action, Alien, badass, Bechdel Test, burlesque, damsel in distress, faux-fighting, feminism, fun, institutional prejudice, movies, Pam Grier, rape, rape culture, refrigerator trope, sexism, sexual objectification, sexuality, The Expendables, The Expendables 2, violence against women, waif-fu
(This is an exceptionally long post, because there’s a whole lot to say on this subject. I also want to include a trigger warning as this post contains discussion of sexual violence. The majority of that discussion is in the section clearly marked ‘rape as a plot device,’ however there is some mention of sexual assault outside that.)
I loved The Expendables, and I loved The Expendables 2 even more because this happened:
(Spoiler alert? This does happen within the first twenty minutes of the film.)
Jean-Claude Van Damme consistently challenges my preconceived notions of kicking, and that my friends is ART.
Both Expendables movies have been big hits and deservedly so. So what’s the next step? Apparently it’s to cross the gender divide and make not one, but two all-female action movies in the same mold. At this point the details are scarce, so it’s hard to know whether to be excited or disappointed. Here’s what we do know:
- Spin-off #1 is a still-untitled project set to star MMA-fighter-turned-actress Gina Carano and Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff. It’s being produced by Adi Shankar, of The Grey and Dredd 3D fame. The script is by an unknown with the fantastic name of Dutch Southern.
- Spin-off #2 is a project by Millenium Films (the company behind The Expendables), and it’s being called… wait for it… ExpendaBelles. There’s no attached cast as yet but the script’s been assigned to Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, the duo behind Legally Blonde, The Ugly Truth, and She’s the Man. The stated aim is to show the “feminine side” of the mercenary business.
As a woman who’s both a feminist and an action movie fan, I’m dying to see a film showcase the collective talents of Our Ladies of Action (blessed be the fruit of their ass-kicking). And as a woman who’s both a feminist and an action movie fan, I’m very cautious about considering either of these projects that dream-fulfilling movie. The untitled Shankar project gives me the most hope, basically because we know the least about it (leaving it open to potential). The ExpendaBelles is already making me cringe, but it’s still too early in the process to know how it’ll turn out. It’s always possible that McCullah Lutz and Smith will depart from their previous work, that the “feminine side” comment is just a throwaway line, and that the cutesy title isn’t indicative of the overall tone… but the likelihood of all three being misleading is unlikely. I’d hold out more hope for a director or producer who intervenes to make it an entirely different movie.
Unfortunately, the filmmaking community at large doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to women in general, let alone women in so-called guy movie genres like action. For starters there’s the fact that most films can’t even pass the Bechdel Test (that link is a must-read summary for anyone not familiar with this territory). To review, here’s what passing the test entails:
- The movie has at least two female characters,
- Who have a conversation with each other,
- About something other than a man.
The Bechdel Test isn’t designed to measure progressive themes or feminist content; all it measures is whether women are present in the film and whether their presence goes beyond their relation to male stories. If you want to understand a culture’s attitudes about gender and equality, it doesn’t get more basic than this. Mind you, a film can be feminist and not pass the test, and likewise be totally misogynist while passing (many contemporary rom-coms do exactly that). The classic Bechdel Test pass example is Alien. Not because of it’s depiction of gender equality, presence of an intelligent and capable female authority figure, and examination of the horrors of rape for a male audience though. Nope, it passes because Ripley and Lambert converse briefly (very briefly) about the alien. The problem that the test actually highlights is that there’s a consistent pattern in our filmmaking culture of including women only inasmuch as they revolve around the men onscreen. It’s about privileging men’s stories as the real, universal stories while women’s stories are considered niche, uninteresting and unimportant. Which tells us that the culture considers women niche, uninteresting, and unimportant as compared to men.
