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In the past decade we have seen a surge of female heroines in action films. A genre that
used to be dominated by males no longer only casts women as the damsels in distress. Instead,
women now appear, to not only pull their own weight, but often, they help rescue their male
counterparts as well. While the representation of women in media has come a long way since the
era of Disney Princesses, there is still plenty of room for improvement. Through examining the
top female-led action films from 2002-2012, it is evident that the portrayal of women in
mainstream media has changed a great deal. In the past decade, women have been given more
power than ever, yet they are not fully utilizing it. Women are mainly shown as sexual icons in
action films. To portray both genders equally, awareness must be raised on this problem.

If you search action movies in the 1950s or 60s you will have a difficult time finding
concrete results. Moving to the 70s, the closest we get to seeing a woman in an action film is
watching a female swim away in Jaws. Moving on through the 80s, women are nowhere near
the top 50 action movies of that decade. The 90s are when we first start to see females rise up in
action led films. It is still not possible to find a woman lead action film in the top 100 list but the
90s featured films such as The Fifth Element, Long Kiss Goodnight, the Alien series and The
Real McCoy.
Interesting facts:
-The majority of female led action films from the 50s-80s are Asian films or Sci-Fi.
-From the 50s-90s, no female led action films have made the top 100 list.

Previous to the 2000s, actions films were typically categorized as movies made by men
and for men. The 2000s are when action films really take off with female led roles. Instead of
four or five action films being produced in a decade, we started see an outbreak of female led
action films. The early 2000s start with films such as Charlies Angels and Tomb Raider and
then films such as Underworld and Resident Evil come into the picture. On a list of the 20
highest grossing female led action films, all 20 are from the 2000s (Pajiba).
Critical Analysis:
In order to understand the way that women are still being sexualized through our
mainstream media, it is important to outline the common themes that define women as sex
objects. Perhaps the most significant medium in which women are objectified throughout media
is through choice of wardrobe. No matter how progressive action heroines may be, they still
operate from within a system better prepared to exploit womens looks than to celebrate their
achievements (Brown, 13). Whether it is a skin tight black suit, a fitted crop top, or a
translucent body-hugging bodice, costume plays a huge role in defining women as Sex Objects.
In the 2002 film, Queen of the Damned, Akashas wardrobe is far from conservative.
Akasha, possessing other-wordly powers, is Queen of the Vampires, the first of her kind. Despite
having the strength and authority to save Lestat and doom others, she is portrayed as an ubersexual goddess. She appears extremely vulnerable, dressed in a sheer skirt and a barely-there top
that seems to blend seamlessly with her torso and chest. With an outfit that leaves little to the
imagination, it is hard to recognize that she has any other powers beyond looking great.
The movie posters for the 2005 film, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, feature Angelina Jolie in a floor
length black dress. The idea of a floor length black dress is misleading when in reality; the
neckline of the dress practically meets the slit, climbing from the floor all the way up to her hips.

Meanwhile, her movie husband remains dressed in a crisp suit nearly the entire movie. While
Jolies character, Jane Smith, is an incredibly take charge kind of woman, she still is powerless
when it comes to the lust she feels for Mr. Smith. In the culminating scene of the movie in which
the two spouses realize decidedly, they must kill each other, the fighting and gunfire stops
abruptly, for they can no longer keep their hands off of each other.
The skin-tight, black suit is an icon within itself in our mainstream media. From movies
as recent as 2012s, The Avengers, all the way back to the first Catwoman, women have bared it
all in leather and latex. Three of the movies in which we examined, each take a stab at their
version of this infamous costume.
The black suit that Kate Beckinsale flaunts in Underworld has been giving comic-con
goers something to fantasize about since 2003. In Underworld Beckinsale plays Selene, like in
Queen of the Damned, she too is a vampire of great power. Selene is on a 600 year long mission
to avenge her family who was slaughtered by the Lycans many years ago. Along the way, Selene
falls in love with a human named Michael. Ultimately, Selene accomplishes her goal but only
after Michael has caused a great number of obstacles for her and thrown her plan far off track.
In 2004s, Catwoman, Halle Berrys Catwoman suit is even more revealing than that of
Selenes. The Catwoman suit consists of leather hot pants, adorned with cleverly places rips all
along the thighs and down Catwomans legs, topped with a black leather bra. Strapped with
wires and belts, Halle Berrys Catwoman uses a mask to conceal her identity but minimal
clothing to conceal anything else. Throughout the movie, Catwoman uses her sexuality and
flirtation to get what she wants and to manipulate the men around her.

