Why Female Action Heroes Are Bad For You – And Your Boyfriend

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.

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    • Lara Croft Fan

      I find myself puzzled as to how to react to this article. I think it was well-written and thought-provoking, but it leaves me bewildered.

      I have always genuinely identified with Lara Croft and others of her ilk (I’m 23, I’ve spent the past 13 years of my life training in various forms of armed and unarmed martial arts). I’ve found it refreshing to see women portrayed as physically and mentally strong, humanly emotional (though of course not normal), non-man-haters. Women who do choose more “masculine” extracurricular activities are often stereotyped as manly or somehow emotionally stunted, and all the problems I have faced with males’ expectations of me have stemmed from those assumptions.

      While I agree that such movies are unrealistic (it’s hilarious that women who supposedly train super hard are portrayed with gigantic boobs), I don’t think that they are actually portraying women who have “it all.” As I recall, all the films you mention have some theme of isolation or loneliness of the main female character. This is realistic, and at times very depressing, if most of your life is spent trying to achieve some kind of high performance. If some aspect of extreme physical fitness/high performance is over-glamorized in such movies, I think the blame is not so much with the action films as it is with the greater advertising/media apparatus supporting them. I would even venture that the situation would be worse if all we had were stick-thin unmuscled wilting lilies to look at.

      Is there a compromise position? Can I feel that action movies with female leads actually boost my self-esteem, and be glad that they exist for my enjoyment, without also feeling very guilty for the way that they might impact others?

    • M

      I’m astounded by this article. I understand not everyone is going to be an action hero type of gal, but I guess I’m pretty similar to Lara Croft Fan in that I grew up a martial artist and have always identified more with strong female characters with so-called masculine traits. It’s not that I don’t have traits and interests that are considered feminine, but I also have traits and interests that people seem to consider masculine. It’s been a long time coming to find female characters in the media who have that combination, and I know there are lots of people out there who, like me and Lara Croft Fan, feel great relief that we finally have positive representation in popular entertainment.

      I’m confused why you say “‘having it all’ is not really even something we do for our own benefit.” Why not? I suppose you could argue that nothing a conscientious human being does is ever purely for him- or herself, but that aside, as far as I’m concerned, I’ve always pursued excellence in my career, fitness, family, friendships, what have you, for my own happiness and growth. I know plenty of women who do the same, including ones who don’t identify with these action movie ladies at all.

      I’m also a little concerned by the article’s implication that women perfect themselves or look up to role models largely with the goal to impress men. If that’s the case, I don’t think the role models are the problem.

      Why must something different from the traditional idea of femininity suddenly be a threat to a woman’s self-esteem? I think open-mindedness, diversity, and the opportunity to pursue excellence in whatever you want (including masculine activities) should be encouraged, not discouraged as damaging.

    • Mandy

      All I have to say is, “Joss Whedon”.

    • Eileen

      I don’t know; I watched Batman and kind of wished my dude could do push-ups like Bruce Wayne. I’m pretty sure he did too. I think this is a reason why action heroes are “bad” for society, period: They sell us, well, gorgeous, self-sacrificing heroes.

    • Nancy

      I loved this article, it was very well-written! Thank you