Hollywood’s Woman Problem in Action Films

By on Jun 24, 2013 in Gender in the Media | 2 comments

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UPDATE: This post also appeared on Femusings.org on Sept. 23, 2013.

In my previous post, I explained how serial killer shows provide catharsis for viewers. They are a safe way for fans to release their pent-up aggression. The same goes for Hollywood action films.

Everyone wants to feel like a badass once in a while, and for most people the only way they can is by zoning out in front of a big screen and losing themselves in a spy or gangster shoot ‘em up film. But here’s a little known fact: it’s not just men watching these flicks. Women love action films, too. It’s a lie that we would rather watch rom-coms instead.

At least, I know I certainly did when I was growing up. I devoured films like the Batman franchise, Indiana Jones and Star Wars up until college when my interest began to wane. Guess why.

Because it was then when I finally realized these films weren’t being made for me and Hollywood couldn’t give a crap about what women want to see in their action heroes. For the longest time, probably since the age of five, I always identified with the male lead of these films. In reality most women do too. Seriously, what woman really goes into a film fantasizing that she too can be a passive damsel in distress or another bloody female victim? It’s banal. Women want adventures too, and we want to feel that crazy adrenaline rush that only comes when you see the hero beating up someone who deserves it.

Unfortunately, it’s always a hero and very rarely a heroine who gets to pull that stunt off. And that’s why so many women stop going to see action films, like James Bond, Superman, Men in Black, gangster films and even the upcoming zombie apocalypse film World War Z. It’s extremely frustrating to see yourself and all women portrayed as sex objects, love interests or helpmates over and over again. We’re rarely, if ever, the main character and the female character’s personal goals always seem to be centered around getting the hero to rescue and fall in love with her. It gets old.

Don’t think negative and passive portrayals of women in action films are that pervasive? Think again – they’re pervasive in Hollywood films in general, even in children’s cartoons.

According to the Women’s Media Center, in 2011 women accounted for only 11% of all film protagonists. This means the vast majority of female characters are depicted in supporting roles – in other words, they’re there to look pretty or help the male main character achieve his goals. And as this chart shows, female characters are less likely to be shown in positions of power or leadership roles. (The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2013. Pg. 42):

Picture from the Women's Media Center. The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2013.

Picture from the Women’s Media Center. The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2013.

Women are underrepresented in general on the Silver Screen. They comprised only 33% of all characters in the top-grossing films of 2011 (The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2013. Pg. 42), and in G-rated family films boy characters outnumber girl characters three to one (Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media).

Women are sexually objectified in movies, too. Even young girls:

Female characters continue to show dramatically more skin than their male counterparts, and feature extremely tiny waists and other exaggerated body characteristics. This hypersexualization and objectification of female characters leads to unrealistic body ideals in very young children, cementing and often reinforcing negative body images and perceptions during the formative years. Research shows that lookism still pervades cinematic content in very meaningful ways.

Gender in Media: The Myths and Facts, Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media

The real-life negative consequences of Hollywood’s portrayal of women are shocking. Girls as young as six are beginning to view themselves as sex objects (The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2013. Pg. 43). And even five year olds hold negative body images about themselves (Wood, Julia T. Gendered Lives). Meanwhile, boys are also being socialized to view women as inferior and subordinate sex objects in men’s lives.

Still don’t believe the movies treat women that badly? Let’s take a look at some recently released adult and children’s action films.

World War Z

OK, I haven’t seen this yet, but I’m not sure I want to. Early reviews of the film say Brad Pitt plays an ex-UN official who saves the world from a zombie apocalypse while his wife hides in a naval carrier with their kids. Wow, that’s different.

By the way, I think apocalypse filmmakers need a lesson in originality. Why do they all use the same hero dad-passive mom trope? Just take a look at Independence Day – it’s the men who fly the big planes in this one. Will Smith’s stripper girlfriend and the president’s wife just kind of sit around in places far away from the action. Meanwhile, an alcoholic dead-beat dad gets to redeem himself by sacrificing his life to blow up the alien spaceship. Then there’s the remake of War of the Worlds, starring Tom Cruise, and 2012 with John Cusack. Both feature divorced dads who reconfirm their manhood in the eyes of their ex-wives by saving their kids. Indeed, in most of these films the dads have either just gotten divorced or are struggling to ‘find’ themselves (At the start of the film, Brad Pitt’s character in World War Z is a stay-at-home dad and apparently hates it). As Alyssa Rosenberg argues in Slate, what better way for these guys to reassert their masculinity than by saving the world while their “empowered” wives sit scared at home?