Main Divergent Points:

It appears to us that over the past decade women have made no overall progression in
lead roles in actions films, however, there are several who would disagree with our argument.
With the 2012 film The Hunger Games surpassing the domestic gross of $400 million, it is now
the highest grossing action film with a female action lead, (Rowles). This statistics proves that
action films with female leads are beginning to level up with their male counterparts. For
example; the 2012 film The Dark Knight Rises reached a domestic gross of $577 million. This
$200 million difference isnt much when you compare female action films in the past; society is
finally beginning to see a growth for female action leads.
Although, we have pointed out that action films with female leads our revolved around
the female being the sexy, seductive, heroine, Scott Meslow, editor at, states
that there is hope for female action stars to get away from this typical stereotype. For the past
five decades, the action genre has undergone a similar but less remarked-upon shift, as female
characters have slowly but steadily evolved beyond the universal "hostages, victim, or conquest"
archetype and became the heroines of their own action sagas, (Meslow). He admits, however,
that Hollywood still has a long way to go before male and female action characters are
completely equal, but there is optimism. Especially with new female-lead releases such as Snow
White and the Huntsman and Prometheus.
Through our research, we have discovered there has been progression when dealing with
the intelligence and will power of the female-leads. In the past decade female actresses have
stepped in front of male actors taking charge by solving the problem at hand as well as fighting
the bad guy. The one factor that hasnt changed drastically, however, is the manner in which they

do so. We notice that although these lead characters play high-class, educated and even wealthy
characters the majority of them use their sex-appeal to achieve their ultimate goal and to take
control of the male. As the book Media, Gender and Identity states when referring to the 2000
film Charlies Angels, the women are hardly shown as brainless on the contrary, they are
amazing multi-skilled, (Gauntlett, 76). This detective trio uses their brains as well as their
bodies to seduce the male bad guys and to then kill them or manipulate them into giving them
what they want.
One positive aspect that has arisen from this partial progression is the era of the tough
women. A whole new tough aesthetic is emerging for women, one in which it is praiseworthy
for them to be more muscular and aggressive than in the past, (Inness, 5). Even though the
average stay-at-home-mom received her daily dose of exercise form cleaning the house and
taking care of the children, some statistics have shown women didnt actually become health
conscious until the 1960s. Before, women were expected to be soft and petite; it wasnt
considered attractive for women to be muscular. It was the mans job to have the muscles and to
be considered tough. Today we are surrounded by books, magazines and television shows that
all teach women the importance of being healthy. The fit and muscular female action lead has a
lot to do with this new and improved female figure. Females now realize that being health
conscious and exercising are an important factors of living a healthy life, as long as they do not
abuse the aspect which unfortunately many females do.
Action genres have become increasingly popular since the 1980s and although the usual
lead of this genre is males, females have finally been given their time to shine. In the beginning
of the action genre, men were portrayed as the active, strong hero while women were the damsel
in distress. Nearly a decade later, we begin to see the roles reverse. Yet as the genre evolves into

