Gendering the Action Hero

In my previous post, I argued that:

Female action heroes face an additional hurdle to their male counterparts, that they need to remain women…. If a filmmaker simply switches the gender of their lead, they’ve done no real harm, but they haven’t done enough either.

To which Ellie very reasonably responded:

Why does a director need to do something to ‘prove’ a heroine’s gender? What do they do to affirm a hero’s gender, other than generic ‘manly’ violence, which we expect from all action characters?

This question appeals to me because it addresses the fundamental question of how the two genders are differentiated. Implicit here is a rejection of the idea that violence is inherently male – the ability to kick someone in the face is not inherently masculine. Yet, the majority of all action stars are men, so there is a cultural association that overrides the question of physicality.

Addressing the question as intended, in what way does a male hero demonstrate their gender, other than by violence? Why couldn’t it be Jane Bond? How is he, a he?

This reminds me of a joke I recently saw about how you can tell whether a toy is for a boy or a girl. Do you operate the toy with your genitals? Yes: it’s not a toy for children. No: either boys or girls. Once cultural factors are ruthlessly stripped away, our ability to discriminate male from female becomes fairly one-dimensional; and so perhaps that’s not useful.

Clearly though, there is some middle ground between accepting the default assumption of violence=masculinity on the one hand and gender=biology on the other. Drawing that line is extremely difficult, even without considering LGBT in the mix. Moreover, that line is moving.

Consider Wonder Woman as an example of the movement in this line. She was originally conceived as an iconic female heroine, incorporating elements of female sexual dominance – literally. Then she went through a period where the comic was essentially about Diana rather than Wonder Woman, because a super-heroine was just inconceivable. Later she made her way to the top-tier of the DC universe, ranking with Batman and Superman. She was then the hero chosen to “cross the line” and kill someone for the greater – something Batman and Superman will famously never do. Untangling that gender statement is a bit beyond the scope here – but the point is just that if we make some kind of determination about Wonder Woman’s femininity interacting with her heroism, she is different at different times.

I think we can make use once again of our old friends Jason Bourne and James Bond for seeing the difference in how masculinity is expressed inside the action genre; which will then let us return to my original comment and see some more specific examples of feminizing the action hero.

If we look at Skyfall as our example, there are only three female characters, which is actually a fairly decent percentage of the frontline cast. You have M, Moneypenny and Severine. The male case is principally Bond, M2, Silva and Q.

Bond is our primary model for masculinity. He is tough but ill-disciplined and insubordinate. When M makes the decision that Eve should take the shot in the opening sequence, Bond is apparently KIA and goes off to sulk. His individuality is more important than the needs of the mission. However, what’s really telling about that opening sequence is that while Eve is apparently quite competent, she stops firing once she downs Bond. Bond in the same situation would have continued firing without pause: voila, mission success. The Bond masculinity is encapsulated perfectly in this difference. It is an expression of toughness.

Silva offers us an alternate view, but it isn’t an appealing one. He is clearly tough, but hurt. His motivation is revenge, driven by a sense of abandonment by his mother-figure M. In the final scene, he implores M to join him in murder-suicide. He too is a draw for attractive women like Severine, but when he flirts with Bond, he destabilizes that heterosexual presumption in a way that is not appealing- he is explicitly using sex as a weapon against Bond, who deflects. Bond casually uses women for sex, but not as a way of attacking them explicitly in this way.

If we look at the fates of the various women named above, they reinforce that Bond’s role is masculine and should remain so. He chides M for not trusting him to win the fight: her reliance on a female operative loses the crucial bit. Moneypenny makes a mistake, but otherwise displays pretty considerable field skills, yet Bond suggests that “fieldwork isn’t for everyone” and she eventually agrees – becoming a secretary instead of Bond’s equal. Severine is pretty casually disposed of, and while people have tried to read that scene as Bond hiding his true feelings, that kind of quip did not seem out of character to me. Silva expresses more emotion in that scene, and has more cause for emotion. Again, however, this is an unattractive expression for an unattractive character. And finally, M is herself eliminated when she enters the fringes of Bond’s world. Compare her as mother figure to Kincaid as a father figure, who emerges from the fight unscathed.

Skyfall has fairly typical gender roles and fairly ordinary ways of showing and defining those roles. This is the kind of global and structural concept of masculinity that comes along with the action-orientation.

Just to offer a quick contrast here, Jason Bourne is a character whose surival in the first movie is reliant on his ability to form a connection with another human being, Marie. Bourne consciously rejects his spy skills as sufficient to define his identity, looking for more answers and evading violence where possible.

This introduces the big problem with The Bourne Supremacy. Killing Marie in the opening sequence refocuses the narrative away from the human drama that was such an important part of The Bourne Identity. Supremacy is about Bourne being forced to find out and confront his origin as a professional killer, but because he has no personal or emotional connection with anyone else in the film, this is expressed almost entirely in procedural terms. Keeping Marie alive wouldn’t necessarily change much about the plot, but would have allowed further and deeper challenges of the stereotype of masculinity that Bourne represents, because it would allow him a greater range of interactions. It would also, handily, have allowed the development of Marie into a more proactive character, representing a positive model of an alternative to spydom.

What we conclude from these two examples and the preamble, is that masculinity is not simply a function of violence, but is inherent in the structures that surround it. The structure of the action film consciously excludes, controls or destroys any women who would seek to enter into or play a significant part in the masculine world. It is not an accident that women are excluded – it is a design feature of the narratives.

The question that I asked was: is simply switching the gender of the protagonist sufficient? Is Jane Bond, without other changes, female? I’ll delve a bit more into that next time.

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