The Violent Femmes Of Hollywood

     Today’s New York Times had a rather fascinating roundtable sort of article in which its leading movie critics discussed the recent uptick of women as violent characters in action films. It’s a trend I’ve been pondering myself but never took the time to seriously explore – until now.

     The critics each bring to the table their own perspective. Some choose a purely economical, cause-and-effect approach, while others take a sociocultural route. All these approaches are equally valid in my eyes, but I have my own ideas as an observer and lover of film.

     On the one hand, I think it’s perfectly fair to attribute this trend to the simple laws of Hollywood: adaptations work, and copying things that work works. An example of the former is Kick-Ass, which is an adaptation of the comic book of the same name. I imagine that the producers thought they had another comic book movie hit on their hands, but with the added twist of a foul-mouthed female hero. Fast-forward a couple of years to the recent slew of little ass-kickers in Sucker Punch, Let Me In, and Hanna. The studios aren’t blind; they clearly picked up on the success of the violent femme trope and went into a production frenzy, acquiring projects around this central character. The same thing happened with comic book adaptations and genre movies in recent years. Despite the thousands of calls that go into making a film, Hollywood has a fairly simple formula when it comes down business: the studios replicate what was successful in the past in order to ensure future profit. Little lasses with guns is apparently a large enough niche to have attracted Hollywood’s attention.

     Now, that is the far more cynical (or perhaps pragmatic) approach to this trend, one that takes into account economics and the inner workings of the Hollywood system. But I’m not satisfied with providing only that explanation. Oh, no: I’m a liberal arts student. What good is my degree if it can’t help me explain the cultural phenomenon behind this?

     Some will decry this whole trend as exploitation and fetishization of women in violent roles. I disagree. It’s empowering, but not for the reason you may initially think. Certainly, in the realm of the movies themselves, the women take on vastly powerful positions as the ones with the guns, but there is a larger cultural movement happening here. Women are finally beginning to occupy spaces that were previously “macho territory” only. We now have heroines headlining their own adventures, not merely helping the male lead in whatever limp-wristed ways they can. Not only that, but these women are able to carry films on their own and attract an audience – and a male audience, at that, as these are not merely “chick flicks.” Salt has grossed more worldwide than The Bourne Identity and the latter has been out since 2002. Hell, in Kick-Ass, Hit-Girl veritably stole the movie and may star in her own spin-off, according to the ever-cranking Tinseltown rumor mill.

     Nevertheless, as the Times critics note, this empowerment comes with strings attached in the form of patriarchal figures who oversee their female charges. In Kick-Ass, Hit-Girl’s father; in Hanna, her father, in Sucker Punch, Scott Glenn’s character; and so on. Although these men enable their charges to fight, training them and urging them into combat, does having a literal or pseudo- father figure in the first place serve to dampen the girls’ power? Why is it seemingly standard in these films to have a paternal figure to guide these women? To me, it sends the message that these women cannot navigate a violent world for themselves and need a man’s guidance to get through it. They have the physical prowess to kick proverbial and literal ass, but they need the emotional and spiritual backing of a male, the dominant figure of the realm of violence, to aid them.

     Thus, the “violent femme” trope is a double-edged sword of empowerment and entrapment. This should not come as much of a shock, considering that social progressiveness is not high on the agenda of most big-budget Hollywood action films (although, to be fair, Hanna is not a blockbuster and should not be lumped in with the rest of the actioners mentioned). Indeed, Hollywood tends to be reactionary when it comes to exploring gender roles; more-typical-than-not romantic comedies and hero-gets-the-girl action films still reign the Hollywood scheduling slates and box office. But in these violent femme films, women are both liberated by their newfound ability to engage in violent behavior and shackled by the men who prime them for battle as though they were merely pets. While I am encouraged and entertained by the female action stars emerging in recent Hollywood titles, this cultural shift should occur on proper terms.

     I’m looking at you, screenwriters (and producers). Let’s evolve a little bit, shall we?


Marisa Stotter is a student, writer, and enthusiast of all things geeky. You can find her musings at and @mstotter.

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