Action Chicks

Recent cinematic adaptations of female superheroes, such as 2004’s Catwoman and Elektra, were unsuccessful at the box office, and film critics found them largely without merit. However, fans of the comic books of the same names lay the blame for this on the films deviating too far from the original characters, rather than as a showing on the unpopularity of the genre of the female hero. The successful seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where creator/director Joss Whedon transformed the traditional screaming blonde victim into a smart-ass blonde victor, offer proof that displays of physical strength are now an attractive (and highly marketable) quality in a female lead. Whedon is currently at the helm of the new Wonder Woman movie, his critical and financial success with Buffy giving investors much confidence in his abilities.

The critiques of female heroes in Action Chicks and Wonder Women form part of the growing body of academic work which has responded to the contemporary proliferation of powerful, victorious vigilante female characters in comics, film and television shows. Powerful women have perhaps never been in greater numbers in popular culture, characters from the television of the 1960s and 1970s such as Emma Peel, Agent 99, the Bionic Woman and Wonder Woman were exceptional, unusual in their day, and not the instigators of the current trend. It wasn’t until the mid 1990s that the third wave of feminism was echoed in the mass media as an increasing number of fictional female heroes began filling our screens.

In Action Chicks, Inness collects a series of essays that look at this recent tough woman trend embodied in games, TV shows and movies such as Tomb Raider, La Femme Nikita, Witchblade, Buffy, Xena, Dark Angel, Barb Wire and Farscape. In Wonder Women Robinson deals with the genre of comic books, focusing more than half of her book on Wonder Woman, and the remainder to other super heroines including Supergirl, the Invisible Woman, She-Hulk and the Scarlet Witch.

By delving into the early period of Wonder Woman comics Robinson confronts what comic fans call ‘The Golden Age’ where the ‘comic narrative is based on the conflict between Good and Evil both understood in absolute terms … there are … no gray areas’ (5). Into this black and white battle Wonder Woman’s creator William Moulten Marston (also the inventor of the polygraph, a less reliable lie detector than Wonder Woman’s infamous golden lasso of truth) introduces a female centred religion for Wonder Woman’s Amazon community. In his version of the Greek Olympus, ‘Moulton invents a female deity who has the power attributed to the God of Genesis, rather than to any member of the Parthenon to which Aphrodite belongs’ (31). In a variation from the Greek myths from which Moulton freely borrowed, Wonder Woman is born not from the copulation of gods and humans but is simply ‘created’ by the goddesses when the Amazon Queen is taught ‘the secret of moulding a human form’ (31).

The form of Wonder Woman and of other action women is a focus of Robinson and many of Inness’s contributors. Robinson details how, since her introduction in 1941, Wonder Woman’s costume got smaller while her breasts got larger. However, ‘at no time [in the Golden Age] did muscularity overshadow or even threaten the conventional notion of beauty’ (63). The relationship between femininity and strength was a difficult one in her early years because ‘she could not be ideally attractive and have anything remotely resembling a fighter’s body’ (63). Later on, during her late 1960s ‘mod’ period, her costume and powers were removed and she became thinner. Robinson suggests the mainstreaming of second wave feminism was influential to the 1972 restoration of her costume and powers but ‘her physique did not seem to reflect this … her breasts … grew, not her muscles’ (87).

In the Action Chicks, essay ‘Little Miss Tough Chick of the Universe: Farscape‘s Inverted Sexual Dynamics’, contributor Renny Christopher suggests that women with muscles and power are now being seen as sexy (259). This apparent acceptance of strong women is not reflected in ‘real’ women as the wrestler Chyna discovered in her 1997 debut. In ‘No Cage Can Hold Her Rage? Gender, Transgression, and the World Wrestling Federation’s Chyna’, Dawn Heinecken cites the difficulty that Chyna faced in a sport where ‘the masculinity of the wrestlers is established by the presence of extremely feminine women’ (185). When she first appeared in 1997, Chyna ‘was problematic … because she destabilised the balance between male wrestlers and female managers and the ‘natural’ difference of gender’ (189). Chyna’s muscular appearance had no precedent in the rigid gender boundaries of the contemporary wrestling world such that she was ‘described by the communities as an object, a thing, something not quite human’ (189). Perhaps in reaction to these insults, Chyna worked hard to feminise herself, lost some of her muscles, and got a breast job in 1998 (192), until in 2000 she posed in animalistic stances in Playboy as what she called a ‘power beauty’ (197).

