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.

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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").

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.

But the other major theme unique to female-led action films is a direct response to decades of suppression by both Hollywood and society as a whole: the subjugation and victimization of womankind, primarily by men. It is perhaps no coincidence that the plots of both Haywire and Underworld: Evolution hinge on the strong female leads being betrayed by men that they trust. And then there's Lisbeth Salander, the icy, revenge-driven character from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo who has quickly become a contemporary fictional icon. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo isn't strictly an action film, but the unconventional Lisbeth makes for a deeply compelling heroine, and when she eventually does take action, it's satisfying in part because of the deeper, more cathartic feminist implications (there's a reason, after all, that the book was originally titled Men Who Hate Women).

Of course, not all female-led action movies can be held up as groundbreaking or thoughtful. There are undeniably brainless, sexist, female-led action movies that continue to routinely appear in theaters (see the last year's ugly, regressive Sucker Punch). The most insipid entries in the genre, like the Resident Evil series or the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movies, tend to be based on modern video games—a reflection, in part, of the fact that prospective sources for action films starring women didn't really exist until recent years. (That's not to say, of course, that an adapted action film starring a woman need be terrible; Hollywood's two recent attempts to make a female-led superhero movie—2004's Catwoman and 2005's Elektra—have been dismal failures, but they were failures not of concept, but of execution).

But the storied superhero and super-spy movies that hit theaters each summer, which comprise most of the action roles available to men, are based on properties that are decades (and sometimes centuries) old. By contrast, the three best-reviewed female-led action movies in recent years—Salt, Hanna, and now Haywire—are completely original properties, with strong, well-written female leads to match. These movies have a contemporary, refreshingly progressive tone that speaks to the changes in the genre. Salt was originally intended as a vehicle for Tom Cruise; the script was successfully rewritten for Angelina Jolie when she commented to a Sony executive, "I want to be Bond!" Haywire's star, Gina Carano, is known primarily not from the red carpet but from the mixed-martials arts octagon. "You want me to be eye candy?" asks Carano in Haywire's trailer, with a skeptical tone that indicates that a night in an evening gown is the worst assignment she's had in ages.

Hollywood, like the rest of the country, still has some work to do before the opportunities offered to men and women can truly be called equal. But for all the bluster about Hollywood's political agenda, in the end its goal is the same as any other industry: to make money. If audiences respond to action movies starring women, Hollywood will continue to make action movies starring women. Here's hoping that this weekend's new releases—and the promise of movies like Snow White and the Huntsman and Prometheus on the horizon—is a sign that we're continuing to head in the right direction.

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