Haywire and Underworld: Awakening are the latest in a growing field of action flicks starring women. But history has shown that not all such movies avoid sexism.
It's no great secret that the movie business isn't the most female-friendly of industries. There's income disparity, even at the very top: The last time Forbes checked, Hollywood's highest-salaried actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) was earning $34 million more than the top-earning actresses (Angelina Jolie and Sarah Jessica Parker). Opportunities for blockbuster hits are scarcer: Of the 20 top-grossing films of 2011, only two—The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 and Bridesmaids—star women. The fact that Bridesmaids, the year's breakout female-ensemble hit, was lauded for being a movie that proves women "can perfectly tell a dirty joke"—as if that were something that needed to be proven at all—is a telling indicator of Hollywood's conventional attitudes about women.
For many years, there were even fewer opportunities for actresses in another genre: the action movie. It's long been accepted in popular culture that that the traditional "action film" is the gender-reversed mirror image of the "chick flick": a film made by men, starring men, for men. But today sees the release of two new action movies that don't conform to that rule. There's Steven Soderbergh's Haywire, which has garnered mostly positive reviews. And there's Underworld: Awakening, the fourth film in the only major "vampires vs. werewolves" franchise that isn't called Twilight, which isn't being screened for critics at all (its predecessor, 2009's Underworld: The Rise of the Lycans scored a measly 30 percent on Rotten Tomatoes). Despite the differences between the two competing releases, they're both torchbearers of a promising, relatively new genre trend: the era of big-budget action movies starring women.
Traditionally, the action genre has been among Hollywood's most sexist. The Wikipedia entry for the "action film" genre features a collage of eight "action stars"—Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Steven Seagal, Dolph Lundgren, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Wesley Snipes, and Jackie Chan—without name-checking a single action heroine. Many noted classics of the genre feature sexism as a matter of course (see, for one of many examples, the mind-boggling scene in 1964's Goldfinger in which 007 dismisses a bikini-clad conquest by slapping her buttock and saying "man talk").
The best-reviewed female-led action movies in recent years are completely original properties, not comic-book adaptations
But while big-budget action films of the 1950s and 1960s echoed the sexism of their time, something subversive was happening in the fringes of the film industry. In the seminal Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, Professor Carol J. Clover discusses the significant feminist implications of the contemporary horror genre's "final girl"—the all-but-inevitable "last woman standing," whom the (primarily male) audience is encouraged to identify with as she faces down the killer. For the past five decades, the action genre has undergone a similar but less remarked-upon shift, as female characters have slowly but steadily evolved beyond the universal "hostages, victim, or conquest" archetype and became the heroines of their own action sagas.
It's impossible to talk about cinematic action heroines without talking about the most iconic, and still by far the best: Ellen Ripley, the lead character of all four Alien movies and, according to the American Film Institute, the eighth-greatest protagonist in American cinematic history. Even if you consider the original Alien film more horror than action, Ripley paved the way for nuanced-but-tough heroines—so well-written and acted that the character wasn't just a benchmark for female-led action films, she was a benchmark for the action genre, period.
There's a reason that Alien earned three direct sequels, and that Ridley Scott seems to be mining similar territory with the Noomi Rapace-starring quasi-prequel to the Alien franchise, Prometheus, which hits theaters later this year. The Alien movies (or, at least, the franchise's first two installments) hold the pivotal lesson for any studio that wants to make a successful female-led action movie: Don't ignore the unique qualities of womanhood; embrace them. Ripley's immortal cry to the Alien Queen in Aliens—"Get away from her, you bitch!"—is so powerful because it's the cry of a mother protecting surrogate daughter Newt from the threats of a dangerous world. Motherhood remains a common touchstone for the best of the genre. The underrated The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) features a former assassin grappling with how to raise her daughter, and The Bride's quest for revenge in the Kill Bill movies is, ultimately, a quest to reclaim her right to be a mother.