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Butt-Kicking Babes

The freshest batch of celluliod heroines are strong, sexy and beating the living daylights out of the bad guys. Why are so many people convinced this is a bad thing?
 
 
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She unloads two shotguns while swinging from the ceiling on an archaic, fraying rope. She wipes blood from her lip as carelessly as if it was smeared lipstick. And throughout the preview for the latest tough-chick action movie, Tomb Raider, Angelina Jolie, starring as video game heroine Lara Croft, walks strong, talks tough and fights foes in a feminized version of Rambo meets Die Hard. Unlike her cinematic male counterparts, Jolie manages to pummel her enemies in the skimpiest of shorts, wearing weapon-holders that look more like garters than holsters. When she flirts with death, her sexuality is a key piece of her arsenal.

"I could never kill you," one slick gent says weakly, with the sincerity of a stranger on a bar stool.

"I didn't say you could kill me," she banters back coyly, eyebrows raised and plump lips pursed. "I said you could try."

Jolie's sex-kitten Croft in Tomb Raider, headed for theaters this summer, leaps into action as the latest addition to an undeniable trend in the evoution of today's action hero, the butt-kicking babe. Other recent films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Charlie's Angels and The Matrix have all featured women who can not only hold their own, but prevail in combat. On television, female heroes have gone the way of undead-dueling Buffy the Vampire Slayer, genetically engineered Dark Angel, historic cult-hit Xena: Warrior Princess or cartoon animated superhero trio the Power Puff Girls. Movies and TV, combined with video games like "Tomb Raider," have launched a full-frontal, multimedia assault with visions of women warriors dominating male and female villains.

Producers wouldn't continue cranking out female action heroes if audience response wasn't overwhelmingly positive. Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has been nominated for 10 Oscars and recently beat out Roberto Begnini's Life Is Beautiful as the top-grossing foreign language film in America--an amazing feat for a movie with subtitles. Buffy put the then fledgling Warner Brothers Television Network (WB) on the map when it began in 1997, and now the show is caught in the middle of a major custody battle with several networks vying for the viewership of the vampire slayer's millions of fans. Shopping malls and schools across America show that beloved butt-kicking preschoolers, the Power Puff Girls, are enjoying enormous success both on the air and in marketing merchandise.

Not everyone is thrilled with this trend, and many critics are calling for the heroines to drop their weapons and put on more clothes. Surprisingly, the loudest complaints aren't coming from conservatives urging women to trade their weapons for baking utensils, but rather from feminists and liberal media watchdog groups concerned about what they believe to be damaging sexist portrayals of violent female heroines.

"I am awash in a Dark Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer glow. I have seen women kick butt in Charlie's Angels and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and, in my heart of hearts, I know this much is true: It's good for the economy," Margaret Finnegan writes in a widely celebrated article, "Sold! The Illusion of Independence" (Los Angeles Times, Jan. 1, 2001).

Finnegan argues that, unlike battling the June Cleaver image, butt-kicking babes are much harder for feminists to fight.

She continues, "The commercial embrace of kick-butt girls breeds a less obvious threat to women's struggle for equality: the illusion of equality. Feminism has fewer enemies."

Since Finnegan's article, other critics have stepped forward to caution against today's heroines as scantily clad, over-sexualized male fantasies who promote barbaric shows of strength rather than women's equality--and may even be encouraging violence against women.

So why do I love these butt-kicking babes?

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Danger

Within the first 15 minutes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, leading ladies Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and Jiao Long Yu, or Jen (Ziyi Zhang), engage in a beautiful battle over a stolen sword, the Green Destiny. They spar with both strength and impeccable form, running up walls, gliding over rooftops and twisting with the grace of dancers.

Later in the film the two women square off again, this time in a much more brutal battle. Yeoh boasts the benefit of years of experience as a woman warrior; Jen holds the edge of a young prodigy with fighting spirit. They use intellect and emotion as well as strength and skill, but both fights are clearly shows of strength.

James Lull, a professor of communication studies at San Jose State University, says he loved the film and its female stars.

"Personally, I love it. There's nothing more wonderful than a strong woman, one who is strong physically and mentally," Lull says. "But at one level there's a concern about any kind of butt-kicking--that there's a certain level of danger with it. We tend to glorify power, success, competition, all of the things that feed into butt-kicking. And there's a certain overall negative consequence of the way we glorify violence."

Lull has seen a bevy of international films and says that whereas European films have found ways to portray deep, complex emotional conflict, too many movies--especially American ones--rely on WWF-inspired portrayals of conflict.

