This feature is by Catherine Young, the current USC Annenberg-Rotten Tomatoes Digital Innovation and Entertainment Criticism fellow, a partnership with the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Cate is writing on the representation of women in film; read her piece, The Bling Ring, Debbie Ocean, And Why We Can’t Help But Love Cinema’s Designer Thieves, here.
The last 25 years have brought a slew of female action heroines to our screens. From Lorraine Broughton in Atomic Blonde and Letty Ortiz in the Fast and Furious franchise to Lucy in Lucy and Milla Jovovich’s Leeloo in The Fifth Element, women have been steadily kicking their way to center stage in a genre that once mostly excluded them.
These characters have very little in common on the surface – their story motivations don’t overlap and they come from all walks of life. But they are all connected by the way they are depicted on screen. The women are all physically strong, whizzes with weapons, or both; every one of them has a rousing “girl power” fight scene that drives home their physical prowess. The “power” is the key.
Instead of becoming an expanded avenue for female characters to flourish, the action genre has become a place where female characterization often goes to die. Combat skills have become a handy shortcut for films to skimp on true character development for the women in their story. Rather than learning about these women’s inner lives or motivations, we watch with glee as they raze through scene after scene of dangerous (nearly always male) thugs, and enjoy the minor thrill of seeing them act just like one of the boys. After all, if a female character lands enough punches, it can be easy to miss that she isn’t adding much depth to the story. This lazy narrative trick has meant that instead of getting character arcs, women have just been getting bigger and better guns. But there are other possibilities, and we’re finally starting to see them onscreen.
Female-led action films of the last five years have started showing that empathy is also an integral part of the heroic scaffolding. It’s noteworthy that by combining physical and emotional strength, films like Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, and Mad Max: Fury Road, demonstrate that women do not have to be emotional vacuums in order to live up to their heroic ideals.
In 2019’s Captain Marvel, the title hero spends most of the film being gaslit by her mentor. After absorbing an unimaginable cosmic power and being kidnapped by the Kree, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) is turned into a weapon for the galaxy’s villains against her will, and without her memory, she doesn’t know her own power. In the film’s final confrontation, her mentor turned nemesis, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) attempts to bait her into a fistfight, but she merely blasts him off his feet instead. She has nothing to prove. Over the course of the film’s run time she has learned that her physical strength and otherworldly abilities are not what make her valuable. Her true skill is in valuing the dignity of human life and a willingness to right the wrongs of her past.
Danvers’ narrative arc may feel unfinished to some, but what it succeeds in doing is showing that physical and emotional strength do not have to be mutually exclusive traits. As she regains her memory, Danvers must come to terms with the fact that she has been fighting on the wrong side of a colonial war, and her innate goodness is what propels her to defect to the side of the righteous. Though the story makes clear that she is possibly the singular most physically powerful being in the universe, it also takes the time to highlight that her emotions also bring her power. Her rage, love, and desire to be good make her physical power stronger and more lethal, feeding into her ability to protect the people who deserve it.
What makes Captain Marvel such an interesting example of the modern action hero is that part of the villain’s plan is to get her to repress her emotional side. Danvers is outfitted with an inhibitor chip meant to suppress her powers, and she is repeatedly told that in order to master them, she must release herself from emotional complications. It’s a direct engagement with the idea that feelings make women weak or less capable, and that’s what makes it all the more satisfying when her embrace of her full emotional range allows her to access the true extent of her power.
Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman similarly makes empathy a central part of its title character’s arc. Diana of Themyscira (Gal Gadot) is driven directly by her innate need to protect and defend the powerless. The very purpose of the Amazons – the powerful all-female tribe to which Diana belongs – is to protect mankind from the jealous god Ares. When fighter pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) washes up on the shores of her idyllic nation and tells the Amazons about a war that is ravaging the world, Diana feels obligated to intervene on behalf of humankind. Her purpose is to defend the helpless and ensure peace.
Throughout the film, Jenkins takes great pains to display and demonstrate Diana’s empathy. The famous No Man’s Land scene shows just how strongly Diana can draw from her emotions to effect real change. In the scene, Diana faces a violent threat directly, and acts in service of her empathy for the war’s victims, defeating an enemy and saving a town. The moment is the film’s best action scene, and it works so well because the audience understands Diana’s empathetic motivations.
Later, in the movie’s finale, Diana’s finding the strength to defeat Ares by drawing on her love for Steve could have played out as cliché, but it falls completely in line with the actions of an empathetic hero. With her hopes dashed and her belief shattered by Ares, it makes sense that Diana’s access to love, empathy, and a true belief in righteousness would be the thing that allows her to access her true power as Zeus’s “Godkiller.”
