Put the Spotlight on Her: Action Movies Need More Female Leads

Marvel fans have been clamoring for a Black Widow movie for years now, with no luck. DC fans have been begging for a Wonder Woman movie since what feels like the dawn of time. We’ve had signed petitions, we’ve tried to crowd-fund, we’ve tried knocking on production companies’ doors until they heard us, and for as long as I have been a part of the geekdom of life, asking for more female leads has all seemed in vain.

Female characters in action movies were there to prop up the main male character with either their magical healing vaginas, or their fridgeing for the sake of manpain. The early 2000s saw a boost in female characters in action movies that took part in the action, though we were always reminded that they aren’t like the other girls. This lead to the uprising of the trend to make the powerful female character be basically a male character with boobs: no showing emotions, no flaws, just a cardboard personality and a gun, who cares about motivation.

Mad Max: Fury Road Furiosa
You did good, Fury Road. God, you did so good.

And then along came Mad Max: Fury Road, and thousands of women and girls, geeks and dabblers alike, basically orgasmed in their seats right there in the movie theater. Here was an action-packed blockbuster that was unapologetic in giving the female characters the spotlight. Max Rockatansky was, although the name on the movie poster and the focus point of the franchise, just a participant in this epic journey, he was not the focal point of it. Mad Max: Fury Road got you in the seats and kept you on the edge of it until the very end, and not a single female character was sexualized, objectified, or treated as a prop. The women of the movie were the heroes, Max was the sidekick, and we loved it.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Rey
(not pictured: me going “aaaAAAAAAAAAHHHH!!!” at the movies and then tearing up)

Christmas 2015 gave us the gift that is Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I remember marathoning IV, V and VI just before the new movie came out (there is no prequel saga, shhh), and thinking that as awesome as the trilogy was, it would’ve been more awesome to see more about Force-sensitive Leia played out, and less of that golden bikini. I also remember watching the trailers for SW:TFA and the movie posters and thinking, hoping, that maybe Rey was the main event. And she was. Yet somehow Disney seemed surprised that all their Kylo Ren merchandise was stagnating on the shelves, because everyone wanted Rey merchShocking.

The conclusion with these two examples is that you can put the focus on the female character and still make a kickass blockbuster that will bring people to the movies over, and over, and over again. Recently it has been revealed that 52% of gamers are female, yet video game companies don’t seem to have gotten the memo yet. They still seem to cater to that minority that is white fanboys (oh, excuse me, I meant to say “real fans“). I wouldn’t be surprised if we next heard that female consumers are more likely to watch an action movie again (and again, and again) than male consumers.

The thing is, it’s only now dawning on movie makers that they don’t have to include a birth scene to get women in the seats for their blockbuster remakes of cult movies (you hear that, J.J. Abrams?), and that their female public doesn’t need a glossed-over romance to be interested in the 17th movie of a saga (unpopular opinion time: Joss Whedon, what the fuck.) — it’s the 17th movie in your saga, if we’ve been to all the others and haven’t demanded more romance so far, we don’t need it; not if it’s going to be there just to fill in a couple of tropes. (Let’s get one thing straight: when we ask for a Black Widow movie, we’re not secretly asking for a romcom about spies.)

Anyway, on track.

Since I’m an optimist, I’m hoping that in the coming years, we’ll see more action movies like SW:TFA and MM:FR. It’s not hard, the foundations are basically there, it’s just a lot of hit and miss as far as choosing the white male as the main character of a blockbuster. If you don’t believe me, consider these three examples.


 

PACIFIC RIM

Mako Mori Pacific Rim
We could have had it all. Rolling in the deep Pacific (Rim).

Pacific Rim brought with it the Mako Mori test, which is a much better improvement of the Bechdel test, because some claim that the latter passes movies that allow misogynistic content or female-characters to be sidelined. But if you think about it Pacific Rim isn’t the story of Mako Mori: it should’ve been, though.

