Magical Amazons: Women-In-Action (1)

This collection, includes female action heroines, where women leads take some action, from kick-butt, to crime sleuthing.  I must admit that like many other women, I have also loved TV shows and films with strong kick-butt women leads,  but as Mary Magoulick writes in “Frustrating Female Heroism: Mixed Messages in Xena, Nikita, and Buffy” that “In spite of their female characters’ strengths, these shows contain troubling and sexist messages in images and plot lines that neither advance nor celebrate feminism.”   Despite this — No matter how much misogyny,  (overt or covert) is actually present, many women adore films of this type.  Every generation seems to have a favourite of their youth, eg Buffy, Xena.

The loyal fandom amongst women represents to me, not watching “feminist” role models – but just a simple expression of ‘relief’ from the far more blatant In-Your-Face misogyny of our everyday lives, and the other 99.999% of sexist propaganda hate speech in populist-culture, and mainly arising from the natural desire of women to see women experiencing epic adventures and in any role but the traditional ones.

As one character said on a Wonder Woman episode:  “You’ll never see her,  behind a typewriter”.

Not much feminist in it, but sometimes a lot better than the alternatives. Some of the most frustrating things I find in the mainstream pop culture genre with female action heroines, are:

(a) male-dominance reinforcement – often the women are “made”, or constructed, controlled and manipulated by men.  Xena was re-made by Mars, and even kneeled to him.  Charlie’s Angels had the invisible Charlie.  Their power derives from male permission, male guidance and control.  Like the myth of Athena being ‘re-born’ from the Zeus’s thigh, the all-powerful “Father Figure” is always present, along with erasure of the Mother.  The only “good” mother, is a dead mother.  Funny how they all have great dads (or substitute father-figure(s) who mentors/trains them) – and long-dead mothers, or evil ones they have to fight at some point. One almost-exception to this, was Wonder Woman, who was born and raised an Amazon warrior from an all-female colony, as indicated in the short clip (above) from the first pilot episode.  Wonder Woman was unique in this respect (and was short-lived).

(b) woman-hatred reinforcement – following the above, is the presentation of ‘other’ women, most of whom fall into traditional gendered binary stereotypes of Madonna/Whore – or Butch/Femme.  If they have any power at all, (and especially if independent of males), they are usually Evil.   Any woman not under control of a Nice Guy (TM), must be Evil.   Of course.    Another common trope, is using hyper-sexualisation of heroine and others, (for the male audience eye-candy factor), including man-made lesbianism and the ubiquitous girl-on-girl violence and/or betrayal.

(c) magical powers – these women usually have “special powers”, are not ‘normal’ everyday women – hence reinforcing the idea, that normal average women can’t do this stuff.  They are special snowflakes.  If its not magical powers, then its enhanced DNA or some other form of Man-Made Re-Construction of the feminine, eg Aeon Flux, Ultraviolet, and the women of the X-Men comics and films.   A large number of these originated in the comic medium, and also high visibility (and popularity) in the more recent screen comic style of the manga/anime and CGI/gamer genres.

Of the Magical Amazons,  Wonder Woman one of the first in the north-american tradition who first appeared in comics in 1941, and early comic book series had her fighting against the Axis powers during WW2. Wonder Woman is very loosely modelled on the Amazons of Greek myth, and came from Amazonia, a mythical all-female island country to join the Americans, and fight for truth, justice .. blah, bleh.  She was created as a  “distinctly feminist role model whose mission was to bring the Amazon ideals of love, peace, and sexual equality to a world torn by the hatred of men in war.”  (Wikipedia)  Her powers include superhuman strength, flight, super-speed, super-stamina, and super-agility.  She also possesses a natural rapport with animals, and was often presented as communicating with animals to help her against the bad guys.  She uses her ‘Lasso of Truth’, which forces those bound by it to tell the truth, a pair of indestructible defence bracelets, a tiara which can serve as a projectile weapon, and an invisible airplane.  The comic book character was serialised in a television series made from 1975 – 1979.

Other popular series include Charlie’s Angels, The Bionic WomanNikita, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Xena: Warrior Princess.  In addition, a number of popular female kick-butt women as co-stars or major secondary characters in other TV series and films have continued the tradition, as with Emma Peel in The Avengers, Scully in the X-Files, Ripley from the Aliens film series, Sarah Connor in the Terminator film series and Storm in the X-men series.  Others of the Magical Amazon type are found in individual episodes or scenes, especially within the science-fiction and fantasy genres.  Many of my own girl-crushes are on such women, despite all the negatives.

