By Dr. Charlie W. Starr
After America hosted the 1999 Women’s World Cup in soccer and Team USA won, T-shirts became popular which read, “I Kick Like a Girl.” The opening game of that tournament had the largest audience ever recorded for a women’s sporting match—more than 90,000 people. In addition to the rise of women’s sports in this country, we have seen in the last four decades the rise of the female adventure hero.
The Ripley Effect
In 1972 Title IX was passed, a law that required grade schools and colleges to provide similar athletic opportunities for girls and women as were available for boys and men. The burgeoning of women’s sports in this country had several positive effects: improved health and grades for girls involved in sports in junior high and high school and athletic scholarships and careers for women in college and beyond. Overall this contributed a new image to our culture of what it means to be a woman—a certain physical competence which didn’t exist before.
At the same time, Hollywood was changing: women were getting more involved in action movies. One of the first full-blown leading female roles in a major action film—a role in which a woman shot the guns, killed the monsters, and saved the day—was the film Alien (1979). Sigourney Weaver played Ellen Ripley, a space-faring cargo pilot who does battle against a hive of killer creatures. At the movie’s end, Ripley strapped a flamethrower to a machine gun/grenade launcher and ran into the fray. She also battled by using a high-tech, wearable forklift. Weaver referred to her character in Alien as “Rambolina.” This role began what film critic Scott Nehring dubbed the “Ripley Effect.” It was the beginning of the rise of the female action star.
Other stars followed. The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) featured Gina Davis as a deadly assassin. Demi Moore proved in G. I. Jane (1997) that women could be Navy Seals. The Fifth Element (also 1997) launched the action career of Milla Jovovich, who went on to star in five Resident Evil films, Ultra Violet (2006), and The Three Musketeers (2011). Angelina Jolie stepped up with movies like Tomb Raider (2001, 2003), Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005), Wanted (2008) and Salt (2010).
The Hunger Games (2012), followed by several offshoots, has turned the female action hero into a teenage girl. These and other films featuring strong women do a nice job of empowering females, and the young adult fiction versions of the heroine offer some positive role models for girls and young women.
With the positives, I do have a couple of concerns. Frankly, many men like this new hero because they like looking at beautiful women, and they like film-action fighting—seeing the two together is potentially nothing more than the fulfillment of male adolescent fantasy impulses. It doesn’t have to be, but that’s a potential problem.
The other possible problem is something like tossing out the baby with the bath water. I’ve seen this for several years now in Disney’s adventure heroines. Disney has been producing movies where male characters have been made weak or irrelevant. This has likely been because, for so many years, their princesses were helpless damsels in need of a rescue.
While I have no problem with the rise of the strong female character as portrayed in these films, it seems a problem to me when the method of doing so makes male characters irrelevant at best and klutzy at worst. Two recent films in which this was the case were Maleficent (which I thought otherwise a fantastic film) and Frozen. The folks at Disney need to remember that lots of little boys watch their movies as well as little girls. I think it would be a mistake for us to stop teaching men to be heroes to the women in their lives.
Eternal Rescue Story
In all these genres of movies that contain heroines or heroes, I see a positive theme underlying them—they echo the eternal rescue story. A kingly prince came from a faraway land to save a people from a great dragon and his evil power, especially the power called death. This prince was born in a stable in Judea, walked the earth for 33 years, and then defeated the enemy by dying on a cross. But he rose from the grave and established his church, which is also called his bride. We who love him are that bride. He came to rescue us when we were utterly helpless to rescue ourselves.
Dr. Charlie W. Starr teaches English, humanities, and film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky. www.charliewstarr.com