the 1990s, women are increasingly being placed at the center of these traditionally male-only
films, (Brown, 52). The twentieth century opened a door for females to showcase their abilities
in action films.
It is clear that females have made great strides in regards to our topic. Women are finally
obtaining the lead as the heroine in action films; however, the majority of them achieve their
goals based on their sex appeal. Even though women are portrayed smarter and stronger than in
the past, the audience cannot realize this because they are focused on their clothing or lack
Alternate and Creative Approaches:
Viewing action films in the media and current statistics show us that women lead action
films are not evolving or improving in this decade. Yes, women have played in more action films
this decade compared to previous, but in the past ten years women lead action films are not
showing signs of moving away from a sexualized woman and towards a fully clothed respected
woman. It is imperative that society finds a solution to this issue.
First we must be aware of what others are saying on this issue and then raise awareness to
our audience on the lack of diversity in female led action films. When looking at all female led
films in the 2011, the LA Times said, Females were dramatically under-represented in the
United States top 100 grossing films last year (2011), accounting for 33% of all characters at a
time when they made up nearly 51% of the U.S. population. This statistic accounts for all films
in 2011, not just action. Do females care that they are being underrepresented in action films?
Missrepresentation,org is a social action campaign that plays off the documentary, Miss
Representation. The purpose of the documentary and website is to expose how mainstream

media contributes to the underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence in

America. The film challenges the medias limited and often disparaging portrayals of women and
girls, which make it difficult for women to achieve leadership positions and for the average
woman or girl to feel powerful herself (Miss Representation). This organization takes a creative
approach on the issue by speaking out and using important actresses and public figures to draw
attention to the problem. By utilizing social media such as Facebook and Twitter, they are able to
start trending issues and call attention to the fact that the media is not portraying males and
females equally. On Twitter, they are hash tagging #notbuyingit to call out sexist and offensive
media, including action films. The first step to solving the issue of underrepresentation of women
in the media is to bring attention to the issue.
WAM (Women, Action, Media) is a nonprofit organization that focuses on the need for
equal gender representation in media and employment. This organization is one of many that are
hearing the cry for equality of the sexes and are stepping up to take action. They have started a
moment for gender justice by connecting media, and not only raising awareness on the issue but
also collaborating on new ideas of how to fix the problem. WAM informs us that 25% of
production managers, 12% of writers, 9% of directors, 5% of sound designers, and 1% of key
grips were women (Women, Action and the Media). These are numbers they find very disturbing
so they have started networking with media professionals, academics, activists and funders to
advance women media representation.
Actresses are also aware of their lack of notice in action films and are voicing their
opinions. Some actresses accuse men of shaping and creating the women on the screen to fit the
mans needs and ideals. Susan Sarandan, actress famously known in Thelma and Louise, says
What we see in the media is closer to a mans idea of what women are. Women want to see

things that are more truthful and not so sugar coated. Sandra Bullock, actress with lead roles in
Miss Congeniality and Speed says, Women want a variety of fantasies, its nice to lose yourself
in another womans life, but it has to be a real woman and not a mans creation. Jodie Foster
made a comment on women in action films after viewing Silence of Lambs. I think theres
something very important about having a woman hero whos a true woman hero, in the most
archetypal sense of the word, and doesnt have to clothe herself in male clothing. Shes not 62,
she doesnt kill the dragon by being mightier. She does it because of her instinct, because of her
brain, and because shes somehow seen something, a detail that other people have missed. And
thats a real side of female heroism that should be applauded and respected (McCaughey, 14).
Men are realizing that women are proclaiming a need for a female action figure to relate
to. James Cameron, director of Titanic and Avatar says, "To me, it's just another challenge. It
doesn't matter to me if it's an engineering challenge, a scientific challenge, a writing challenge
for a man to write a woman and make her interesting to women as well as men, it's a challenge.
Maybe it's just a quest to understand women who are sometimes inscrutable (Freeman).
Francis Bacon has famously said, Knowledge is power. The public needs to become
aware of the lack of attention and coverage that females are receiving in action films. The
amount of eroticism and objectification that comes with our heroines today is unacceptable and
needs to be changed. The question is, does the public want this change of female heroines on the
big screen? The action heroine is a lightning rod for public debate because she is such an inyour-face challenge to basic cultural assumptions about gender roles in real life and fantasyshe
both problematizes and reinforces some of the most basic tenets of film studies and gender

