Women Kicking Ass on Screen: Fierce or All Too Familiar?
It may have set a record for a pandemic opening, but the new summer adventure, Black Widow, still trafficked in too much of the old and tiresome. It was yet another permeation of the ass-kicking female character—this time dozens of them on screen together—and the trope has grown tired. Watching stars Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh (pictured) trade so many body-blows with each other and other female characters in the film became wholly monotonous. Here were two terrific, award-winning actresses all but reduced to Rock 'Em Sock 'Em robots. And yet, because of those box office numbers, there are going to be more and more of these overdone character types.
Not surprisingly, at some point in the careers of most A-list actresses, they must don some sort of catsuit and become cinematic women warriors. These days it’s almost a requirement if an actress wants to appeal to an international audience and build her box office clout. It’s probably regarded as a stretch, too—something edgy, physically challenging, and everyone from Charlize to Saoirse has done it. And many of them, including Johansson and Pugh, have done it very, very well.
Yet these days, the fierce female has become so expected, it’s almost humdrum. Look around at the cinema of the last few years, and you see ‘her’ everywhere. Back in the days of Coffy, Alien, and La Femme Nikita, the concept of a female spy/assassin/warrior was still relatively novel, but now the character type is everywhere. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Hunger Games, Wonder Woman, Tomb Raider, Atomic Blonde, Red Sparrow, Edge of Tomorrow, Alita: Battle Angel, Dark Phoenix, Terminator: Dark Fate, Hannah, Anna, and Ava - those are just the A-list projects from the past decade. The ass-kicking heroine has today become more frustrating than fierce.
I was especially annoyed with the conclusion of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker two years ago when Rey bested Kylo Ren by beating his ass down with her fighting prowess rather than persuading him to leave the Dark Side with more humanistic arguments. What a terrible message for audiences, particularly the young girls looking up to Rey across the globe. Rey should have been hawking the idea that might doesn’t make right, and a lightsaber should not be the end-all, be-all to disagreement.
The late, great playwright Wendy Wasserstein once opined that the worst thing that happened when women started to reach the top rung of the corporate ladder in the 80s was that they acted like men in those positions. Wasserstein lamented that rather than rely on their instincts or inherent tendencies toward compassion, pragmatism, and inclusion, women CEOs acted just as cold, bullying, and egotistical as their male predecessors. She was right. And it appears that Hollywood took the lesson to heart about having women play just as ruthlessly as men.
Many screenwriters and filmmakers have interpreted the idea of creating a strong female role far too literally, conjuring characters who are little more than ridiculously vicious fighters. They can throw down with any man, besting armies, terrorists, even machines. But when a female character in a movie becomes defined by how well she uses her fists, arrows, guns, or roundhouse kicks, is that truly a three-dimensional creation? For all the talk in Hollywood given to seeking out vital roles for women, the woman warrior has become every bit an egregious cliché as the hooker with a heart of gold was for half a century on film.
You’d think writers and filmmakers would be paying more attention to the world around them for inspiration, especially since so much of the news today reflects an increasingly female-driven world. Women are now the majority of the population in the USA and almost equal to the number of men worldwide. The workforce in the USA is nearly 56% female, and women represent 6% of CEOs in the nation, and climbing. Oh, and in 2016, America saw a female candidate run for president, and in 2020, the country elected a female vice-president. Those are fantastic stories, suggesting that all those lethal weapons onscreen are hardly the most authentic portrayals of female empowerment.
And screenwriters should know that even if action pictures are flooding the market because it’s what sells best, characters who are always itching for a fight—or female—lack depth. In the Avengers films, Natasha fought alongside her contemporaries, but she could use her reason and compassion to persuade as well. In Black Widow, Natasha tries for some of that, but most of her solutions are physically aggressive. So, even though the MCU finally gave the character her own movie, they short-changed her well-roundedness this time.
Additionally, her character is on the receiving end of far too much aggression in this outing. In set-piece after set-piece, Natasha gets pummeled by all comers. It reaches its zenith in the third act confrontation with Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the Russian villain. He’s programmed Natasha not to attack him if she can smell his scent. That allows him to clobber her again and again without being touched in return. The only way for Natasha to defeat him is by severing her scent gland, and she does just that by slamming her face into his desktop to break her nose. It’s dramatic, sure, but as a testament to empowered women onscreen, it stinks.
Such violence makes Frances McDormand’s Oscar win as Best Actress for Nomadland this past April all the more admirable. She won for playing a heroine who never had to beat anyone up to prove she was fierce. Instead, the character of Fern was a down-on-her-luck everyday Jane, one who, despite losing her husband, healthcare, and home, still strove to matter and make it in life. Fern might not have been as intimidating as Furiosa was in Mad Max: Fury Road, but she easily matched her steeliness.
The fact is, women are already powerful enough without turning them into killing machines. They have overcome all kinds of sexism and discrimination for centuries in every nation on earth. And now, even as certain powers that be are once again trying to hold them back, ignore them in courts, and even control their bodies in "A Handmaid’s Tale" kind of way, women persist, showing up, doing the work, and voting on election day to remove old dogs who can’t be taught new tricks from positions of power over them. No nunchucks, Uzis, or steel-tipped boots necessary.
Perhaps this year, screenwriters should challenge themselves to write strong, female characters who never once fight off legions of ninjas, jump out of airplanes without a parachute, or prance around in form-fitting catsuits chock full of pockets for knives and Glocks. Instead, they should write women who win the day with smarts, hearts, and tenacity. Now, that would kick ass.
*Feature Image: Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh by Jeff York