ripped, sculpted body-builders. I know so many women who can use heavy weaponry and are skilled fighters but who are not super-ripped. What they do know how to do is use their bodies. They know their capabilities and limitations. And they are highly trained. They also have a high diversity of body types (from slight (but wiry) women to large bear-like women with all permutations of height and weight in between). If you saw these women on the street, you might not think twice about them or think that they could easily take you in a fight (certainly most men would not think so).

  9. What I would like to see is a representative sample of female body types. Right now the slight, wiry type is vastly overrepresented while larger, more visibly muscular types are basically nonexistent in film, and that's what I've focused on in this post.

    However, I think depicting smaller women fighting in a realistic way would be great, too. You don't need to be able to bench press 200 lb to be an effective fighter; having good aim or a quick hand can be even deadlier. One good example is Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. They establish her as being a dedicated athlete and kind of a badass with a pistol, but in a realistic way, not in a kicking multiple 250 lb men across the room kind of way. She's fairly small, but the film lets you know that this is not a woman to tangle with.

  10. @Kyrie I totally agree that visibly muscled women are largely invisible in films. I would love to see muscular women take on a larger role in films.

    And I totally agree that Clarice Starling is a good example of a woman who is shown to be physically formidable while being realistic.

    Unfortunately for us, actresses are not even encouraged to be wiry. Current beauty ideals denigrate women for being "too muscular" (see Michelle Obama, Serena Williams, Angelina Jolie, and Sandra Bullock). Really, the ideal is just to have women be thin enough that any muscle they have shows through without having much strength.

  11. We also have, like, zero portrayals of queer/trans women/femmes. Trans women are part of the spectrum of human experience and are essentially erased from pop culture.

    Just stopping by to queer a great conversation. Keep it up, folks.

  12. @Jess I hear you on the portrayals of queer/trans women/femmes. There is such a pressure to conform to the narrow ideal of presenting as "feminine". Media accentuate the male gaze, and those who don't conform are erased (or tokenized/victimized/marginalized). Tilda Swinton is one of the few actresses to succeed playing androgynous roles. Sandra Bullock has done more androgynous roles, but she (unsurprisingly given the pressures) quickly re-asserts a non-threatening hyper-"femininity" during promotions. Rachel Maddow acquiesced to a more mainstream "feminine" presentation for her show. It would be interesting to track Margaret Cho's popularity and reception through her various presentations of gender and sexuality.

    I think it's highly telling that Misty Copeland (, a petite (5'2", 103 pounds), light-skinned African American woman pushes the color and curviness boundaries in the ballet world the way she does.

    For now, I depend on my own queering lens to transform media into something more representative. If enough people do this and are vocal about it, perhaps more media outlets will take the road taken by Xena producers and turn queer fanon into canon.

  13. @Andrew: All of this is outstanding stuff. Now I'm going to get really nitpicky on you and interrogate "androgynous." Before I launch into that, though, I want to be sure to establish that this is coming from a place of love, as food for thought, and that you haven't offended me or anything like that. And I should say that if someone wants to identify as "androgynous," that's their call, it's cool with me.

    Anyway, I prefer not to use the word "androgynous" (or the term "gender neutral," while we're here) because I think it implies a gender binary I'm not comfortable with. I don't accept a binary of genders, and I think these words have some baggage with them that can be harmful. Imposing any kind of identity on someone is harmful, I think.

    Instead of androgynous or gender neutral, I like to use terms like genderless or genderfucked or ambiguously gendered. In my opinion, and in the opinion of some queer friends of mine, these words make fewer assumptions about other peoples' identities. What do you think?

    Anyway, I agree with everything you say here, and it calls back a conversation I had earlier today with a friend about how amazing it is that the mainstreaming of drag happened because of a queer man of color.

    I heart Tilda Swinton. When people got all on her for not wearing sufficient/any makeup to the Oscars, I got really disgusted. Leave awesomeness alone, folks.

  14. @Jess First, please interrogate away. This is your house, and I'm a guest. Plus, I have a lot to learn, so when people take the time to engage me, I do my best to listen. On to your points....

    I hear you on androgynous being a loaded word -- both etymologically and, more importantly, in practice. It definitely has the connotation of being part of a gender binary. Like you, I'm really not a fan of binaries (of any sort). Androgynous often seems to imply that there's a scale from masculine to feminine and androgynous is sort of in the middle. At times, it can be a little less binary, as in the Bem Sex Role Inventory. That, too, is limiting, by having gender be two-dimensional -- a step up from a one-dimensional binary, but definitely incomplete.

