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Is Female Empowerment In Film Becoming Too Closely Linked to Female Violence?

Why is it that female characters in films have reached a point where they are no longer considered strong or cool unless they employ violence? Is Hollywood teaching the wrong kind of Girl Power?  We take a look at this growing trend in films and the impact it may be having. 

When the Disney Princess collection was released, using an image of Brave heroine Merida without her bow-and-arrow, it led to big hullabaloo of complaints that the character was no longer cool. Lately, people seem to prefer female characters who participate in action and violence over those who do not.  Now some might say “It’s about time! The 20th Century often depicted women as Damsels-in-Distress, so it’s good to see all these warrior women around in the 21st Century.” Perhaps so, but is this trend really challenging obsolete gender roles or is it a just reinforcement of traditional macho male behavior as the only acceptable way to be strong and independent?

Is it really a good message to send to young girls that if you really want to be empowered, you have to physically beat people up? Men have often stooped to a violence-as-a-solution mentality. Do women have to become as violent as men and overpower people hand-to-hand to be on equal footing? Where are all the female role models who show that true strength is more than just punching and kicking?


Lately, it’s become an all-too-common cliché of modern times that a woman needs to be able to physically dominate those around her in order to be a seen as a strong woman and a role model.  True, sometimes it is very necessary, plotwise, to have a violent, butt-kicking leading lady; For instance, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Sarah Michelle Geller); Xena Warrior Princess (Lucy Lawless); The Black Widow from The Avengers (Scarlett Johansson); Wonder Woman (Linda Carter); the Bionic Woman (Lindsey Wagner) are all examples of women who logically needed to pummel their opponents. I love all these ladies.

What annoys me is that it’s mostly done these days as a titillating, fetishistic cliché, rather than a necessary part of the plot. I read so many articles and interviews where someone (usually males, by the way) says that they want to see (fill in the name of your favorite female character) “kick some ass.” Some people may say that this is female empowerment. However, more often than not, it’s just an unnecessary gimmick that shows the limitations of a writer or producer’s ability to write a woman as strong and independent without being a female Rambo. It reflects the industries inability to evolve enough to understand and reflect the genuine changes in women’s roles in society.


The problem here is that, according to studies, young males tend to respond to this image of the battling bad-girl even more than young women do. The girls of Sucker Punch in their sexy schoolgirl outfits are designed to titillate males, not inspire females. There is a fetishization of these action girls because they combine hyper-masculine tendencies of violence with feminine beauty. Males prefer Lara Croft over the Ghost Whisperer. It can be argued that the sexualization of violence through these quick-to-kill super-girls can undermine the potential for portraying new models of female autonomy.

There are many, many strong female characters who prove that women don’t have to eagerly draw blood to be seen as cool and interesting. Dr. Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) on the X-Files;  Marge Gunderson (Frances Mcdormand) of Fargo; M (Judy Dench) from the James Bond films; Dr. Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) on House, MD; Even young Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) from the Harry Potter stories. These formidable females are fun because their strength is in their brains, courage, compassion and resourcefulness, and they don’t rely on violence as a first option.


Often, the violence is added in for no good reason. In the Robert Downey Jr. version of Sherlock Holmes, Irene Addler (Rachel McAdams) is no longer just shrewd and cunning, as in the original stories. The film makers are no longer satisfied with the fact that Irene was the only person to outwit Sherlock Holmes. Here, she also takes time out to easily outfight two large thugs who harass her. (A fight scene that was completely gratuitous and added nothing to the story.) Being smart apparently isn’t enough, anymore. There had to be some punches thrown in.

The criticism surrounding a bowless Merida reminds me of recent revisionist interpretations of iconic fable females, all turned to violence in modern films…Tim Burton’s Alice in wonderland gave us a sword-wielding Alice leading an army against the forces of the Red Queen. In the last remake of King Arthur, Guinevere was a Xena-type warrior Princess. The latest Robin Hood film had Lady Marion riding into battle on horseback. The newest 3 Musketeers film gave us the once-wily Lady De Winter leaping around, sword-in-hand, doing Crouching Tiger style stunts. Why is this violence-as-as-solution mentality necessary now for these iconic female characters? Do weapons make girls cooler? The idea that Merida of Brave becomes less of an empowering female role model because she left her weapon home on ‘Princess Photos Day’ is ridiculous.

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On TV, even nerdy women are great fighters. Nerdy men on TV are always portrayed as wimps who are easily intimidated and get beaten up. But female nerds must be physically powerful. Take the female protagonist of Bones, Dr. Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel). Apparently, being a brilliant, beautiful, anthropologist, forensic expert, successful author and leader of her team of ‘squints’ wasn’t enough for this character. (That should be enough for anyone.) Our brainy leading lady also has to do martial arts and shoot guns well. All her male lab co-workers (Hodgens, Zack, Sweets) are harmless dorks, but obviously Brennan couldn’t be considered a strong female unless she was knocking other people down to the concrete.

The modern thought process seems to be that either a women is a fist-fighting, gun toting, sword-swinging supergirl, or else she’s an obsolete, embarrassing damsel-in-distress. But that’s not the case. There’s a lot of middle ground that people are missing. Women don’t have to imitate male violence to achieve respect.

