Wednesday, August 12, 2009

I Miss Sarah Connor

Linda Hamilton

Since Jaws’ original theatrical release in June 1975, summertime at the box office has been synonymous with Hollywood event films. And in addition to bloated budgets, high grosses and often sophomoric scripts, a common thread among most studios’ summer entries is a pretty blatant sexism. Like the opening scene in Jaws, when a beautiful young woman is quite literally eaten alive, the modern action movie has relegated women (with few exceptions) to variations of the damsel-in-distress or hyper-sexed sidekick stock characters. (Think Megan Fox in this summer’s highest grossing monstrosity, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen.) The most commanding and vital stock role—the action star—is practically always saved for the Harrison Fords and Will Smiths of the world.

But this isn’t a post about the lack female action stars. What I want to talk about is the uniquely sexist way most Hollywood films often depict the female heroines that have been able to break the glass ceiling and become action stars.

At this point, before I go any further, allow me to politely interject that I’m not out to ruin summer action movies for anyone. I know there are plenty of Tomb Raider and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle fans out there. Hell, there are probably just as many, if not more, fans of the Transformers series, some of which probably see Megan Fox’s character as anything but mere eye-candy (after all, she is a motorcycle repairwoman!). Point is, I’m not trying to tell anyone how or what to like. What I’m talking about is a different perspective.

In nearly all female-driven action movies, like the two mentioned above, one of the most common and pervasive feminine stereotypes is always at the forefront: sex appeal. Now before you roll your eyes, I’d like to point out that I know how obvious this is. In fact, it’s this very obviousness that makes the truly sexist elements of the modern female action star so easy to miss.

To clarify, let’s talk about the one thing most of today’s movie stars, men and women, share: looks. Strong, sexy, drop-dead good looks. A common and easy feminist argument (and, not coincidentally, one that turns a lot of guys off of any sort of feminist ways of thinking) against the depiction of women in Hollywood films is, simply, that many female stars are just too damn attractive. You know the company line: these beautiful women create impossible standards for young girls and influence women in general in ways more negative than positive. This is all well tread territory. And while there is truth to this argument, it’s becoming more and more apparent that the physical beauty of stars of both sexes affects viewers of both sexes. In the age of Photoshop and performance-enhancing drugs, young men, too, are falling under the spell of the chiseled action star or stud athlete.

So this kills the obvious sexist argument, right? I mean, if the beauty of both male and female action stars is exploited, this is no longer a uniquely feminist issue, right?


Like many issues across the feminist landscape, this is a case where an obvious point (no matter how true) actually obscures a more malignant problem. Think for a second about the modern action film from a directorial perspective (as oxymoronic as it may sound, the artistic perspective). Like all movies, the stars of actions films are presented to viewers through a series of camera shots. A commonly overlooked element of these individual shots is their subjective nature.

I know, I know, this sounds like a bunch of film school mumbo-jumbo. So let me put it another way. Like pictures in a magazine, each camera shot in a film suggests something about the character being photographed. When we see a man constructing a suit containing jet packs and missile launchers (Robert Downey, Jr. in Ironman), it’s clear the director suggests ingenuity, brilliance. When we see a grown woman waking up, taking out her retainer, and dancing across her bedroom in a t-shirt and underwear not unlike that worn by adolescent boys (Cameron Diaz in Charlie’s Angels), it’s clear the director suggests a playful, girlish sexiness.

The stereotypical ways directors choose to present their action stars often goes unnoticed in modern action films. The sex appeal, the allure that frames both male and female action stars, is a product of these presentations, these directorial suggestions. For male action heroes, the sex appeal comes first and foremost from his actions. We see Ironman destroy the villain; we see Spider-Man stop the train before it careens off the tracks. We see, in other words, the acts of a heroic man and thus find him appealing; his body comes second. For the female action hero, we first and foremost see her body—beautiful and deeply sexualized—captured lustily by the camera. Think of Angelina Jolie as Fox in Wanted or Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider films. Think of any of Charlie’s Angels. The bodies of most of our female action stars are subjected to the same exploitative directorial shots that practically define the Megan Fox’s of the world; only a veil of heroism shrouds this exploitation. For female action stars, the body comes first; their acts come second.

