Beauty, Attractive Bodies and Sexual Undertones in Female Action Heroes
Even though female action heroes are presented as strong women, the way they are portrayed does not change the stereotype of women.
In this example, Sydney is wearing a costume; she is disguised to conceal the real self, the dangerous one, the one who would knock out her opponent if necessary. And here lies another typical characteristic of the female action hero: they disguise themselves more commonly in traditional feminine ways to look cute and sexy so that the enemy, who is usually a man, will not even consider the possibility of how strong a woman lies beneath that mask. This way, female action heroes “manipulate situations to their advantage.”7
The whole fetish on the action hero’s body started years ago with the figure of Tarzan. Before this fictional character was created, the action hero or the hero was the charming adventurous gentleman wearing a cape and carrying a sword.8 However, after Tarzan entered the scene the action hero was never again the same. It was now obvious that being in good shape and possessing a strong muscular body was the main requirement for an action hero. That is how then characters like the ones played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Jean Claude Van Damme, etc. started to appear and conquered the audience’s preference. Moreover, as Mencimer explains, this happened at a time when “men built bridges, defended helpless broads, and were worshipped for their physical conquests – sexual and otherwise.”9 What we can conclude from this event is that the public had probably found a correlation between what was happening in real life and what was being portrayed in movies: strong man doing manly deeds. However, she adds, the sexual revolution together with the new technology have made that old action hero obsolete, since thanks to that technology women in action movies can be shown performing physical stunts that male action heroes before them had never done. And like it happened with Tarzan years ago, there is now a new trend of action heroes personified by women. They are now the new Tarzans.
Furthermore, just as there seems to be some sort of importance placed on the hero’s body, both male and female, the latter one has gone through a different process. Female action heroes’ bodies have been objectified, which constitutes a point of dispute among feminists. On the one hand they praise the power they display, but on the other hand they do not feel satisfied about the fact that they all have such perfect bodies; because of this, the majority of feminists find the female hero’s appearance or portrayal disempowering.10 Notwithstanding, this is probably not the only item that they find disempowering. In the research that Calvert et al. performed, one of the results was that men liked the character Xena, from television show “Xena the Warrior Princess” only because she was good looking, and this would be the factor that would make them continue watching the show. Moreover, they did not see the warrior as a role model as long as they thought she was pretty and sexy. Calvert et al. mention that Heilman and Stopeck had found a similarity in this conduct that also exists in the real world: “men perceive women who succeed in managerial positions as being less attractive, perhaps because attractive women are generally perceived as feminine, and femininity is often perceived as being less competent than is masculinity.”11 Therefore, the male participants of the “Young Adults’ Perceptions [...]” research only saw Xena as a pretty woman warrior, and did not see that in a way she was in a “managerial” position, since, after all, she was the hero. If they had done so, they would not have found her attractive and she would have been a role model.