The notion of the female body as a weapon is taken up in Action Chicks by Jeffrey A. Brown in ‘Gender, Sexuality, and Toughness: The Bad Girls of Action Films and Comic Books’ where he sees women who combine sexiness and toughness as ‘hardcore mistresses of pain’ (65) and derivative of S&M iconography.    He sees ‘Wonder Woman … in her mini-skirt, armoured bustier, and steel bracelets … [as] the first in a long line of moderately fetishized heroines … her famous Golden Lasso has always been layered with implications of bondage’ (65). Robinson also notes this combination of sex and danger in relation to She-Hulk who ‘wows men with a body that is the epitome at once of sexiness and superheroic strength’ (Robinson 100). Her sex appeal is bound up in her not being too strong for example, ‘several times … a surge of anger makes her revert temporarily to the savage mode in which she is even stronger but much less attractive’ (Robinson 100).

Robinson finds She-Hulk’s sex appeal to be contradictory because although ‘her exuberant sexual subjectivity may be read as a declaration of women’s right to the assertion of desire … [it] is the mirror image of what turns on the boys who drool over her, having a beautiful chest and a great ass’ (101). Brown’s ‘Bad Girls’ essay brings up similar concerns when he finds it problematic for action women to have glamorous hair and make-up, although he at least concedes that they are ‘no longer damsels in distress waiting for men to save them’ (63). The conflict between dominant notions of passive femininity and the character of sexy action women is noted by Charlene Tung in her Action Chicks’ essay ‘Embodying an Image: Gender, Race, and Sexuality in La Femme Nikita‘. Tung interprets tough woman as being ‘depicted as both muscular and (hyper)sexualised, while maintaining her emotional vulnerability’ (99).

Even though strength is seen as sexy and appealing in women it is still a quality that is traditionally associated with the masculine rather than the feminine. Brown suggests critics often perpetuate ‘habitual interpretations of action heroines as men in drag’ (52) and describes the toughening up of women, such as the transformation of Sarah Connor in the first two Terminator films as depicting a ‘stripping away feminine masquerade’ (54) to reveal the butch within. Brown sees the process of women gaining strength as demonstrating ‘freed masculine behaviour’ (54) as if suggesting that in every woman exists a man struggling to get out. However, the hyper-sexualised appearance of these tough women creates a disturbing picture because their very existence is ‘questioning the naturalness of gender by
nacting both femininity and mascu
linity at the same time’ (Brown 58). The paradoxical nature of glamorous soldier characters like Pamela Anderson’s Barb Wire declare themselves as ‘active and static at the same time’ (64).

A heroine who embodies symbolic aspects of both genders is Sarah from Witchblade. In David Greven’s Action Chicks essay ‘Throwing Down the Gauntlet: Defiant Women, Decadent Men, Objects of Power, and Witchblade‘ he sees the transformation of Sarah’s ‘yonic’ bracelet into a ‘phallic’ sword as ‘an ingenious compromise’ (129). He sees the character as ‘Armoured and sensual, phallic and feminine, the witchblade-weilding Sarah is … [both] the normatively reproductive woman tied to Nature and the Western phallic masculine hero’ (129). While Witchblade attempts to combine gender traits, Farscape, according to Renny Christopher’s Action Chicks essay, simply reverses them in the portrayal of Aeryn Sun and John Crichton. Aeryn’s peacekeeper culture is seen as ‘masculinist’ in human cultural terms such that she is ‘a man in every way but physically’ (263). While John is shown to be empathic and even maternal at times, Aeryn ‘is perfectly comfortable being sexually aggressive but uncomfortable with love and commitment; the traditional roles are reversed’ (269). Greven details many episodes of Farscape where John is ‘penetrated’ or ‘destabilised’, often literally broken up into several personalities, while Aeryn evolves gradually into what can only be likened to ‘a sensitive new age male’ (273). By reversing the gender norms, Farscape allows the male character to be the one who offers a critique of stereotypical masculine behaviour, by offering his more feminine example as a more enlightened attitude.

