Seemingly overnight, buying a ticket to Mad Max: Fury Road became a $10 investment in gender equality ($15 if you saw it in 3-D). This unlikely scenario started a few weeks ago, when a self-described men’s rights activist called for a boycott of Mad Max: Fury Road in a blog post. The writer, Aaron Clarey, was upset that Charlize Theron’s character, Imperator Furiosa, claimed a great deal of trailer time, even appearing to play a somewhat authoritative role over the titular Max. News outlets picked up Clarey's argument and squashed it faster than Furiosa would a pesky War Boy. It wasn't just mainstream media, either: Twitter users voiced their intent to buy tickets, and Tumblr provided a "hey girl" meme. Furiosa became a so-called "savior-hero," capable of delivering us from the male-dominated action genre.
But last week, a prominent feminist media critic dissented against this growing movement. In a series of tweets, Anita Sarkeesian gave a review that ran counter to the gleeful anti-boycott. "It isn’t feminist," Sarkeesian tweeted. "Feminism doesn't simply mean women getting to partake in typical badass ‘guy stuff.’ Feminism is about redefining our social value system."
Sarkeesian’s argument crystallized what has become a crucial debate for cultural critics and conscious ticket-buyers. When women play action heroes, they tend to behave in ways ordinarily reserved, onscreen, for men—they pursue anti-social goals, take down baddies, cause mass destruction. This poses a question for a growing number of viewers: When female action heroes act like their male counterparts, are they more empowered? Or, by stepping into parts normally reserved for men, do these heroines endorse the principal that women should act like male heroes to be perceived as being strong, capable, and effective?
Heroines aren't endorsing behavior that is too masculine or too feminine. Rather, they're combining both in extreme ways, thereby reinforcing the very gender types they appear to be dismantling.
Like any involving gender politics, the question is exceedingly complicated. The roles that fandom, personal taste, and history play in a viewer’s experience make critiquing a heroine's so-called gendered behavior even messier. But recent research into the female action hero archetype, and how she influences internalized gender biases, clears a path out of the brambles of fandom and subjectivity. What we can learn from the academic work is that heroines aren't endorsing behavior that is too masculine or too feminine. Rather, they're combining both in extreme ways, thereby reinforcing the very gender types they appear to be dismantling.
If you’re a woman, you tend to assume that when members of your own sex are kicking ass onscreen, they’re fighting the good fight. This isn’t just the opinion of Mad Max Twitter, or the result of my own personal bias. In a 2003 survey of undergraduate students at Washington University, 74 percent of women said they went to female action hero movies specifically to see a woman in a powerful role. Fifty-six percent of respondents said they believed female action heroes were good for gender equality. Across film and television entertainment in general, women are in the minority not just as protagonists, but also as characters who speak, have goals other than pro-social ones, and are identified in a work-related role. So it’s really no wonder that women tend to see the violence as symbolic of a larger shift in gender perceptions.
But a longer view shows that the fulcrums of representation are exceedingly difficult to turn. Shifting an entire history of women playing sideline, emotional roles isn’t as simple as throwing women into the scrum of battle. In 2008, Kaplan University sociologist Katy Gilpatric was interested in the effect of what she called the "violent female action hero" (VFAC) on gender stereotypes amongst young viewers. Gilpatric conducted a survey of the 20 highest-grossing movies from 1991 to 2005 and looked for main characters who were women and committed at least one significant act of violence over the course of the narrative.
Gilpatric found two distinct, polarized trends. On the one hand, the demographic profile of the VFAC was exceedingly, stereotypically female. The majority of VFACs were submissive to the main male hero (58.6 percent) and/or his love interest (over 60 percent). They were, on average, young, white, unmarried, and highly educated. Nor did their choreographed fights do anything to dismantle the old fallacy that women are dependent and self-sacrificing. Nearly 30 percent of them died by the end of the film. In terms of women’s necessity to film and television plots, Gilpatric concluded, entertainment’s female avengers hadn’t, on average, made much progress.
On the other hand, in terms of the kind of violence they committed, female action heroes mirrored the real habits of men. Gilpatric’s study found that female action heroes most often fought men (61.1 percent), used weapons (59.1 percent), and caused mass destruction and deaths (20.7 percent). Comparing these with data points from the United States Department of Justice, Gilpatric came to the conclusion that VFACs were reflecting men’s habits more than women’s. When actual women brawl, they tend to take on other women and acquaintances, use weapons less than men, and don’t wreak as much damage. (Also, they’re just much less violent overall.)
