Last night I re-watched one of my all-time favorite action movies, The Long Kiss Goodnight. For anyone who hasn't seen it, I'll give a brief rundown while keeping as spoiler-free as I can: Geena Davis plays Samantha Cane, a woman with amnesia looking for her past while caring for her daughter. She's accompanied by Mitch Henessey (Samuel L. Jackson), a rather sleazy but kindhearted PI. They discover that Samantha - or rather, Charlene - is much more than she thought she was; Charly Baltimore was one of the US government's best assassins before she was presumed KIA.
The movie has some of the most heartfelt moments, some of the most genuine and natural humor, and some of the greatest action scenes ever shot. Both heroes and villains stay within the realm of believability while still being almost impossibly badass.
This and Davis' other mid-90s adventure movie, Cutthroat Island, should have spawned a wave of female action stars by sheer virtue of their awesomeness alone. And yet, they didn't.
...Well, why the fuck not!?
Let's face it, for as liberal as Hollywood's actors and writers tend to be, those with the real power - CEOs, marketers, accounts managers - tend to be horribly bigoted even today. Despite more and more evidence to the contrary, many bigwigs still seem convinced that a movie won't sell because it stars a woman in an unconventional role, or because it stars any manner of minority. So they set it up as a self-fulfilling prophecy by investing next to nothing into advertisement campaigns so that when the movie doesn't sell well they can say 'I told you so.'
But is this genuinely a conspiracy? Or just the result of generations of fiscal cowardice? We all know that most of the über-rich would eat their firstborn rather than part with a single penny of their money, so the fear that something might not sell has to turn them into economic hermit crabs. This wasn't like when Sidney Poitier got top billing on In the Heat of the Night. Race relations were improving, wounds were slowly beginning to heal, and the nation could take steps toward acceptance.
The 90s were a time of discovery, social upheaval and an attempt to forge a new status quo. The most enduring fear ever to breathe down America's neck, the USSR, had just given its death rattle. We were no longer told by our government to look over our shoulder with every step. It was the perfect time for new beginnings.
And yet nothing came of it. Shit, we had more female action stars per capita in the 80s with the likes of Cynthia Rothrock. And yes, while in real life Rothrock does kick all kinds of major ass, her movies were kind of...shit. Is it really that executives can't comprehend a woman being in such a strong role?
"I Love a Woman who can Kick my Ass"
Beyond Good and Evil. Tales of Symphonia. Metroid. Surprisingly enough, video games - the genre that's often decried as being a haven for male power fantasies - have far more and far better female protagonists than Hollywood can credit to its own action franchises. Let's just list the badass ladies from these games alone:
Beyond Good and Evil:
Jade, journalist and martial artist working to uncover the truth of a dark web of conspiracies invading every aspect of a nightmarish war between human and alien. All she has is a camera and a bo staff, yet she's determined to expose the lies even if it kills her.
Tales of Symphonia:
Colette, the one Chosen to save the world. She suffers silently, shouldering the burden of her own inevitable death in order to spare her friends from panic. She hides her pain behind a curtain of happy-go-luckiness and inextinguishable optimism, yet anyone who's played the game properly knows better than to just classify her as a 'genki girl' or a brainless blonde. In her vulnerable moments it's clear that Colette knows exactly what is expected of her and is grimly resigned to her fate. She doesn't take pride in her sacrifice; the only thing keeping her sane is knowing that her death will protect those she loves.
Sheena, the assassin sent to exterminate Colette before she can sacrifice herself. Her self-confidence and almost vicious nature in initial meetings belies her deep fears and insecurities. She has failed before and it has cost the lives of her loved ones. Failure again means that everyone dies. Her suffering as more and more family and friends die around her is palpable, but so is her resolve to stop the endless cycle of murder.
I'm pretty sure that everyone's heard of Metroid and its titular character, the master bounty hunter Samus Aran. It was a surprise to everyone back in the 80s when the badass planet-killer turned out to be a woman. Through the years she has consistently been one of the icons of female power, able to stand fast against seemingly impossible odds and yet retain her beauty and almost delicate nature outside of her armor. Of course, 'delicate' is a relative term when she's 6'4" and can bench 250 lbs.
So why haven't we seen more genuinely good and well-marketed female action heroes in movies, or even more in video games? Certainly the marketers and executives shoulder a good deal of the blame, but just like in early feminism I think one of the worst enemies in this case is women themselves, or rather, in their response to such media.
Davis' Cutthroat Island has been torn apart by many 'feminists' who insist that her character isn't strong enough, or that she should be more independent and able to move freely like any man. *patpat* That's right, sweetums, let's just rewrite all of history for you. It's not like ever since Aristotle made his completely bigoted and false assumption about women simply being the incubation pods for babies - that is, not contributing anything more than space for a full child to be implanted by a man - that women have been discriminated against in the Western world. The Abrahamic religions certainly didn't make things any better, and brutal tribes such as the Mongols and the Vandals pretty much covered the rest of the known world for anti-woman stances.
Criticizing a period piece for having women forced to be subservient is like criticizing a mammal for having to defecate.
Some of the most common complaints are that the women are too much like men, or they aren't enough like men. It seems like you can never win. Someone's always quick to start a riot about sexism whenever boobs larger than an A-cup appear on a video game character, yet as the blog Busty Girl Problems (http://bustygirlcomics.com) will attest, real-life women with such figures are never so defended.
Fuck, Metroid: Other M was decried as demeaning and sexist for showing post-traumatic stress disorder coupled with the return of a father figure. Don't believe me about the PTSD? Just google Metroid and PTSD and see what articles pop up. Real soldiers complimented the game on how realistically it portrayed their suffering, yet armchair crusaders managed to shift popular opinion and shit all over a very real and well-handled issue.
So what's the real reason that more female-centric action movies and games haven't been made? There is none. There's just a bunch of prejudice and imagined issues that come together and keep legitimately good storytelling out of the spotlight.
So the next time you're watching a Jet Li movie, just think: 'In another world that could have been Angela Mao.'
Goodnight, and stay safe.