The images of the Warrior Woman in popular film are fragments or echoes of the Maiden facet of the Goddess.  Although they still hold some shadows and glimpses of the power for women audiences, (given their popularity with women) – like everything else they remain socially re-constructed images made by men, for men.  Anything women might get out of these types of films is incidental. Despite all that – some can be enormous fun and be pleasant alternatives to more regular stuff.

Asian films have the longest running tradition of female kick-butt action heroines,  much broader than in Western cultural traditions. The woman warrior appears to be a much larger icon in asian TV and films, from Korean swordswomen, Japanese samurai women and Hong Kong martial arts.  Some have become legendary series of films, such as the Yes, Madam/In the Line of Duty series.

A large number of this genre aren’t very watchable but some are good fun, and some of my own personal favourites are listed below.  The ratings mean:  ** = watchable, *** = good fun, **** = great fun.

*** Female Demon Ohyaku (Japan, B&W, 1968).  Ohyaku (Junko Miyazono) is a shamed woman – the daughter of a prostituted woman who committed suicide, and a circus entertainer (acrobat). Her boss also likes to sell her body against her will. One day she gets really fed up with being used and abused by men, and pisses off a high ranking official, which results in her being tortured and sent to a harsh prison camp as the only woman. Enduring her numerous hardships, she plots revenge and uses every means necessary to that end. The warden’s wife is also one who wants to get into her pants and tattoos a giant oni (demon) on Ohyaku’s back. Empowered by the tattoo, Ohyaku eventually escapes the island and exacts her revenge in the cruelest way possible.

*** Lady Snowblood (Japan 1973).  Famous for being one of the inspirations for Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” films, this B-grade flick is ‘so bad, that it is good’. A bloody tale, complete with copious amounts of over-the-top fake blood spurting.  A young girl is on a quest to avenge her father’s murder and mother’s rape.  Born in prison with her mother’s death, she learns her samurai sword skills, and journeys on vengeance in a kimono and with her sword, to track down and kill the men who made her an orphan.

*** Woman Avenger (HK 1979). Another cheap B-grade ‘its so bad, that its good’ film. A rape-and-revenge film starring kung fu diva Hsia Kwan Lee. A group of highway bandits kill her husband, and then gang-rape her and leave her for dead. She is luckily rescued and nursed back to health by an elder Buddhist priestess, and she begs the priestess to teach her kung fu. The priestess reluctantly agrees, and Ms. Lee spends the next three and a half years learning dragon fist kung fu. With vengeance burning in her heart, she sets out to find and kill the men who raped her in a series of increasingly brutal set pieces.  Seriously, you really do not want to mess with this woman.

*** Coffy (1973); Foxy Brown (1974); Sheba baby (1975)
Pam Grier stars (Girl-Crush alert) in these 3 classics of US Black woman flicks.  In  Coffy, she is a nurse whose little sister died from a heroin overdose. Fueled by grief and anger, she sets out to kill the people responsible for getting her sister hooked on smack, and one by one the pimps and the pushers fall before her.   In Foxy Brown, bad-ass Pam Grier is up against a group of high powered heroin suppliers. Lots of great moments including Pam Grier hiding a pistol in her afro, and the infamous penis in the pickle jar gag.  In Sheba, Baby, Pam Grier plays Sheba who returns to her hometown in Kentucky, to confront thugs who are trying to intimidate her father into handing over his family business. Sheba is pissed. Don’t mess with this woman either.

****Alien (1979);  ***Aliens (1986);  ***Alien 3 (1992);  **Alien Resurrection (1998)
Sigourney Weaver as bad-ass Ripley.  Girl-Crush on that first release.  Like many series with sequels, the first is often the best of the bunch, but all are reasonably good in their own way.  The only one I was disappointed with, was the last one in 1998.  Made nearly 20 years after the first, it bore little resemblance to, or continuity with, any of the earlier films.  Too heavy-handed on the D&M with all that surrealistic ‘Ripley-as-Mother’ symbolism.  Admittedly, this theme makes an appearance in all the films – but in the last it is depressingly post-modernist and misogynist. Still interesting to watch, some great scenes and dialogue. And if you have the time/interest watch all four films in order to watch how the original themes deteriorated over the 20 years in reverse to the improvements in film techniques.

