Analysis / Action Girl

Ever notice how writers often portray Action Hero characters and Action Girl characters in ways that often still emphasize gender stereotypes?

Men Act, Women Are - Male badasses go out and beat up the enemy...female "badasses" sometimes do, but are often Chickified so the men can act and be awesome. Women can still get sympathy (or at least some people believe they can, though many hate Chickification) just by being women...or providing fanservice...which leads to...

Men Are Strong, Women Are Pretty - Male badasses are clothed and in Western media, often buff or scarred or something emphasizing "masculinity". Female badasses are barely clothed and often are like supermodels. Even fighting styles are different: Men often have plausible (or semi-plausible) styles...women often have She-Fu.

Men Are Generic, Women Are Special - Male badasses can be scarred, be a victim of Gorn or even die, and they'll probably die more often, but they at least usually get Heroic Sacrifices. Female badasses are not usually scarred, rarely victims of Gorn, and they don't die as often unless it is to motivate a male character.

Men Use Violence, Women Use Communication - Male badasses use tons of violence, female badasses can too, hence Action Girl, but many scenarios can you think of where the man is more level-headed and tries to sort out the problem without violence while the woman charges into a fight guns blazing? Other than Black Lagoon, there aren't many series where this is common.

Never a Self-Made Woman - Especially if she's the main character, an Action Girl's relationships with her (actual or surrogate) family will be an important part of her character (Xena and Gabrielle, Buffy and the Scoobies, etc.). Jennifer K. Stuller's Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology contains some detailed analysis of this.

I don't think these are always true...but they come up in a lot of Action Girl characters. By the way, the above headings are tropes on the Gender Dynamics Index. Anyone have any thoughts?

  • Some of these gender issues are, in part, from the female demographic rather than the males. Ultimately, women and men have distinct biological niches regardless of legality, regulation, or medication (though surgery is a valid 'remedy'). Those facets where women hold a monopoly (i.e. motherhood) or genetic imperative (physical attractiveness/health) are exclusive points for weighing a woman as a woman (rather than as a person in general). Those facets where a man typically holds a biological advantage (physical strength) or a biological imperative (i.e. accumulation of wealth) are areas where Action Girls and related tropes tend to tread. When a girl or woman treads on a man's territory, she's an Action Girl. Keep in mind, "Guy Stuff" generally includes risky behavior or such activities that place the man as 'disposable.' Only those action roles falling on archetypal female ground (i.e. The Matriarch/Mother) and non-disposability will generally see an Action Girl measured as a woman.

  • Changes in gender dynamics produce all the varieties of Action Girl and Faux Action Girl you can think of. There are no real-life biological imperatives for women to strive for attractiveness or for men to strive for wealth, but there are certainly cultural imperatives for both. (Plenty of people argue otherwise, in the same way anthropologists often fall into the trap of thinking marriage is the same across every culture, thanks to ethnocentrism.) That doesn't mean the imperatives don't exist, though; thanks to Your Mind Makes It Real, plenty of people in Real Life either are that way or write characters that way (it's always easier that way, after all). More Action Girls are likely to show up in fiction as these cultural imperatives slowly dissolve and transform. Of course, you'll also get backlashes with portrayals of female characters following more traditional gender roles, as men and women who are used to The Way Things Are try to keep things that way. Status Quo Is God, after all, until it isn't anymore.

  • Another reason, of course, is the Double Standard in the society being depicted. Many otherwise potential Action Girl works take place in places and times where women were not intentionally sent, eg, the combat forces of the vast majority of armies until very recent history. Even now when they are free to join for example, the Canadian infantry, SWAT officers, etc. they still tend to be male-dominated professions (e.g., in the Canadian military, more than 2 decades after integration, women only make up 2.4% of combat troops). So all things being equal, of course there will be far more depictions of men then women fighting when men are more likely to fight in Real Life. The only ways around are either to intentionally focus on women as in Mulan or to go into Politically Correct History. A better done example of the latter (despite its many other flaws) is the 2004 film King Arthur, wherein Guinevere is changed from the older and traditional depictions of a Roman to a so-called "Woad" in order for her have a reason for taking the field (Pictic women unlike Roman ones, did go to battle certain times).