The majority of female heroes tend to operate as part of a community of women who support them in their endeavours (although exceptions include loners such as Sydney Bristow of the TV show Alias and comic book heroines such as Elektra and She-Hulk). In the early Wonder Woman comics the heroine, after leaving her all-female island of Amazons to spread their philosophy of love, truth and peace in ‘man’s world’, finds a similar sisterhood in the female students of Holliday College. In ‘Seduction of the Innocent’ the infamous 1953 attack on the immorality of comic books, ‘it is this female collectivity that led Frederic Wertham [the author] … to stigmatise Wonder Woman as a lesbian’ (Robinson 41). Wonder Woman has long been held up as a lesbian icon (or ‘dykon’ in colloquial terms), and Xena’s close relationship with her ‘travelling companion’ Gabrielle was also embraced by the queer community as an obvious (if not overt) lesbian relationship. Buffy’s best friend Willow eventually developed into a lesbian and formed two intimate relationships with women in different seasons of the show (even trying to destroy the world in her grief when her first girlfriend was shot dead). However, despite the queer subtext of Xena and Gabrielle, and the lesbianism of Buffy’s best friend Willow, it is the friendship between the women that was the primary focus of the narratives.

The high value placed on the bonds between women is explored by Sharon Ross in her Action Chicks essay ”Tough Enough?’: Female Friendship and Heroism in Xena and Buffy‘.   Ross comments that ‘the women in these programs share power with each other, whenever they can, rather than relying on a patriarchal model that organises power and leadership linearly and hierarchically’ (241). Leadership and independence take a back seat in the narratives because instead these ‘women’s interdependency brings them the resources they need to fix problems in their worlds’ (241). Willow and Gabrielle function not as mere ‘sidekicks’ to their more physically powerful friends, instead they are heroes in their own right and often teach their companions ‘the toughest hero is a flexible one who relies on others’ (233).

Ross examines the use of discussion or ‘epistemic negotiation’ as she rather formally titles it. The women talk ‘about one event until they achieve an understanding of that event’ (238). These discussions are necessary because the women ‘resist patriarchal law and ethics’ (239), forming instead moral decisions based on the subjectivity and uniqueness of the situations. Context is all-important in deciding what course of action is to be taken. Buffy and Xena and their respective friends all employ ‘strategies [that] favour communal action, interdependency and emotional knowing’ (233). The women’s methods put them at odds with patriarchal structures based on leadership and rule of law thus ‘these shows suggest that bonds between women are the first step in becoming tough enough to resist patriarchy’ (245). While Ross sees the bonds of friendship being promoted in these shows, Sara Crosby finds that while feminist communities are a part of the narrative, they are not always triumphant.

In Crosby’s Action Chicks essay, ‘The Cruellest Season: Female Heroes Snapped into Sacrificial Heroines’, she notes a mass of suicides in the 2001 season finales of Dark Angel, Buffy and Xena. She proposes that the heroines are forced to take their own lives after a series of three key events. First, they suffer guilt over their ability to be heroes; secondly, they express a desire to be ‘normal’ and, finally, they are faced with the choice between staying in their marginalised feminist community, or rejoining (by committing suicide) the patriarchal community (155-156). Crosby’s argument finds the most compelling evidence in Dark Angel, a show that:

clothes its narrative in a rhetoric of liberal tolerance and individualism and gestures toward feminist egalitarianism. The series assumes these liberating poses in order to smuggle in a deeply reactionary argument. It sells itself as being all about choice, but the choices it gives Max are between patriarchy A and patriarchy B. (Crosby156)

The character of Max, a genetically engineered super soldier who has escaped from the government lab in which she was born, starts as a lone operator until she meets up with Logan, a rich man who operates ‘Eyes Only’, an anti-government independent news service. Max begins to work for his agenda of ‘civilising’ the jungle of post-apocalyptic Seattle and ‘supporting the moral good of an absurdly elitist patriarchal community’ (158). Max’s friends, a racially diverse group of straight and gay men and women, remain largely unaware of her abilities or her secret missions. Max’s suicide occurs out of necessity and without her ever gaining the support of a feminist community. Max does not negotiate with her friends as the best action in which to take, instead she simply follows orders, as the soldier she was born and bred to be.

