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Heroine Addict: The Skinny on Heroines in Film and Television by Molly Mahan

I have always been a fan of the action genre. When I was 6, I made my first attempt at script writing and wrote a five page Xena/Hercules skit for my friends and I to perform; later I dreamed someday I’d be Sarah Connor and would lead the fight when machines inevitably turned on us (Y2K was obviously a very exciting time for me, as I hoped I would finally fulfill my destiny). I am still aiming to do both of those things, in some capacity, but when I look around at Hollywood today I become forlorn and moderately depressed. Where are our Lucy Lawlesses and Linda Hamiltons of this generation? Nowhere, as far as I can see.

That’s not to say that female action films are dead. With box office successes like Salt and franchises such as Resident Evil, we are bound to see one female-led action-adventure movie every year or two. But are Angelina Jolie and Milla Jovovich really believable in their roles? With Linda Hamilton we had muscles. Legitimate muscles. That’s her doing the one-armed pull ups in Terminator 2. According to this article, Linda Hamilton could pump load a shot gun with one arm from her training and preparation before filming. That’s badass. Seeing Angelina Jolie do it in Wanted, left me expecting her arm to break off from the stress. Watching action movies where I’m afraid that the heroine is going to die of exhaustion (rather than enemy fire) isn’t exciting. It also makes it impossible to see past the actor to the character.

Even her arm needs to eat a sandwich…

Gerard Butler and company completed a ridiculous exercise routine to get their 8-pack abs for 300. Lena Headey, who played Queen Gorgo in the film, may not have been expected to be so fit as her male co-stars (though Spartan women were athletes themselves), but when she took on the shotgun to play Sarah Connor in The Sarah Connor Chronicles, why wasn’t she expected to also take on the muscles? At least Summer Glau could at least say she was a cyborg who just appeared frail to seem less intimidating to her foes (though why a Terminator would want to look nonthreatening is beyond me). Lena Headey playing the human Sarah Connor doesn’t have that luxory. Yes, there was dissonance from fans and critics regarding this contrast in physique that made national news. Yet, this incident is unique: the physique of the action heroine is scarcely ever mentioned, this incident aside. In all likelihood the uproar occurred simply because of her predecessor’s hardcore dedication to the role, and that’s a shame. All female action stars should be put under such scrutiny.  If you’re hired on as an actor to play a character, then it is your job to accurately portray that character on screen and it should be a priority of the director and producers to make sure you’re doing your job. If you’re an action heroine and you’re not pumping iron before principle filming begins, then you’re not doing your job and you shouldn’t get paid millions.

We don’t let men get away with this behavior. It’s a double standard and I find it most disturbing: why do men, when given roles as action heroes, must they hit the gym, devour protein and bulk up to look the part, but women are allowed to look like twigs? Seeing old-man Stallone packing an absurd amount of heat in The Expendables looked just as a genre acceptable and realistic as when he did it 40 years ago for Rambo. Yet, I found it more realistic watching 65 year old Helen Mirren work a Gatling gun in RED than 20-something Zoe Saldana holding a high powered rifle with both hands in Columbiana.

Could beat you in arm-wrestling… easily.

Why are we as audiences allowing this to happen? We won’t watch movies where Russell Crowe is old and fat trying to play a typically young and lithe hero (Robin Hood), yet we’ll watch Milla Jovovich slay zombies for years to come, not at all phased by the fact that her muscle tone has yet to increase.

Of course, to me, this is all a double-edged sword, because American film studios already seem to be against female leads in general, let alone in action in particular. If I stop paying to watch thin, un-toned women fight, will they view it as “oh, we need to beef these women up!” or see it as, “Clearly audiences hate female action stars!” Being the pessimist that I am, it’s probably the latter, and that’s heart shattering to a girl who grew up wanting to fight the good fight and kill half a dozen aliens and terminators while she was at it.

So, I’m writing this. Not just to vent or see if other people see the same way I do or to start a flame war or whatever it is that might happen with an opinion piece that gets posted on a website these days. It’s, in the off chance that this gets out there, that the studios know I exist and there’s something that I want.

Xena: The Female Action Gold Standard… who also wears gold.

I am your audience when it comes to action flicks and I am a woman who actively goes and see action movies. On opening night. I am that demographic, which you say doesn’t exist, but I exist and I am not alone. So if you’re trying to “tap into me”, and if you’re wondering why you don’t always get me into those seats on opening weekends, or why I’m waiting until the Blu-Ray release or for Netflix to stream it, it’s because you’re giving me a product I don’t want. You’re giving me women who are impossible for me to find cool or badass. If I can’t believe your star can throw a punch that will bruise a peach, do you think I’ll believe her when she’s holding two 20lb guns in each hand and firing willy-nilly without feeling any kind of kickback? Not a chance. You have to get me to see the reality first, then you can try to give me the fantasy.

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