“If this movie doesn’t make money, it reinforces a stereotype in Hollywood that men don’t go see women do action movies.” That was what actress/producer Elizabeth Banks said in response to her film Charlie’s Angels tanking at the box office to the tune of 13 million dollars and change.
Huh? Wait a second. I’m a man, and I have a coffee mug named Ripley.
Ripley was the no-nonsense leader from Aliens. She single-handedly took out a colony of Xenomorphs. She went toe to toe with their queen.
I freaking loved that.
And I’m not alone. Ask any guy to list their favorite action movies and I’ll bet you’ll get votes for films from the Star Wars, Alien, and The Terminator franchises. Several of these contain incredibly strong female main characters — Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, Rey, Princess Leia, and Jyn Erso, to name a few.
So Elizabeth Banks is wrong. Men will spend money to see women in action movies, with one caveat: The movies must not suck.
Her logic is based on a misguided perception of misogyny, which is ironic, considering that Banks’ most profitable role to date was in The Hunger Games franchise, a wildly popular series of films with a strong female lead. The later Hunger Games films didn’t do as well as the first two, but that wasn’t because men didn’t want to see strong women; on the contrary, Katniss, the main character, became increasingly unlikable as the story moved on. The Hunger Games franchise went from being a fun action movie to a thoughtful message film filled with pseudo-psychological commentary.
Whatever. I just wanted to see more exploding arrows.
Don’t get me wrong, I love many genres of film. But with an action movie, all I really want to see is, well, some cool action with characters I care about. I want to root for them, and I couldn’t care less whether or not their armor is designed to fit curves.
Here is a shocker: Success at the box office has little to do with the gender of the cast and much more to do with good writing and quality acting. Making a film with all-female leads for the express purpose of making a statement about female empowerment always looks dumb, because it is. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has tons of great female characters, but the girl-power-pander scene in Avengers Endgame was cringe-worthy. So was the record scratch cue up of No Doubt’s I’m Just a Girl playing during Captain Marvel’s main fight scene. Both scenes were overtly in-your-face ways of saying, “See. We’ve got girls. And they’re really tough, too.” The scenes were unnecessary, and they actually served the opposite purpose of marginalizing the characters on multiple levels.
Great action movies don’t beat the protagonist’s gender over our heads. The characters shine because we care about who they are and what they’re going through. Gender may play a significant role in a certain hero’s journey, but that is not why we love them. Case in point: Sarah Connor.
Sarah Connor’s journey began in The Terminator (1984) where she was depicted as the farthest thing from a hero one could draw up. She played the damsel in distress for most of the film; tried to run away, was very much the victim. We watched her evolve as she learned of her importance to future events and went through a little hell before finally stepping up in the movie’s third-act, becoming the unlikely hero. She was feminine, she was frightened by scary things, but she learned how to push past that fear to accomplish the mission.
By the time Terminator 2 came around, Sarah Connor had surpassed Leia Organa as the second most badass woman in film (it’s hard to top Ripley) and we — men who love action movies — adored her. She wasn’t sexy, she wasn’t funny, and she was emotionally unstable. That’s pretty much the archetype of the girl you want to avoid. But Sarah Connor got away with that, because she could pump a 12-gauge pistol-grip shotgun with one arm. She could look a killer cyborg in the eye and tell it to go [expletive] itself. And her motivation wasn’t some modernist notion of social justice girl power. No, she fought for the most basic, the most feminine of all motivations: To protect her offspring.
The most recent film to elicit this kind of reaction to a strong female character was Emily Blunt’s performance in A Quiet Place. That film ended with her character wielding a shotgun as well, but that wasn’t what made her amazing. What impressed guys like me was the way she managed to deliver a baby all by herself, in relative silence, with killer aliens in the next room. That was awesome. Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley would have given her props for that move.
There is a deleted scene on the Director’s Cut of Aliens where we see Ellen Ripley returning to Earth after being marooned in deep-space cryosleep for fifty-seven years. She discovers that while she was away, her daughter died an old woman, and it’s a loss that ignites her motherly instinct later in the film when she chooses to postpone her own escape to take on that massive colony of acid-spewing Xenomorphs a third time — alone, because all but one of her Marines have been killed — to rescue a little girl.
A little while ago I went with some men to see the latest iteration of Sarah Connor on the big screen in Terminator: Dark Fate. Sarah Connor is now in her sixties, with grey hair and wrinkles that Clint Eastwood would appreciate. Once again, she was awesome. She was tough, vulnerable, made mistakes, and had to swallow her pride a few times. But she could still go toe to toe with a Terminator.
That is the kind of female action hero we want. Not the kind that denies her femininity, but the one who gains power from it.Published in