This is why I miss Sarah Connor so much.

I’m talking about the most emphatically feminist action star of the past few decades, that’s who. As anyone who has seen Terminator 2: Judgment Day can attest, Sarah Connor (as portrayed by Linda Hamilton) is probably the most physically intimidating—badass—female presence to grace the screen since the heyday of Pam Grier. But unlike Grier’s blaxploitation films, and most of female-driven action films of today, Hamilton’s body is never, not for a moment, the subject of the camera’s gaze. In fact, the only time the film shows-off her physique is when we see her doing pull-ups, a typically “masculine” exercise, in her hospital room.

Sarah’s dress and appearance also go against the grain of the stereotypical hyper-sexed action heroine. At the start of the film, she appears seemingly without make-up, wearing only nondescript hospital sweats. Later, Sarah dons black cargo pants and a black tank top (see the above picture). Does she look good? You bet your ass she does: cigarette in one hand, semi-automatic rifle in the other; sunglasses on and a holstered knife adorning her belt. She looks like… she is an action star. Her wardrobe works in conjunction with the development of her character and the arc of the film’s story. Sarah Connor is as tortured and flawed as she is heroic. She exhibits true pathos. So to see this hardened figure preparing for battle, a viewer cannot help but think of the events that led her to this point and the badass fight she’s about to enter. In other words, Sarah’s actions come to mind first. Any sex appeal she gives off derives from these actions.

Take a look now at Lara Croft as portrayed by Angelina Jolie.

Angelina Jolie

What we have here is not a female action hero but a male fantasy. In the Tomb Raider films, Lara Croft is a sexist caricature of a female heroine—beautiful almost beyond words, wealthy, and completely one-dimensional. It’s easy to focus on her solely on her looks because, really, there’s not much else to her character. Look at her short shorts, the accentuation of her breasts; see the garter-like weapons holsters and her pouty lips. Lara Croft’s appeal is exclusively sexual and not limited only to her classic outfit. All of clothes she wears in both films highlight Lara Croft’s otherworldly beauty. Even her movements, whether she’s walking, working out or fighting, are smooth and seductive. Any feelings of empowerment Lara Croft provides are partly empty because the character remains solely a male sexual fantasy masquerading as an action hero.

This sort of viewing perspective is useful for guys approaching feminism because it brings attention to one of the most common exploitations that feminism speaks out against: objectification of the female body. I’ll be the first to admit that, as a guy, female objectification is not always the easiest thing to catch. After all, guys are a primary audience for badasses like Sarah Connor and hyper-sexed icons like Lara Croft. We’re supposed to like them both, a lot. So it’s easy to get suckered into the false conclusion that all of today’s female action heroes represent greater parity—in quantity and quality—among women in action films simply because they exist at all. Like I mentioned in the last post, it’s no longer enough for a woman to simply play the role of action hero; now the question becomes, ‘How well does she do the job?’

An action hero’s true authenticity is a product of how the hero is presented. So the next time you watch a female action hero command the screen, ask yourself what are the camera shots are suggesting about the heroine. What does her wardrobe suggest? Remember, feminism and physical beauty are not mutually exclusive. But as the Sarah Connor/Lara Croft comparison proves, the presentation of an image often demands just as much attention as the image itself.


FilthyGrandeur said...

(here via Feministe)

i really enjoyed this post. i find that oftentimes a woman's sexuality is so entangled in her heroism that you can't really break free from this--but yeah, she's always sexy first.

there's evidence of this in a lot of fantasy novels as well, where the women characters are only as powerful as they are beautiful. i could give you a list, but that would take to long to type...

Anonymous said...

Ripley in the Alien films is another anti-stereotype female hero. Buffy the Vampire Slayer's main attraction was witty writing and butt kicking, not sex. Xena: Warrior Princess isn't your usual maiden in distress either, nor Tank Girl. More mainstream would be Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs.

Sara said...

THANK YOU. Thank you thank you thank you. This blog is much needed, and I sincerely appreciate it. I know so many people who think that feminism is somehow anti-men, and they're always trotting out the line "patriarchy hurts men too," as if that's an excuse for not being feminist. Thank you for knowing what's what.

