Welcome back to the semi-weekly blog portion of our program. For my American fans, here’s hoping you had a great Day of Gorging and that you’ll do more damage than you take in the annual consumer melee we call Black Friday. I’m doing all my shopping online this year, so neener neener. (And also, why not buy that hard-to-shop for person on your list Rune Breaker: Parts 1 and 2 on Kindle? I’m sure your religious grandma would love this classic tale of magic, blasphemy and violence. Also great for very young children!)
But on to today’s subject: heroines.
No, I know that all over the ‘net, pretty much all talk of heroines inevitably devolves into a political knife fight over gender roles and other socially important, but gratingly well traveled issues. Just this week, a dangerous idiot (Don’t bother following the link, I just felt like google-bombing this guy’s paper to ‘dangerous idiot’) got called to the mat for saying some stupid stuff about strong female characters emasculating men just by existing.
This will not be one of those articles. This article is about the modern action heroine, her roots, her present, and her possible future. It will not be about gender roles or feminism or misogyny except insofar as mention of them informs the discussion or gives me a chance to make a cheap joke. And I will straight up delete comments flogging any political thing, right or left. This I promise up front. I know I’m stepping up to a powder keg and lighting a cigar, but I don’t care because I think I have some interesting stuff to say.
We good? Everything hakuna? Good to know.
This article is entitled ‘Daughters of Buffy’, and yes, female ass-kickers have been around for much longer than Buffy, but I’m trying to narrow the scope here for this five page internet article, and Buffy’s massive success and praise changed the landscape the action heroine exists in and solidified many of the associated tropes, so she’s a good starting point.
So in the begging, there were female characters, and while many of them were pretty awesome and hurt people, they were singular beings, usually flaring into being in the vacuum like distant stars. They were mostly older females and maternal figures, cut from the ‘Mama Bear’ mold. These include Ellen Ripley from the Alien franchise (notably Aliens), Sarah Connor from the Terminator movies (especially Terminator 2: Judgment Day), and Storm of the X-men, especially under the pen of one Chris Claremont.
And they were all pretty awesome, but they failed to generate the army of imperfect clones the Buffy did. This might be because they really aren’t all that different from the male heroes of the day. Barring the fact that one was fighting dudes with guns and the others were fighting an outer space mud-dauber wasp and an unstoppable, near-perfect killing machine, there isn’t much difference between Sarah Connor or Ellen Ripley’s actions in their sequel films and those of John Matrix in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s opus, Commando. Heck, once saddled with Gabrielle, Xena, Warrior Princess was also sort of shackled and brain-boxed into the Mama Bear thing too.
Like this, but with more Lucy Lawless. (I couldn’t find a clip, so here’s the entire Dino-riders episode, because I love you.)
And then along came Buffy. Not so much the Buffy from the 1992 film, but the one from the television series that came after. And Buffy was no Mama Bear. Yes, she protected her friends, but that wasn’t her only motivation. Instead, she was a teen hero toiling under the weight of a destiny she didn’t really want. In many ways, she was one of the first successful live action superheroes, and with her massive success, many of the tropes that she was endowed with went on to become standards for the heroines that followed.
As you’re about to see, these were hit or miss in terms of whether or not this was a good thing.
Some of these included:
Here I go, making up terms again. A ‘girl tell’ refers to the little things the story throws in to remind you that the person on screen, punching people through walls like some kind of fist tornado is, in fact a woman. Just in case the breasts weren’t a big enough clue.
These are almost always very stereotypically feminine traits and actions the heroine must engage in from time to time, and often waste valuable ‘fist tornado’ time. This includes reading romance novels, doing their hair/nails/make-up, shopping, thinking about fashion, and enjoying chocolate. In particularly bad examples, these may also include PMSing, fear of spiders, and crying jags.
The awful Tomb Raider films had Lara Croft combing her hair for a good forty-five seconds of screen time just to make sure we knew she had it. Castle puts Detective Becket in outrageously high heels and repeatedly references her short career as a teen model and ‘wild child’ phase (albeit for laughs), Vin from Brandon Sanderson’sMistborn series enjoys balls and fancy dresses. Kim Possible had entire episodes where he was boned over in a plot relevant manner because of her teenaged girl angst and fashion obsession.
Now, in and of itself, there is nothing wrong with ‘girliness’. It’s just as dumb for all women to wear pants as it is for all women to wear dresses (in a metaphorical sense), but as almost all action heroines have girl tells, it’s clear that writers who came after the Buffy-splosion didn’t get why Buffy was like she was.