Crosby’s critique of Buffy and Xena’s sacrifices is less convincing. Buffy’s final episode creates an enormous feminist community by altering a key narrative premise. The witch Willow casts a spell to change the rule about the Vampire Slayer being ‘The Chosen One’, and instead every potential Slayer gains the increased strength and co-ordination which would usually only be endowed after the death of the current Slayer (176). Buffy’s narrative had often oscillated between ‘punishment and transcendence’ (162) and, like Xena, it had employed the dramatic device of sacrifice and rebirth, which is common to the epic and mythic genre. Crosby acknowledges that Xena chooses ‘Gabrielle and heroism repeatedly’ (168) until the finale. Until that last episode Xena had consistently shown ‘patriarchy’s ethical pose … [as] irrational, brutal and criminal’ (167), but as Crosby explains fans were appalled by the ending of the show and generally rejected it, favouring the attitudes of previous episodes.

The conflict that Buffy felt between her duties as a Vampire Slayer and her life as young woman could easily be read as symbolic of the ‘growing pains’ of teenagers coming to terms with the responsibilities of ever approaching adulthood. While Crosby sees the moments when the protagonist feels doubt and dislike at being a heroine as an example of patriarchal backlash to strong women, Robinson cites a similar trend in comics as being an example of postmodernity. Both the male and female heroes in Marvel Comics ‘question and even seek to reject their special powers’ (5) and are ‘made uneasy by their mutations … which contribute to a kind of existential angst’ (116).

Robinson praises the way contemporary Marvel comics show self-awareness and self-reflexiveness and treat the style of Pop Art in comics ‘with the combination of irony and respect it granted to other mass produced commodities’ (88) and remarks that ‘from the 1960s forward … Marvel comics introduced irony and ambiguity into the comic narrative. … and traditional gender roles … [became] open to interrogation and challenge’ (5). These changes, brought about by feminism and modern art meant that ‘Pop Art forced self-consciousness onto the comics’ (88). DC was a late starter in self-criticism, and Robinson completely ignores the wealth of graphic novels, aimed at mature readers, that DC began to publish from the 1980s onwards. These A4 hard or paper book volumes collect a mini-series of comics or are first published as one volume. There are many outstanding graphic novels which tackle political, social and ethical issues by reinventing the familiar superheroes. For example, ‘Red Son’ reinvented Superman and Wonder Woman as the heroes of the Soviet Union and imagined the majority of the world as living in a utopian socialist paradise under attack from evil capitalist America.

North American publishers DC and Marvel comics have dominated the market for over fifty years and predominantly favour male characters, writers and artists. Independent comic publishers such as Drawn and Quarterly, Fantagraphic and Slave Labour have more female writers, artists and characters in their titles but aside from Sarah Dyer’s compilation series Action Girl, few of the independents concentrate on superheroes. The comic audience in the West has traditionally been young and male, while in Japan comics (manga) are widely read by women and men of all ages. Inness, in her essay ”It’s a Girl Thing’: Tough Female Action figures in a Toy Store’, rather than looking in comic specialty stores where female action figures are in large numbers, instead finds that at toy stores female action figures only appear in Japanese imports such as Sailor Moon and The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (this is no longer the case with even Barbie offering Catwoman, Wonder Woman, Batgirl and Supergirl dolls as well as a marked increase in female action figures by a variety of manufacturers.)

DC and Marvel often feature women in their ‘team’ comics like DC’s Justice League of America (whose only consistent female member is Wonder Woman) and Marvel’s Fantastic Four (which only has one female, the Invisible Woman).   Marvel, however, generally has more females in teams with ever-expanding memberships such as The Avengers and The X-Men. Robinson concentrates on The Avengers title since it has ‘a more fluid size and a larger representation of female superheroes … [including] the latter-day Captain Marvel, the Wasp, the Scarlet-Witch, Firestar, and Warbird, as well as the She-Hulk’ (Robinson 114). While in the early incarnations, the leaders were always male, in recent years women began to play a larger and more authoritative role. In the 1990s, when Scarlet Witch was acting leader of The Avengers, ‘no one mentions, much less questions the suitability of a women for the official leadership role, any more than they challenge her leadership during battle’ (120). In contrast, during the 1960s fans sent hate mail to The Fantastic Four comics urging them to get rid of Invisible Girl, the only female in the team.

