Tough Women, or Facsimiles Thereof

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


I know The Bourne Ultimatum hasn’t been out remotely long enough for it to be fair game for spoilers, so I’ll try to keep this general. (I’m really just using it as a starting point, anyway.)

If you’ve seen the first two movies, you’re familiar with the characters of Nicki Parsons and Pam Landy. They both appear in the third installment (no spoilers there; I think you can see them both in the trailers), and at two separate points in the film, I found myself holding my breath, praying the script writers would go that extra mile and avoid doing the obvious thing. Why? Because they’re both intelligent, competent women, and recently I’ve been going another round in the discussion about what happens to such women in superhero comics. (Not that TBU is a comic, but the topic’s on my mind.) I won’t tell you what happens to those two, but I will tell you I was really, really hoping either or both of them wouldn’t get killed off just to up the body count or cause more angst for Jason Bourne.

My brain has been attacking this topic from a bunch of different angles lately: The Bourne Ultimatum. Comic books. The X-Files; I’m watching it with a friend (having only seen scattered episodes prior to this), and we just went through an episode in which Scully gets kidnapped Yet Again. The recent upswing in a certain brand of urban fantasy/paranormal romance, with its trope of the tough and sexy female main character. The characters of Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor in the Alien and Terminator franchises, as contrasted with the likes of Lara Croft or Violet (of Ultraviolet fame, if you actually saw that movie — I did, mostly for the fight scenes, which were quite lovely, shame about the rest of the film).

Is it just me, or has something changed? Ripley and Sarah Connor are very much alike, in my opinion. Both are tough characters, but their toughness originates in the mind; neither one starts out as an action hero, though both of them grow into it by the ends of their stories. Both of them strike a balance in their presentation: they are neither “honorary males” nor hyper-sexualized objects. It used to be that we saw more of the former; these days, it seems like I can’t get away from the latter. Rather than having to sacrifice all traces of her femininity to be a tough protagonist, that kind of female character now all too often ends up in tight leather with her cleavage on display. There’s nothing inherently wrong with tight leather (or cleavage), but in movies particularly, it seems to be turning into a visual shorthand, or even a substitute, for actual strength of character. And it reaches a nadir when — as happens far too often in superhero comics — the supposed “toughness” and “power” of the character comes with quotation marks attached. She can kick ass . . . until suddenly she falls apart in the most pathetic (and implausible) way possible, usually so she can be rescued by the male hero. Or she can’t even do that; the writer tells you all the time how cool she is, but the available evidence says otherwise.

Where have the Sarah Connors and Ellen Ripleys gone? Is it just a matter of perspective? Maybe they weren’t a type; maybe they were unusual characters I remember because their movies have staying power, and instead of tough women we’ve always had an abundance of tough chicks, sexualized little things crammed into corsets, with guns to substitute for strength of character. I can think of exceptions to the rule, but they’re just that: exceptions instead of the rule, and all too prone to getting undermined somewhere down the road. I’ve heard worrisome things about what happens with Starbuck in the later parts of Battlestar Galactica.

But I’m pleased to say that in the X-Files episode I just watched, yes, Scully gets kidnapped, and in a context that carries distinctly sexual overtones and could easily turn her into an object to be rescued — but then she shows exactly the sort of psychological toughness that really matters. She doesn’t just fight back; she keeps thinking, she problem-solves, she picks herself back up again when something goes wrong and continues her escape attempt. It’s exactly the sort of toughness that is apparently far too rare in superhero comics, and — so I feel — not common enough in action movies. It’s the toughness of Ripley and Sarah. It can go hand-in-hand with the ability to kill things while looking fabulous in leather, but if I had to pick between the leather and the brain, I’d go with the brain every time.

It’s why I cared about Nicki Parsons and Pam Landy. Bourne I could take or leave — I found the question of his past interesting, but it was never an issue whether he would get to go on being competent and useful. I wish I hadn’t automatically been afraid they were going to get killed off, and I look forward to the day when I don’t fear that — any more than I do for other characters, anyway.

Despite my best efforts, I’m afraid this post has turned rambly. It’s a huge topic and one that, like I said, I’ve been chewing on for a while.