San Francisco Chronicle
3 August 2004
Listen up, Hollywood -- is there a female version of Spidey for our times?
- Neva Chonin, Chronicle Critic at Large
Tuesday, August 3, 2004
"I am no man!"
When undercover warrior Eowyn roared these words in the Peter Jackson's adaptation of "Return of the King" last year,
just before trouncing the vilest of the bad guys, she got an appreciative roar from theater audiences. It was a great punch line -- literally.
It also highlighted the predicament heroines face in action and science fiction films: They often find themselves fighting a double-edged battle against both evildoers and traditions that suggest that
they shouldn't be battling at all. Ask Eowyn, who had to ride to war disguised as a man.
Even as women take an active role in the real-world military, they remain absent from the heroic mythos of the movie screen. We have yet to see a female Spider-Man, that web-slinging everyman willing to
sacrifice personal happiness for the greater good. Nor do we have a contemporary version of Wonder Woman, who gave the World War II generation a patriotic, Amazonian heroine. From her star-spangled panties to her
beauty queen tiara, she was a uniquely American creation, a Rosie the Riveter with a whip who invariably saved the day, and the free world, without mussing her hair.
Today's sexy, adult-oriented female action characters -- Lara Croft in the "Tomb Raider" franchise, the Bride in Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" -- kick butt, but they're more maverick outlaws than
cultural role models. More butch heroines like the "Alien" series' Ripley and Linda Hamilton of "Terminator 2" are history. Characters like Rogue and Jean Grey of the "X Men" are formidable, but they're ensemble
players, not soloists.
If cinematic superheroes reflect their times, what does the absence of a feminine action icon say about our era? Danny Fingeroth, author of "Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About
Ourselves and Our Society, " posits that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks prompted Hollywood to opt for safety and familiarity over pushing the social envelope. "In our turbulent times, new fictional heroes, male or female,
are hard to come by," he says. "Many action movies are sequels to or spin-offs from established successes."
For a while, television picked up the movie industry slack with series such as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Xena: Warrior Princess," which featured women fighting for ethical ideals with
no-holds-barred fervor. Buffy was a quintessentially American icon in the Spider-Man and Wonder Woman tradition; Xena was a mythic figure as sensually formidable as Brad Pitt's Achilles in "Troy." Yet despite their
popularity, neither inspired cinematic imitations. What plays on the small screen, it seemed, didn't necessarily translate to the large.
"In many ways, television is a woman's world," says Jeanine Basinger, chair of the film studies department at Wesleyan University and author of "A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960."
"The big screen is still a male-dominated world aimed at what people in the business tell you is the typical moviegoer -- a male between 18 and 25."
Sherrie Inness, author of "Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture," adds, "with a TV series, you have a venue where it's easier for corporations to plunk down the money for a
series of episodes. Making a blockbuster like "Spider-Man," they have to think 'where is it going to sell?' "
As if to compensate for the absence of female heroes, Spider-Man and other male superheroes have been allowed to get in touch with their feminine side. They are gentle, sensitive, wide-eyed. They can
afford to be: No one's going to call a super-powered pugilist a "girlie man."
Says Fingeroth, "Spiderman's allowed to have a sensitive side because he's got the macho stuff going on. He has the costume. He swings around from buildings and punches Dr. Octopus. ... If a female hero
showed the same sensitivity as, say, Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man, people would likely criticize her as being too cliched as an indecisive, oversensitive female character. Yet tough-as-nails female characters are unable
to generate much empathy from an audience."
Empathy and heroics aside, the success of Lara Croft and the Bride in "Kill Bill" proves that audience members of both sexes enjoy seeing a beautiful babe in tight clothes lay waste to everything in her
path. Why, then, haven't more heroic, but equally sexy, characters in the tradition of Buffy and Xena made it to the movies?
Because, offers Basinger, the people who make movies "live in a tree. Do they go to hip college campuses to see what people like? I don't think so. The message comes last to the establishment figures.
Buffy was as popular with guys as she was with girls. The world has changed."
Fingeroth agrees. "Buffy was like the female Spider-Man. The appeal of all the superheroes is the metaphorical value of their internal and external struggles, and she was portrayed as someone burdened
by responsibility who just wants to have a normal life. That's how every adolescent feels."
When movie executives finally put a new Wonder Woman onscreen, she will probably embody what movie executives view as women's contemporary quandary, with a few hyper-fictional twists: how to balance
family, career and a heroic calling; how to be assertive without being threatening; in sum, how, in Fingeroth's words, "to be a super woman in all senses of the word."
Basinger takes a slightly rosier view. Maybe, she suggests, this feminine quandary is overstated in a post-postfeminist world in which young people, unlike their elders in Hollywood, take gender for
granted. It simply doesn't factor into their decision to embrace a character. "The young world is very educated about images," she says. "They don't take them seriously."
If that's the case, and if Hollywood figures this out, future Wonder Women and vampire slayers will tackle their cinematic battles without apology. Perhaps even Eowyn will get enough onscreen time to
recite in full her words in J.R.R. Tolkien's "Return of the King" text: "I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death. ... No living man am I! You look upon a woman."
E-mail Neva Chonin at email@example.com.