Just consider if the movie had revolved around Mako: her struggles over the loss of her family, her trauma leftover from the Tokyo attack, her relationship with Stacker Pentecost, her drive to get in that Jaeger and avenge her family while keeping the world safe. Not only would we have gotten a fresh new perspective on an already pretty fresh take on robot-vs-monster movies, but we would have had a woman of color front-lining an action movie. (Plus, more Idris Elba screentime? Very likely.) Raleigh Becket’s story would still get told, but maybe we’d see it told through Mako’s eyes: the pilot who dropped off the surface of the Earth after losing his brother for being reckless, now coming back and taking away Mako’s right to pilot Danger herself after all the work she put on it, and all the potential she has (51/51, eat it).

Look, I could write a million pages on how great PacRim would’ve been if it had been about Mako Mori, with Raleigh taking the same amount of spotlight she got in the actual movie. I would point out that it would’ve knocked that “I know you’re literally the most capable soldier we’ve got, honey, but you’re a girl and you’re my daughter, so you can’t go fight because I want to protect you” right on its ass. And it would’ve been glorious. Not saying Pacific Rim wasn’t awesome; I’m saying it could’ve been epic.


 

ANT-MAN

Screenshot from Ant-Man
“Listen, I know you really want to take down Cross yourself and you’re excellently positioned to do so, not to mention the fact that you’re probably the one who brought his plans to my attention, but I’m gonna need you to train this ex-con goofball to do it instead. Because I love you, that’s why.”

Hey, speaking of that “I know you’re literally the most capable soldier, honey, but…” trope, what the hell were Ant-Man writers thinking? I left the movie theatre wondering why we’d just watched a movie about a guy who doesn’t know what he’s doing in that suit for the first half of the movie, while the female character is clearly more than capable to get the job done on her own. Because her father wanted to protect her.

Because clearly the first thing Hope would’ve done upon getting in that Wasp suit would’ve been to go subatomical just for shits and giggles (oh, those female hormones, who can tell with them!). Though a charismatic actor, Paul Judd’s Ant-Man as a lead made zero to one percent sense. I know Marvel wanted to bring Ant-Man into the fold of the Avengers, but do you know who would’ve been even cooler? The Wasp, one of the founders of the Avengers in the comics.

But no, instead we got well-known domestic abuser Hank Pym telling his daughter that he had her feeling unworthy (if not worthless) for decades because he was protecting her. What’s worse, we got the tragically undervalued Evangeline Lily’s Hope van Dyne cracking out a few soulful tears and being forgiving and understanding, when her dad was basically being a misogynistic little shit.

Sigh.


 

THE EDGE OF TOMORROW

Promotional poster for The Edge of Tomorrow (edited)
This is Rita Vrataski: the Angel of Verdun. She’s a skilled fighter, soldier, and she’s got a lot of tragic backstory. But anyway, the movie’s not about her.

Yes, we’re still on the same trope. Best soldier out there finds out the weakness of the invading alien race from a good-for-nothing civilian and instead of buckling up and taking down the aliens herself, she decides that a training montage would be cuter. I would have paid ten times to watch Emily Blunt do push-ups for three seconds, they really lost an opportunity there.

Better yet, make the Groundhog Day plot device happen to Rita, show us how she struggled with the repeated loss of so many of her peers, why it took a toll on her, why she decides to maybe train Cage in the hopes of ultimate success. Give us reasons, and background story, and possibly less of Tom Cruise, thanks.

I mean, come on. We’re already going to see him in Mission Impossible movies until his character gets rheumatism, so give us a break.


 

But like the writer said, what’s done is done, and we can’t really go back and change the way certain movies were made. Even if we wanted to; and I know some of us really, really do.

Perhaps with the increased attention paid to characters the likes of Katniss Everdeen, Furiosa, and Rey, we will be able to see a new style of movies: movies that realize that writing a strong female character in the lead doesn’t mean giving her a gun and making her a tomboy by default. It means giving her backstory, motivation, allowing her to have emotions, to have goals, to fail and to succeed, to be afraid and to pull through, to cry and to laugh.

In short, to be a human being.

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Paula G.
Paula is a linguist, which basically means she's unemployed most of the time, so writing about random fandom (and rhyming) fills up her time. When she's not being awesome, Paula turns back into a unicorn and takes naps and stuff.

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