Return of the 'Angry Woman': authenticating female physical action in contemporary cinema
Purse, L. (2011) Return of the 'Angry Woman': authenticating female physical action in contemporary cinema. In: Waters, M. (ed.) Women on Screen: Feminism and Femininity in Visual Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 185-198. ISBN 9780230229655
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In 1999, Elizabeth Hills pointed up the challenges that physically active women on film still posed, in cultural terms, and in relation to certain branches of feminist theory . Since then, a remarkable number of emphatically active female heroes have appeared on screen, from 'Charlie’s Angels' to 'Resident Evil', 'Aeon Flux', and the 'Matrix' and 'X-Men' trilogies. Nevertheless, in a contemporary Western culture frequently characterised as postfeminist, these seem to be the ‘acceptable face’ – and body – of female empowerment: predominantly white, heterosexual, often scantily clad, with the traditional hero’s toughness and resolve re-imagined in terms of gender-biased notions of decorum: grace and dignity alongside perfect hair and make-up, and a body that does not display unsightly markers of physical exertion. The homogeneity of these representations is worth investigating in relation to critical claims that valorise such air-brushed, high-kicking 'action babes' for their combination of sexiness and strength, and the feminist and postfeminist discourses that are refracted through such readings. Indeed, this arguably ‘safe’ set of depictions, dovetailing so neatly with certain postfeminist notions of ‘having it all’, suppresses particular kinds of spectacles in relation to the active female body: images of physical stress and extension, biological consequences of violence and dangerous motivations are all absent. I argue that the untidy female exertions refused in popular “action babe” representations are now erupting into view in a number of other contemporaneous movies – 'Kill Bill' Vols 1 & 2, 'Monster', and 'Hard Candy' – that mark the return of that which is repressed in the mainstream vision of female power – that is, a more viscerally realistic physicality, rage and aggression. As such, these films engage directly with the issue of how to represent violent female agency. This chapter explores what is at stake at a representational level and in terms of spectatorial processes of identification in the return of this particularly visceral rendering of the female avenger.