You may be wondering why I’m bringing up the Bechdel Test in discussion of two proposed films that will most definitely feature multiple female characters who will no doubt speak to each other about (at the very least) weapons and the like. I’m positive both films will pass the test somewhere along the way. But it’s equally likely that both films will include male characters who will feature prominently in the ladies’ lives and plotlines, as boyfriends, mentors, targets, foes and support. Again, in principle there’s nothing wrong with that. But since we have a strong tradition of women only being interesting and important if their lives prominently feature men while men’s relationships with other men are consistently valued, explored and mythologized (eg, The Shawshank Redemption, Apocalypse Now, The Princess Bride, Toy Story, The Social Network, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The 40 Year Old Virgin, The Great Escape, District 9, Super 8, Seven Samurai, The Good the Bad & the Ugly, Rocky, Fight Club, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, A Hard Day’s Night, The Gold Rush, Easy Rider, There Will Be Blood, Bubba Ho-Tep, Office Space, Predator, Ed Wood, The Dirty Dozen, etc etc etc ad infinitum), it would be terrible to waste such a golden opportunity to explore women’s stories and relationships with the same dedication. I don’t need to see yet another movie telling me that men are important in women’s lives. What I do need to see is some representation of how important female relationships are in women’s lives, how women have value and complexity independent of men and interesting stories to tell that don’t revolve around men. And I need to see it outside the heavily stereotyped and sexist confines of the so-called chick-flick genre. I need to see women existing beyond the niche. And in a culture where the women’s rights movement is barely forty years old, we all need to see women given real representation- even in a movie about fictional mercenaries and badass explosions. Hell especially in a movie about fictional mercenaries and badass explosions- staking a claim so deep in “guy movie” turf would be a helluva coup for progress.
Beyond the issue of women’s presence and relationships with/without men onscreen, there are some other pitfalls these all-lady action flicks need to avoid before I can get truly, breathlessly excited about seeing them (and I want so badly to be truly and breathlessly excited!). Sticking to the sexist tropes that crop up most commonly in the action genre (I’m not writing an encyclopedia of sexism in film at large here… I have other things to do this year), here’s what I don’t want: cat-fights, faux-fighting, sexual objectification, the woman with just enough moxie to get into trouble and become a damsel in distress, and rape as a plot device.
Cat-fights: Understandably our female ensemble is going to encounter conflict, and sometimes that conflict will be with their teammates (otherwise holy hell will it be a dull story). What I mean by cat-fighting specifically is the stereotypical “girl fighting” where women screech and whine at each other, maybe pull some hair, and throw in sassy one-liners about who’s less feminine. These are mercenaries, and, more importantly, adults we’re supposed to root for and respect. Playful snarking and serious fights are awesome (both Expendables movies excelled at that); caricatures of women are not.
Faux-fighting: In the first Expendables movie there’s an ongoing feud between Dolph Lundgren’s hulking Gunnar and Jet Li’s Yang, over Yang’s lack of brawn and height (two things Lundgren’s got over most people). I found it particularly interesting because if there’s one thing women hear again and again it’s that brawn and size beat all when it comes to competitions of strength and power, ergo men and women can’t compete directly in sports, women can’t fight on the front lines, men will always be better at picking up things and getting jars open, etc. Of course the same rules don’t apply when it’s two men facing off- the bigger/brawnier competitor is far from a sure bet in fighting competitions and other sports. It’s classic “no really it’s biology not sexism when I say women are inferior” bullshit.
