But what about movies? It was all the way back in 1986 that Sigourney Weaver trounced “Aliens” and landed on the cover of Time, supposedly presaging an era of action heroines. But there haven’t been so many: Angelina Jolie in the “Tomb Raider” adventures, “Salt” and a few other hectic flicks; Jennifer Lawrence in the unfolding “Hunger Games” serial. Last summer Kristen Stewart’s “Snow White” needed a “Huntsman” at her side, and this summer? I see an “Iron Man,” a “Man of Steel” and Will Smith, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Channing Tatum all shouldering the weight of civilization’s future. I see no comparable crew of warrior goddesses.
Heroines fare better on TV, but even there I’m struck by the persistent stereotype of a woman whose career devotion is both seed and flower of a tortured private life. Claire Danes in “Homeland,” Mireille Enos in “The Killing,” Dana Delany in “Body of Proof” and even Mariska Hargitay in “Law & Order: SVU” all fit this bill.
All of the lame female lead characters fail to resonate with us (unless we're social retards) because they don't provide a convincing motivation for why a woman is so gung-ho and daring, when they typically are non-confrontational and cautious.
Perhaps the strongest motivation a woman might have to assert herself in a confrontation is her maternal instinct. In the feminized and faggotized culture of the past 20 years, that simple insight has vanished from common understanding. Hence she's given motives that are typical of men and totally out of character for women, like bold exploration for its own sake (Tomb Raider), honor and vengeance (Kill Bill), exercising authority to uphold justice (Olivia Benson from Law & Order: SVU, who should have been a social worker), et ceteraaaaaaa...
The most believable and memorable female characters who risk violence in pursuit of their goals are all motivated by maternal instinct, whether toward their own offspring or toward others who push their maternal instinct buttons. Most notably, the Faye Dunaway and Isabella Rossellini characters from Chinatown and Blue Velvet. They represent a skillful and humbling subversion of the femme fatale archetype, where we're led to believe that she's going to be yet another one of those destructively self-focused women we've seen so many times from mid-century film noir. Yet it turns out that they are among the most praiseworthy characters in the movie, and have been acting all along out of a drive to protect their children -- among other, more questionable motives, of course. Wouldn't be interesting if their motives had no complexity and contradictions, would it?
The Rachel Ward character from After Dark, My Sweet is an interesting, though less successful example of this subverted femme fatale type. She hasn't been motivated by maternal instinct all along, indeed she feels callously toward a child she has helped to kidnap and hold for ransom. However, she does have a change of heart that introduces new tension among the criminal characters, and her change is believable because it stems from an irrepressible maternal instinct. This movie was made a bit too late within the heyday of neo-noir movies, 1990, to have been executed as well as Chinatown (1974) or Blue Velvet (1986), but the character is not unconvincing.
In fact, Ripley from Aliens doesn't feel so outrageously unbelievable because there's such a strong maternal motivation driving her to do anything in order to protect a small orphan girl whose entire family and community have been destroyed.
Even when they are not the lead characters and do not face so much danger, a mother whose child has been taken from her can still deliver a convincing damn-the-torpedoes approach to action, such as those from Poltergeist and Child's Play.
And then there are the female characters who are motivated to protect and mother those who are not their own offspring, but who they feel a big sisterly or surrogate motherly relationship with. Sarah Connor nurses Kyle Reese in The Terminator, where she is also motivated to violently confront an enemy that wants to kill her unborn son. The "final girl" archetype who survives at the end of the slasher flicks tends to be a babysitter (Halloween), camp counselor (the Friday the 13th series), and so on. The female protagonist in Labyrinth is driven to rescue her baby brother from a goblin king before it's too late.
The only real counter-example of a convincing female character who doggedly risks violence to pursue her goals, without maternal motivation, is Princess Leia from the Star Wars movies. She isn't acting on behalf of her kin, or to protect surrogate children. The character succeeds, though, because she isn't the primary or even secondary line of defense -- that would be all the male warrior types from those movies. And she relies less on physical strength or prowess with weaponry, and more on the forcefulness of her personality. Women have been known to be pushy and aggressive when you give them power.
And with human beings, it's not like with gorillas where it all comes down to brute strength -- having social influence and a dominant personality can take you pretty far without having to back it up with the threat of personal violent retaliation. Humans are more like chimpanzees, where politicking plays a much greater role than violent confrontation. And women have been known to be good at politicking.
Perhaps most importantly for the success of that character, Leia never reduces herself to petty cattiness, bitchiness, and pissiness. Getting easily offended, showing thin skin, and generally getting all huffy when something thwarts her goals would mark her as an immature middle school girl, incapable of rising to a position of power. No, she's more like the bossy Catholic school nun who ain't gonna take any shit from you buncha brats.
Although half-Jewish, Carrie Fisher did not tap into that side of her personality by portraying a guilt-tripping and castrating Jewish mother type, but something closer to a dominant Irish or Italian martinet mama bear. She's also part Scotch-Irish, so I'm guessing that's where she summoned that forceful rather than bitchy attitude from.
Well, now we're getting off onto another post altogether, so I'll end it there. But you get the idea: female characters who risk extreme violence must have some kind of strong maternal motivation, or else it will fail to convince an audience. I mean, an audience that isn't retarded about what men and women are like.
With higher levels of social isolation, more and more of the society is totally clueless about what women are like, and has no trouble consuming cultural products that feature butt-kicking babe types. That's just as true in our cocooning Millennial era as it was during the asocial mid-century, when butt-kicking babes were a staple of popular culture, most notably in the widespread comic book and pulp fiction media, and to a lesser extent in film noir. Once people start to come out of their shells again, they'll learn more about basic truths of human nature and find it unappealing and even off-putting to see warrior princess schlock.