While teaching an undergraduate film module this week, I asked my student cohort to come up with any female-led film franchises. We were discussing gender and I was trying to illustrate how inequality still persists in the twenty-first century both at the level of industry and aesthetics. Masculine film franchises were easy and the students offered a litany of examples: Star Wars, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, Batman, Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, James Bond…the list goes on.
For female-led franchises, the results were rather telling. The Hunger Games, of course. Twilight (which led to a debate about it being female-led and the conclusion was that it is a unisex franchise that may be directed towards a female demographic). Some mentioned Tomb Raider as a duopoly of films which tied into an incredibly successful gaming franchise with Lara Croft being heralded as a character who broke through the hypermasculine frontier and continues to influence gaming culture almost two decades after her first appearance on the Sony Playstation. (No one mentioned the criticism levelled at the Lara Croft character as masculine wish-fulfilment or her being nothing more than an Indiana Jones analogue.) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels were also mentioned. Indeed, Lisbeth Salander is another interesting case study as she also functions as a political force in the novels as she collaborates with Mikhail Blomqvist to take down a serial killer who targets women. The Swedish title of the first book is The Men Who Hate Women which, for my money, would have made for a better title (and deliciously political). Re-reading the books or watching the Swedish film series with this title in mind changed my interpretative experience somewhat and I came to view Lisbeth as a cipher for female empowerment and emancipation. (You may or may not agree).
My students also mentioned the Alien film franchise, of course. Perhaps it all began with Ripley, in film at least?
Lt. Ellen Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver in four Alien films, is perhaps the first female lead in a science fiction film franchise (I am certain someone will marshal evidence to the contrary which I would be interested in learning about). And while the character has been disregarded by many critics and commentators in the past for being a man trapped in a woman’s body – ‘butch’ rather than feminine – I believe that Ripley challenged gendered roles in considerable ways. In the second film, Aliens, she is both action hero and Mother, much in the same way as Katniss Everdeen. Ripley has no problem wielding military equipment and weapons while also providing maternal care for Newt, the child character in Aliens. Like Katniss, Ripley also operates along a hegemonic faultline that challenges gender normativity and stereotypical dichotomies. Lt. Ellen Ripley was an incredibly progressive move at the time when the science fiction landscape was reeling from the impact of Star Wars which led to masculine-dominated narratives such as television’s Battlestar Galactica, the resurgence of Star Trek and even James Bond got in on the act in Moonraker. Like Katniss, Ripley also challenges the patriarchal capitalist order described in the films as ‘The Company,’ and even gives her life to prevent the military body from possessing the Alien gestating inside of her (Alien3). Ripley is nothing if not a morass of contradictions and complexities.
In Jennifer K Stuller’s excellent book, Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology, the author points out that Ripley was’ limited by socially accepted gender stererotypes that kept her from being radically progressive.’1 I think, however, that the character is highly political and subversive. Simply having a female lead the charge and end up as the driving force behind the Alien Queen’s destruction is a political statement in and of itself.
The Terminator films also gave us Sarah Connor who mutates from damsel-in-distress into action heroine, but she exists primarily to protect her son, John Connor, who is destined to become the leader of the resistance in the future – she is an ass-kicking mother, but she is primarily in the role of mother all the same. One cannot exclude John Connor’s destiny as another male saviour (with the same initials as Jesus Christ thrown in for good measure). Along the way, however, she kicks some dust in the face of stereotype. Sarah Connor may be limited – certainly more so than Ripley and Everdeen – but she does ask significant questions along the way.
Much has been written about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena: The Warrior Princess, and Scully of The X-Files. Perhaps television has succeeded in ways that film has not? At present, Daenerys Targayen in Game of Thrones can be read from a feminist perspective as she continues her march to Westeros, freeing slaves along the way and laying down the gauntlet at the feet of many male-rulers in order to reclaim the throne from the Patriarch-King. Only time will tell if she succeeds in supplanting the ubiquitous masculine figure-head. But Game of Thrones is hardly a female-led franchise and there are many pernicious representations within the text that illustrate women as ‘whores,’ scantily clad and in the service of men. This is another faultline, of course, as HBO seek to have it both ways. The programme is both reactionary and progressive depending upon your viewpoint.
The Canadian sci-fi drama, Continuum, has a female protagonist in the lead, but, at the moment, she fights for a future where corporations have taken over the role of government and much of the moral ambiguities come from the so-called terrorists who seek to challenge the status quo. One can only hope that Kiera Cameron recognises her part as protector of the 99% and changes tact.
Vicky Ball explores the female-ensemble drama in British Television in a series of articles and a forthcoming book, Heroine Television (2014)2. Texts such as Prime Suspect, Band of Gold and many others privilege female protagonists that, at times, are radical and progressive. Consider Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison (played by Dame Helen Mirren) who works as a detective in the masculine-dominated workforce and the political ramifications that result from the clash of genders. (The less said about the U.S remake, the better).
(To be continued…).
1 Stuller, Jennifer K. (2010) Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology. New York: I.B Taurus.
2 See, Ball, Vicky (2012) ‘The ‘Feminization’ of British Television and the Re-traditionalization of Gender’, Feminist Media Studies Vol. 12, No. 2. March.; Ball, Vicky (2013) ‘Forgotten Sisters: The Female Ensemble Drama’ in Moseley, R., Wheatley, H and Wood, H. (eds.) ‘Television for Women’, Screen Dossier (Vol. 54, No. 2. Summer 2013).