    Me, I sometimes define myself as androgynous in reference to conventional gender norms, as I have both stereotypical masculine and feminine characteristics (as defined by middle-upper class WASP culture in New England). But, like you, I find that incomplete; I don't like to define myself by the yardsticks of others (even though I'm influenced by them). I prefer to think of gender as, at present, some circumscribed spaces for "masculine" and "feminine" presentation as defined by society (this can be generalized to as many spaces as there are genders in a culture). These spaces are embedded in multidimensional spaces through which people traverse their own paths -- in this space there is much space that cannot be said to be "between" or constructed from the "masculine" and "feminine" spaces. Both the space itself and the paths are fluid, as society and people change. (Can you tell I started out as a theoretical physicist? It's how I view the world, for better or worse.) My path tends to intersect both "masculine" and "feminine" spaces.

    Certainly this worldview is dependent on society, but because we live within society and have to navigate it, I feel it is impossible not to be influenced by it -- even if that influence is to try to avoid influence. My goal as a would-be activist is to push the boundaries of society to change things towards what I feel is a positive direction.

    Going back to your original point, I agree that it is unfair and, at times, harmful to impose an identity on a person. It's definitely dangerous, as my comment spoke to my perception of a larger perception. I try to focus on presentation and action, as they are more measurable than internal thought, and it is easier to see their interaction.

    Your terms do encompass a broad space, though each seems problematic in its own way. Genderless by itself seems to take its form by assuming that a definite gender exists which can be taken away to create genderless. Genderf*cked I kind of like (I'm kind of an anarchist in the loose sense of the term), but there are some who feel that f*ck connotes violence in a way that cannot be removed. Ambiguously gendered is probably my favorite, though, like gender neutral, to me it *can* imply a sort of balancing between two defined genders (like Pat on SNL). I do prefer ambiguously gendered as it has an inchoate quality that reminds me of the fluidity and mutability I ascribe to my conceptualization of gender.

    I've gone on for far too long, so I will stop taking up space.

  15. Please, take up all the space you wish. We'd love you to guest-post for us sometime, as I'm sure Kyrie has told you.

    I really wish I could wake up to comments this amazing every day, wow.

    You're completely right that every term is going to be loaded by/to/at someone. I like ambiguously gendered, too (you could also use "genderless," I suppose), and for me, this is always about my perceptions of other people, and an attempt not to define them myself or assign anything to them. So I say "That person reads masculine to me" or something when talking about someone who presents a traditional masculine style/comportment, for example. Takes more words, but it feels more comfortable to me than running around assigning my labels to people. Who was it that said that the power to name things is the most important power? I can't remember, but anyway, I don't want to wield that kind of power over people. This is like graduate level examination of privilege.

    My identity has slightly different labels depending on where I am. So if I'm hanging out with a bunch of straight-identified people, especially those who don't give a lot of thought to the nuances of the queer community (sssssstraight privilege, ladies and germs!) I'm just queer. That's often enough for people to grapple with. If I'm hanging out with mixed company or mostly other LGBTQ people, I'm a queer femme. I always inhabit "queer femme," but I don't really need to say the "femme" part around people who haven't spent a lot of time with the family, as it were. Within the queer community, as you may well know, there are sometimes lines drawn around "butch" that exclude femmes, be they cis or trans or however else they define themselves. But the point of this long digression is to say that I perceive identity, even my own, as such a complicated thing that I never want to tell anyone what words they can or can't use. The androgyny/gender neutral vs. genderqueer/genderfucked/genderless/ambiguously gendered is something I've been thinking about a lot lately, and I really appreciate your engaging with me on it and taking the time to write such thoughtful comments.

    You sound like you've read a lot of Foucault.

  16. @Jess Thank you for your kind words. Kyrie has mentioned guest-posting before. I think it would be fun to do so, but I would need to figure out what I would do. I'm not a theorist, and I have only read a little Said in terms of reading the work of theorists. While Said talks a little about Foucault, I have never read him. What I've read by Said don't touch on gender or sexuality, but they do relate to identity formation and the intersection thereof with marginalization, so I've certainly been influenced.

    My own education has been from reading a lot of blogs and talking to the people in my life. I'm about as privileged as it gets, so my lived experience is narrow in terms of dealing with oppression. As such, I appreciate the opportunity to engage with people and listen when I can. I'm very lucky to have had people willing to hold my hand and guide me through examinations of my privilege.

