Joel Shepherd was born in Adelaide, South Australia, in 1974. He has studied Film and Television, International Relations, has interned on Capitol Hill in Washington, and traveled widely in Asia. His first trilogy, the Cassandra Kresnov Series, consists of Crossover, Breakaway and Killswitch. A new series, Trial of Blood & Steel, consists of Sasha, Petrodor, Tracato, and Haven. Visit Joel Shepherd’s Web site at www.joelshepherd.com.

The Secret to Successful Female Action Hero Films

In Hollywood, there’s a feeling that movies with leading female action characters don’t do very well. This in turn makes it hard for more movies of that ilk to get made. Now let’s be fair to Hollywood — rather than just blast the many film industry folks who believe this stuff by listing all the big movies with leading female action characters that have done good or great, let’s acknowledge that there are plenty that have done poorly. It’s not that Hollywood is wrong to say female action leads have a mediocre record, it’s that they’re wrong to attribute that record to a lack of audience interest. The poor record is because most of these movies stink, and audiences, unsurprisingly, don’t like bad movies.

Why do these movies stink? It’s this…


If Hollywood make a movie about a ‘male hero’, they will focus upon the word ‘hero’. Hollywood tells hero stories extremely well — the great powers, the great responsibilities, the tortured origin story, the moral and existential conflict. It’s all there, and Hollywood can tell these stories as easily as LeBron James can make a layup, and for similar financial reward.

But if Hollywood makes a movie about a ‘female hero’, they’ll focus upon the word ‘female’. They’ll lose emphasis upon the hero story, and focus on sex and gender instead. Our female hero will be dressed in ridiculous outfits, and will have action scenes dedicated less to showing how kick ass she is, than to how many teenage boys she can give erections while kicking ass.

Action heroes don’t wear suspenders and high heels, male or female. Period. Remember Ripley in the first two Alien movies? (the only ones that count) Absolutely no overt focus on sex appeal. Ditto Sarah Connor (and ditto about only the first two counting). Those were heroes, who just happened to be female. As a general rule, the further a movie strays from this approach, and instead defines female heroism in units of sex appeal, the worse it will be and the more it will bomb at the box office. Catwoman, anyone?

Because audiences, male and female, want a hero story. Sex appeal you can get from the internet, where hot women will do all sorts of things that Hollywood just can’t compete with for teenage erections. What Hollywood can do much better than the internet, or better than anyone else in the world, is tell a tale about a great and unique individual who faces insurmountable odds, and conquers personal demons, in pursuit of justice, truth and inner peace. Or something like that. If Hollywood would actually tell that story, with women in lead roles who were allowed to be genuine heroes, audiences would turn up — they have in the past, on the rare occassion Hollywood (meaning James Cameron) made this kind of movie, and would again.

This is not to say that sex appeal is not important, quite the contrary. Christian Bale’s Batman made many millions from female movie goers due to sex appeal, and straight male viewers like to see that their hero’s ‘got it’ too, for street cred purposes. But sex appeal can’t be the focus of any dramatic narrative, because it tells no tale worth telling — which is of course why porn movie plots are so bad. I hear.

Sex appeal in real movies happens by chemical reaction. Take one ingredient (a very good looking movie star, as all big movie stars tend to be), and add to a second ingredient (a big starring role, with equal parts soulful characterisation and intense physical action) and sex appeal will result as C, the byproduct of A plus B. Change the formula by adding B and C, or A and C, and the result is nothing, no reaction, no excitement, just a multi-million dollar hole in a studio’s budget. Christian Bale looks good as Batman because Christian Bale just looks good, and because those looks are placed into the context of a magnetic and heroic character. Character and appearance will fuse in the audience’s mind, to create sex appeal… which is kind of like what happens when you fall in love, looks plus personality, coming together to make something intangible.

This process works irrespective of gender. Most heterosexual men, contrary to some opinion, will eventually get bored with hot women sans personality. I can’t speak for women in the reverse, but I suspect the same is true. Hollywood focusing on T&A, and expecting that will ensure a female character’s success, is Hollywood forgetting what sex appeal actually is.

So I don’t think this is actually about a mainstream audience’s lack of interest in butt kicking females at all. The lack of success of many movies with female action leads has more to do with audiences suspecting, correctly, that the female lead in question is not going to be a real hero with a story worth sitting through, but rather a sex doll with fighting moves. If Hollywood would make an action film with a female lead who had the depth and interest of Christian Bale’s Batman, they’d find a) she’d automatically become far sexier than if the movie had actually focused on sex, and b) the movie would make a ton of money, and people would realise just how much nonsense this particular meme is.

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