  • There's a biological basis behind this social dynamic. Testosterone builds muscle mass and bone density, both of which are necessary for physical prowess. It's why they have weight classes in boxing and separate men's and women's sports. Technique can make up for some degree of power differential, but not to the point that someone who weighs 90 lbs will take on someone who weighs 220. Men have much higher testosterone levels, 30x higher or more, than women, which is why virtually any strength measurement of any sampling of males and females will find the males to be physically stronger, even with strength training. That's why men tend to take on social roles involving physical dominance, whatever those roles may be in whatever culture. The butt-kicking pixies of Hollywood and video games might make profits, but they're unrealistic.

  • While the above is true, it is also not the whole story. One should not mistake things that are true on average to mean that the same is also true in every particular instance. There is considerable variation in relevant genes and levels of hormones in individual men and individual women, such that some individuals will be stronger or weaker (or taller, or faster) than the average for their sex, and may in fact be equal to or better than average individuals of the opposite sex at a certain task. An individual might also have a unique combination of traits that are considered masculine or feminine, such as spatial reasoning or empathy, depending on their exposure to various hormones during different stages of development in the womb. Therefore you may have a macho male boxer who is unusually good at recognizing subtle emotions in faces, or a woman who is better at mechanical tasks or crane games than most men. It is also important not to underestimate the role of training in reaching one's potential. An individual cannot change the size of their skeleton through trainingnote , but it is possible for women with the right build to put on large amounts of muscle through exercise. There are enough female powerlifters, bodybuilders, and MMA fighters to show that this can be done. Therefore, what is unrealistic about said videogames and movies is not that they depict females who are as capable at such traditionally masculine activities as men, but rather that they show them being able to do those things while having the kind of waif-like bodies typical for supermodels instead of what female athletes actually look like. This is compounded by having them wear impractical outfits like Combat Stilettos or Stripperific armor, and She-Fu fighting styles that would not hold up in real combat, instead of sensible gear and fighting styles that prioritize function over appearance.

  • In combat, size difference has the greatest effect in unarmed and unarmored martial arts such as boxing and wrestling. For example, it is harder for a small opponent to throw a larger one, and it is more difficult for a short person to hit a tall person's head. Bigger people might also be able to absorb more hits due to their extra muscle and fat. Even in unarmed combat, however, these differences can potentially be overcome. Even in times when martial arts were almost exclusively a male activity, masters spoke of how technique could enable the Weak, but Skilled to defeat the Unskilled, but Strong. In a contest of evenly matched skill, a difference in strength could potentially decide the outcome, but this is relatively rare. As long as the rules of engagement allow the smaller part to use the techniques that would be advantageous to them, and as long as the difference in height or weight is not too outrageous, skill is usually the deciding factor in a contest between two martial artists. Armed martial arts, in comparison, are even more of an equalizer. If both parties have weapons with similar weight and reach, then the differences in their capabilities will be vastly leveled. It does not take much strength at all to kill someone with a sword, dagger, or spear, and any attempt to use brute strength to overwhelm the opponent can easily be thwarted and turned against the attacker using the most basic of techniques. The most equal of all is a contest with firearms, since the strength of the user is irrelevant to the power of the bullet, and in fact a larger individual will have the disadvantage of presenting a bigger target. Granted, a stronger individual might be able to carry a heavier weapon, or wear heavier armor than the weaker, but this could potentially be compensated for by the smaller one's agility. As long as you are physically fit enough to use the weapons and fighting style that you are trained in, then you can potentially be a match one-on-one for any opponent of similar skill.

  • It's also been said that the more rules a fight has, the greater the advantage the man has. A woman has much less of a chance to win a formal boxing match against a man than if the same man and woman were in a street fight where she can do things like Groin Attacks, eye gouging, and grabbing items to use as weapons.

  • One way a woman can compensate for sexual differences in musculature is by fighting on horseback. If the horse is moving, most of the power behind the strike will come from the horse, not the rider, and a horse, especially one bred for battle, has far more weight and power than any human. This is one of the reasons many historical examples of warrior women were Asiatic horse nomads.

  • Of course, in fiction, there are even more ways to get around the differences in musculature between men and women. In a Superhero universe, who's to say a woman cannot have Super Strength equal to or greater than any man? And if the series revolves around Humongous Mecha, the physical strength of the pilots is mostly irrelevant.