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.

Action movies are a kind of manifestation of society’s desires. And to an extent, I get it. We all want some level of perfection in a mate even though it is entirely unlikely to happen.

I might watch The Avengers with some dude and he might wish that I had Scarlett Johansson’s giant rack and confidence in zippered leather. But perhaps this is in the same way that after watching Forgetting Sarah Marshall I will always be a little disappointed that the men in my life can’t play songs from the Muppets on the piano like Jason Segel.

Is it surprising that some dude would look over at his girlfriend sitting in the theater next to him eating her junior mints and wish she was able to kill men between her thighs whilst preparing him a balanced meal? (When really he should be so lucky to be with a woman who cares about him enough to go see a movie that revolves around bad CGI’d explosions and crappy one-liners.) I’m not sure. I do know that after watching Vin Diesel take down a room full of thugs I don’t feel negatively about the men I care about (with the exception of their taste in movies.)

I suppose that is the major difference. A man could learn to play a song on the piano were he so committed to the task, whereas I could not learn my boobs into double D’s or my lips into pillowy lines of determination nor could I coax my personality into that of an assassin (not that women don’t try for perfection with all of our gym memberships and juice fasts and plastic surgery.)

Last month, The Atlantic rather redundantly pointed out that women still couldn’t have it all.

To which most of us answered with a resounding, “No shit.”

As a genre, action movies show society that, yes, women are capable of being everything to everyone, but they also make it clear that —just like many aspects of being a woman—“having it all” is not really even something we do for our own benefit.

If I told the man I was with I wanted him to sing me the Rainbow Connection he could refuse, and nobody would feel like he was doing me a disservice. But women let themselves believe that being the thing those men want will make our lives nicer as well. We think things will be better if we are a perfect and impossible female composite of tough, nurturing, sexy and most men are happy to let us keep on believing that should be a goal, because lets face it, it’s way less work for them.

But men don’t get to have it all either. You win some, you lose some in life and Lara Croft is only as dangerous as she is real. If we as women don’t believe in her (and we shouldn’t as she technically does not exist), than her visage ceases to have as much power over us, and how we live our lives. And hopefully, if we stop having ridiculous expectations of ourselves, then they will be less likely to be placed on us by men as well. Or maybe we’re all just screwed.

Personally I don’t need to have “it all.” I’m happy just having some: the use of my limbs, a few jiu jitsu lessons, a catsuit, and Jason Segel.

 

Pic via Resident Evil