    Your comment about when you choose to elaborate on identifying as queer to identifying as queer femme is interesting to me as I've been thinking about picking and choosing detail levels of late -- namely, what is the process by which one determines the level of detail one wishes to divulge depending on one's surroundings. There's so much to deal with in terms of the setting, the people in the setting, their relative awareness, one's own desires, and one's ability/willingness to engage at that moment in a particular topic with the group at hand. I don't have a theory or anything, but I've been thinking about ways to channel my energies most effectively -- and at the same time trying to think about the way lack of privilege intersects with those decisions (which I inherently misunderstand due to my position of privilege).

  17. You're completely right, and so, so smart. Your comments are making my whole weekend.

    I think the setting absolutely matters in terms of how people perform their identity/ies. First of all, it helps for a person to feel safe in order to be their authentic selves, I think. It's certainly possible to do so in unsafe situations, but on a daily basis, when the world isn't friendly, that is exhausting. Lots of people I know have different presentations depending on where they are.

    I asked one of my former students, with whom I'm good friends now, and who is gay, what he would have thought if I'd said, on the first day of class, "I'm a radical feminist atheist socialist queer." He said (and R, if you're reading this, chime in please) that he thinks that would have been great. But I know, and he knows, and you know, that in a university like mine, I would have lost students. That would have been taken by some people to be an assault on THEM. Just me saying those four words would have been such a problem that they probably wouldn't have stuck around to hear anything else I had to say. You know? So I don't say that to my students on the first day of class. I would never lie if asked a direct question, but that never happens. They don't care if I'm queer on that first day, they care if they think they can get an A. Honestly, I would be risking my job if I did that. The ability of teachers to be openly liberal is something I'm going to write about here soon. I'm very openly liberal, and that's a lot for some of my students to deal with.

    The way [lack of] privilege works is interesting, here. One thing I always try to impress upon my students is that in any given oppressor/oppressed dynamic, the oppressors don't have to know anything about the oppressed group, but the oppressed need to have a deep and nuanced understanding of the oppressors. It's a survival mechanism. So a person lacking privilege or cultural capital or whatever you want to call it have to be constantly scanning the room to figure out how much of themselves they can be. Just my thoughts.

    Really nice work here, sir. Thank you for pushing me to be smarter.

  18. Interesting. Bob Dahlgren and I published a paper on the experience and feeling of self identified conservative students in the college of education. I would be interested to see how their experience compares to yours. Essentially, many of them found they had to hide their own identies to fit in, or simply chose to regurgitate what they thought the instructor/classmates expected. I can provide a link if you are interested.

  19. I'm definitely interested, and it's something worth thinking about. Being conservative and college and being queer in the world are not exactly the same, of course, though I'm not saying you think so.

  20. This was more in reference to your future post on liberalism as an instructor in the classroom.

    Here is the piece:

    It's in the Social Studies Research and Practice Journal, entitled Ideological Dissonance:
    A Comparison of the Views of Eight Conservative Students with the Recruitment Document from
    a Southeastern College of Education.

    Guess which southeastern college. :P

  21. Excellent, thanks!! I look forward to reading it!

  22. @Steve Your article is interesting, and it raises some good points. I especially agree with this concluding paragraph:

    "Finally, though, any university program
    must expect a spirit of honest and rigorous
    intellectual work from its students. Avoiding
    personal reflection, whatever the reason, is a
    failure to approach the course material honest-
    ly, and to use a loaded word, both faculty and
    students must be held accountable for this.
    Students such as those examined in this study
    should not be able to complete their courses
    successfully, as Gina has without engaging the
    material and maintaining an open and honest
    discussion within the classroom and within

    I think that education should seek to challenge and push all students, even if they agree with the views of the instructor. A good instructor will force students to support their views with strong arguments based on sound logic and evidence. Students of all ideologies should not coast through college without any introspection and growth. And instructors should work to create an environment where growth is possible and encouraged.

    It would be interesting to survey different programs at different institutions to look at gaps between perceived and self-identified ideologies (and, if possible, try to map onto a common ideological space to gauge "true ideology").

    I know that in particle physics (my background) there is a definite bias against conservatives that exists at the access points (e.g., during interviews, questions are asked to gauge ideology) and in the general climate. That said, I would not consider particle physics are liberal. Instead, I think particle physics tends to be slightly left-of-center with libertarian leanings (think Obama's rhetoric). As a radical feminist/anti-racist with socialist and anarchist inclinations, I certainly sympathize with Jess not feeling comfortable declaring my identity.

    And as you indicate in your article, there's a big gap between the lip service paid to multiculturalism and diversity in higher ed and the reality of the policies put forth by those institutions. The amount of antagonism and denial put forth by self-proclaimed liberals at evidence-based policies to increase equity and promote a positive workforce environment is highly frustrating (I know this first-hand, as it's my job to do so).