See, the point of Buffy, especially in the early seasons, very much is that she’s your garden variety, run of the mill girl. She’s meant to be a stereotype just as much as Xander is meant to be an awkward loser, and Willow is the shy nerd. The first season in particular ate that stuff up. Remember: this is the show where being ignored literally turned a girl invisible, and a mother used witchcraft to relive her high school years as her daughter. Subtle they weren’t (And this from a guy who wrote a setting with Nazi angels).
So no, we don’t need to reestablish that our heroine is a heroine using girl tells. If she’s a more stereotypically feminine character by nature, go nuts, but not every badass post-apocalypse soldier with the ol’ Double-X chromosome load-out need to unwind with a bodice ripper, okay?
And on the other end of the spectrum,
Closing in Combat/Battle Damage
If there was one subject you could get both hardcore feminists and hardcore misogynists to come to the table over, it’s that violence toward women is uncool. Either because you’re feeding a culture of abuse, or because you don’t hit a woman, son.
Except if you’re doing action and the main character is a woman, you damn well ought to hit her. No one likes a boring invincible hero, and ‘being female’ is not an anti-katana shield.
Back in the day, they cheated on this rule by giving the ladies ranged weapons or magic so that she could damage enemies from afar and stay out of punching range. Storm fought with lightning bolts, Ripley got to rock a mech suit, which was all kinds of cheating, except her opponent was two stories tall, and Sarah Connors had more guns than an American conservative after a national election doesn’t go their way. The closest any of them got in any iconic moment was Storm staff-fighting Callisto. Even the Pink Power Ranger had to make due with a bow.
And that lasts today in many series, especially animated shows, where violence is at a premium to start with. Starfire and Raven use projectiles and magic respectively (this despite Star being the physically strongest member of the team even in the show’s canon), and all of the female cast members of Danny Phantom who do any fighting save Maddie show a clear preference to ranged weapons or the powered armor ‘Fenton Peeler’.
Stylistic and logical choices can be forgiven, such as Ultraviolet, where the reason the movie existed in the first place was so we could get more gun kata goodness like we saw in Equilibrium, and Underworld, where Selene is routinely up against enemies who are largely immune to punching.
But Buffy brought the punching and the staking, and at the end of Season 2, even rocked an awesome sword fight.
Every character needs to get into more sword fights.
Sadly, this seems to have gotten mitigated in translation, as later action girls in the same mold as Buffy stopped punching people. What the hell travesty is that?! No, instead they kick people. Because, yous see, the leg is the longest striking extremity on the body and we’re still trying to mitigate how much damage girls take. This happens so often, that TVTropes calls these characters Kick Chicks, and they are deserving of that unfortunate name due to lack of face punching.
Sydney Bristow, Sarah from Chuck, and fellow Whedon creation, River Tam all suffer this terrible malady of the leg. (Note that this concept predates Buffy, but enjoyed a resurgence thanks to Buffy increasing the demand for female action characters).
The other unfortunate side effect is that while the iconic male action hero looks like this at the end of the movie:
“There’s how many sequels!?”
The typical female one looks like this:
“Fiddlesticks, I got a smudge on me”
This was not a person who survived an action movie. This is a person who had an argument with a chimney sweep. Because we’re afraid to hit a girl or mar beauty, we take something visceral out of our portrayal of heroines. Stop handling them with kid gloves and let them be badass.
And also, try and lay off…
The Emotion Hammer
So you can’t (supposedly) bloody your heroine, but in this Post-Die Hard world we live in, it’s pretty unthinkable to have your hero just walk away, right? They have to be changed somehow by the experience. Thus, the emotion hammer, where the story firmly and methodically rips out the heroine’s heart, over compensating for a lack of physical damage done to her.
And this one probably reached it’s most overblown example right out of the gate with Buffy herself. The girl could not catch a break. She didn’t even want to be a hero in the first place, but she lives on top of an evil magnet that makes her home town a killing field, being a hero immediately ruins her chances of being the popular kid she used to be, she actually gets killed in her first encounter with the Big Bad, her love interest has been dead hundreds of years, then turns evil and seeks to torment her, then she has to kill him herself to save the world. And that’s just up to Season 2.
Buffy gets emotionally broken so much that it’s actually caused a battle over whether or not she counts as the strong female character she was praised for being in the first place. And I think, in this case, they’re missing the point. And it’s a point that Evil!Angel even makes clear: Buffy might not like being a hero, but she’s damn good at it. So good that down and dirty in a stand-up fight, she’s pretty much unstoppable. And that’s not because she’s female or a protagonist, it’s that she is literally the best of the Slayer lineage. If Buffy goes up against something bad, she wins. End of story. She might need er friends, or a Summon Bigger Fish moment, but she wins. She is just that good physically and tactically.