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

This has to be one of the sexist movies of the year, which was so disappointing. Before I sat down to watch the film in its entirety, I had watched clips of it off a person’s screen in a plane seat two rows in front of me. Without any sound, the movie looked pretty cool and it seemed the female lead, Gretel, had an exciting story line. Unfortunately, I soon discovered the movie is a lot better without the dialogue. Here’s the premise: Both Hansel and Gretel are supposed to be badass witch hunters and they go around killing primarily female evildoers. Now, my problem with the film isn’t that all of the evil witches are women. I actually give the film props for sticking with the traditional understanding of a witch. And anyway, the massacre scenes are so stylized and outrageous (we’re talking explosions and trolls popping people’s heads off with their gigantic feet) it’s just humorous to watch. Besides, plenty of crappy men end up getting brutally killed off, too.

No, the sexism lies in how the film treats Gretel. Apparently she possesses some sort of special “white witch” power, which is why the evil witches want to capture and kill her later on in the film. She is also the one who, as a child, saved her chubby brother’s butt when he was about to get eaten by the ginger-bread house witch. Yet despite all this, guess who the real hero of the move is? That’s right, Hansel. Gretel, on the other hand, keeps getting beaten up by men (much worse than Hansel ever is) and is very nearly raped. But lucky for her, she gets rescued by some random troll who really doesn’t even belong in the film. And for someone who apparently has special powers, she never gets to use them to her advantage.

I guess her specialness isn’t all that important either, because guess who gets to narrate the film? Not Gretel, that’s for sure. It’s apparent the tables have turned since they were kids and Hansel is the real witch killer now. Did I tell you how disappointed I was with this film? I thought it looked so good, but I was so wrong.

Women are also heavily sexualized for the male gaze in this film. Hansel gets to have sex with a hot good witch. Now, on the plane, this scene looked pretty sexy. It starts off with Hansel standing around with his shirt off and, believe me, he looks pretty good. Then the good witch gets naked, but it’s tasteful because we never see her bits, and then they jump into the hot “healing” waters for some wet fun. But silly me, I forgot they edit out nudity for plane screens. In the uncensored version, the witch gets fully naked in front of the camera (her breasts and posterior are exposed for the viewers). Suddenly Hansel’s shirtless scene isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

And then there’s Gretel, who doesn’t get to show any sort of a sexual appetite of her own. But don’t worry. Lots of men get to ogle her instead! At one point a peasant boy (another pointless character) feels up her breasts while she’s unconscious. That’s a perfectly normal thing for a boy to do, right? Not rapey at all. But hey, it all works out in the end because Gretel wakes up, grabs the horny teen’s hand and gives him a dirty look. That makes everything alright. There’s also a tavern scene where a guy’s body explodes and the blood lands on everyone in the room, but mostly on Gretel who is front and center. We see the blood splashing all over her face. Its as subtle as a “cum” shot in porn.

Lastly, there’s the added problem that everyone keeps calling each other “bitch” in the film. Hansel and Gretel call the witches bitches,the witches call themselves bitches and the men who try to rape Gretel call her a bitch, too. It’s funny at first but then the underlying misogyny starts to get to you. And by the way Hollywood filmmakers, enough with the attempted rape scenes. Do you think it’s somehow empowering for women to see a female character almost get raped? It doesn’t matter if she escapes the rape on her own or if someone else helps her. All it says is, “Hey Ladies, don’t get too uppity because if you do, we’ll try to rape you!” Regardless whether the rape is carried through or not, we get your intention. It’s to put women back in their place.


Promo of Escape from Planet Earth, 2013.

Escape from Planet Earth

This children’s cartoon was so obnoxious and aggravating that I had to walk away a half-hour into the film. But I read a recap of the rest of the film, courtesy of Reel Girl, and surprise! It ended just the way I thought it would. The movie is about two brothers, one weak and nerdy and one brawny but dumb, and their age-old sibling rivalry over who is the real hero of their space missions. To make a long story short, the brothers go on an alien adventure to the planet Earth, and the nerdier brother’s young son gets to tag along as well. But here’s the best part: there’s a sub-plot about the womanly rivalry between the nerdy brother’s supportive stay-at-home wife (who valiantly gave up her own space career to raise her son) and the female commander of the space mission. Guess how the latter is portrayed? She’s an insecure career woman who is willing to put her crew in jeopardy to win the love of some evil space captain. Take that, feminist movement! By the way, the housewife doesn’t get to go on the intergalactic adventure. She stays at home while her son and husband have fun.

