Female leads in action films are on the rise. Is this the new recipe for a blockbuster?
Words by Brett Kane, Illustrations by Krista Young
As the War Rig barrels its way across the desert wasteland, the words of their teacher and mentor, Miss Giddy, rung ever-loud and clear: “We are not things.” Played by Charlize Theron sporting a gritty buzz cut, Imperator Furiosa uses these four words as a mantra and a call to arms as she makes her escape from Immortan Joe, a tyrannical patriarch who enslaved her for years. In reciting that phrase with the other women of Mad Max: Fury Road, Furiosa not only has something to prove to herself and the rest of Joe’s wives, but to Hollywood, too.
How many times have you seen an action movie in which the lead is man in his mid-thirties, musclebound, and sporting a stylish five o’clock shadow? You’ve got your James Bonds, your Jason Bournes, and your John McClanes. Even Fury Road fills this quota with Tom Hardy’s character, Max Rockatansky. But what the Mad Max reboot does that most others don’t is give equal representation to women.
Here on Fury Road, the women drive the story.
Breaking free of the clutches of their oppressive male captor to find lives of their own, these ladies symbolically deconstruct and dismantle the stereotypes about female characters that have plagued Hollywood for years.
Linda Burden-Williams, an actress and coach in the Eugene-based In Focus Camera Acting & Production, has been waiting for this moment in Hollywood for a long time. A working actress for nearly three decades, earning roles in shows such as E.R., and The West Wing, Williams has seen the inequalities that many actresses face.
“There are so many character descriptions for female parts that say that the actress must be ‘tall, sexy, blonde,’ or what have you,” she says. “However, for most men, particularly in these action roles, all they have to be is a bodybuilder. That’s it.”
Williams has noticed that if women do not fit into that laundry list of physical features, they simply will not get the part. This objectification of women is not something she wants to see ingrained into the minds of not only children, but men, as well.
“I don’t know what man doesn’t want to see a powerful woman up on the big screen kicking ass,” she says. “It’s sexy.”
Over the course of her time in the industry, however, Williams has noted that there are steps being taken towards equality between actors and actresses. And one name seems to be at the forefront of this new era: Emily Blunt.
Since 2012, Blunt has starred in some of the most well-received action and thriller films. Take Looper (2012), or Edge of Tomorrow (2014), or even her most recent film, Sicario (2015) as examples. See the British actress play a single mother who has to protect her young son; a skilled soldier in a raging war against an invading alien race; and an FBI agent who becomes part of an undercover Central Intelligence Agency team to take down a notorious Mexican drug lord.
What makes Blunt’s characters stand out among most female characters in action films is that they are written as though they are people, not objects. They are multi-faceted, layered, complex characters with their own goals and motivations. (Psst… She’s even been rumored to play the titular character in the upcoming superhero film, Captain Marvel.)
Blunt seems more than happy to bring this new trend to mainstream attention, as she sees it as something that is long overdue in the film industry.
“The Hollywood business has become so invested in making money,” she told Empire Magazine. “They sort of crunch numbers on films that have previously worked with a guy at the helm of it. We have gone through this big wave of a lot of male-heavy films, and recently there’s been a bit of a change.”
Blunt believes that action films with women at the forefront can just as easily make the same kind of money as any given male-lead piece.
“I don’t want it to be seen as such a rarity that a film with women makes money,” she said.
By the looks of things, Blunt should be pleased with the recent box office results of female-lead blockbusters. Not only are there more action films driven by women, but they seem to have no trouble making money.
The Hunger Games franchise, starring Jennifer Lawrence, has grossed over $1.1 billion worldwide — and that’s before the release of its concluding chapter, Mockingjay Part 2. The Scarlett Johansson Sci-Fi flick, Lucy, raked in a sizable $463.4 million, more than eleven times its budget. Blunt’s own Tomorrow managed to earn $369.2 million, and there are even talks of a sequel. Clearly, action heroines films are hitting home for more than just a niche audience.
“In the last 5-7 years, women have been stepping up. They’re becoming bigger box office draws,” Williams says. “They’re making more money now.”
Williams has recently observed that this new trend in Hollywood is helping young girls to see the world through a new perspective. With more and more actresses leading these action movies, it teaches them that it’s not just the men who can be superheroes, but women, too. In Tomorrow, Blunt’s Rita Vrataski mows down her extraterrestrial enemies with as much strength and skill as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Alan Dutch in Predator, or Will Smith’s Steven Hiller in Independence Day. When was the last time you saw any one girl in Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise do that? While they’re screaming and running away from giant robots, it’s Mark Wahlberg who’s getting his hands dirty. Films like Tomorrow and Mad Max: Fury Road are vital because they give women the roles that we’re so used to seeing men play.
“It’s the greatest thing not to be a damsel in distress in an action movie,” Blunt said during her acceptance of 2015 Critics’ Choice Award for Best Actress in an Action Movie. “I will forever be so grateful for the title of ‘Full Metal Bitch.’” It’s safe to say that characters like Rita and Furiosa are a far cry from the damsels in distress of the past.
“It’s the evolution of the human species,” Williams says. “It’s where we are evolving in terms of equal rights. It’s a battle that women have always had, and it takes time. Evolution doesn’t happen overnight.” For this reporter, Fury Road marked the beginning of what many critics and audiences are citing as a new era in the movie business, with action films kicked into high gear by heroines, not heroes.
And who knows? One day soon, Blunt’s key line from Tomorrow — “Come find me when you wake up” — might just replace “Come with me if you want to live.”