This is an excellently written examination of EXACTLY what is wrong about most action films and the women portrayed in them. The women ARE used as a male fantasy, and do not invite female (or male!) viewers to identify with them beyond "wow, I wish I were that hot."

I'm a film minor, so I really appreciated your examination of the film "mumbo jumbo" (which is WAY more important than most people realize, as you are aware!) Terminator 2 will always stick out in my mind as one of the most feminist action films with one of the best female action heroes. I've read film critiques that claim that Sarah Connor is actually anti-feminist because her ultimate importance comes from being a mother, that her femininity and maternal redemption makes her "safe." I posit that this is what makes her entirely feminist-- does Lara Croft have to worry about being a mother? No. She is essentially a male action hero with a more appealing body (which is exactly what the video game character originated out of, btw). Sarah Connor, however, has to come to terms with what she needs to do, as well as with herself as a woman and a "widow" and a mother, something male action heroes never have to do, and something that invites female viewers to truly place themselves in her shoes (and she looks good doing it!).

Anyway. Thank you for putting out such a good blog. I look forward to future posts!


Anonymous said...

I think you left out The Bride from Kill Bill, she was never sexualized either, she was the badass run for your lives action star. That aside, great article.

Marie said...

Thanks for adding some more kick-ass female action stars to our list!

I enjoyed Kill Bill (all of them). And I thought of The Bride and have some mixed feelings. Really, just the fact that she's known as 'The Bride' sort of throws me off from an otherwise badass woman. 'The Bride'? Of what? I mean, as a feminist, how seriously should I take a movie that turns on the fury of a woman whose wedding has been crashed? You could almost call her 'The Bride-zilla' and lose respect for her. Fortunately, I think, she's awesome enough to pull the character back from the edge of being ridiculous. I feel like there's a silliness to it that I like but I haven't totally worked out.

What's your relationship to The Bride? Do you think she falls under the Sarah Connor criticism that Sara brought up? (That she's too safe b/c she's a mother.)

To FilthyGrandeur: Maybe you've got a new blog post in that idea about fantasy novel heroines.

FilthyGrandeur said...

i have a few actually, lol:


Benny Paul said...

"Patriarchy hurts men too" is a muddled and confused excuse for not being a feminist, but I'm going to paraphrase it and say that lame female characters hurt male viewers, too.
The scarcity of interesting female lead characters in all kinds of movies leaves me bored. Hot girls + stunts = cool, but it gets old.
That's why certain movies really stand out. I haven't seen either Terminator in a long time, but this post brought back some recollections. I do remember my teenage self seeing something distinct and appealing in Sarah Connor.
It's ALIEN, though, that stands out the most to me as a feminist-leaning action flick, not only because of Ripley's toughness, but because of the way she outlives all of her male counterparts, whose machismo is actually what gets them killed.
ALIEN, which is now 30 years old, is still refreshing to watch today, but that's not necessarily a good thing. It would be a good movie in any context, but it's a shame that the depressing cliches it violated decades ago are just as present today- if not even more so.

Isabel said...

This is an amazing post; I haven't really come across anyone who can explain feminism in a favourable light. Usually all the girls out there promoting it are just into buzz words like "empowering women" and "equality" and "objectifying" without thinking two more minutes that it's not about "GIRLS ARE BETTER!!!!" I really liked the point you made about how there is a difference between how we receive the personality of a hero through his actions but we receive the definition of a heroine through her body first. It was really insightful and helps draw a clearer line between pointless fluffy buzz words thrown around without context and real, evidence-based argument.

Marie said...

Benny Pauls: I hadn't even thought of Alien! Thanks for adding to our catalogue.

Isabel: You're picking up on something another one of our commenters (MER on the Masculine Privilege post) also picked up on: the abuse of buzz-words and party lines. I'm glad to see you guys not settling for easy answers. Why do you think some people do settle for them?

Anonymous said...

"But as the Sarah Connor/Lara Croft comparison proves, the presentation of an image often demands just as much attention as the image itself."

Hi Tyler! I'm here by way of Heroine Content. While I can completely agree that the presentation of the image is as important as the image itself, I think using Tombraider specifically to do it muddies the argument a bit.