portrayals (Brown, 7). Women are sometimes simply categorized as being soft and dainty things
that need to be saved. The shift we see in the 21st century is strong females saving the day, but
still dressed to please the male gaze. There are pre-learned gender roles that women and men
think need to be fit, but they are not acceptable anymore. What needs to be proposed is the idea
of an attractive and tough action heroine. The action heroine does enact both masculinity and
femininity. But rather than swapping a biological identity for a performative one, she personifies
a unity of disparate traits in a single figure. She refutes any assumed belief in gender roles via
exaggerated use of those roles (Inness, 49).
The female heroines that have made successful movies in the past decade have all been
casted as strong and most importantly sexy. As we mentioned before, their wardrobes consist of
either leather one pieces or lingerie. We all know sex sells, but what confuses us is James Bond
is considered one of the sexiest heroes of all time; however, he spends the majority of his time on
screen fully clothed in a suit. Even Batman wears a completely cover bat suit. While as,
Catwoman spends her time in leather pants and a leather bra. Women heroes continue to be
misrepresented on film, especially in action films, because they continue to be solely based on
their wardrobe and the notion that they can manipulate men to do whatever it is they please.
There is hope however, with the release of the 2012 film The Hunger Games we are
introduced to a new type of heroine. Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence, shows
courage, strength and intelligence after volunteering to take her sisters place in the 74th annual
Hunger Games. She competes with 23 other teenagers between the ages of 12-18; they are to
fight to the death, only one survives. The movie does not revolve around Lawrences sex appeal,
it is a story based on her skills and will to survive. Unlike most movies, she saves the male lead.

It shows that men can fall in love not based on a womans body type and sex appeal, but on her
intellect and strength.
Movie stars have become idols for all ages and if women want equality, their needs to be
a higher demand for it to be shown among the idols. The notion of proper female behavior
needs to be set aside and replaced with the idea that men and women can act in an independent
and assertive way equally. In an issue of Glamour magazine, Jeanine Basinger was quoted
saying, Putting women in traditional male action roles without changing their psychology is just
cinematic cross dressing. Some still have the idea that that the action heroine is just an odd act
and not a legitimate role for women to be playing (Brown, 21). In order for there to be gender
equality, we must be able to see this equality everywhere, on screen and off.
Through research, we have discovered that even though many boundaries have been
broken, the overall growth for female leads in action films is still lacking. However, there are
several positives that have developed over the years for female actresses. Beginning with the
1990s, we see women casted as the heroine instead of the helpless victim. Over the past decade
women leads in action films have become stronger, smarter and even more independent. The
reason weve concluded that there is a lack of progression for females in this industry is because
they are still portrayed as sex-icons.
We are striving for gender equality. We want to inform females, and the overall public
that females are being undermined and exploited in action films. There has been no progress in
the past ten years. Some theorists have accepted this. Jeffrey Brown stated, Perhaps the real
liberating and stereotype-breaking potential of female characters in action roles is that they can

assume positions of power while also being sex symbols (Inness, 72). We are not settling, and
organizations like Miss Represention and WAM are helping make sure other females do not
settle either.

Works Cited
"About Us." Miss Representation About Us Comments. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2012.
Brown, Jeffrey A. Dangerous Curves: Action Heroines, Gender, Fetishism, and Popular
Culture. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2011. Print.
Freeman, Hadley. "James Cameron: 'Hollywood Gets Action Women Wrong'" The
Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 13 Sept. 2012. Web. 15 Nov. 2012.
Inness, Sherrie A. Action Chicks: New Images of Tough Women in Popular Culture. New
York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Print.
McCaughey, Martha, and Neal King. Reel Knockouts: Violent Women in the Movies.
Austin: University of Texas, 2001. Print.
"Pajiba." The 20 Highest Grossing Female-Led Action Films. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Nov.
Women, Action & the Media. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2012.