Invisible Girl (she didn’t become a woman till the 1980s) ‘assumes a number of stereotyped feminine roles’ (91) in the early comics. She ‘designs the group’s uniform’ (91), comments that she ‘nursemaids’ the trio of boys and obligingly types up reports for the sulky Mr. Fantastic (who is jealous of her other boyfriend Namor the Sub-Mariner). Despite all this nurturing on top of her crime fighting duties, in 1963’s Fantastic Four #11 the characters discuss the hate mail Sue has been getting from readers. Fantastic Four fans felt that ‘she doesn’t contribute enough to the team effort and that the others would be better off without her’ (92). The team defends Sue’s womanly duties (after all who else would be their free nanny, secretary and seamstress?) and The Thing bellows ‘if you readers wanna see women fightin’ all the time, then go see lady wrestlers’ (93).

Sue Storm’s character changed considerably over the years and ‘her more self-assertive personality … [turned] her invisibility into an offensive weapon’ (113). As her powers became more outwardly projected her characteristic shyness disappeared as she became the Invisible Woman – and since ‘developing from Invisible Girl, also grew considerably in self-esteem’ (111). All of these changes happen with no reference to the past. Long running comic titles (which are consistently set in a present day where the heroes rarely age) have a habit of reinventing or ignoring the less than immediate past. Changes in writers (and changes in audience) often mean changes in characters in an attempt to keep the comic fresh and contemporary. Robinson finds this deeply problematic and comments that ‘the Marvel universe … once mired in sexist assumptions and stereotypes …. rewrite[s] … the 60s to suit late 90s prejudices’ (123). A comic title which has been published for forty years will no doubt have new readers every generation and few of them would have read the early comics, but it does seem that to change and then to deny the change, short-chang

es readers. Marvel’s new more
liberated women are achieved with ‘no bumps, inconsistencies, or revolutions along the way’ (123) and ‘the move has been from prefeminism to postfeminism, without a stop at feminism’ (125).

Marvel rose to prominence during the Cold War, while DC Comics (producers of Superman and Wonder Woman) developed during World War II. In an interesting aside, in 2004 a new publisher called AK Comics has come out of Egypt. These comics declare themselves to have ‘The Only Middle Eastern Superheroes’ and set their stories either in the past (during the Crusades) or in a future after the ’55-year war’ in an new age of peace where people of all faiths are able to live in harmony. Of the four titles, two are women, making AK Comics the first mass distributed comic to have complete gender equality <>.

Another recent shift in comic narratives has been their taking ‘on more adult themes, particularly in regard to sexuality’ (97). Since the heroines have always been sex symbols it’s not surprising that they are finally starting to have sex in their love affairs. Being physically strong, these women are able to dictate the extent of their sexual activity. She-Hulk, for example, may like sex but ‘she will have it only on her terms’ (103). The early Wonder Woman comics emphasised ‘a flirtatious version of female power based on a kittenish heterosexuality’ (52). The message of love Marston wished to convey was not necessarily sisterly and brotherly but more of a ‘universal sex appeal’ (51) that women can use to control men. In these early comics ‘the ‘love’ that Aphrodite … represents …. is eros, not agape’ (51). Meanwhile, in Action Chicks, romance with men is seen as disruptive to the female friendships in Xena and Buffy (Ross in Inness 245). However, in Farscape ‘having sex does not weaken Aeryn or change the physical dominance between her and Crichton’ (Christopher in Inness 266). For Aeryn ‘engaging in sex in no form of surrender’ (267) and ‘she remains the better pilot … [and] better fighter and the more physically powerful and impressive of the two’ (267). Unfortunately, love and sex do not work so well for Witchblade’s Sarah.

