Traditionally in the action genre, women are relegated to eye candy/plot devices, often as the hero's love interest who will later need to be saved from the baddie. But the summer movies of 2013 (so far) are inverting this concept, giving their leading ladies the opportunity to do their own bit of saving. They're not replacing the men's hero moments; they're sharing them. Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness and Fast & Furious 6 each present couples working together in a fight against the forces of evil, who choose to save each other. Like males have long done in the genre, the female counterpart risks her life to save her partner. Now she matches him in bravery, and in the case of Pepper Potts, outmatches him in the realm of brute strength.
But why does this matter? Study after study shows that representation in the media shifts the how people think. If young girls are exposed only to women in movies as helpless victims waiting for a man to save them, they are more likely to see themselves that way, as will boys. So, it goes to follow that if girls see women treated not as helpless eye candy but as self-possessed powerhouses who can battle evil, fight for their country or ideals, and—uh—steal cars on par with their male counterparts, they would be more inclined to believe they can too. What's equally exciting is that women are not rising up to the detriment of male characters. Tony Stark is still amazing, but he and Pepper are partners. So he saves her, and she saves him. In Furious 6, Giselle and Han are not just lovers, they are devoted partners, who battle side by side on top of speeding cars, putting their partner's safety above their own. This is a common convention in action movies, but traditionally one performed by two deeply bonded (but straight) men.
Why is this change coming? I'd argue it's a reflection of the evolving cultural norms. On the pop culture front, The Hunger Games, a female fronted action epic, was one of 2012's top-grossing films, alongside established franchises The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. Similarly, Game of Thrones, a show that has male and female warriors, has become an unquestionable cultural phenomenon. And perhaps most telling, the long-standing ban on women in combat has been lifted, allowing female soldiers in the armed more access to job opportunities there than ever before. Basically, the public is embracing the idea of women as fighters/warriors/soldiers/action heroes.
However, it's not all good news. The study I mention up top also found that the women who do have speaking roles in big-budget movies are far more likely to be sexualized than their male co-stars. And each of these summer movies has a head-slapping moment where this is painfully true.
Iron Man 3 is packed with extras playing bikini clad party girls (or arguably sex workers) slinking around bad guy HQ, and even Pepper Potts is sexualized with Tony asking (at a pretty crass moment) why she doesn't walk around their place in yoga pants and a sports bra. Star Trek into Darkness full on stops to ogle Eve's character, and Fast & Furious 6 shows the most women (and most of them) when flocks of scantily-clad muscle car enthusiasts turn up for a street race, flaunting their bodies as much as PG-13 ratings allow. But to their credit, this franchise keeps its female leads largely clothed (yet still sexy! It can be done!), and offers up sexy shirtless shots of their handsome leading men as well.
Most troubling are the leering looks at an undressing Lady Jaye in Retaliation. Like Star Trek's exposed heroine, she asks her co-worker to turn away so she can change for work. And like Captain Kirk, Flint can't help but steal a peek, right? But what makes this one grosser is that Flint is ogling Jaye as she lays out the sad story about her disapproving father. (Dude, have some class or compassion. Or you know, don't be a total douchebag.)
There's also room for improvement in how women in these movies are incorporated into the action. When it comes to hand-to-hand combat, filmmakers seem hesitant to throw men against women. In Retaliation ninja Jinx fights a conveniently female monk while snatching Storm Shadow. In Fast & Furious 6, Michelle Rodriguez and Gina Carano face off, though those scenes are so hard-hitting and stupendous that I'm inclined to celebrate it rather than count it as a problem. The women in these movies are usually quite slim and small (sometimes downright ultra skinny), so maybe seeing them throw down against the intensely muscled up macho men would be more disturbing or outlandish than fun. Even so, Furious 6's svelte Giselle fights a male attacker hand-to-hand (while dangling out of a car) and it's believable-- hell, it's downright thrilling. Likewise, both Pepper and Uhura jump into the fray, gender be damned. So, let's step it up, everybody.
We've still got a ways to go before movies equally represent the sexes or stop treating female moviegoers as outsiders at action movie screenings. But we're getting there. From background actors, to supporting roles, and leads, strong women in action movies are becoming less of an exception. And while the sex appeal and ogling is unlikely to go away completely, at least the desires of female audience members are being more openly considered, giving us a chance to ogle too. Basically, it's an exciting time to go to the movies, and not just because this summer is stacked with some insanely awesome spectacle.