I’d been mulling the idea of writing a post on the female hero for a while, but hadn’t gotten around to it. Well, life handed us a female hero this week in the form of Tammy Jo Shults, the pilot who landed the Southwest flight after an engine broke up in flight. She was described as calm and collected, with nerves of steel. She brought the plane down quickly and safely, saving the lives of all but one of her passengers. That’s heroism.
So why is it then that female heroes get a different treatment on screen and in the media? When the news first broke about the emergency landing, one news organization was quick to tout how he (the pilot) had landed the plane safely. Hmm, maybe that mistake was due to a rush to get the breaking news out before other organizations did. Or maybe we’re just conditioned to believe that heroes, who save the day with minimal, if any, loss of (civilian) life, are men.
What a sexist statement, you say.
Well, look at movies out there and tell me if it is. We have movies where the man (played by such actors as Wesley Snipes, Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, John Cena, etc.) is placed in highly stressful situations but they kick-ass and save the day. More often than not, they also save the life of their beloved and everyone goes home and lives happily ever after.
Now put a woman in that same situation and you’ll find her treatment is different. She might save the day, but she will not walk away with her loved one, nor will she walk away unscathed. She will be the tragic hero, whose sacrifice will either kill or alienate her. But she’ll be so damaged at that point, she is deemed unworthy of a happy ending.
Well, that can’t be true, you exclaim.
Let me show you.
In ‘Salt’, Angelie Jolie is a sleeper Russian agent, whose husband is taken hostage and executed right in front of her by the people who trained her. In the end she switches sides, but even the Americans fail to see her as anything but a threat, so she is forced to fight alone. Interestingly enough, her part was originally written for Tom Cruise and in that draft, his wife was also taken hostage, but he was able to save her.
In ‘Sucker Punch’, Emily Browning retreats into her mind after being committed to a mental asylum against her will. She and five other girls in the hospital imagine different scenarios to get what they need to escape. Only two make it to the front door – her and her friend – and then she chooses to sacrifice herself so that her friend can leave. At which point we find out, she’s actually been lobotomized and will spend the rest of her life in that hospital.
Milla Jovovich’s character in ‘Ultraviolet’ is tragically remade into a vampire in a weird futuristic setting where she must save a boy in a suitcase who is supposed to be the savior of humanity. She loses her own child, separates herself from her family and denies herself love in the process.
I’m going back a ways with this one, but based on the comic book of yore, Pamela Anderson as ‘Barb Wire’ is a self-serving bar owner in a militaristic dystopian society of the future. She cares for her blind brother, looking for ways to make money so they can leave the mess behind. He dies–she couldn’t save him.
I thought Gal Gadot in ‘Wonder Woman’ was amazing, but even as super as she was, she couldn’t save her love interest, who sacrificed himself and taught her about love <roll eyes here>.
And then there’s ‘Atomic Blonde’. I was so amped to see this film, I took my daughter on opening weekend (I usually wait). The excitement was short-lived though. While Charlize Theron was incredible in the physical role of English spy/double Russian agent/triple American intelligence officer who fought as hard as if not harder than the men she was surrounded by, it really felt as if they had written the part as a man. She even got the girl in the film! Oh, but wait, she is still a woman, so not only was the woman killed, but so was the man she was protecting! Honestly, the most interesting character in the film was James McAvoy’s and I’m not alone in that assessment. The author of the source material must have thought so because after he wrote the first story, he wrote a prequel about him.
The one notable exception to this list is the 90’s film ‘The Long Kiss Goodnight’ with Geena Davis and Samuel L Jackson. And in it, not only does she save Samuel L Jackson‘s character, he expects it. But then this is Samuel L. Jackson. He is so secure in his manhood, he doesn’t care that it is a woman who is the hero in this film. Actually though, you could also count ‘Cutthroat Island’, where she plays a similar heroine, albeit an antihero type – a pirate – who not only captains a ship, but searches for hidden treasure, rescues Matthew Modine’s less than heroic character, and sails off into the sunset.
The problem, I think, comes in who the audience is. Or who the perceived audience is. A perfect example is Kristanna Loken’s ‘Mercenaries’. If you haven’t seen this film, don’t. This is the official synopsis: The President’s daughter is captured and imprisoned while touring a war zone, so a team of elite female commandos is assembled to infiltrate a women’s prison for a daring rescue. Unofficially, this was worse than your average male action film (think ‘Tango & Cash’). The dialogue was cheesy, the action was forced and the worst part was that the because the heroes were women, the victim was automatically female and the best villain they could come up with was another woman, who at one point cornered the main mercenary and made a move on her. You wouldn’t see Sylvester Stallone and Mel Gibson do that. Yet, it’s on par for the female hero, because everyone knows that only men watch action films and men want to see women-on-women action. Is that all we’re good for?
Even a film like ‘GI Jane’… Demi Moore did an excellent job in that film portraying a different kind of hero — the first woman to be accepted into the SEALS program, but even it felt like even her character was written for men (when was the last time that you, as a woman with a C-D cup, worked out with no bra? Come on!).
I love actions movies (‘Tango & Cash’ is actually one of my favorites), many women do. But when are we going to give our female heroes the same treatment? Why are we okay with a woman saving the day, but not her male counterpart? Are men (a generalization) that insecure about their manhood that they can’t allow a woman to save them? Is this something that we just expect now to the point where we don’t even notice? I asked one of my favorites authors who specializes in sci-fi romances if she would ever reverse the roles she written about — the man is a special forces hero who rescues the girl. Her response to me was that her female characters were heroic in their own way. Yet they continue being secondary characters, not heroic enough to take the spotlight from the man.
Honestly, I want to see a female hero who can kick-ass, take names and come home with a sound mind at the end of the day to her husband/partner, whom she rescued. I’m not saying she has to have her own way of doing that, I just want to see her get the same treatment. Especially after the events of this week. If you read the article on Ms. Schults, you’ll discover it was her training as a Navy pilot that helped her to stay calm and collected in a moment of crisis. The same training men in her class received. Which shows that men and women can do the same job, the same way, and get the same results.