"In America it's all about knock them down, kick their ass. That discredits the consumer, it takes away deeper emotional interpretation," Lull says. "We have to understand that [the concept of] butt-kicking girls reduces them to this visible male conflict. Football, Arnold, Rambo--there are media archetypes in our cultural memory in which male-dominated conflict leading to violence is celebrated. Now it has spilled over into the realm of female stars."

He admits that the belief in women's ability to conquer is nothing new. But instead of showing women as manipulators, like using The Rules to get a man and passive-aggressive guilt trips to control him, the new heroes are just plain aggressive.

"Here come the girls, they're powerful, they can be just as stupid as the guys, and with physical violence they've fallen to the level of males," Lull says. "This physical expression for women is a liberation of the body but an imprisoning of the spirit."

Rather than sword-wielding women, Lull says he worships Mary Tyler Moore as a leading butt-kicking babe.

"She could talk fast, think fast. She was not the traditional woman, and had a strong, commanding personality," Lull coos. "She didn't need to resort to violence. She showed competence and confidence."

Besides Mary, he says, many of his female heroines stem from the African American community. Not just Pam Grier as Foxy Brown, but women like Sarah Vaughn, Bessie Smith and Janet Jackson all get high marks from Lull because they helped give voice to black women's experiences.

"Black women have been butt-kicking by necessity," Lull says. "It's not superhuman, just a matter of everyday life."

Cleavage and Cleavers

Martial arts powerhouse Michelle Yeoh has starred in countless movies other than supernatural epic Crouching Tiger, including Hong Kong's answer to Charlie's Angels, The Heroic Trio, Jackie Chan's Supercop, and Tomorrow Never Dies, with Pierce Brosnan as James Bond. But her most direct onscreen statement about women warriors comes from an obscure 1994 import, Wing Chun, a film about a legendary female martial artist.

During the film, a sleazy male villain mocks Yeoh's capabilities.

"Men are better than women, except at having babies," he sneers. "Therefore I am certain to beat you, and afterwards you can go home and get on with having your babies."

The diminutive Yeoh delivers her response, without a word, in a swift series of kicks that leave him a whimpering pile.

Critics say the trouble is plenty of butt-kicking women on the screen are ultimately most concerned with being sexy, finding a man who can make their lives complete, and settling down. They say that women heroines are less concerned with achieving female liberation than satisfying male fantasy.

Patty Miller, who researches kids and the media for Oakland-based Children Now, worries that contemporary butt-kicking heroines teach young girls that their appearance and sex appeal should be top priority. Children Now used to function as a television watchdog research group, but has recently expanded to studying movies, teen magazines, music videos and video games.

"I think that in the last few years we've started to see a lot more women portrayed as protagonists. But they are violent protagonists," Miller says. "Media are offering girls much more strong images of women, but also women who are often highly sexualized."

Miller cites Tomb Raider's Lara Croft as an example of the violent, sexual and scantily clad heroine. In December, Children Now released a report which found that nearly half of all top-selling video games in the United States contain unhealthy messages for girls, including unrealistic body image--tiny waists supporting unusually large breasts--as well as violent and provocative behavior and very little clothing.

Miller adds that many video game heroines have a disturbing habit of sighing, as if with sexual pleasure, during violent battles.

"I think it can be very confusing to young women--we want to see girls and women portrayed as strong and powerful, not strong and highly sexual," Miller says. "The message now is that it's OK to be strong and assertive, but you better be sexual and attractive."

Children Now hasn't published an official study, but it is conducting research about television and girls' body image. Miller says that two-thirds of young women want to look like their favorite TV characters, and one-third of those surveyed reported "altering themselves" to resemble the stars.

"These are strong messages to kids about who they should be and what they should look like," Miller says.

For example, Charlie's Angels starred rail-thin Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu as the legendary crime-fighting trio who work for a mysterious millionaire with a speakerphone fetish. In scene after scene they pummel villains, managing to look sexy in stylish outfits from trim-fitting, leather-laden wardrobes.

In a recent discussion with sixth graders at Spring Hill Elementary in Santa Cruz, many of the girls expressed mixed feelings about the popular action movie. All of the students who saw it said they liked it, but many girls felt that the Angels showed more skin than necessary.

"They could also be bad role models. Little girls would think they have to look like that," 12-year-old Amanda says. "Or that they have to be really skinny to be strong."

McWimps to Women Warriors

Before completely turning on today's butt-kicking babes, critics need to consider where they're coming from and remember the hordes of horrible female characters who have come before them.

In Thelma & Louise, considered a turning point in the realm of tough-chick movies, two friends escape an oppressively small town, one of them leaving behind an abusive husband. They go on a crime spree that includes shooting a would-be rapist in Texas and blowing up the truck of a lecherous, tongue-wagging driver, and even passive Thelma gets assertive after getting "laid proper" by a sexy young thief, played by Brad Pitt. But their liberation is so frenzied and unstable that they opt for what appears to be a suicidal dive off a cliff.