So the question is...Is this cinematic movement toward hyper-aggressive females a positive challenge to the male oriented genres of action films and TV, or is it subconsciously reinforcing traditionally male behavior as the only way for women to achieve a sense of cultural autonomy?

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  • Guest - Hanif


    you get a big thumbs up for me for liking Buffy The Vampire Slayer. However I disagree. Not every woman has to pummel men to get attention but Its very empower and cool to see them do so. People will act violently regardless of whats on tv and nothing will change that. People(myself included) love female fight scenes because They are the underdog and one would underestimate them by looking at them. Also Lara Croft is a great example of a great leading lady. She is very intelligent and is able to gets what she wants by herself.

  • True. But my question is this...Now that women have finally passed the tipping point of equality (60% of college graduates and 55% of middle management professionals are women today) shouldn't it be time to say, "This is the new way we're going to do things from now on" rather than saying, "Let's copy the men because their way is better"?

    Comment last edited on about 1 year ago by Rob Young
  • I agree with you completely. TV shows are full of powerful women who don't need to resort to violence. Movies are behind in this regard. I honestly think it is because TV shows have to be more original than movies. Movies have to fit a mold in order to make people pay to watch them. Movies that are based on real events, on the other hand, have plenty of strong female characters that don't have to resort to (a lot of) violence. Zero Dark Thirty, The Help, Precious, The Runaways, Temple Grandin, etc. It's too bad that these films are still a (very small) minority and that these types of characters based on REAL people don't influence more of our culture.

    Comment last edited on about 1 year ago by G.S. Perno
  • I love most of those women you mentioned, especially Jessica Chastain from Zero Dark 30, and I wish we could see more ladies like that, or like Francis McDormond in "Fargo", rather than these women who seem to be men in female bodies (as many female characters are written these days.)

  • I loved Jessica Chastain's character in Zero Dark Thirty. Very smart. Dedicated. Classy. Brainiac. Would it have worked if she had joined the dudes on the seek and destroy mission? No. Do we need more stories like this and Fargo? Hell yes.

    from Vancouver, BC, Canada
  • So well said.

    from Vancouver, BC, Canada
  • As a writer I love writing female leads. It's a lot more fun to me, but I don't write them to disrespect women by any means. The question is, how many of these character could switch to males and you'd just have a stereotypical movie? it's not just female roles, look at all the guys that have shirts off or act like thugs. We as males don't act like that. Looking at video games, almost every game with a male character in an open world is a total douchbag.

    I mean there are roles where the women saves the guy too. That whole story line is just something that people connect with easily, so it gets written a lot. In drama movies, often times the female is much stronger than the crying wimpy guy trying to win her back.

    I mean no disrespect to your opinion at all, so please don't take it that way. However in my opinion, its a little mean to say my characters that are females, acting the same way as their male companions, are at a lower level simply because they kick butt. Males don't need massive muscles and guns to be men either, but 9 out of 10 movies say we do. It's just movies, its what they do. I think a female character that is strong is very respectful, rather she has a sword and cool outfit or not.

    In the latest Superman comics they make Louis Lane much stronger, and she was rather strong in Man of Steel too. Does Superman still save her? Yeah, because overall he is still the hero and thats his girl, men and women relate to that especially if they are in a relationship.

    Again, just voicing my friendly opinion on the matter. I think you have valid points and this was an interesting article to read regardless of what side you are on!

  • I appreciate the feedback and I get where you're coming from. For myself, however, I feel that writers have no idea how to write for women; so they either create a weak female stereotype, or else they just write the character as a rock 'em-sock 'em She-Rambo.
    And of course, since they use pretty actresses for these roles (often dressed sexy) it becomes a masturbatory fantasy aimed at young males, mixing sex and violence in one pretty package. This is one of my main problems with this motiff. Studies show that these action-babes are geared to appeal to young males. A hot girl who can fight seems like a teen wet dream. Teens don't want to see a film where WWE's Kharma beats guys up (even thought she certainly could) but they do want to see hotties like Angelina Jolie or Scarlett Johansson kicking butt. I feel its more exploitation than empowerment.

    I hope we can get some female input on this issue.

    Comment last edited on about 1 year ago by Rob Young
  • OK. Being a chick I have to sound off here. I love Lara Croft. I loved Guinevere and Merida. Wonder Woman, Xena, Buffy. All very, very good. What's not to like? I have absolutely no problem with chicks who kick ass. Sucker Punch is another story altogether and I cannot comment on that since that is another article altogether. But I will say this. As with any story, if it fits and serves a purpose within the story and stays true to the character's story arc and personality, etc..., etc..., then I am all for it. All systems go. As long as it fits the story. Anything gratuitous, be it sex, violence, or anything else that is just in there for the sake of shock value, or what the hell ever else rhyme or reason I don't know why it's even in there for goodness sakes, then, I say, HELL TO THE NO! Gratuitous is not synonymous with good and/or necessary or integral to the story or character. So, to sum it up, female violence isn't all bad but neither is it all good. Moderation in anything is a great practice, gratuitous stuff in movies gets a slap on the wrist and does not pass go.

    from Vancouver, BC, Canada
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