Let’s take a look at how things play out between Gunnar and Yang:
Does it look like Li can’t handle himself against a guy like Lundgren? Yang lands plenty of solid hits and does Gunnar some serious damage in that fight. In real life, yes, brawn and size can be significant advantages. But they’re far from the only advantages when it comes to a fight, and being the smaller competitor doesn’t mean you can’t take any hits or engage in serious combat. Unfortunately the movies don’t seem to understand this when it comes to a female fighter, so most of the time we get faux-fighting from our otherwise badass women. They jump around and twist and turn, but a single direct hit from a brawny competitor and they’re down or seriously weakened (waif-fu). Elaborate fighting styles and dodging blows is their only shot against an obviously superior foe (part of this is also the old pearl-clutching can’t-hit-a-woman-because-women-are-delicate-flowers Victorian-era bullshit, too- sexism is a complex web). In contrast, Yang takes some serious hits and doesn’t stumble or stay down. He also stands his ground, blocking Gunnar’s powerful hits instead of dodging them. This may sound silly to say about a choreographed fight in a larger-than-life action movie, but that’s what a real fight between brawn and skill looks like. That’s what I want to see when it comes to female fighters who are slighter than their enemies. At least the inclusion of Carano in Shankar’s project is a good sign on this front…
Sexual objectification: I’m going to refer you to some fantastic articles over at Sociological Images that sum up what sexual objectification is and why it’s harmful. In summary let me just say that there’s a big difference between sexual objectification and sexual characters. More likely than not at least some of the women in these spin-offs are going to be presented as sexy creatures and I’m all for that- so long these women are subjects, authors of their own desires and image. Human beings as opposed to dehumanized objects that exist for the use of others, whose ‘sexuality’ is entirely performed to the specifications of others for their approval. Sexuality is a wonderful thing and I would love to see some badass sexual women onscreen, but I absolutely do not want or need to see more women reduced to walking-talking masturbation fodder for a presumed male audience.
To help illustrate the distinction, check out this infamous video of some seven year olds dancing to Single Ladies. It’s a perfect example of women (girls in this case) performing a rigidly objectified sexuality for approval (and winning that approval big time). There’s no trace of their own individuality, personality or sexuality. And the fact that it’d be creepy and inappropriate for seven year old girls to perform a dance that invokes their individual sexual expression makes it even more obvious how objectifying and dehumanized this performance is (sure plenty of people do find it creepy, but listen to those roars of approval from the audience). In contrast, have a look at some burlesque (you might consider this NSFW). It’s a classic strip-tease that evolved in the same confines of male-approval-seeking, featuring plenty of T&A and titillation, but that my friends is what a woman expressing her own sexuality looks like within those spaces. And here are a few more, showcasing just how varied and individual these performances are. You can do sexy without doing sexual objectification.
The woman with just enough moxie to get into trouble and become a damsel in distress: Let the evolution of the Terminator movies illustrate this one, because unfortunately they did it perfectly. In The Terminator and Terminator 2 we got Sarah Connor, a woman who went from waitress to this:
Notice how she’s fighting men who are bigger than her and kicking their asses? And the only fight she runs away from is the unexpected one with the killer cyborg (who she’s only retreating from out of shock, but would absolutely come back to destroy later)? Also loving the female guard who doesn’t shy from punching Arnold-freaking-Schwarzenegger in the face. This is what real female badasses look like, and it’s beautiful.
But by Terminator Salvation we lost Sarah Connor and got Blair Williams instead, a woman whose real skill is apparently in finding conditioner and a curling wand in the apocalypse, because it sure as hell isn’t fighting. She’s a classic example of the pseudo-tough woman a lot of contemporary films will include to appear feminist, who’s really just a damsel in distress (in disguise). My favourite is how our hero has to save her from getting raped as soon as she’s overpowered by a few guys. Because in the reality of the post-Judgement Day world, there is no way in hell a woman of Blair’s alleged credentials wouldn’t either fend off rapists or know when to acquiesce and get away with the least violence done to her. That’s what survival would entail on a regular basis for her. If Blair was really this incapable when threatened, she’d be dead or a sex-slave already.
Last but not least, notice anything else different between these two? I’ll give you a hint: muscle.
Linda Hamilton looks like she can actually fight. She has muscle mass. Moon Bloodgood on the other hand has the classic toned-but-not-muscular look that keeps a woman suitably “feminine” for her audience. Also cleavage and pretty hair. Because that was apparently more critical for her character than the muscle she would need to fight and survive in a world ruled by killer machines (to be fair to Bloodgood, I doubt she was the one who made these choices. I don’t mean to attack her personally as an actress; this is about the direction taken by the director, screenwriters, et al).
