Butt-kicking babes

Apr 11, 2001 at 12:00 am

She unloads two shotguns while swinging from the ceiling on a fraying rope. She wipes blood from her lip as carelessly as if it were smeared lipstick. And throughout the preview for the latest tough-chick action movie, Tomb Raider, Angelina Jolie, starring as video-game heroine Lara Croft, walks strong, talks tough and fights foes in a feminized version of Rambo meets Die Hard. Unlike her cinematic male counterparts, Jolie pummels her enemies while in the skimpiest of shorts, wearing holsters that look like garters. When she flirts with death, her sexuality is a key piece of her arsenal.

“I could never kill you,” one slick gent says weakly, with the sincerity of a stranger on a bar stool.

“I didn’t say you could kill me,” she banters back coyly, eyebrows raised and plump lips pursed. “I said you could try.”

Jolie’s sex-kitten Croft, headed for theaters this summer, leaps into action as the latest addition to an undeniable trend in the evolution of today’s action hero, the butt-kicking babe. Recent films including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Charlie’s Angels and The Matrix have all featured women who can not only hold their own, but prevail in combat.

On television, female heroes have gone the way of undead-dueling “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” genetically engineered “Dark Angel,” historic cult-hit “Xena: Warrior Princess” or the cartoon animated superheroes “Powerpuff Girls.” Movies, TV shows and video games such as “Tomb Raider” have launched a full-frontal, multimedia assault with visions of women warriors dominating male and female villains.

Producers wouldn’t crank out female action heroes if audience response wasn’t overwhelmingly positive. Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was nominated for 10 Oscars and won four; it’s now the top-grossing foreign language film in America. “Buffy” put the then-fledgling Warner Brothers television network on the map when it began in 1997; now several networks are vying for the vampire slayer’s millions of fans. Malls and schools across America show that beloved butt-kicking preschoolers the Powerpuff Girls are an enormous success, both on the air and in marketing merchandise.

Not everyone is thrilled. Critics are calling for the heroines to drop their weapons and put on more clothes. Surprisingly, the loudest complaints aren’t coming from conservatives urging women to trade their weapons for baking utensils, but rather from feminists and liberal media-watchdog groups concerned about sexist portrayals of violent female heroines.

“I am awash in a ‘Dark Angel,’ ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ glow. I have seen women kick butt in Charlie’s Angels and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and, in my heart of hearts, I know this much is true: It’s good for the economy,” Margaret Finnegan writes in a widely celebrated January article in the Los Angeles Times, “Sold! The Illusion of Independence.”

Finnegan argues that the image of butt-kicking babes is much harder for feminists to fight than the staid, June Cleaver image: “The commercial embrace of kick-butt girls breeds a less-obvious threat to women’s struggle for equality: the illusion of equality. Feminism has fewer enemies.”

Since then, others have cautioned against today’s heroines as scantily clad, oversexualized male fantasies who promote barbaric shows of strength rather than women’s equality; such heroines may even encourage violence against women.

So why do I love these butt-kicking babes?

Crouching Tiger, hidden danger

In the first 15 minutes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, leading ladies Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and Jiao Long Yu, or Jen (Ziyi Zhang), engage in a beautiful battle over a stolen sword. They spar with strength and impeccable form, running up walls, gliding over rooftops and twisting with the grace of dancers.

The two women square off later in a much more brutal battle. Yeoh boasts years of experience as a warrior; Jen has a young prodigy’s fighting spirit. They use intellect and emotion as well as strength and skill, but both fights are clearly shows of force.

“Personally, I love it. There’s nothing more wonderful than a strong woman, one who is strong physically and mentally,” says James Lull, a professor of communication studies at San Jose State University. “But at one level there’s a concern about any kind of butt-kicking — that there’s a certain level of danger with it. We tend to glorify power, success, competition, all of the things that feed into butt-kicking. And there’s a certain overall negative consequence of the way we glorify violence.”

Lull says that whereas European films have found ways to portray deep, complex emotional conflict, too many movies — especially American ones — rely on WWF-inspired action.

“In America it’s all about knock them down, kick their ass. That discredits the consumer, it takes away deeper emotional interpretation,” Lull says. The concept of butt-kicking girls “reduces them to this visible male conflict. Football, Arnold, Rambo — there are media archetypes in our cultural memory in which male-dominated conflict leading to violence is celebrated. Now it has spilled over into the realm of female stars.”