"Their revenge is neither intelligent nor focused. Naturally, they are punished for their adventure--they go over the cliff in freeze-frame," writes author Susan Isaacs in her book, Brave Dames and Wimpettes: What Women are Really Doing on Page and Screen.

Isaacs begins her book with a chapter titled, "I am woman, hear me roar ... About how I've been abused, misused, violated, and discriminated against," in which she slices through female characters with a respectable lack of mercy.

"Oh, sure, we talk a good game: Assertiveness. Power. Take back the night. Just do it. After all, we've been through a television revolution in women's rights in the last 30-odd years," Issacs says. "Except even after all the fireworks, speeches and marches, our female icons seem to me a pretty pathetic lot."

The book lays out in gruesome detail examples of past portrayals of women, who are often reduced to stereotypes as helpless, weak and in need of a good man. Isaacs also argues that intelligent, sexy women in film are often shown as psychotic and evil, like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct or Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.

"Brilliant women, erotic women, scheming women and powerful women are so threatening by virtue of the simple fact that they exist that they cannot be allowed to live," Isaacs says. "The message to men was: Stick with your lukewarm wife. Hot sex with a free woman is perilous. The message to everyone was: Bad things happen to strong women."

Fatal Attraction may have lobbied against extramarital affairs, but it also taught that intelligent, sexy career women are a threat to marriage, children--and even the family pet.

However, butt-kicking babes have provided a portrayal of strong, sexy women who fight for good rather than use all their energy to win the object of their affections, or obsessions. Action heroines are also very different from the women portrayed as strong in many "chick flicks."

Relationships among the Power Puffs and the women of Crouching Tiger, Buffy and even the Angels are quite different from those of films like Where the Heart Is, last year's much-marketed tear-jerker starring Natalie Portman and Ashley Judd. Heart's women are both abused by various sleazy men and seem to gain their strong status by how much horrible treatment they've endured. Their friendship grows as they experience abandonment (in the cruelest of all places--a small-town Wal-Mart), infidelity and domestic violence at the hands of scumball guys.

Isaacs calls this phenomenon the "hero-martyr," a celebration of those women who are abused but are morally above striking back.

It's not that there haven't been butt-kicking women in the past. Hong Kong cinema has long featured women in martial arts movies, including Pei Pei Cheng, a legendary star who came out of retirement to play aging criminal Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger.

In the United States most female action stars have been more campy than credible. Wonder Woman, The Bionic Woman, Electra Women and DynaGirl were fun to watch but difficult to take very seriously.

And for every cartoon that features female action heroes, such as Wonder Woman or the Power Puff Girls, there are a dozen Polly Purebreds, the helpless canine damsel in distress from Underdog who was constantly crying for help from her caped superhero.

It seems critic Isaacs' prime example of the weakling female character, which she calls the wimpette, is TV lawyer Ally McBeal.

"Ally McBeal is a litigator far longer on legs than brains," Isaacs writes. "McBeal proves you can send a girl to college, but not even seven years of higher education can stay her from doing what comes naturally--trying to catch a man. ... Put a woman in a CEO's chair, give her a prestigious profession, then let her act like a dumb broad."

What Women Want

The wimpettes of the past and present may fuel the popularity of butt-kicking babes like Buffy and the crime-fighting Power Puffs, but critics say the babes are just a result of good marketing geared toward selling what advertisers think women want.

"From Nike to Gatorade, American advertisers are sold on the image of independent, resourceful, kick-butt girls," Finnegan writes in the Los Angeles Times.

Her article makes solid arguments about mass marketing's prostitution for profits.

"During the 1910s, advertisers routinely pirated slogans from the women's suffrage movement. Women "voted" for toothpaste, soup, crackers and dubious medical elixirs long before they elected political candidates," she writes. "The revival of feminism in the 1960s and '70s prompted a similar appropriation of feminist rhetoric."

Virginia Slims, poster child for this with its "You've Come a Long Way, Baby" campaign, has recently shifted to a newer pseudo-liberated slogan, "Find Your Voice."

While she acknowledges that butt-kicking babes allow for a greater variety of female characters, Finnegan argues that they are ultimately a threat to feminism and women's equality.

"Feminism has few greater enemies," she says of the kick-butt girls and their illusion of equality. "It breeds complacency. Worse yet, it implies that feminism is obsolete. Who needs it? Girls can do anything. They can be anything. I've seen it on TV so it must be true."

Other critics of butt-kicking heroines take the dangers they bring even further, proposing they may ultimately fuel violence against women.

