In my early 20’s I had a boyfriend who loved the movie Resident Evil. He liked the fighting and the zombies and the tinny electronic score. Mostly he loved watching Milla Jovavich holding guns and struggling against her captors in her extremely short skirt. His devotion to her was like that of a middle school girl to a boy band and it bugged because to me she might as well have been an alien. Her version of being female was so far removed from my own experience that even though I couldn’t articulate why, the character of Alice felt like a threat.
In a study done last year by Laramie Taylor and Tiffany Setters at UC Davis, a group of college students were shown two Angelina Jolie movies (Tomb Raider and The Changeling) and two Kathy Bates movies (Primary Colors and Fried Green Tomatoes)—a movie showing an attractive and unattractive lead as both strong and weak—and asked to pick which character lead was the best role model. Angelina Jolie’s character in Tomb Raider—aggressive and sexy won best role model hands down over the weaker Jolie (in The Changeling) who still came in above Kathy Bates’ portrayal of both a tough lady and a weaker character scored far lower.
I love studies like this, because they set out to prove all the sneaking suspicions you’ve held about behavior and society were right all along.
This one not only confirms that people really are as shallow as they seem, it also shows us that exposure to women like Lara Croft in action movies are a blow to women’s self-esteem. The authors concluded that both women and men expected more from women after watching Tomb Raider, as the female character is at once nurturing, assertive and mind-bendingly attractive, fulfilling both masculine and feminine gender roles.
The hidden point here—other than to ask everyone if it’s a good idea to watch a Kathy Bates movie on my next date—is that according to the study, even though men judged us, we were always harder on ourselves than they were. Taylor says that men and women “had the same pattern of response” while watching and judging the characters but that the women’s expectations themselves were always far harsher on themselves than the men were.
This kind of flying-kicks-in-the-face all of the hyperbole about women action heroes in their pleather catsuits somehow being liberating to us, which is something I’ve always wondered about. I’ve never been convinced that identifying with women was even a minor goal in the writing of characters like Lara Croft or Alice in Resident Evil.
Instead, I’ve always felt that these movies kind of half-heartedly expect us to believe they are portraying women we can actually root for when what they are really doing is selling us gym memberships and age-defying makeup and whatever other crap goes into making a person into a computer enhanced killing machine these days.
Certainly if reaching a female audience was the desired effect of female action heroes, they would be done far better and women would go in droves to see them. People like characters we can relate to. And although there have been some better female action heroes in movies lately, we still live in a world where my 35-year old friend had to sit through the movie Suckerpunch on a first date.
I’m not sure where I stand on this whole issue. I mean, in some ways I feel like, “oh screw it, I’m not idealistic enough about the world let alone gender issues to even finish writing this paragraph”, but, at the same time, if a whole genre of movie is fraught with societal implications that make girls feel like crap while elevating men’s expectations of them, it might be something to examine a little bit closer.
Even though many would see Angelina Jolie standing amidst a pile of dead bodies as just a little innocent fun, I stand by the notion nothing goes through the process of being projected onto the backs retinas that doesn’t carry into your life in some way.