Belief in women’s ability to conquer is nothing new. But instead of showing women as manipulators —using The Rules to get a man and passive-aggressive guilt trips to control him — the new heroes are just plain aggressive.

“Here come the girls, they’re powerful, they can be just as stupid as the guys, and with physical violence they’ve fallen to the level of males,” Lull says. “This … is a liberation of the body but an imprisoning of the spirit.”

In contrast, Lull says he worships Mary Tyler Moore.

“She could talk fast, think fast. She was not the traditional woman, and had a strong, commanding personality,” Lull coos. “She didn’t need to resort to violence. She showed competence and confidence.”

Besides Moore, he says, many of his heroines stem from the African-American community. Not just Pam Grier as Foxy Brown, but women such as Sarah Vaughan, Bessie Smith and Janet Jackson all get high marks because they helped give voice to black women’s experiences.

“Black women have been butt-kicking by necessity,” Lull says. “It’s not superhuman, just a matter of everyday life.”

What kids see

Martial arts powerhouse Michelle Yeoh has starred in movies other than Crouching Tiger, including Hong Kong’s answer to Charlie’s Angels, The Heroic Trio; Jackie Chan’s Supercop; and Tomorrow Never Dies, with Pierce Brosnan as James Bond. But her most direct on-screen statement about women warriors comes from an obscure 1994 import, Wing Chun, about a legendary female martial artist.

During the film, a sleazy male villain mocks Yeoh’s capabilities.

“Men are better than women, except at having babies,” he sneers. “Therefore I am certain to beat you, and afterward you can go home and get on with having your babies.”

The diminutive Yeoh delivers her response, without a word, in a swift series of kicks that leaves him a whimpering pile.

Critics say that plenty of butt-kicking women on-screen are ultimately most concerned with being sexy, finding a man to make their lives complete and settling down. They say that heroines are less concerned with achieving female liberation than satisfying male fantasy.

Patty Miller, who researches kids and the media for Oakland, Calif.-based Children Now, worries that contemporary butt-kicking heroines teach young girls that their appearance and sex appeal should be top priority. Children Now used to function as a television watchdog, but has expanded to study movies, teen magazines, music videos and video games.

“I think that in the last few years we’ve started to see a lot more women portrayed as protagonists. But they are violent protagonists,” Miller says. These are images of strong women, but they are “often highly sexualized.”

Miller cites Lara Croft of “Tomb Raider” as an example of the violent, sexual, scantily clad heroine. In December, Children Now released a report which found that nearly half of all top-selling video games in the United States contain unhealthy messages for girls, including unrealistic body image — tiny waists supporting unusually large breasts — as well as violent and provocative behavior and women in very little clothing.

Miller adds that many video game heroines have a disturbing habit of sighing, as if with sexual pleasure, during violent battles.

“I think it can be very confusing to young women — we want to see girls and women portrayed as strong and powerful, not strong and highly sexual,” Miller says. “The message now is that it’s OK to be strong and assertive, but you better be sexual and attractive.”

Children Now is conducting research about television and girls’ body image, although it hasn’t published an official study yet. Miller says that two-thirds of young women want to look like their favorite TV characters, and one-third of those surveyed reported “altering themselves” to resemble the stars.

For example, Charlie’s Angels starred Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu as the legendary crime-fighting trio who work for a mysterious millionaire. In scene after scene they pummel villains while managing to look sexy in stylish outfits from trim-fitting, leather-laden wardrobes.

In a recent discussion with sixth-graders at Spring Hill Elementary in Santa Cruz, Calif., many of the girls expressed mixed feelings about the movie. They liked it, but many girls felt it showed more skin than necessary.

“They could also be bad role models. Little girls would think they have to look like that,” 12-year-old Amanda says. “Or that they have to be really skinny to be strong.”

McWimps to warriors

Critics need to remember the hordes of horrible female characters who came before today’s butt-kicking babes.

In 1991’s Thelma & Louise, a turning point for tough-chick movies, two friends escape an oppressive small town, one leaving behind an abusive husband. They go on a crime spree that includes shooting a would-be rapist and blowing up the truck of a lecherous, tongue-wagging driver. Even passive Thelma gets assertive after getting “laid proper” by a sexy young thief, played by Brad Pitt. But their liberation is so frenzied and unstable that they opt for what appears to be a suicidal dive off a cliff.