You used a movie pic for Sarah, but a promo poster pic for Lara. Why not compare apples with apples? Promo pics by there very nature are going to be touched up and posed. Here are a couple of quick ones I pulled from online:

Regardless of her expression, Lara looks quite similar to Sarah: both are clad in black, both are sporting guns, both are sweaty, oily, and quite tanned, both have their otherwise long hair pulled back for practical purposes. Lara is sporting short shorts there, but has on more shirt than Sarah. And also, Lara is clearly wearing a bra in the second pic that accentuates her otherwise average size breasts. But Sarah is even wearing a bra.

Or we can look at a comparison between Lara and her male love interest (Daniel Craig):
She doesn't look terribly different than Craig. her clothes are tighter, yes, but not overly so. And they both look equally grimey and sweaty - understandably considering that point in the film.

"All of clothes she wears in both films highlight Lara Croft’s otherworldly beauty."

What exactly do you mean by highlight (I do agree that use the clothing to show she is a citizen of the world)? Are Sarah's ward clothes much different than Lara's pjs in the first film?

It's been a while since I saw the first Tombraider. In the opening scene we see her face, and then the camera pulls back, and flips to see her hanging on a rope upside down. And they do shoot some provacative moments of her underneath the robot. But when she is out in the field for real (and not just sparring) she has on the following items:

* her classic Tombraider outfit, BUT with pants
* biker jacket, white T, leather pants
* a wrap similar to the monks she visit
* a long sleeve black shirt, and black pants (in the scene she looks almost identical to the villain)
* more loose fitting pajamas
* grey t-shirt & pants

And all the time she is wearing thick, flat, roach-stomping boots. The only time she doesn't is when she is wearing the sun dress and heels at the end. It is a outfit she eschews in the beginning of the film, and even though she is wearing it, she flings the hat off, and picks up her guns by the closing, which is anything but dainty.

End of part 1...

Anonymous said...

In the second Tombraider she wore this during most of the film:

While it is lighter and tighter than Terry's (Butler's) clothes (like those pants) it doesn't look substantially different than his. She also wears these for key action scenes:

Others include a riding outfit w/ leather raincoat, an Asian (couldn't tell you which culture) martial art uniform, a fluffy white winter coat, along with the heavily postered, and movie beginning bikini and overly expensive, and suggestive diving one piece (with the accent around the crotch area). Interesting enough, her breast are completely de-emphasized in the second film; they look normal. Even the sexier moments are grounded into the plot (the bikin because she is water gliding to her friends, the sheet in the love scene), as opposed to the shower scene in the first film which seemed completely gratuitous to me.

"In the Tomb Raider films, Lara Croft is a sexist caricature of a female heroine—beautiful almost beyond words, wealthy, and completely one-dimensional."

While she is in the field of study that resembles Indiana Jones, in a male version she most resembles Bruce Wayne, aka Batman. Is Batman a one-dimensional sexist caricature of a male hero. I can hear the chorus now of "YES!" :) But I can also see him as a tortured, isolated, lonely orphan who used his money to hide from his demons and right the things he saw as wrong in the world. And Lara Croft seems cut from that same cloth. In fact, in looking at both versions of Batman (Burton's & Nolan's) Bruce spends the first film coming to terms w/ the death of his parents, and the second crime fighting. Lara's cinematic story follows the same path.

I hope you don't get that I am saying that Lara is perfect and Sarah sucks. I loved Sarah, and miss her too! But the connection between women as sexual aobject and female heroes are quite complicated, and I think Lara is right in the center of that, because it seemed like both films, especially the first, tried to walk the fine line between empowering hero and sexy siren.

I guess what I didn't want to happen is for Lara's heroics to get lost in that. Buffy, as others have mentioned, was blond, petite, and often wore fitted, body exposing clothing with high heels, yet many also recognize the trail she blazed for female action stars. Lara does this too, and never in heels, and often wears more clothing than most women in film these days (at least the action ones).

btw, I like your blog, and am glad I was introduced to it!

thanks, d

Women Leather Biker jacket said...

nice post love reading it.

Stephen Dunlap said...

Nicely written i really like her outfits, especially her leather jacket.