David Greven sees her character as ‘both an archetypal quest hero … and the classic loveless single women throughout the history of Hollywood film and TV’ (141). While in the first season ‘Sarah is obsessed with saving young women’ (140), these lesbian overtones are replaced in the second season with violent female villains (142). Fans of the first season were excited about an apparent ‘new lesbian re-imagining of the conventional hero’ (140), since Sarah neither confirms nor denies her sexuality but does often make innuendos about being a lesbian. Sarah’s Sapphic possibilities are soon thwarted by a series of ill-fated romances with mythic male characters that die soon after she meets them. Eventually Sarah is killed by her own Witchblade when an evil blonde steals it and impales her, in an act of symbolic ‘penetration’. Greven suggests that the evil double is a consistent theme for powerful women and he cites examples from Birds of Prey, Bewitched, The Bionic Woman, Dark Angel, and Star Trek: Voyager, concluding that ‘twinned females would appear to be compulsory, innate generic trope, the Madonna always counterbalanced by the whore’ (145).

Tung suggests that as fiction, female action heroes serve an important function of depicting women’s capability for violence, that they suggest women’s ‘potential for [a] violent response …. [and they begin] to break down the dominant idea that a woman cannot or will not fight back to save herself and others’ (105). Although these women offer the positive idea of female strength which serves to break down traditional assumptions of weak and passive female victims, the shows they inhabit tend to perpetuate racism, homophobia and class stereotypes. In Le Femme Nikita, Tung remarks that Asian women are stereotyped as either erotic, passive lotus-blossoms/china-doll/geisha-girls, or dangerous, evil dragon-ladies. The East itself is portrayed as backward and barbaric towards women (113). Afro-American women do not fare well either and are depicted as ‘explosive’ and sexually aggressive (112). Lesbians are shown as hard and cold and the general lack of diversity acts to ‘reinforce the idea that the heroine must be white’ (116). While in the background of Nikita’s workplace Asians, Afro-Americans, and presumably homosexuals, do exist, white, blonde, heterosexual Nikita is the central focus of the narrative and ‘her higher status is defined against their [non-whites and gays] silence, invisibility, and inactivity’ (116). Tung concludes by suggesting ‘it is a trade-off’ (118) and that to be able to a see a powerful woman we must accept racism, and homophobia and feminine stereotypes.

Similar forms of exclusion occur in Xena and Buffy whereby class stereotypes act to make working class women ‘exoticized, demonised or sexualised’ (Ross in Inness 249), and generally kept outside the central ‘middle class community of women’. Peasant women in Xena ‘remain on the edge of legitimate female communities’ (249) and both programs ‘demonize and marginalise some women of colour’ (250). Robinson’s analysis of women in comics conspicuously lacks any comment on race although all the characters she discusses are white. She does not even mention Wonder Woman’s black Amazon companions like Nubia or Phillippus (former Captain of the Amazon Queen’s Guard and now the elected leader of the current democratic Amazon nation) or long running black super heroine Storm of the X-Men.

Both Action Chicks and Wonder Women focused heavily the destabilisation of gender norms that heroic female characters bring about, in the contradictions of sexiness and strength in the context of feminine norms of passivity, and the paradoxical appearance of strong women as fragile girls lacking the muscle definition that their power would suggest. Much praise is given to texts that privilege feminist communities, perhaps because they promote collectivity of women over competition between women. Scenes of violence against women are disliked but, since these women tend to triumph, such depictions of violence can be seen as part and parcel of the action genre. However, in a society where women are routinely the victims of violence, these scenes then tend to take on a more sinister meaning. Although the imagining of strong women is empowering, in many ways it is misleading because unless a women has done a self defence class all the imagination in the world will not be enough to overpower a male attacker.

Sherrie A. Inness (Ed.) Action Chicks: New Images of Tough Women in Popular Culture. Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2004; Robinson, Lillian S. Wonder Women: Feminism and Superheroes. Routledge: New York, 2004.

Evelyn Hartogh has a Master of Arts Creative Writing from the University of Queensland 2002, and a Master of Arts in Women’s Studies from Griffith University 1997. She is a freelance writer for publications including Australian Women’s Book Review

Lesbians on the Loose <> and Queensland Pride <>

This entry was posted in Miscellaneous. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Pages

  • Categories

  • Issues