**Yes, Madam (HK, 1985)
This is one of the earliest of a loosely connected series of B-films known by various names, originally starring Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Rothrock as police officers who team up to kick butt.

****Nikita/La Femme Nikita (France, 1990)
Not so much a fun film – but a beautifully filmed character-driven story about a drug-addict murderous teenager, who is given a second chance by a secret government agency looking to exploit her ability to kill without a conscience. Nikita is, nevertheless, a victim of her circumstances, and like the rest of the characters on both sides, seems stuck in a very bad situation. In addition to the artistry with which this story is told, this film has a very nihilistic sense of justice.  The Canadian spin-off TV series Nikita butchered the character and story so much, it was unwatchable for me after the original film. 

**+Sailor Moon (Japan, Manga/Anime, 1992-1997)
One of the most famous of the magical girl genre of manga comics, with spin-off TV series, and feature movies. About a bunch of young girls who fight evil in futuristic space. Usagi is the main character, a carefree young girl with an enormous capacity for love, compassion and understanding. Usagi transforms into the heroine called Sailor Moon, Soldier of Love and Justice.  At the beginning of the series, she is fourteen years old and portrayed as an immature crybaby who hates having to fight evil and wants nothing more than to be a normal girl. As she progresses, however, she embraces the chance to use her power to protect those she cares about. Sailor Moon wields the all powerful Silver Crystal – a family heirloom from Moon Kingdom. Linking her life force with it can maximize it to its full potential, rarely used in this fashion because the end result could possibly mean Sailor Moon’s own death.

** Serial Mom (USA, 1994)
Light comedy about a housewife-as-serial-killer.
*** Tank Girl (1995)
One of the girl-cyberpunk genre (or ‘grrrl-power’), using CGI/gamer graphics. Based on the British popular cult comic-strip (which is much better than this USA spin-off film), our tank-riding Rebecca as ‘Tank-Girl’ and her friend ‘Jet-Girl’ fight a mega-corporation, which controls the world’s water supply.
**The Quick and the Dead (1995)
Unusual Western gunslinger flick, Sharon Stone stars as a lady avenging gunslinger, who returns to her childhood home town owned by a ruthless gunslinger hosting a quick-draw elimination tournament.
**Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
Samantha has amnesia of most of her life, but now lives in the ‘burbs, has a job teaching school and makes the best Rice Krispie treats in town for her 8-yr old daughter and friends. But when she receives a bump on her head, she begins to remember small parts of her previous life as a lethal top-secret assassin.

****Avalon (Poland, 2001)
In a future gloomy pessimistic world, young people are increasingly becoming addicted to an illegal (and potentially deadly) battle simulation VR game called Avalon.  The danger is your mind stays in Avalon and unable to return to reality, with your body left a mindless vegetable attached to the interface.  Professional players survive by playing for cash.  A young woman, Ash, a star player, is a loner,  doesn’t have any contact with other people, only with her dog. Her only activities are cooking meals for the dog and playing games.  When she hears of rumors that a more advanced level of the game exists,  but is far more dangerous than other levels, she ignores all warnings, determined to find it.  She gives up her loner ways and joins a gang of explorers to find the ‘hidden level’.

****Martial Angels (2001) Hong Kong
One of my favourite fun ones. Six kick-butt women team together, along with some great girl-buddy scenes and ending.

****Kaena: The Prophecy (France, animated CGI, 2003)
Lovely girl-power coming-of-age story. On a distant planet AXIS, a gigantic coiling plant, stretches high above the clouds. At its center is a village whose people are in mortal danger because Axis the tree which gives them life is withering, it’s sap is drying up. The people beg their gods for help, but to no avail. Kaena, a rebellious,  high-spirited teenage girl will defy the High Priest and her people’s ancestral beliefs to take the perilous journey through the Axis and discover what dark secrets lie beyond the clouds.

*** Kill Bill Vol 1 (2003) and Kill Bill Vol 2 (2004)
Yeah, I hear you – many didn’t like it, but I did.  Bite me.

**Aeon Flux (2005)
Four centuries after a virus nearly annihilated the human race, leaving only five million survivors in a utopian city called Bregna. Aeon Flux is a mysterious assassin working for rebels who wish to overthrow the utopian ‘Goodchild’ regime,  led by Trevor Goodchild, the ruler of Bregna and a descendant of the man who found a cure for the deadly virus. As instructed by the Handler, Aeon Flux is assigned to assassinate Goodchild, but there are deeper secrets to be discovered, and conspiracies to be foiled.

