If you pay attention to everyday language, you'll have noticed that it is an insult to do things "like a girl." It's an insult to say that you "throw like a girl" or "scream like a girl," the former implying weakness, the latter implying cowardice. Where does today's female "action hero" fit into this dialogue?
From Princess Peach to Perfect Dark
A major example from my field of interest is the female video game character Lara Croft, and others in that tradition. Lara is what researcher Kristen Harrison calls "curvaceously thin," in other words, she has a very thin body (thighs, hips, waist) with, shall we say "outsized" breasts? She remains for many the archetypal video game heroine, still topping the list, cited below, of the 50 greatest female video game characters. Another wildly popular violent video game that featured aggressive female characters was the Mortal Kombat game series, which also made its way into other genres such as film, television and magazines. Pictured below are two well-known violent females from the series, Sonya Blade and Kitana. In a stunning combination of sex and violence, Sonya had a power move that involved squeezing her opponent between her thighs. If that isn't an example of sexualized female violence, I don't know what is. These characters could also both kill with a kiss.
Here is a video scene from the first Mortal Kombat movie where male violent hero Kato calls Sonya "baby" and "little girl" and Sonya kills Kato by squeezing his head between her legs.
Whereas in the past, the female game character was the damsel in distress a la Princess Peach, today she is likely to be a violent vixen. Today there are several well-known female video game characters that combine sexuality with aggression. These characters include Metriod's Samus, Perfect Dark's Joanna Dark, and Ada Wong from the Resident Evil series.
Girl Power and Violent Film
One subject in this genre has remained relatively taboo: that is using a beautiful female child as a perpetrator of graphic violence. A recent example of this taboo violation was the controversial film Kick Ass. Kick Ass is a fantasy story about a teenaged boy, invisible to girls and to the world in general, who turns himself into an unlikely hero. Before the story is over, he gets nearly killed, but he also gets the girl, the notoriety and the "friendship" of scores of peers on My Space.
Meanwhile, the heroine of the film is an 11-year-old dressed like an anime character who goes by the name of Hit Girl. In the first scene where Hit Girl (a.k.a. Mindy) appears, her father (played rather brilliantly by Nicolas Cage) and she stand in a vacant lot. She wears a bullet-proof vest and Daddy shoots her repeatedly to toughen her up, all the while calling her Baby Doll as she protests that she wants ice cream.
Daddy, it seems, is creating in his daughter an assassin to avenge the death of his wife. Instead of a puppy or doll for her birthday, she gets weapons. In a twist on the classic comic book revenge story, of say a Batman, the father uses his daughter as a tool in his twisted plans.
This film has excited anger and disgust, but also an almost instant cult following. Why? And is Hit Girl a sort of role model for the empowerment of girls and women?
As with most things, any given story is neither wholly negative nor positive. This film has interesting aspects and things to recommend it. One positive is the aforementioned acting by Nicolas Cage. Another is the rather interesting use of social media in the storyline, which, for me, actually made the film's premise more realistic. It also probably served to attract one of the film's main audiences - young men who regularly use social media and technology in general, and who might identify with the main character.
As for girl power, I'm less than convinced. I am glad there are strong female characters in the media. But I wonder about this particular combination of sex and aggression as being more for titillation than "girl power." And there are unadulterated examples of girls who are deeper, richer and more admirable characters than the sexy killer prototype. For me, at her core, Hit Girl is someone who is used to fulfill the agendas of the men around her - most obviously her father. The anime-style dress, her use of the coarsest language and the most brutal violence, are more in the service of men's fantasies than her own. Not to mention the point that brutal murder and extreme potty mouth aren't quite most parents' dreams for their daughters (or sons), nor do they seem all that helpful to the well being of the girl.
One of the most perverted facets of the film for me was the knowledge that many who are attracted to the character of Hit Girl, are attracted in an exploitive way. Many viewers will be amused by the perversion of an innocent that is inherent in the character of Hit Girl.
So, are violent female leads -- whether they are adults like Lara Croft and Sonya Blade, or children like Hit Girl -- a step towards equality even if the portrayal is also sexualized? For my money, I would like to see more female leads whose portrayals are respectful without exception. In other words, girls and women who are bold enough to be themselves, to be smart, and not to be anybody's object.