In Ares’ view, the only way to save the world is to rid it of humankind. But it is Diana’s radical empathy that allows her to see that people have a great potential for goodness, and deserve the chance to right their wrongs. This realization springs from her fundamentally different perspective on the inherent nature of people. People have the ability to be good or bad, but she chose to believe that given the chance, they would turn towards goodness. It’s a belief that’s rooted not just in the lore of Wonder Woman herself, but in the idea that people are not disposable. Wonder Woman was an excellent example of what a hero can be capable of when they access their full emotional capacity.
In Mad Max: Fury Road, Imperator Furiosa’s (Charlize Theron) motivation is rooted in her empathy for Immortan Joe’s five wives. The film also tackles larger themes of environmental pillage and economic scarcity. Furiosa’s decision to steal the women away and bring them to what she believes is a land of plenty, is a firm outgrowth of her understanding of the need for human dignity. Before the events of the film’s central conflict, Furiosa is a valued servant in Immortan’s vast empire, in good standing with his stifling world order. But the clear injustice of his treatment of not just women, but the very earth he stands on, prompts her to act.
Furiousa risks her life and Immortan’s wrath by leaving with his prized “broodmares,” but the danger she chooses to face is a direct reflection of her rejection of his world view. In this barren hellscape, women exist to be pumped for milk or to give birth to heirs. But Furiosa remembers a time when resources were plentiful and women were ushers of new life instead of prisoners to its arrival.
Her quest to save the Wives is an act born out of revenge, but also a sincerely generous and selfless impulse. There is nothing that the Wives can give her. Their presence is functionally a burden on her ability to survive. But she saves them anyway, because they are slaves to Immortan’s whims and she knows that no one deserves to be treated like an object or plaything. In turn, the Wives reflect this impulse over the course of their journey with her, saving the life of a War Boy, and protecting Furiosa from Immortan’s bullets when he begins his pursuit.
The Vuvalini, or Many Mothers, who meet up with Furiosa and the Wives in the Green Place, are a group of mostly older women who guard the few remaining seeds with the potential for growth. Instead of a vibrant, flowering paradise, Furiosa finds that the utopia she had hoped to share with the Wives has been decimated by Immortan’s far-reaching neglect – the land of plenty is no more.
Rather than stealing away with this new team of female survivors, Furiosa turns them around and heads back to the Citadel, the very place from which they escaped.. With Immortan distracted, she retakes his fortress, freeing not just the Wives, but all the other people left starving and mistreated by his hoarding of resources.
This eventual revolution would never have happened if not for Furiosa’s brave actions and her desire to seek revenge on Immortan Joe. Without the calculated risks she took and the help of the newly freed Wives and noble Vuvalini, the wasteland they called home would have remained under the iron fist of a dictator. A simple empathetic impulse – to save the Wives from sexual bondage – led to the freedom of an entire society. Furiosa has no super powers or special abilities, but her empathy influenced her actions, and her actions liberated a city.
Furiosa, Diana, and Carol’s empathetic strength may make them compelling, even iconic action heroines, but they’re complexity is not the norm in Hollywood. Actress and filmmaker Brit Marling succinctly explained the problem of female “strength” in film in a New York Times op-ed earlier this year:
“It would be hard to deny that there is nutrition to be drawn from any narrative that gives women agency and voice in a world where they are most often without both. But the more I acted the Strong Female Lead, the more I became aware of the narrow specificity of the characters’ strengths – physical prowess, linear ambition, focused rationality. Masculine modalities of power. […] Because what we really mean when we say we want strong female leads is: ‘Give me a man but in the body of a woman I still want to see naked.'”
There’s nothing wrong with female characters being physically strong. Some of the most iconic women of cinema are iconic specifically because they were allowed to be physically strong when women’s strength was a novelty. Characters like Terminator 2’s Sarah Connor, G.I. Jane’s Jordan O’Neil, Underworld’s Selene, Kill Bill’s Bride, and Resident Evil’s Alice broke boundaries by showing that women could be more than the damsel in distress.
But the tendency to ignore the real value of more traditionally feminine modes of power means that we effectively erase them from existence. When our cultural scripts equate strength with brawn, we ignore the important ways emotional intelligence and empathy play a role in how we interact with each other. Movies are their own kind of cultural record, and it’s important to inscribe women’s emotion into our history. The action hero is a perfect opportunity to do just that.