Jennifer Lawrence and the rise of the action heroine

Andrew Collins on the growing class of kick-ass film females

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Ker-pow! The female action hero used to be a rarity in the movies, but not any more. However, action-packing female equality was a long time coming.

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Before the word was sucked of its soul by a corporate mail order giant, Amazon was a female warrior from Greek mythology. The word itself is thought to come from an ancient Iranian word “ha-mazan”, meaning “warrior”. With this mythic race of raiders embedded in world mythology, you might think it would be a modest leap into the iconography of moving pictures.

You’d be wrong. Men took charge of all matters musclebound at the birth of Hollywood and this patriarchal status quo went unchallenged for decades. The closest a femme got to dominance was if she was alluringly fatale in a film noir. But even then, it was Bogart or his hard-bitten equivalent who cracked the case, and not Bacall or any other formidable but nonetheless secondary cabaret singers, black widows and vengeful wives. The female action hero – or heroine – had to wait her turn.

Asian cinema was way ahead. Japan and Hong Kong were producing what were known as “Girls with Guns” movies from the late 1950s, and early martial arts stars like Cheng Pei-pei and Angela Mao paved the way for Michelle Yeoh and US-born Cynthia Rothrock, who teamed as cops for Yes, Madam in the mid-80s. In Hollywood, female action leads remained scarce, but TV gave us The Avengers, with karate-kicking sidekicks Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman) and Emma Peel (Diana Rigg); Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman (due to appear, belatedly, in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in 2016); Lindsay Wagner in The Bionic Woman; and Angie Dickinson’s Police Woman.

Back on the big screen, occasional exotic Bond hitwomen and some laser-blasting from Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia in Star Wars still felt like lip-service in Boys’ Own-style adventures. It was Ridley Scott’s 1979 low-budget space-shocker Alien that arguably proved the turning point for women’s liberation, when Sigourney Weaver’s resourceful and courageous Ripley was the last crewmember standing. She not only saved the world – and the ship’s cat – she also took top billing in subsequent sequels, becoming more statuesque and iconic with each, and, oddly, never distracted from the physical task in hand by “women’s issues” (unless you count the antenatal role of alien-hatcher). 

At long last emancipated by Ripley, actresses in the 1980s and 90s wrestled the macho yoke from the men, who had to pump themselves up into vested parodies of bodybuilders to compete – think of top-heavy Arnie alongside the lean, mean Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. But it was the notoriously sexist world of video games that, ironically, kicked the door down for action women in 21st century cinema: Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider; and Milla Jovovich and Michelle Rodriguez in the Resident Evil franchise. And as Marvel and DC expanded from comic-book brands to movie universes of their own, along with the intrinsically male Spider-Man, Batman and X-Men came Elektra, Catwoman, Shadowcat, Storm, Phoenix, Rogue, Batgirl, Black Widow and Fantastic Four’s Invisible Woman.

Where once action women had indeed been invisible, they now punched their weight: Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Carrie Anne Moss in The Matrix, Keira Knightley as bounty hunter Domino, Chloë Moretz the foul-mouthed Hit Girl in Kick-Ass. In the action conspiracy thriller Hanna (on Channel 4 tonight), Saoirse Ronan plays a ruthless teenage assassin hunting merciless CIA operative Cate Blanchett. The blokes play second fiddle.

And let’s not forget Jennifer Lawrence, who played young shapeshifter Mystique in X-Men: First Class, and transformed into a fully-fledged neo-Amazon in the Hunger Games franchise. Her Katniss Everdeen is a strident, self-sufficient role model for teens and tweens everywhere, in a series that has made $1.5 billion so far, with the third part out this coming November.

The late-blooming female protagonist has another string to her bow, where once her only weapon was a cigarette holder and some smouldering eyes. 

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Hanna is on Channel 4 tonight at 9.20pm