Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Should feminist and ‘post-feminist’ film criticism take the action heroine seriously?

In order to understand whether or not feminist or post-feminist theory can take the action heroine seriously, it is important to look at the ideals surrounding both feminist and post-feminist ideals and concerns. I will look at the films Aliens (Cameron, US, 1986) and Tomb Raider (West, UK, 2001) in order to look at the notion of the female action heroine. 

From the nineteen fifties onwards second wave feminism began to develop. Drawing on first wave feminism, the second wave develops from shared concerns of different women’s groups. The second wave feminists felt the need to change women’s social condition and cultural representation. Their main concerns centred around stereotypes of women in the media and the notion that women were being used to sell commodities - or as Germaine Greer argued, women aren’t just used to sell the commodities, but are in fact commodities themselves.

Three main bodies of feminist theory developed in second wave feminism. Liberal feminism works towards the aim of helping women to gain equality to men within the existing system. Marxist or socialist feminism is founded upon the idea that the existing political framework of society, especially in areas of class needs to be changed or reformed. Finally there are the ideas put forward by radical feminism. This promotes the idea of the separation of women from men. This being done with the aim to form an alternative culture due to the fact that all language and knowledge is seen as male dominated. All three different positions work to challenge and subvert patriarchy, which as popularised by Kate Millett is the system of male authority that is integrated within the framework of society that oppresses women.

‘Post-feminism’ came about due to a backlash against feminism in the nineteen eighties and nineties when there was seen to be a crisis in the feminist movement due to it being seen as fragmented and becoming diverse. Furthermore, 'post-feminist' theorists see the 'old school' of feminism to be dominated by bourgeoisie. An idea enforced by Bell Hooks who puts forward the notion that feminism is easily dominated by bourgeois women due to the fact that the issues being shown are mainly about their experiences.

Both Tomb Raider and Aliens present us with different types of female heroines, in different situations, and presented to us in different ways. However, when the films are looked at it is clear to see that with so many different concerns surrounding different areas of feminism, what may be seen as positive by one group will almost certainly be seen as negative or unimportant by another due to how, or if, the groups feel that women can relate to the different characters. And also what the heroines are representing to us with their presence upon screen. 

The very first seen scene of Tomb Raider starts with the camera moving backwards from out of Lara Croft’s right eye, this sets up the idea that she is there to viewed, but also I would suggest, the idea that the audience must look through her eyes as well as their own as this will allow them to see more within the film than they may first expect to find. The fact the camera comes through her eye is showing her as part of the machinery of Hollywood cinema, so whatever she is representing in the film should be the dominant ideology being put across by the Hollywood film industry. An industry seen as dominated by patriarchy. However I believe that Lara Croft, at least in terms of liberal feminism is to be taken seriously, and thus meaning that a change has occurred at least in part towards more equality on the screen in the Hollywood system itself.

Croft is a powerful character within the film; notions of a struggle for power never enter into the equation during tomb raider, as there is never a question that it is Lara who is in control. We are shown in the very first sceen that Lara has the power in the film through the focus of the camera around the two guns on her legs. While this indicates that she has the phallic power, the contrast against her legs, which are nearly always uncovered, supports her as feminine and shows she is not masquerading in the role of a male. But instead is clearly a women who has equal power to those around her as she does not feel threatened by others, so can control situations without taking on a more masculine stance.

 This represents a challenge to patriarchy as no compromise is made to her femininity. For instance, Ibid says that the female action hero challenges gendered binaries due to her qualities of both ‘strength and determination,… her labour and the body that enacts it, mark her out as unfeminine.’ Lara Croft is beyond this definition, due not only to the counter action of her clearly feminine legs and the power icon of the guns, but also things like the fact she has very long hair and associates with men without taking on their traits as she simple does not need to. Thus this enforces the idea that something has changed in the dominant patriarchal system. Otherwise Croft would not be allowed onto the screen without us being shown a change in her behaviour in order for her to succeed with her goals.

In terms of radical feminism the film is problematic. Though Lara is a strong character within the film, we are never shown any inclination that she is uncomfortable with her position in society. Where as a more radically minded Croft would be fighting against the males around her in order to both separate from, and also take power away from them. What is represented is that Croft has the same power as the rest of the people around her. She has no wish to gain more power for herself or take power at the expense of the others in the narrative. The text is showing that what is represented is equality and Croft is happy being equal. This idea puts the film towards the notions and ideas of liberal feminism. And I believe in a liberal feminist context Lara can be seen as extremely useful and can indeed be taken seriously.

Furthermore, I would say that Croft is also useful to a small extent in terms of socialist feminism - although issues surrounding class remain unresolved due to the fact Croft is clearly part of the bourgeoisie. The element at the start of the film relating to ideas that Croft represents an on screen change in the point of view of the patriarchal Hollywood film system, shows that some of the ideas of socialist feminism are filtering through and actually being effective. Furthermore, In terms of ‘post-feminism’ the film is also useful as the film represents the notion of a female heroine without putting across the idea brought into focus by Imelda Whelehan in ‘old school’ feminism that women are encouraged to be victims.

 This certainly isn’t the case in Tomb Raider as Croft seems to have so much control with what is going on around her, that nothing actually ‘happens’ to her, everything is expected and dealt with by her in both a strong and feminine way. Furthermore, she never lets herself become trapped in a situation that she cannot get out of. Control is the key word in Tomb Raider, and Croft is always in control, whatever odds she is set up against the audience never feels that she needs any help from anybody else in order to get out of it. Also, although Croft does not require any help, she is not afraid to let people assist her - this suggests that she simple isn’t threatened by anybody around her, which are mostly men. She is a self contained, self-controlled individual who is treated by others as an equal during the film. So much so that the very notion of her gender is hardly mentioned, clearly enforcing the idea of equality.

