The XX Factor

The Real Difference Between Male and Female Action Heroes: Sex as a Superpower

A fan dresses up as Lara Croft, tomb raider, at a publicity event in London. Are sexually empowered action heroines a bad thing?

Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images

In the not-too-distant past, highlighting a lack of awesome female role models in action movies was, well, heroic. Joss Whedon did it, as did the sociologist Kathryn Gilpatric. Today’s lengthy roster of onscreen action heroines—Katniss, Black Widow, Kristen Stewart’s Snow White—raises a different issue, one tackled last week by Alyssa Rosenberg at ThinkProgress: If female action heroes need to be role models, what should they model?

Rosenberg suggests that female heroes don’t have to embody (only) alpha ideals: strength, bravery, protectiveness. They can be brainy or tactful or maternal. In fact, action films might be more interesting if heroines drew on traditionally female traits: There are many ways to kick butt, after all, and presumably viewers would enjoy the variety. Rosenberg doesn’t mark off physical prowess as a “guy thing.” She is only proposing that lady headliners embrace cunning and kickboxing in equal measure—advice that, when you think about it, could apply just as well to male action stars.

Which actually got us wondering: If “female” means having more in your arsenal than the ability to flatten a subway car, have superheroes been trending “female” for a while now? Scrappy world-savers like Spider-Man and Iron Man are lithe and athletic, rather than invincible towers of brawn. They rely on their wits as much as they do on brute force. And the truly massive ones—Hulk, Thor, or Wolverine, for instance—are without fail matched against even bigger adversaries in the final sequence, most likely because viewers love an underdog and want to see their favorites triumph through will, smarts, and character, not just might.

Rosenberg reflects:

I wonder if part of the challenge [in representing female action stars] is that male action heroes are heightened versions of ideals and traits men are already supposed to aspire to—strength, decisiveness, acting as protectors. If you’re going to put women in those roles, you’re both having female characters take on male-affiliated traits, and then heightening them.

But this ignores the fact that male action heroes also demonstrate heightened versions of female-affiliated traits—and perhaps always have. But when Bond uses tact to finagle intel from a counter-agent or Dr. Charles Xavier applies his mutant powers to read minds, no one comments breathlessly on the gender-bending progressiveness.

To me, the most fraught questions surrounding the representation of female action heroes actually have to do with sexuality. The real, enduring difference between depictions of world-saving men and women? Women use sex appeal as a weapon far more than guys do. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol’s Jane Carter seduces her way inside Brij Nath’s inner chambers for satellite override codes. The three Charlie’s Angels, Lara Croft from Tomb Raider, the Batman saga’s Poison Ivy and Catwoman, Jennifer Garner’s superspy on Alias—all of them inevitably reach a point in their missions where they must feign desire for a powerful male to get what they want. Even Katniss Everdeen realizes that she can improve her odds by playing up a lukewarm romance with fellow District 12 tribute Peeta. So is this empowering or exploitative? If female action heroes excel in marshalling their sexuality, does that take away from their athletic or mental feats?

Maybe it’s just all about balance. There’s nothing wrong with tough women manipulating weak-willed men with their womanly charms. It would just be nice to see, say, Spider-Man have to sweet talk his way past a gun-toting female guard for once.