Open Thread: Whither the Female Action Hero?

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On this day in 1986, James Cameron’s sci-fi/action epic Aliens was released in American theaters. A sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 scare-fest Alien, Cameron’s picture was a smash with both audiences and critics, raking in $85 million at the box office and racking up seven Oscar nominations, including a Best Actress nod for star Sigourney Weaver. More importantly, it reinvented Weaver’s Ellen Ripley as the kind of strong, muscular, tough action hero role played almost exclusively by male stars like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The trouble is, Aliens came out 25 years ago, and a female action hero like Ripley is still the exception to the rule.

Sure, there are occasional heirs — Milla Jovovich has fronted four Resident Evil movies (with a fifth on the way), Uma Thurman did the Kill Bills, and Linda Hamilton kicked major ass in Cameron’s Aliensfollow-up, Terminator 2. Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis co-starred in Thelma and Louise. And there’s Angelina Jolie, who raised heart rates in the Tomb Raider movies, Wanted, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, as well as last year’s Salt — an action lead, incidentally, originally intended for Tom Cruise. But that’s a pretty lean mixture of ladies for 25 years of moviemaking. Why is the female action hero still such a rarity?

We’ve got our theories. The most obvious explanation is that most movies are made by men — bankrolled by men, written by men, produced by men, directed by men, and the men who make movies aren’t exactly renowned for their nuanced, complex understanding of female characters. It is presumably easier to create women who function as window dressing — girlfriends, companions, and wives who tag along in the chase scenes (preferably screaming and falling down a lot), get kidnapped at the climax, and disrobe for the sex scene — then to concoct female characters who are strong and tough and capable of looking out for themselves. At risk of engaging male moviemakers in a bit of mass psychotherapy, the Michael Bays of the world may not be entirely comfortable seeing women like that. And as long as that’s the case, these dudes are either going to have to, y’know, evolve, or we’re going to need some more Kathryn Bigelows and Karyn Kusamas to even things up.

The other frequently-posited argument against female-ccentric action movies, mostly lobbed from the studio level, is that female stars can’t “open” action movies — or, frankly, much of anything that’s not a Meg Ryan-style romantic comedy. (This was part of the reason for the intense scrutiny of the box-office receipts for Bridesmaids.) As you’ve probably noticed, action movies are geared primarily at an audience of teenage boys — another crowd not known for their keen appreciation of the female psyche. In this testosterone-driven market, there is no safer bet than a big blockbuster about cars that turn into robots. But what will they make of a lady with a pistol? How will they even understand that? They won’t go see that — guns and explosions or no, it’s still a “chick flick.” Sure, they went to Kill Bill — but that’s Tarantino. Yes, Mr. and Mrs. Smith was a hit — because of Brad Pitt. Tomb Raider? Video game, duh. Resident Evil? See previous answer. When trying to make the case for a female-driven action movie, you’ll hear about the occasional flops (like Kusama’s Aeon Flux), but the successes can all be explained away.

Which begs the question — in the 25 years since Aliens, how far have we actually come? Would a fierce heroine like Ripley be just as much of an anomaly in 2011 as she was in 1986? Why is the female action hero so rare these days? Thoughts, theories and rejoinders welcome in the comments.