I read a review of the film that said it was pretty good on “girl power.” How much do you want to bet that a man wrote that article? Honestly, this movie left me flabbergasted. Is this really what passes as female empowerment in Hollywood? Pitting women with different life goals against each other in cat fights? I just couldn’t believe this movie was made during the 21st century. What the hell does Hollywood think it’s teaching boys and girls about proper gender roles? This, ladies and gentlemen, is the patriarchy personified in a children’s cartoon.

So why do shitty movies like these keep getting made? One reason is that women continue to hit a glass ceiling in the film industry. According to the Geena Davis institute on Gender in Media, only 7% of directors, 20% of producers and 13% of writers in the entertainment industry are women. And unfortunately, the lack of women behind the camera directly correlates with how women are represented in front of it:

With such a dearth of female representation in front of and behind the camera, it’s a struggle to champion female stories and voices. The Institute’s research proves that female involvement in the creative process is imperative for creating greater gender balance before production even begins. There is a causal relationship between positive female portrayals and female content creators involved in production. In fact, when even one woman writer works on a film, there is a 10.4% difference in screen time for female characters. Sadly, men outnumber women in key production roles by nearly 5 to 1.

Gender in Media: The Myths and Facts, Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media

Movie execs also keep feeding us the lie that men and women and boys and girls won’t see films with strong female main characters. So instead they cater their films to teenage boys and men, whom they believe will spend more money at the box office. But they’re wrong. Women buy more than half of cinema tickets. That means more women than men are going to see films. And did you know that, when controlled for budget, films with female protagonists make just as much money as films with male protagonists? Meanwhile, movies with larger budgets make more money regardless of which sex is playing the main character (The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2012. Women’s Media Center. Pg. 10).

So maybe, just maybe, if Hollywood gave us an action film with a strong female main character, both men AND women would happily see it.

Instead, they give us crap like Kick-Ass 2. This film features a butt-kicking 15-year-old female superhero. So far so good, right? Then she goes and says something stupid like, “Take Out Your Tampon,” to her male colleague. Because women trashing their own sex is sooo funny, right? In the first film, she also got to call bad guys cunts. What’s the problem with that? Well, while Hit Girl may be a tough woman she doesn’t personify female empowerment. She chooses to ridicule women instead. I’ve seen this recently in quite a few films and TV shows. The writers think it’s funny to have a female character emasculate her male friend by calling him out on his “femininity” – in other words, his weaknesses. And that’s the problem. As Jezebel correctly points out, even in films featuring strong female characters, even those characters equate womanhood with weakness.

Maybe these characters think they are the exception to the rule. Or maybe they think if they criticize other women enough, they might be accepted as “one of the guys.” They hope to climb the ranks of the patriarchy by trying to fit in with it. Too bad by mocking their own sex, they’re only degrading themselves as well (Susan Faludi, Backlash).

All of this goes to show action films are being written by men for men. And, unfortunately, real women are being left out of the conversation.

I know I posted this quote in my previous post, but it warrants repeating. As Geena Davis said, women deserve to get an adrenaline rush from action films too:

Thelma and Louise had a big reaction, there was a huge thing at the time, that, ‘Oh my god, these women had guns and they actually killed a guy!’ … That movie made me realize—you can talk about it all you want, but watch it with an audience and talk to women who have seen this movie and they go, ‘YES!’ They feel so adrenalized and so powerful after seeing some women kick some ass and take control of their own fate. … Women go, ‘Yeah—fucking right!’ Women don’t get to have that experience in the movies. But hey, people go to action movies for a reason; they want to feel adrenalized and they want to identify with the hero, and if only guys get to do that then it’s crazy.

The Ms. Magazine blog post, where the above quote is featured, also makes some valid points about current action heroines’ bodies. Far too few of them have any real muscle on their womanly frames. Instead the stars who play them resort to extreme weight loss diets to ensure they will look good in skin-tight cat suits (like, as the article says, Anne Hathaway did for the latest Batman installment). That’s fine if your goal is to be thin, and the author does a good job not to body shame the skinny stars who play these roles. But much has been said of the fact that Hollywood promotes unrealistic body ideals for women. Right now, thin and waif-like is in. But really, how effective is that physique for beating up bad guys?

As Jean Kilbourne writes in her 1999 essay “The More You Subtract, the More You Add,” Hollywood and American media keep trying to “cut women down to size.”