"For if women can beat down men in the movies, how long will it be until the reverse becomes perfectly acceptable--first in the movies, and then in real life?" Gina Arnold asks in an article for Salon (Jan. 22, 2001).

However, violence against women has been a longtime reality for many women, long before the butt-kicking babes came along. Statistics show that up to 25 percent of college-age women have been sexually assaulted, and many of those attacks came long before the current crop of female heroines.

Rage Against the Man

Bettina aptheker, professor of women's studies at UC-Santa Cruz, says that she remembers the audience response to Thelma & Louise as clearly as the film itself.

"The women in the theater cheered when they blew up the truck," Aptheker says, "because so many women have shared that experience of being harassed and honked at. The movies, the pop culture, taps into women's feelings--the rage--and it can be cathartic."

Beyond mere marketing, she feels it's this rage that's fueling the explosion of butt-kicking heroines.

Aptheker has worked for decades with classes in women's studies and self-defense and says that many women come to those classes not only hurt, but angry.

"One of the things that comes up in self-defense is the hurt, the rage, as women are kicking ass, or I should say, using physical force," she continues. "We're so conditioned not to express anger that many women find it difficult. One woman in class couldn't do it for a long time and she finally told me, 'I don't believe I have a self to defend.'"

Aptheker believes it's women's rage that made Thelma & Louise, Fried Green Tomatoes (with its Towanda car-smashing scene) and Crouching Tiger such box office successes.

"We should never underestimate how angry women are," she warns, "and how little avenues exist for expression."

Aptheker says that while self-defense classes teach physical maneuvering, two-thirds of each series emphasize verbal sparring, being assertive, saying no and being verbally aggressive if necessary. Since many rapes are acquaintance rapes, instructors see self-defense as more than physical training.

"We do a lot of counseling. You don't want to strike out randomly with anger. You want to channel the rage," Aptheker says.

When asked if the butt-kicking babes are teaching women false lessons about equality, the longtime feminist doesn't seem too concerned.

"I don't think butt-kicking babes create an illusion of equality. If anything else, it reestablishes the existing inequality," she says. "You know you can't slay vampires. You know you'd be arrested by police--probably by a male cop."

In her book, Tapestries of Life, Aptheker devotes a chapter to imagination and fantasy. She explores the existence of women warriors and folklore about them in various cultures, including Chinese, numerous African and Caribbean traditions, and details how butt-kicking women have been in legends for centuries.

Hanging behind the desk in her women's studies department office is a full-color, signed photo of Xena, weapon in hand, surrounded by flames. It reads, "Bettina, Intro to Fem rocked my world! Battle On, Xena."

"No, Xena didn't really take my class," Aptheker laughs. "It was a gift from my daughter's partner."

Defense of Butt-Kicking Babes

During my television-addicted childhood, I often went to bed terrified for my safety after watching women victimized on primetime TV. After watching Halloween, I began building walls of stuffed animals up to the top of my bunk bed each night to ward off potential serial killers and stalkers.

When I began studying martial arts nearly four years ago, a former boyfriend was appalled by the thrill I received from practicing roundhouse kicks, elbow jabs and punches to the solar plexus.

"Why do you want to do that?" he finally asked, with a mixture of confusion and disgust. "It's so violent!"

Several weeks later, after wrestling with the image of myself as a violent bully, I ended up locked out of a friend's apartment in the middle of the night. While walking past a group of 20 men hanging out on a quiet, dark corner, drinking 40-ouncers from paper bags, my first thought wasn't "What could they do to me?" but "What could I do to them?"

It was then that I realized what training in Tae Kwon Do, a Korean martial art, had given me. I never have had the privilege of living without the fear of being a victim, but martial arts has taught me that I am much more than a walking target. And that, if need be, even the littlest women can kick some serious ass.

There's plenty of violence in television and movies already, but for me, women as more than victims are a refreshing change. Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon says that he created super-strength Buffy as a reaction to female victims in horror movies. Whedon wanted to show a pretty, petite, intelligent blonde who was pummeling evil rather than being victimized by it. "It's a horrible double standard to have male action heroes and not female action heroes," Buffy co-executive producer Marti Nixon says.

Buffy and the other butt-kicking babes may be flawed heroines, but even teen magazines like Seventeen show that they're changing the ways young women think. I remember countless adolescent nightmares about being stalked by serial killers; the young women surveyed in an issue about dreams said they most often dreamt that they were Buffy, slaying vampires and demons.

Women wielding weapons may not be ideal in the films and television shows of a violence-free world. Until such a world exists, I would much rather watch more woman warriors kicking butt and fewer quivering, helpless waifs crying for help any day.