“Their revenge is neither intelligent nor focused. Naturally, they are punished for their adventure — they go over the cliff in freeze-frame,” writes author Susan Isaacs in her book, Brave Dames and Wimpettes: What Women are Really Doing on Page and Screen.

Isaacs’ opening chapter is “I am woman, hear me roar ... About how I’ve been abused, misused, violated, and discriminated against,” in which she slices through female characters with a respectable lack of mercy.

“Oh, sure, we talk a good game: Assertiveness. Power. Take back the night. Just do it. After all, we’ve been through a television revolution in women’s rights in the last 30-odd years,” Issacs says. “Except even after all the fireworks, speeches and marches, our female icons seem to me a pretty pathetic lot.”

The book lays out in gruesome detail examples of past portrayals of women, who are often reduced to stereotypes as helpless, weak and in need of a good man. Isaacs also argues that intelligent, sexy women are often shown as psychotic and evil, like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct or Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.

“Brilliant women, erotic women, scheming women and powerful women are so threatening by virtue of the simple fact that they exist that they cannot be allowed to live,” Isaacs says. “The message to men was: Stick with your lukewarm wife. Hot sex with a free woman is perilous. The message to everyone was: Bad things happen to strong women.”

Fatal Attraction may have lobbied against extramarital affairs, but it also taught that intelligent, sexy career women threaten marriage, children — and even the family pet.

However, today’s butt-kicking babes fight for good rather than use all their energy to win the object of their affections or obsessions. Action heroines are also very different from the strong women in many “chick flicks.”

Relationships among the “Powerpuffs” and the women of Crouching Tiger, “Buffy” and even the Angels are quite different from those of films such as Where the Heart Is, last year’s tearjerker starring Natalie Portman and Ashley Judd. Heart’s women are both abused by various sleazy men and seem to gain their status by how much horrible treatment they’ve endured. Their friendship grows as they experience abandonment (in the cruelest of all places — a small-town Wal-Mart), infidelity and domestic violence at the hands of scumball guys.

Isaacs calls this phenomenon the “hero-martyr,” women who are abused but are morally above striking back.

It’s not that there haven’t been butt-kicking women in the past. Hong Kong martial arts movies have long featured women, including the legendary Pei Pei Cheng, who came out of retirement to play aging criminal Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger.

In the United States most female action stars have been more campy than credible. “Wonder Woman,” “The Bionic Woman,” “Electra Women” and “DynaGirl” were fun to watch but difficult to take very seriously.

And for every cartoon that features female action heroes, such as “Wonder Woman” or the “Powerpuff Girls,” there are a dozen Polly Purebreds, the canine damsel in distress who was constantly crying for help from her caped superhero in “Underdog.”

It seems critic Isaacs’ prime example of the “wimpette” is TV lawyer Ally McBeal.

“Ally McBeal is a litigator far longer on legs than brains,” Isaacs writes. “McBeal proves you can send a girl to college, but not even seven years of higher education can stay her from doing what comes naturally — trying to catch a man. ... Put a woman in a CEO’s chair, give her a prestigious profession, then let her act like a dumb broad.”

What women want

Critics say the babes are a result of marketing geared toward selling what advertisers think women want. “From Nike to Gatorade, American advertisers are sold on the image of independent, resourceful, kick-butt girls,” Finnegan writes in the Los Angeles Times.

Her article makes solid arguments about mass marketing’s prostitution for profits.

“During the 1910s, advertisers routinely pirated slogans from the women’s suffrage movement. Women “voted” for toothpaste, soup, crackers and dubious medical elixirs long before they elected political candidates,” she writes. “The revival of feminism in the 1960s and ‘70s prompted a similar appropriation of feminist rhetoric.”

Virginia Slims, has shifted from its “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” campaign a newer pseudo-liberated slogan: “Find Your Voice.”

While she acknowledges that butt-kicking babes allow for a greater variety of female characters, Finnegan is concerned.

“Feminism has few greater enemies,” she says of the kick-butt girls. They project an illusion of equality that “breeds complacency. Worse yet, it implies that feminism is obsolete. Who needs it? Girls can do anything. They can be anything. I’ve seen it on TV so it must be true.”

Other critics propose kick-butt heroines may ultimately fuel violence against women.