Another point which puts the text forward as both representing ideas of equality and also the notion that the film is showing a change in attitude towards women in film comes in the unlikely form of two brief shower scenes. The first shower scene is centred on Lara Croft, presenting nothing new and in fact this would seem to suggest that Croft is being set up just as an object of male desire. However, I believe the second shower scene in film acts to disrupt this idea. To start with the audience is fooled into thinking that this is another shot of Lara, however as the camera moves down we realise that it is in fact Alex West, the male tomb raider. These scenes act in two ways. First of all the idea of equality being shown to the viewers is enforced, as it is not only the female body that is set up to be viewed with desire. But furthermore the scene’s act to reinforce the idea set up in the first scene that there is more to the film than meets the eye, I would suggest that the shower scenes act as a sort of joke from the film makers, a joke designed to make the audience look more closely at what is being shown to them.

The biggest challenge to the idea of patriarchy however comes in the films final scene. Through out the film Lara’s butler constantly admits to trying to turn her in ‘a lady’. In the final scene we see Croft come down the staircase, centred in the shot wearing a long dress and hat. However, at the climax of the scene Lara throws her hat off and picks up the two guns on the plate in front of her before the scene cuts to credits. This scene is showing that Lara is faced with a choice; she can conform to what patriarchy wishes her to be, in the reserved sexually unthreatening female. Or she can continue as an individual that threatens the dominant order. The fact she chooses not to fall into societies pre conceived role is another enforcement to the idea that not only is she strong enough to be herself despite others trying to change her, but also an admission by the Hollywood system that in the year two thousand women can be strong and sexual without having to be punished or made to conform by the end of the film.

‘Aliens’ shows a different approach to the idea of the feminist heroine. Ripley is much more aggressive than Lara Croft throughout the film. The notions that Ripley shows to the audience are much more in line with the ideas of radical feminism. Throughout the film Ripley takes control away from the men around her in order to achieve her goals. The most notable incident of this seen in the scene where she commandeers the armoured transport from the male marine and goes in to rescue the rescue the squad sent into the complex to search for survivors. Not only are we presented with the idea that this is the only course of action we are also shown that the male in the scene is completely overpowered. This can be read as saying to us that the only way forward to achieve goals for women as a whole is to overpower and overthrow the patriarchy that surrounds them, and also that this course of action is the only way that the women will survive in a male and patriarchal dominated environment.

Further reinforcing the idea that film is presenting a female heroine from a radical point of view is the fact that Ripley, throughout the film, leaves the others behind her. This is shown most clearly in the scene where Ripley and the marines are chased through the air vents by the aliens. Every time somebody falls behind she keeps on going, making no attempt to go back and save them. This is showing us that in order for her to survive she must be a lone figure and separate from the rest of the party, as they serve no purpose for her. In fact the only person Ripley does stop to rescue is the child she finds in the complex - who she rescues without the help of any of the marines. This shows us the notion of Ripley as a single mother. and also reinforces the idea that she doesn’t need help from anyone, or any man in order to protect her child. So in terms of the point of view of radical feminism I believe Ripley must be taken very seriously as a feminist heroine.

In terms of liberal feminism the idea of Ripley as a serious heroine is problematic, as she does not follow this bodies theories aims and objectives. Ripley does not seek to be equal to the men in the film but to be in charge and the most powerful among them, as she believes that if the marines are in charge she will not survive. We can see the transfer of power to Ripley in the scene where Hick’s is showing her how to use the assault rifle. In teaching her to use the weapon Ripley is learning to control and manipulate phallic power, and once she has control of this she no longer needs the men to achieve her aims.

Furthermore, I would say Ripley fails as heroine for socialist feminism as well. Ripley does not seek to change the political framework within the film. She seeks to destroy it. She refuses to listen to anybody who is higher in command than her, always doing her own thing. She has no respect what so ever for the notion of rank or authority, while this does subvert patriarchy as she is not following patriarchal rule. She does it by just failing to acknowledge any level of power exists, rather than recognising where the power is in the structure and attempting to change it to suit her own needs.

In terms of ‘post-feminism’ I also believe that Ripley cannot be taken seriously as an action heroine. This is due to the fact that she is set up as a victim through the film; something that ‘post-feminism’ sites as a criticism of the ‘old school’ feminist theorists. She is a victim of the organisation that forces her to go back to the planet. She is then a victim of the company man trying to exploit her with his attempt to use the face hugger aliens to bring a sample back to earth. Furthermore, almost every situation she finds herself in is one where she must run away in order to survive. She is a victim all the way through the film, always seeming to be up against almost unbeatable odds, all because she has been placed there by a patriarchal society and there is nothing she can do about it.

To conclude I would say that while each film has both its plus and minus points in regard to different theories surrounding feminism which support the heroines binge taken seriously, there is always points that will allow one group to find fault with the character. This means one groups heroine will always be another groups joke. I believe that this is apparent not just within the texts of ‘Tomb Raider’ and ‘Aliens’ but also within any film that has been made containing a female heroine. It is probable that any film that will be made will never be able to fill the criteria of one groups theory in a heroine without disrupting another. What is clear however is that both heroines disrupt patriarchy; they just do it in different ways.

Aliens (Cameron, US, 1986)

Tomb Raider (West, UK, 2001)

Millett, Kate (1970) Sexual Politics, Virago

Tasker, Yvonne (1993) Spectacular bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema, London: Routledge

Greer, Germaine (1970) The Female Eunuch

Mulvey, Laura (1990) Visual and other Pleasures, London Routledge

Hooks, Bell (1991) Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics Turnaround

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