Lights, Camera, Female Action Heroes!

Shu Lien

Women are not objects.

That’s pretty much a guiding principle that should holistically affect the way we do art. Unless that art is art in the conventional sense of the word, meaning painting/drawing/sculpting, then we seem to cast aside our trepidations of displaying a woman’s body as something to be admired. But I digress.

Women are not objects. Unfortunately, this ends up being the case in a staggering number of movies, particularly action/adventure movies. Directors have found some predictable ways to include women in these movies. They can appear as:

• A dancer in the meeting that, of course, has to take place in a strip club
• The hero’s passive love interest
• The seductive villainous villainess
• A casual bystander with a body; an extra who happens to be a goddess
• A foreign mistress accompanying the bad guy who always gives seductive looks to the studly good guy
• A sexy badass with a sassy attitude who may end up finding satisfaction in the male protagonist’s affection despite her perceived independence

And all of these props characters are eligible for gratuitous sex scenes. And sometimes I wonder if the actresses chosen for these roles are really actresses at all, or if they are just models with good agents and a lack of self-respect.
To be fair to the moviemakers, casting a beautiful actress for the female protagonist in an action/adventure is borderline necessary. The audience has come to expect that the main female character in any sort of blockbuster will be easy to look at, because that’s just the way we do it and because it makes it easier to see why the male protagonist, who has a lot of other things on his mind, ends up fussing over winning her affection. So if this character, designed to make the main character and audience swoon, is not beautiful, something seems a little off. It feels dishonest when this happens, almost like the moviemakers are trying to sell something they know to be short of expectation. So it is fine, maybe even necessary, for the leading woman in an action movie to be stunning, but her looks should not be exploited for fanboy ogling and her character must have something more to stand on than six-inch heels.

These concepts of character development apply to writing for print as well. Even though we can’t literally see characters in books, writers can still establish beauty as a character trait, and it can still be important to the story, especially if that story is in the traditional vein of adventuring and questing. Come on, we’re human beings. One of our most important stories from antiquity is about a war that’s fought over who gets the hottie. The damsels, whether they be in distress or dishing out punishment, are traditionally beautiful. It’s a trope, and it serves a purpose. But that purpose is not to gratify a hyper-sexualized culture. Whether they be on screen or in the pages, women must be characters that have merit beyond their appearance.

The greatest example I have ever seen of this is Shu Lien, played by Michelle Yeoh in Ang Lee’s masterpiece, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Shu Lien is beautiful. Really beautiful. But Lee does nothing to exploit this (no revealing clothing or anything like that) and just lets her be attractive. It is important for her to be lovely because there is a romance between her and Mu Bai, played by Chow Yun Fat, who is the baddest man in the martial arts world, and handsome to boot. So it is important for Shu Lien to be beautiful because Mu Bai, being a handsome and noble hero, could probably get whatever woman he desires, but for years his suppressed affection is directed at Shu Lien. It also matters that the character is a woman, because it emphasizes the fact that she has lived a tough life in the way of the warrior instead of a “boring” life at home, albeit a boring life that she sometimes desires as she regrets never acting on her feelings for Mu Bai.

Lee spends more time emphasizing the fact that Shu Lien is a master of martial arts and a capable and accomplished warrior. She demonstrates skill with a number of weapons and impresses in a couple of stunning fight scenes. Shu Lien is believable as an action hero. I don’t know that anyone really thinks Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie’s sexy adventurer in the Tomb Raider movies) is a legitimate fighter, but no one can question the authenticity of Shu Lien’s mastery of combat.

Lee builds Shu Lien beyond her beauty and her martial arts prowess. She is kind, selfless, loyal, brave, humble, and wise. Overall, she’s a very honorable character. And Lee does not even need to tell the audience this; we see it played out in the movie. What makes this depth of character even more remarkable is its juxtaposition to how Asian women are often portrayed in movies. They either become passive, exotic decorations, or they play out as seductive dragon-ladies. I don’t know if dragon-lady is actually a term but I’m using it. You get what I’m saying.

In sum, Shu Lien exists simultaneously as a beautiful woman, an action hero, and a well-developed character. Her beauty is evident but not emphasized, her combat skills are thoroughly demonstrated, and we see true depth of character through her actions. I really think she should be considered the gold standard for female action heroes.

Writers for all mediums need to seek these genuine female characters, whether in the action/adventure genre or not. Too often, a woman is there just to be of romantic interest, and any depth beyond this is sometimes forced or generic. Female characters fall susceptible to a number of other clichés; sometimes they are the token matronly figure; they sometimes are just the fiery “I can do whatever boys can do” type; when they have a unique character trait (like they’re mentally unstable, have a superpower, or something like this) that trait consumes their character development; they end up just being a male character without a penis. And these are all fine; we can have motherly figures, free-willed young girls, psychos, and (especially this one) legitimate do-it-all heroes in the leading role (think Sigourney Weaver in Alien).

But we need to think about how to write authentic, believable, well-developed characters in a way that makes the fact that they are female matter. Challenging gender roles is a worthy and necessary aim for writers, but we can’t overlook what exists as socially established cultural norms for what women do differently than men. While some irresponsible artists exploit perceived gender roles to portray women as sexual objects, we should look to play off of these notions to create even more effective characters. So, in the case of a warrior woman: when making her a total badass who fights as well as any of the men and gives zero ‘effs about what anyone thinks, do not omit her sexual desires. Does she need the handsome male hero to be happy? No. But might she still have a romantic interest in him? Yes. Does she have to be beautiful to find affirmation and admiration? No. Can she still be beautiful? Yes.

Women are not objects. They are people. And just as a person is more than a curvy body, so too are they more than an independent spirit. Women in fiction deserve the same kind of attention to detail and development that we give to men, and this should eliminate the kind of cardboard creations that dehumanize these characters. Women are not objects. And we have so far to go to teach people what seems like common knowledge.


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