“For if women can beat down men in the movies, how long will it be until the reverse becomes perfectly acceptable — first in the movies, and then in real life?” writer Gina Arnold asks in a January article for the online magazine Salon.

But violence against women was a reality long before the butt-kicking babes came along. Statistics show that up to 25 percent of college-age women have been sexually assaulted, and many of those attacks came long before the current crop of female heroines.

Rage against the man

Bettina Aptheker, professor of women’s studies at University of California-Santa Cruz, says that she remembers the audience response to Thelma & Louise as clearly as the film itself.

“The women in the theater cheered when they blew up the truck,” Aptheker says, “because so many women have shared that experience of being harassed and honked at. The movies, the pop culture, taps into women’s feelings — the rage — and it can be cathartic.”

Beyond marketing, she feels this rage is fueling the explosion of butt-kicking heroines.

For decades Aptheker has worked with self-defense classes. Many women come to those classes not only hurt, but angry, she says

“One of the things that comes up … is the hurt, the rage, as women are kicking ass, or I should say, using physical force,” she continues. “We’re so conditioned not to express anger that many women find it difficult. One woman in class couldn’t do it for a long time and she finally told me, ‘I don’t believe I have a self to defend.’”

Aptheker believes that suppressed rage made Thelma & Louise, Fried Green Tomatoes (with its car-smashing scene) and Crouching Tiger such box office successes.

“We should never underestimate how angry women are,” she warns.

Aptheker says that while self-defense classes teach physical maneuvering, they emphasize verbal sparring, being assertive, saying no and being verbally aggressive if necessary. Since many rapes are acquaintance rapes, instructors see self-defense as more than physical training.

“We do a lot of counseling. You don’t want to strike out randomly with anger. You want to channel the rage,” Aptheker says.

The longtime feminist doesn’t seem too concerned about whether the butt-kicking babes are teaching women false lessons.

“I don’t think butt-kicking babes create an illusion of equality. If anything else, it re-establishes the existing inequality,” she says. “You know you can’t slay vampires. You know you’d be arrested by police — probably by a male cop.”

In her book, Tapestries of Life, Aptheker devotes a chapter to imagination and fantasy, exploring the history of women warriors and folklore and legends about them in various cultures, including Chinese, African and Caribbean traditions.

Hanging behind the desk in her women’s-studies department office is a full-color, signed photo of Xena, weapon in hand, surrounded by flames. It reads, “Bettina, Intro to Fem rocked my world! Battle On, Xena.”

“No, Xena didn’t really take my class,” Aptheker laughs. “It was a gift from my daughter’s partner.”

Me? A bully?

During my television-addicted childhood, I often went to bed terrified after watching women victimized on primetime TV. After Halloween, I began building walls of stuffed animals up to the top of my bunk bed each night to ward off potential serial killers and stalkers.

When I began studying martial arts nearly four years ago, a former boyfriend was appalled.

“Why do you want to do that?” he finally asked. “It’s so violent!”

Several weeks later, after wrestling with the image of myself as a violent bully, I ended up locked out of a friend’s apartment in the middle of the night. While walking past a group of 20 men hanging out on a quiet, dark corner, drinking 40-ouncers from paper bags, my first thought wasn’t “What could they do to me?” but “What could I do to them?”

Then I realized what training in Tae Kwon Do had given me. I never have had the privilege of living without the fear of being a victim, but martial arts has taught me that I am much more than a walking target, that even the littlest women can kick some serious ass.

There’s plenty of violence in television and movies already, but for me, seeing women as more than victims is a refreshing change. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator Joss Whedon says that he created super-strength Buffy as a reaction to female victims in horror movies.

“It’s a horrible double standard to have male action heroes and not female action heroes,” the show’s co-executive producer Marti Nixon says.

Buffy and the other butt-kicking babes may be flawed heroines, but even teen magazines such as Seventeen show that they’re changing the ways young women think.

The young women surveyed in an issue about dreams said they most often dreamt that they were Buffy, slaying vampires and demons.

Women wielding weapons might not be ideal in the films and television shows of a violence-free world. Until such a world exists, I would much rather watch more woman warriors kicking butt and fewer quivering, helpless waifs crying for help any day.

See the trailer for the upcoming movie Tomb Raider at www.tombraidermovie.com.

This story originally appeared in Metro/Silicon Valley where Mary Spicuzza is a staff writer. E-mail [email protected]