“We cut Judy down to size,” says an ad for a health club. “Soon, you’ll both be taking up less space,” says an ad for a collapsible treadmill, referring both to the product and to the young woman exercising on it. The obsession with thinness is most deeply about cutting girls and women down to size. It is only a symbol, albeit a very powerful and destructive one, of tremendous fear of female power. Powerful women are seen by many people (women as well as men) as inherently destructive and dangerous. Some argue that it’s men’s awareness of just how powerful women can be that has created the attempts to keep women small. Indeed, thinness as an ideal has always accompanied periods of greater freedom for women – as soon as we got the vote, boyish flapper bodies came into vogue. No wonder there is such pressure on young women today to be thin, to shrink, to be like little girls, not to take up too much space, literally or figuratively.

Is this what is happening in Hollywood action films? Can strong female heroines be shown only if they are too frail to pull off any of the stunts in real life?

Male fear of powerful women is probably the reason why in many platonic pairings of male and female action heroes, the woman rarely gets to exhibit any sexual agency of her own. “The emphasis for girls and women is always on being desirable, not on experiencing desire,” Kilbourne writes. So no wonder Gretel’s only sexual experience in the film is getting felt up by a perverted peasant boy. Meanwhile, Hansel gets to have sex without being dangled as eye candy for viewers, unlike his sexual partner. Spoiler alert, she ends up dying at the end of the film. I guess that’s her punishment for showing any sexual interest at all.

Now, do I think male filmmakers deliberately insert these misogynistic elements into their films? I don’t know. Perhaps their own socialization in a patriarchal society has made them blind to the obvious. But the only way things will change for women in Hollywood is if we make some noise.

So my feminist friends, I beg you, please don’t spend your money on crappy films that propagate negative stereotypes about women. Don’t see an action film where it’s clear the female lead is just there as eye candy. You’re just encouraging men to view women as vapid sex objects. And whether you want to believe it or not, these films subtly promote violence against you. And they’re trying to keep all women down.

Why not see a movie made by a woman instead? Then go write a gushing review about it and pass it along on the internet. You’ll get more satisfaction from that than wasting your hard-earned cash on a film that doesn’t do your sex any favors.




Derr, Holly. Where Have You Gone, Sarah Connor? MS. Magazine. June 11, 2013. http://msmagazine.com/blog/2013/06/11/where-have-you-gone-sarah-connor/

Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. Broadway Books. 1991.

Kilbourne, Jean. “The More You Subtract, the More you Add.” 1999. Featured in Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives. McGraw Hill Higher Education, 2010.

Magowan, Margot. Reel Girl. March 15, 2013. http://reelgirl.com/2013/03/escape-from-planet-earth-humilaites-working-woman/

Rosenberg, Alyssa. Brad Pitt Wins the Zombie War, Loses the Daddy Wars in World War Z. Slate.com June 21, 2013. http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2013/06/21/brad_pitt_s_world_war_z_has_some_very_retro_gender_politics.html

Stewart. Dodai. Hit Girl to Dude in Kick-Ass 2: ‘Take Your Tampon Out’, Jezebel.com. June 19, 2013. http://jezebel.com/hit-girl-to-dude-in-kick-ass-2-take-your-tampon-out-514264289

Women’s Media Center. The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2012. http://www.womensmediacenter.com/page/-/media%20relations/WMC%20Status%20of%20Women%20in%20US%20Media%202012.pdf

Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media: http://www.seejane.org/research/

Featured Image: Promo of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters film. Photo courtesy of WallFive.

Promo shot of Escape from Planet Earth: http://cinemasalem.com/escape-from-planet-earth


  1. ADunn

    July 9, 2013

    Post a Reply

    This post really got me thinking! If we could get a Catwoman/Wonder Woman/Pocahontas (Real Life)/ Xenia film with the same money in production/marketing/etc.. it would make a great film. Both Movies and TV have in just the past few years really let go of Female Lead characters, it’s really kind of depressing. There are still movies and shows out there, but they don’t have the marketing nor production money to make a blockbuster – take Zoe Saldana’s Columbiana in many ways it was just as good as the Bourne series, but it was barely marketed. WOW Since I said all that I can see you made a great blog/post and really got me talking/thinking!!

  2. blobru

    June 30, 2015

    Post a Reply

    Besides women kicking ass, Thelma & Louise also stands out as a female buddy picture. Aren’t too many of those I can think of: Jules and Jess in Bend It Like Beckham, Maria and Maria in Viva Maria!, Dorothy and Lorelei in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes… off the top of my head; but they do seem scarce. Meanwhile, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover do 4 Lethal Weapons. Xena (and Gabrielle) would make a great female buddy action picture. Amazons have never been shown except in b-movies – give them a chance, decent budget, script and cast. Can’t lose any more money than the Lone Ranger (and Tonto), can they?


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