The next time someone says you fight like a girl, consider it a compliment.
What once was a popular schoolyard taunt is now high praise thanks to Hollywood's new breed of fierce females whose very source of strength often lies in their gender-defining qualities.
In the past, woman action heroes tended to come in two varieties: seductive supervixen (Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft, Pam Grier as Foxy Brown) or macho tomboy (Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity in The Matrix, Keira Knightley as Domino). Their intended targets? Young male moviegoers whose libidinous fantasies often seem to involve skintight leather - also known as Emma Peel Syndrome.
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Among the few who managed to stride that fine line between tough and tender without stumbling were Sigourney Weaver's hard-boiled Ripley in 1979's Alien and its sequels and Linda Hamilton's fit-and-furious Sarah Connor in 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Back then, such pedestal-worthy paragons of she-power were a rarity. But ever since Rooney Mara's compelling portrait of flawed goth-chic hacker Lisbeth Salander led to her Academy Award nomination in last fall's The Girl With theDragon Tattoo (whose arrival was preceded by that kid-sisterhood of Kick-Ass, Hanna and True Grit), there has been a steady stream of films featuring a more evolved species of female combatant, one who doesn't feel compelled to compromise her gender identity while taking care of business.
"Strong female characters who simply kick (butt) are not interesting," says Susan Sandler, a screenwriter (Crossing Delancey) and playwright on the faculty of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. "But strong, complex female characters who kick (butt) are thrilling to follow down any narrative path. Those are characters with contradictions and problems and dark histories - and those are the movies that give us women we care about and root for and identify with."
Consider the fate of Steven Soderbergh's Haywire as it attempted to mix gal power with Steven Seagal-style pummeling as a showcase for mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano, emphasizing moves over emotion. Instead of cheering, however, the majority of critics said nay while audiences stayed away.
Strong women, strong roles
Meanwhile, Jennifer Lawrence, an Oscar nominee for her scrappy backwoods survivor in 2010's Winter's Bone, turned her femininity into an advantage as the heroic Katniss Everdeen and touched hearts by playing the teen gladiator who must battle for her life in The Hunger Games.
The 21-year-old actress also proved her might as a star attraction in the dystopian tale based on a trilogy of best sellers by topping the box-office charts for four weeks in a row and hauling in more than $405 million in ticket sales- a tally second only to The Avengers so far this year.
"Films no longer are saying that women can be as tough as a man," says Jeanine Basinger, head of the film department at Wesleyan University. "Now they are saying women can retain all their attributes and be strong on their own terms."
That means that female warriors are less likely to be designed as man-eaters and more often are allowed to exhibit qualities such as empathy, intelligence, sensitivity and stubbornness in the hopes of appealing to women moviegoers.
Strong at the box office, too
The primary reason for this new cinematic standard comes down to one word: money. After femme-centric films as diverse as The Devil Wears Prada, Sex and the City, Mamma Mia!, Twilight, Bridesmaids and The Help drew crowds and cashed in, studios are no longer quite as averse to titles that primarily attract the fairer sex.
Observes Basinger: "Why didn't they figure this out sooner? Of course, young girls go to the movies in groups, whether at slumber parties or for birthdays. They will go to a movie they like multiple times." If Titanic taught us anything besides to steer clear of icebergs, it was that if you give tween and teen girls what they like - in this case, a lotta Leo - they will go, again and again.
In other words, what Batman and his crime-fighting ilk are to boy comic-book geeks, The Hunger Games is to girl bookworms.
Besides, "there is a tradition of strong female characters who have appeared in action films from the beginning," Basinger notes. "Beautiful women who were vulnerable to dangers. Serials in particular featured such characters as Sheena the Jungle Queen, Nyoka the Jungle Girl and The Perils of Pauline."
Even Pixar, a supposedly enlightened animation house, took almost two decades and 13 features before it woke up and smelled the estrogen with this summer's Brave- its first to center on a female protagonist.
"The sharpest comparison is between Brave and Mulan," says Nell Minow, who goes by the name Movie Mom as a family-oriented reviewer for Beliefnet.com. Referring to Disney's 1998 animated adventure about a young girl who poses as a male warrior in ancient China, she says, "Mulan spends most of the movie pretending to be a boy and having a romance. In Brave, Merida doesn't have to pretend to be a boy. She's not even a tomboy. She is a brave, strong girl who needs no love interest and doesn't sing about how someday her prince will come and rescue her."
Seeing ourselves in movies
Why should it matter to moviegoers if the person saving the day is male or female? According to Basinger, "We go to the movies to see ourselves and make that connection. To feel what we can do, what our lives are, what we can learn, what we can achieve. These female role models suggest you are equal, you can be the captain of your own ship. I never imagined that I would be a wimp. I always connected to Jo in Little Women, not Meg, Beth or Amy."
Movies also often reflect how society sees itself and provide a safe way to try on different personas. "They are the first opportunity that a child has to observe what goes on in the adult world when no kids are present," Minow says. "I'm embarrassed to say I used to watch Lucy and Ricky on TV for clues about the marital dynamic. I learned what it was like to be in the working world from Doris Day and Rosalind Russell. Where the Boys Are was a big moral lesson: If you sleep with a boy, you get hit by a car."
As for the lesson found in recent films with female heroes? If you mess with a woman, you might get hit. Hard.