Rape as a plot device: Last but not least, we come to rape. If women are in an action film it’s no surprise to see them sexually menaced, threatened with rape or revealing a history of sexual assault endured or barely avoided. Obviously violence is a given element of the action genre, but rape is a very real violence visited on women in the very real world outside your movie theatre. If there are women in your audience you can safely bet that several of them have been raped. It’s equally likely that, in a large theatre, one or two of your male viewers are rapists. We live in a rape culture. In that reality, rape is not something you invoke in ignorance or with a cavalier attitude. As with any other real-world atrocity, if you’re going to use it you had damnwell better know what the reality of rape is and have a good reason for using it.
Rape of principal female characters is typically used in three ways in our movies: as a traumatic part of her story arc, as an effective means of attacking and debasing her, and as an excuse for some female nudity.
This past summer the Tomb Raider video game franchise underwent a reboot and turned itself into a sterling example of the rape-as-past-trauma device in action. It was time to see our heroine Lara Croft’s origins, and (surprise!) they included sexual assault. Laurie Penny gets into a detailed breakdown of the problems with making rape the go-to past trauma for women, including this trope’s broader cultural implications (which are highly disturbing). Again, we’re talking about rape culture and the normalizing of sexual violence against women- including the presumption that “male gamers… can only carry on loving cold, powerful, beautiful Lara Croft if someone “break[s] her down”.”
The problem I want to get a little more into is when rape is seen as necessary for a female badass’ story arc. Male characters who need to undergo some developmental trauma typically see violence done to their loved ones (the refrigerator trope), but for female characters the default is to have them raped. Penny also points out that often as not male characters don’t even need a trauma-history explanation for their violence. In the Expendables films we don’t know why any of these men are mercenaries. They just are, and it’s awesome. We see them enjoying themselves, reminiscing about close-calls and past glory- as best we can tell, they do it because their respective high school job fairs included a mercenary booth.
But with female characters we typically need some reason to explain their unfeminine propensity for violence and badassery. As Penny puts it: “Women can’t just be born tough and cocksure – that has to be fucked and beaten into them, female violence as a response to and reflection of male violence.” This attitude is not something we need to see repeated yet again in what could potentially be an awesome all-female counterpart to the fantasy and fun of The Expendables. And if our respective filmmakers want to dig deeper with their characters and give us some painful backstory, then my plea is this: ditch the lazy rape trope, or do women’s experience of sexual violence justice (in which case we just went sailing way out of fun popcorn flick territory).
Likewise, when our heroines encounter brutality and menace during whatever mission they’re on, ditch the sexual assault. I’m not even going to get into why using rape to work in some titillating shots of female bodies is inexcusable (if someone doesn’t already get why conflating titillation with sexual violence against women is wrong then sensible conversation is clearly not going to happen). That leaves us with the violent encounters that are par for the course in the action genre. Clearly a film about mercenary women is going to feature some brutality and serious risks of bodily harm in it’s story- we want to see fighters fighting, afterall. But if we can accomplish hundreds of exciting action films featuring male heroes who are never subjected to even a hint of sexual violence, we can do the same for women. Using rape to menace your female character is lazy exploitation, a cheap shock in place of any real work or artistry. To quote Drew McWeeny’s admirable and sorely needed retort to this hateful go-to, “the point has been more than made on film that rape is a terrible thing, and at this point, if you’re not contributing some new idea to the conversation, then you are literally just using it as a button, something you push to get a response, and that unnerves me.”