Which would make her that boring invincible hero I mentioned without the ‘can’t hit a girl’ thing in effect (Because you can hit Buffy. People hit her all the time, She even got her neck snapped). And that is why Buffy gets the emotional grinder. Her mind, her personal connections and her emotions are the only credible avenue of attack if you want to even scratch her. And the source of all evil in the universe and even worse things than that really, really want to scratch her.
But this, again is lost in the descendants of Buffy. These characters, like River, like and like pretty much every action character Angelina Jolie plays, aren’t meant to be invincible in the in-universe sense and even if they are, never get into the kind of full body dust-ups Buffy does, and yet they still get the full brunt of the compensating emotional trauma.
I’m not saying that emotion had no place in action (unless they’re Schwarzenegger action). John McClain from Die Hard is probably the most emotional action hero ever and he’s also one of the most iconic. But his emotions come as natural responses to the events he’s living through, not the plot taking violent, zig-zagging turns to make up for not hurting him—because it also hurt him. Because that’s what action’s about.
You know what it’s not about?
The Ineffectual Dude-Blob
Up there in the ‘Girl Tells’ section I very specifically left ‘boy trouble’ out, and here’s why: your typical action heroine tends to have less actual trouble with the opposite sex than their staff counterparts. Oh, there will be the drama of the standard romance subplot, but contrary to popular belief, this isn’t because the character is female, but because the audience is human and thus, as I’ve said before, conditioned to respond to clumsy, tacked on romantic subplots.
However, while the dude heroes get saddled with a damsel who will need to be saved, the dudettes tend to get handed what appears to be a really powerful sidekick instead.
This enigmatic creature is the Ineffectual Dude-Blob.
You see, at first, these guys appear as incredibly powerful allies, often explicitly stated to be more powerful than Our Hero. Except it turns out that they’re not really all that useful. It’s not that they’re a guy either, because other characters get to be helpful and relevant, it’s just that these guys happen to be a supercharged love interest: more power than a regular love interest, but with all of the same weaknesses.
Angel, the proto-Dude-Blob managed to be useful in the form of an informant on the supernatural world, and save Buffy’s life alone precisely once. Most of the time, he was the brawn of the Scooby Gang, and that’s not counting the points in the series where he was evil (thus being a negative amount of helpful), or trapped/depowered. He would go on to star in his own series where, free of being the love interest, he lived a long and productive life.
The short lived, but enjoyable series, Dark Angel, brings up Logan, who is at the far end of the scale here; actually put in a wheelchair, but being very, very good at information gathering and mission control.
And at the other far end, we have the most ineffectual of all the Dude-Blobs, Micheal from Underworld. The franchise’s main character, Selene, is already a highly trained vampire assassin who is badass enough that I’d put money on her against Buffy herself.
So what does this mean for Micheal? Well, he spends most of the first movie being a living Macguffin like so many damsels in distress before him… right up until he gets transformed into a nigh-unstoppable vampire/werewolf hybrid. He might actually have been more useful before this. In three movies, he never manages to lay a finger on the big bad, leaving them to Selene and her mad skills while he takes out a tacked on secondary baddie.
In spirit, I suppose the Dude-blob is there for the men in the audience to identify with (because heavy forbid we identify with the woman, I guess), but it doesn’t really work that way. Dude-Blobs always reek of wasted potential (Except Angel because, again, he got his own series.)
The way I see it, there’s really no point in souping these guys up. There isn’t. Because both we the audience and the writers know and accept that these guys are not the heroes and therefore can never be more awesome than the hero of the story. So why not make them less powerful and more effective as a sidekick? That was the weird thing about Buffy in the first place: if you watch carefully, Xander is far and away more helpful to Buffy than Angel and any of the Dude-Blobs that would replace him throughout the run.
Or, you know, they could not have any Dude-Blob at all. There’s no rule that you have to have a love interest, and the love interest doesn’t have to be involved in the conflict if they’re there. Male heroes manage to have a love interest on the side without forcing them to go on dangerous adventures, so we know it works. Let’s do that for heroines too.
These are really just my preliminary thoughts on the subject. The sad fact is that I chose poorly in time management this year and had to move quickly to get this up in time because of Thanksgiving (Edit: And it turns out that I got in at 1am and half asleep, therefore not getting it up on time at all).
Rest assured I’ll revisit this topic in the future. Next week, an article about Rune Breaker to coincide with the release of book 2 (ultra late coinciding! Woo!)
Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter.
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