When the going gets tough, the women get tougher, but only as tough as men will let them get. So seems to be the central message of the collected essays in Action Chicks, an intriguing analysis of how images of women in contemporary culture have changed in both positive and negative ways. Using examples from such modern motion picture, video game and TV fare as Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Xena, Lara Croft from Tomb Raider, Barb Wire and The Sopranos, this book poses the questions – are women becoming as tough as men, and if so, why?
Female heroines today seem much more able to keep up with, even take down, the men or enemies (who are usually men) in their lives, but according to this book, that image has its roots in strong and powerful females like Rosie the Riveter and even Calamity Jane. What makes today’s tough chicks so different, as these provocative essays written by media reporters and writers suggest, are the ways in which today’s Action Chick is portrayed physically, sexually and in context to the current levels of male power. For example, we learn that today’s tough chicks, such as Barb Wire and Lara Croft, are supersexual women with grossly exaggerated femaly physiques who can kick ass and even kill with the best of men. Yet, as the writers of this thoughtful book point out, these women are only allowed to be as tough as men will allow them to be. And they must look damned delectable while being tough, or the gig is up.
So, with Buffy kicking vampire butt, and Ripley kicking alien rear, and GI Jane doing push-ups until her arms explode, how far have women really come? Some interesting points this book brings out include the fact that racial elements still dictate who can be a real tough female heroine and who cannot (score points for the white women), and that a woman who kills is much more acceptable to society when she is killing to protect someone or stop further violence. Never can a woman just kill for the hell of it, like men do, or she risks getting cancelled in season one (or in the case of La Femme Nikita, where it’s Nikita’s job to kill, she must do so on orders of a man who lords over her, i.e. Michael).
I loved reading about all these action chicks in movies, TV and video games, but felt as I was doing so that there was an underlying message here: women are not making any real progress by becoming just as violent as men, in fact, as many of these essays state, it seems to dehumanize the best of what it means to be a powerful and empowered woman. Yes, we are seeing so many more "Action Chicks" on screen today than ever before, and it does seem to be helping to stretch the envelope for women in terms of acting roles and images they can portray, but when those images are still shaped by the dictates of drooling, bloodthirsty men, the whole evolution of female empowerment backfires.
Action Chicks is a fun read, and a thought-provoking one at that, and will certainly illuminate some much-needed light on the trend towards women warriors in today’s entertainment industry. And it provides hope for women seeking to be thought of in images that don’t exclusively involve washing dishes and serving tea. But at the same time, it also keeps us in check, reminding us that just because women can kill as well as men can, does not make them better, or worse. Just the same.