Considering the reality of rape and rape culture mentioned earlier, it’s an even more despicable shock tactic. Rape is an act of violence that women live and breath every day, whether struggling in the aftermath of an attack or altering our lives in a million different ways to try and prevent it happening to us. And that’s just women in regular old cities and suburbs- your coworkers, friends, sisters, mothers and daughters. For women in combat situations the threat of sexual violence is even more immediate. For instance, the US military has been struggling to acknowledge and address an epidemic of rape of it’s female service members by their brothers in arms. Rape is also frequently wielded as a weapon of war, used as a means of terrorism and ethnic cleansing. So when you sit down to your screenplay and think to yourself “how can I convey to the audience that my heroine is in some serious trouble here?” think twice before shouting eureka and typing up a rape scene/threat. Treat this territory with the respect and gravity it’s survivor’s deserve.
There’s one last point I want to discuss about rape as a plot device, and it has to do with why rape is such a threat, why it unnerves the audience so consistently that it’s become a lazy button screenwriters and directors push. The answer is because we, our culture, give it that power. It stems in part from our longstanding historical perception of women as the possessions of men, which is a recent history we haven’t fully progressed beyond. Rape is traditionally about “property damage” (god it feels awful to type that), and the outrage largely about sullied goods. It’s about female “purity” and ownership, which is why we refer to the end of a woman’s virginity as a “loss” and something “taken” by her lover. So if you want to attack a woman, the sure-fire method of debasing her has always been sexual violence. She’s frequently viewed as irreparably broken afterwards. Damaged goods.
Using rape as a cavalier plot device perpetuates the power of sexual violence against women, by showing it again and again to be a simple and effective means of attacking any woman. The harm is only magnified when the act takes place within an otherwise larger-than-life story featuring heroines of practically mythic proportions. When your female characters can jump off buildings, mow down bad guys and pull off impossible stunts, what does it say when these veritable Amazons are subjected to rape or a serious threat of rape? It says that any woman, no matter how powerful, can be dominated and debased by rape. And that any man can dominate and debase any woman, even an Amazon. We do not need to see that sickening status quo reinforced in our summer popcorn flicks.
And with that I’ve pretty thoroughly covered what I don’t want in an all-female Expendables spin-off. Let’s polish this off with what would be fucking amazing! I don’t need to get into plot points and stunts- we already know how to make a fun or gritty action movie. They’ve made hundreds. They’ve made The Expendables! So long as they can avoid the aforementioned pitfalls that crop up as soon as writers and directors start thinking “female cast” means “uh oh now we can’t do everything we usually do that makes this genre sweet,” plot, fun and excitement are a done deal. Which means it’s all down to the casting, baby. Here are my personal dream cast essentials, in no particular order because every single one of these women is the tops:
- Pam Grier. You cannot have this movie without Pam Grier.
- Linda Hamilton. Obviously.
- Sigourney Weaver. Don’t even talk to me if Ripley’s not in it.
- Rosario Dawson. Death Proof. Sin City. Wonderful & badass.
- Jane Fonda. I picture her as the woman who runs the operation behind the scenes, or maybe as our villain.
- Jeannie Epper. She’s a legend and a phenomenal woman. Here she is fighting Pam Grier in Foxy Brown.
- Tracie Thoms. Just watch her.
- Michelle Yeoh. Stunning, a fighter, and strength personified.
- Maggie Cheung. Another fantastic actress who can kick some ass.
- Zoe Bell. Amazing stuntwoman, great actress, total badass.
- Daryl Hannah. She plays a mean villain, but I’d actually like to see her as a heroine in this one.
- Kathleen Turner. Wait, maybe Kathleen Turner should be the villain here… I want to hear that voice growling commands to a vicious army.
- Geena Davis. I have a soft spot for The Long Kiss Goodnight.
- Chiaki Kuriyama. Between Battle Royale and Kill Bill she obviously needs to be here.
- Jamie Lee Curtis. Enough said.
Feel free to add your cast suggestions in the comments! Even if we disagree though one thing should be abundantly clear: with all the available talent, it’s absurd that an all-female action ode hasn’t happened before now.