So my Google search for “kickass heroines” yielded a lot of encouraging lists, but I have seen circulating on the interwebs a sentiment that kickass heroines are tired or over. I’ve heard various arguments, that too-successful heroines resurrect unjust perfectionist expectations for women, that their portrayals are too simplistic, that they emphasize physical power over other abilities or even, deny other forms of femininity. I would agree with these if, for example, the paranormal romance and urban fantasy genres, female-dominated and the most prolific producers of kickass heroines, didn’t also see plenty of female characters without talent or power and let’s please not search for Girls in Dresses on YA covers. Traditional femininity is not under attack.
Neither can I find all urban fantasy simplistic with heroines like Alex Craft (Grave Witch) and Rose Drayton (On the Edge) struggling to feed themselves or Chess Putnam (Unholy Ghosts), struggling with addiction. We could demand more of those, I wouldn’t mind less privileged protagonists at all, but different heroines will appeal to different women, from Barbie-like MacKayla Lane (Darkfever) to badass Kate Daniels (Magic Bites). While I’d never suggest these characters are author surrogates, they reflect their authors and their views of femininity, although not in totality or directly.
Utterly independent of empowerment, there’s no question some women relate, depending on their stage of life, personality, experience, etc. I relate to aggressive or physical characters. I grew up on video games. I see skill, discipline, and art in tutored violence, i.e. martial arts, and I’ve enjoyed them myself. I’ve studied weapons, and my best friend’s a fencer. I deeply resent women complaining that women don’t need to imitate men in relation to physical heroines- and everything else under the sun.
I’ve read this most recently regarding women breaking into scatological or gross out comedy à la Melissa McCarthy, whom I admire greatly, and I can’t but see every instance of this as essentializing women, as sexism with a dash of class condescension. I do not want every book to be Confessions of a Shopaholic, I don’t think that’s our only niche, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
However, I wouldn’t, as some critics have done, assume that I reflect all women. I don’t expect all women to enjoy kickass heroines, and any true art imitating life will reflect a spectrum, but I do expect people discussing women in action films or books to have picked up a few. How many saw Colombiana or In the Blood? If you haven’t, you probably aren’t into kickass women, at least on screen, but why deprive the rest of us?
But let’s talk about empowerment and, for argument’s sake, assume kickass heroines are artificial and unnatural, since that’s implicit when someone suggests kickass heroines are a cute, passé trend. What do they offer, by way of empowerment?
This fiction depicts women defeating, rather than just struggling against, obstacles. For the latter, see “high art.” Victory is critical to empowering stories, trouncing the villain who sometimes represents societal ills.
North Indian vigilante-activist Sampat Pal Devi organized the Gulabi Gang, a movement of women named for their gulabi or pink saris, who literally beat abusers and corrupt politicians (or threaten to). I cannot imagine a better fantasy, but she’s quite real. The Bollywood picture, Gulaab Gang, inspired by her story was one of the most empowering I’ve seen in recent years, and the film’s power relies on heroine Rajjo’s success, particularly when the enemy’s so important.
Do we need more media inculcating in us the notion that women don’t fight men in the long tradition of femmes fatales failing and getting their just desserts, or do we need more female characters as invested in justice as their real female and male on-screen counterparts, shown in physical professions where they already exist? Stop suggesting that they’re just an artistic conceit. They’re real.
“Of course, I feel like I can always do better with action and I always want to push the envelope there as long as I can because I’m a physical person and I love expressing myself physically[…]”
Gina Carano, Collider interview
In the Blood stars Mixed Martial Arts champion Gina Carano as Ava, a woman who pursues the truth after her husband disappears on honeymoon to the Dominican Republic. At every point when I expected victimization, as indeed I’ve come to expect, or whenever I thought, “Well, surely she’ll stop now, or else she’ll seem unfeminine, she’ll exceed her bounds, someone will [try to] punish her” as we would never think of a Jason Bourne or Jack Reacher, she went there and further. Carano, as Ava, committed, no hesitation in her acting, from defending her man in a club instead of two men
fighting over a woman, to saving her husband and hunting his captors, and in addition, hers were the most realistic fight scenes I’ve seen in Hollywood, since the professional fighter choreographed them herself, sometimes impromptu, in response to her environment.
Ava’s also afraid of heights and loves dancing, so she has some nuance, although this is, in the end, an action flick with little room for development. I will not hold media to different standards, as others do, simply because there’s a woman in the lead role. Media may change subtly as more women and minorities enter the industry, but people will still enjoy what they have enjoyed, including explorations of physicality previously reserved for men, and studios will continue to cater to that. So, in short, you keep your heroines, I’ll keep my Lagertha Lothbrok’s and Elizabeth Jennings’s. 😉
Addendum: What does essentializing lead to? Why’s it a problem? Well, one problem is people saying that women don’t play “violent” games (AKA “real” or “hardcore” games versus milder “casual” Facebook or mobile games) like this and excusing studios for deliberately excluding female characters, when studies such as those from the Entertainment Software Association note that 48% of gamers are female. It makes advocacy a little harder for female gamers and developers.