My first huge film crush was on Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2. Boy, the dreams I had about that woman. How enthralled I was by the classic tale of a wrongly sectioned woman leading her estranged son and a benign cyborg to hunt down an evil cyborg and avert the apocalypse. Terminator 2 remains radical: it has no romance subplot and an unmaternal mother at its heart. I was so mad for it.
But the action woman now is granted a little more breathing space to be something else: a lone hunter; an athletic warrior; a tough woman given an irrefutable mission to save society; a traumatised avenger; a secret agent who’s just doing her job; a serious, even brooding presence who doesn’t have to concede any feminine niceties.
There are some films that satisfy these basic criteria, although Angelina Jolie has bagged many of them, like Salt, Mr & Mrs Smith, Wanted, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. There’s Haywire, Milla Jovovich in the Resident Evil films, Jennifer Garner twirling daggers in Elektra, Kate Beckinsale doing vampire-werewolf stuff in the Underworld franchise and Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in the Avengers films. You even have survivalist Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
On the surface, this all looks great: big films with one woman character at the heart, shouting and fighting, competing, gaining vengeance or justice or completing the mission just like the men. Perhaps there are even one or two women directors. But the underlying, sexist rules are the same: the female action hero is always white, beautiful and sexy. If she is older than 45 she must still look 25; her body is toned to “perfection” and on display at all times. Above all, she is alone. She has no women comrades, no female friends, no sisters or women allies, no crew of homegirls.
A phrase has been coined for these women: “the fighting fucktoy”. A singular presence, charismatic and fast-thinking, but she is there to be looked at, not listened to, and she is not a woman’s woman. Her character doesn’t joke around with other women; she lives in relation to men, opposing them, playing them, hunting them, hating them, using them. Her narrative, her thinking, her dialogue and her impulses are always something to do with a man. Even when you have a woman front and centre, the symbolic importance of what she’s doing is undercut by the exceptionalism: she is presented as the one woman out of all of them who could do the job, the woman who is special, who is not like other women. She can be an alien, an assassin, a superhero; but she can’t be seen developing normal relationships of any kind with other women.
There are some exceptions, like the Alien films, which have female main characters in a mixed-sex crew that gets gored, crunched, beheaded, ruptured and dissolved in alien acid jizz with pleasing gender equality. And Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 gives Gamora a fantastic, angry, traumatised sister who wants to murder her abusive father and an antennaed empath character, aka “bug lady”, who’s played for laughs – but the story is still really about Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord and his Freudian struggles with his father.
An alien arriving at an Earth cineplex would conclude that for every eight men on the planet, there were only one or two women. Both as fictional female characters within the narrative playing out on screen and as women working in the film industry, women are isolated and outnumbered. They are the only women in the fictional cast and the only women on the team clocking in every morning. Hollywood can show one great female action character in one scene in one film at a time, but evidently two is too much to stomach; and women must not be shown enjoying the same easy, numerous occupation of space, speaking time, competence, character, friendliness and agency as men.
Right now, Patty Jenkins’s film Wonder Woman is breaking records all over the world. But for four-fifths of the film, Gal Gadot’s Diana, Queen of the Amazons, is the only woman on screen, alongside a whole bunch of forgettable men including Chris Pine, who literally steps in and hogs their scenes. Wonder Woman is radical in that the sweet and strong character of Diana is openly appalled by and refuses to accept the corruption, hypocrisy and immorality she sees around her. She is disgusted and offended by the unevolved, patronising machismo she is forced to navigate when she arrives in wartime London.
But the truly thrilling, moving and radical section of Wonder Woman happens briefly and right at the beginning, during Diana’s formative years on Themyscira, aka Amazon Island – a glorious haven of dynamic, athletic, strong, active women. I’m crossing my fingers that the Wonder Woman sequel will be set exclusively there. I’ve never seen anything like it on the big screen: women, many women, creating the rules and values of a society together, bonding, arguing, deciding and dynamically occupying space.