****Keeping Mum(UK, 2005)
Hilarious black comedy, another woman serial-killer-in-the-house flick where a mysterious elder woman arrives to be housekeeper for a busy suburban family.

**Ultraviolet (2006)
A beautiful hemophage infected with a virus that gives her superhuman powers has to protect a boy in a futuristic world, who is thought to be carrying antigens that would destroy all hemophages.

****Death Proof (2007)
Enormous fun, as four women take on a serial woman-killer and win the day. (Note:Violence trigger warning)

****Revolutionary Girl Utena
(Japan, anime TV series, 2007)
Loved this series with its lesbian subtext. About a girl called Utena who was helped in childhood by a handsome fantasy prince who gives her an unusual ring. She was so impressed with him that she vowed to become a prince  herself. (What a breath of fresh air, instead of falling in love with him, she wanted to become a prince herself) As she grows up into junior high school, she stands out of the crowd with insisting on wearing a boys school uniform, and friendly with shy submissive Indian girl called Anthy. When one of her friends is publically humiliated at school, Utena protests and is called out for a duel by the boy at a bizarre arena. With some difficulty, she wins and finds that Anthy is now “engaged” to Utena as the “Rose Bride” that is the key to a world revolution. Now, she finds herself forced to fight repeated challengers  for Anthy, face similar rivalries in her personal life and tries to help Anthy gain some will of her own in spite of any stoopid magical prophecies saying why she can’t stand up for herself. All the while, the duels she must fight are leading her to a goal of world revolution.

***Assault Girls (Japan, 2009)
Followup film set in a similar CGI/gamer universe as Avalon. This time 3 girls, and one nerd of a male, are forced to team up to gain a level.

****+ 4-3-2-1 (2010) UK
Delightful grrrl-fun, gets an extra plus for the one-liners and grrrl-bonding.

****Sucker Punch (2011)
I was surprised by this flick – very surrealistic visually – combining a CGI/gamer storyline and effects, with more serious underthemes. A girl is sent to a mental institution after she accidentally kills her younger sister when aiming the gun at her stepfather who is trying to abuse the girls after their mothers death.  Through surrealistic fantasy sequences, both inside the institution (which is presented in fantasy sequence as a brothel), where the girls must “dance”.  Our heroine “dances” to another set of fantasy sequences where she and other girls she has befriended, team up as shock-troops in various war battle-scenarios. But only in fantasy, can the girls ‘win’, for Reality truly does Bite but still some glimmers of hope are still able to be raised.  While men heroically sacrificing themselves (*yawn*) for each other in wartime is common enough, this film is the first one I have ever seen where women are seen to do this for each other.


4 thoughts on “Magical Amazons: Women-In-Action (1)

  1. You know I have just finished reading Jane Caputi’s Goddesses and Monsters, Women, Myth Power and Popular Culture. Have you read it?
    I now know why I secretly was on the side of the alien monster in Aliens. I did not understand why I felt that SHE had every right to defend herself and offspring and yet she scared the shit out of me. Well now I know. She is what western culture fears the most – a female being who does not give a shit about male ideology. Wow While the movie makes us identify with the female lead, what she does is purely killing the life force which is what the monster symbolizes. I am a resistant viewer of popular culture. That she had to use male technology to defeat her is quite the modern ideology.

  2. i loved WW and bewitched as a child (LOVED LOVED LOVED them!) and then buffy as an adult (as well as roseanne and golden girls–they are still in reruns here and i am enthralled with ‘marathons’ of my favorite shows!) and yes, none of them are feminist, especially the disgusting joss wheadons buffy and he was TRYING to be feminist wasnt he? just EW. what a fucking dickwad he was, and he got it SO WRONG.

    i agree that its just a RELIEF not to be subjected to the more blatant woman-hating on every other show (and in all the commercials too, but you cant get away from those). its funny that anyone would assume the feeling of relief was the same thing as empowerment, or feminism…not haha funny but you know. sad and wrong. there just isnt anything else readily available. i havent seen most of the films you list here either, but thanks for listing them! maybe netflix has some of them?

  3. Pingback: I’ve been to the doctor, and we’re going to have a baby. « PIV on TV

  4. Pingback: Amazonian paradise is nice, but male attention is better. « PIV on TV

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