Over the last few weeks, watching thrillingly over-the-top action sequences involving awe-inspiring robotic suits, breathtaking leaps into deep space, and jaw-dropping car chases, I've noticed an unexpected trend. Everywhere I looked there were women, from female leads to strong supporting characters, and even peppered throughout the background and in bit parts. Considering the depressing findings of a new study that revealed women had less than a third of speaking roles in high-grossing pictures of 2012 (the lowest amount since 2007), this is definitely a welcome trend.
But it's not just that women are in these movies, it's how they are represented that matters. And that's a bit trickier. To talk about this I will be getting into details G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness and Fast & Furious 6. I avoid spoilers whenever possible, but there small spoilers ahead. More specific warnings are offered as needed.
Let's start where the summer movie season did, with Iron Man 3, where (spoilers start here) the soldiers who've undergone Extremis alterations are both male and female. Notably one of the female soldiers has an extended explosive battle with Tony Stark, while another takes down the Iron Patriot after masquerading as a meek Muslim woman. (End of spoilers.) This sparked vague memories of background actresses in Retaliation's troops. Soon I began actively watching for where women existed in this summer's would-be blockbusters, and saw Star Trek Into Darkness has women within the highest-ranking meetings of Starfleet, and everywhere on the Enterprise from the bridge to the engine room to the infirmary. With Star Trek's themes of progressive politics and equality this may not be too surprising, but it's worth noting they're still far from equal representation there. (Unless there are somehow far fewer women than men in the future galaxy.)
But all of the above movies offer powerful women in lead and supporting roles. G.I. Joe's Lady Jaye is a survivor, spy, and sharp shooter. Pepper Potts has been smart and brave in each of the Marvel movies, but in IM3 she gets to take those skills to a new extreme. Star Trek's Lieutenant Uhura thankfully has more to do in this new adventure, including (spoiler start) facing off against Klingons in an attempt to save her crewmates, and a crew newcomer played by Alice Eve not only proves adept at tackling Starfleet's top secret new tech, but also nobly risks her life for the Enterprise crew (spoiler stop). Fast & Furious's franchise has always been stacked with fierce female characters. The sixth installment sees the return of Letty, Mia, Elena (from Fast 5), and Gisele as well as additions to the good guys and new villains with MMA fighter/Haywire star Gina Carano and Clara Paget. True to the film series, each of these women is distinctly badass and brilliant, whether it is at racing supped up vehicles or battling just like one of the franchise's brawny boys.
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.