Gilpatric wasn’t convinced that this combination of extreme feminine and masculine tendencies was doing anything for gender parity. "The VFAC is a recent addition to contemporary American cinema and has the potential to redefine female heroines," she wrote. However, the ultimate upshot was that these two-sided heroines "are not a kind of ‘post woman’ operating outside the boundaries of gender restrictions. Instead, they operate inside socially constructed gender norms, rely on the strength and guidance of a dominant male action character, and end up re-articulating gender stereotypes."
The male-female mash-up may articulate, however, market demands from a very specific audience demographic. In the Washington University survey, 74 percent of men said that their reason for attending a female action hero movie was "the physical attractiveness or sexuality of the female action hero." Sexual attraction was the most-cited reason: Coming in at number three, with 51 percent: violence.
This lethal combination of beauty and brawn is incredibly cinematic. Surely, in the real world, women in Uma Thurman's situation would put a restraining order on Bill and call it a day.
Yet these Janus-faced heroines can also be incredibly inspiring, even potential role models. In 2011, researchers from the University of California-Davis tested just how much. In a survey of 122 undergraduates, researchers screened four clips, two featuring a stereotypically "attractive" Angelina Jolie solving a problem with and without violence; and two more with Kathy Bates, doing the same. Participants rated how much they endorsed each protagonist as a role model and scaled how much they agreed or disagreed with statements about whether women should embody stereotypically "masculine" virtues, such as doing anything to get ahead, or stereotypically "feminine" ones—like being emotionally supportive of their friends.
They found that, in combination, attractiveness and aggression reverberate powerfully with audiences. When the protagonist was pretty, the researchers found, she automatically became a role model and led people to endorse more "feminine" values. (This finding may have been influenced, however, by the fact that said actress was Jolie, who has done significant humanitarian work.) Aggressive characteristics were also high up on the role model scale. So when the protagonist was attractive and aggressive, viewers saw them as significant role models. What kind of behaviors were they modeling? After watching clips of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, respondents tended to have strong, increased expectations that women should fulfill highly masculine and feminine ideals at the same time.
What aggressive, attractive action heroines really do, then, is convince viewers that women can in fact "have it all."
Which might all seem great, at first. Jolie's Lara Croft character convinces viewers that women embrace their feminine side and lean in? The thing with Lara Croft, though, is that she's a pretty extreme case. The researchers point out that Lara Croft made participants agree more strongly with stereotypical assertions, and potentially irreconcilable ones. "Exposure to attractive, aggressive female characters actually increases expectations on women," the researchers wrote, "including potentially inconsistent roles—after viewing, women were expected to be both more independent and ambitious and more socially connected and nurturing." Ultimately, this paints a "a somewhat troubling picture for the impact of what may initially seem to be stereotype-busting characters in the media."
What aggressive, attractive action heroines really do, then, is convince viewers that women can in fact "have it all." The University of California-Davis researchers point out that their findings reflect the "superwoman ideal"—a construct, with origins in the 1960s woman's movement, that promotes the ideal that women could be both provider and caretaker. Today, we're familiar with arguments that deconstruct the pragmatism of this sweeping approach to female empowerment. But, when the old image of a woman with a briefcase and a baby comes packaged in the fresh forms of Kate Beckinsale or Milla Jovovich, it's easier to idealize what women can do, and who they can be.
Failing to live up to these super-expectations comes at a cost. The UC-Davis researchers point out the superwoman ideal is frequently linked to eating disorders. Others have said it increases the risk for professional burnout, bad health, and unhealthy relationships. Research has also pointed to the detrimental effects of entertainment's narrow role models on young boys. Sharon Lamb, a professor of mental health at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, has divided the male superhero into two archetypes—the "player" and the "slacker"—as the "only two options boys have." The difference for girls is that the damaging stereotypes have historically tended to be combined in one superheroine archetype, one-size-fits-all.
Gaining an equal spot in a pre-established action franchise is a first step. But, if we're to truly update the action heroine from the feminist ideals from the '60s, it is by no means an answer. The research lends some credence to Sarkeesian's argument against Fury Road—when an actress steps into an old, male role, she risks polarizing the action heroine's impossible mix of character traits even more.
Roles like Furiosa are rare, and highly coveted. But women still can, and do, wait out for something more original. In 2013, on a press tour for Thor, Natalie Portman said she believed that her role as an astrophysicist had potential to re-define our definition of an action movie role model, beyond the gun-toting warrior. Girls, she explained, are not going as often into science, engineering, and technology. "The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a 'feminist’ story, the woman kicks ass and wins," Portman said. "That’s not feminist, that’s macho." We're still waiting for a character who renders that word irrelevant.
Lead photo: Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa. (Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures)