Wrapping up a summer full of Lisbeth Salander and Evelyn Salt, the Denver Post recently published a piece called: "Beauty meets brute force: Are tough screen heroines empowering, or do they send a dangerous message?" Yes, they question whether the influx of strong women, including Kick Ass' Hit Girl and Zoë Saldana in The Losers, are inspiring young women to think they have strength and power they don't actually have.
It's the same old story. A new, empowering trend hits cinema that can be a source of inspiration and equality, and it gets framed as dangerous and inaccurate.Images of a kind of physical equality abound. But in a world in which American women are still prohibited from combat units and physiology insists guys remain physically stronger -- damn that upper-body-strength divide -- are they even accurate?
The piece obviously screams: "Danger, Will Robinson!" From beginning to end, the intent is obvious. Though empowerment is mentioned, it's quickly tossed aside to focus on the supposed dangers of strong girls and women on the big screen, from questions of the "accuracy" of women being adept fighters, to ending the piece with a roller derby girl's "hope" that her strength and strong presence won't make her a target. It wonders if there should be a disclaimer: "Ladies, do not try these kick-butt maneuvers in a dark alley faced with a real assailant," and it even links this question to smaller screen women like FBI agent Olivia Dunham on Fringe and Annie Walker on Covert Affairs.
There is always the chance of the audience immersing themselves so much in one cinematic idea that they try to bring it into reality. It could be something as simple as finding the courage to take that jump -- to ask out that special someone, or make a career change. It can also be something a whole lot more complicated and dangerous like revenge. But that's an on-going question concerning all media -- how it informs our real-life actions. It isn't a gender-specific problem.
Man or woman, boy or girl, there's the chance that something on the big screen will lead to behavior in real life. Moreover, there are many unlikely heroes on the big screen. Hit Girl is just as unlikely in real life as Kick-Ass. Aaron Johnson is no John McClane, but no one is fearing the skinny boys will try to face foes as if they were Bruce Willis fueled with superhuman movie strength.
Film is fantasy fulfillment. Fictional characters get the perfect romance and love that doesn't seem possible in real life, they live out the ideal lives we want, or take the actions we had the guts or means to do. And when it comes to danger, cinema offers us a chance to live out what's too dangerous, to give intrigue we'd like to experience without consequence, and in the cases of films like Inglorious Basterds, reimagine past atrocities with a violent slab of retribution.
What's also important, especially in the case of Lisbeth Salander and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is consequences. Lisbeth is a figure of strength, but she doesn't have an easy-breezy go of things. Her story is not one where she suffers an injustice, suits up, and gets her tidy revenge. Lisbeth plans ultimately work, but at a very costly expense -- a terrible and traumatic assault. The Post piece says Stieg Larsson's trilogy has a "fable-quality" to it, but unlike most action adventures, the dangers are just as present as the release of adrenaline.
It's been over a hundred years since Annie Oakley proved how skilled a female sharpshooter can be, and here we are, in 2010, seeing four tough women on screen in a year lead to discourse on "dangerousness." And it's not even young girls in Kick Ass. It's women who are in the FBI, potential spies, and even a young woman whose revenge means more sexual assault.
Strong women aren't a scary thing, and I hope Hollywood keeps offering more of them so that this world of Salts, Salanders, and Hit Girls becomes the norm, and maybe strong women won't seem like such a threat, and the world at large can stop thinking of women in strict, narrow, and stereotypical absolutes. Not every woman is weak, not every man is strong, and there are many wholly entertained and inspired by the strong women we've seen on screen this year.