From Kill Bill to Atomic Blonde: How the heroine conquered Hollywood

Move over Superman, what the world needs now is female heroes, says Andrew Collins

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The great thinkers tell us that, in any given era, we get the heroes we deserve. Combating adversity through strength, sacrifice and sharp implements since the time of Achilles and Hector, the hero has remained historically and predominantly male. Gods became men, became cowboys, became soldiers, became spies, became superheroes, became firefighters. Each incarnation threw a damsel in distress over its manly shoulder and saved the world.

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But the tide is turning. We now have the first female Doctor in Jodie Whittaker. Daisy Ridley and Felicity Jones have reset the Star Wars saga, channelling the best of Leia without even having to put on a gold bikini.

And Wonder Woman (played by Israeli model-turned-actress Gal Gadot) is no longer the camp icon as portrayed on TV by Linda Carter. Her recent solo movie, directed by Patty Jenkins, is by far the best-received of the DC Comics Universe series to date, and has become the highest-grossing live-action film directed by a woman. Worldwide, it has pushed the DC Universe box office past $3 billion.

Charlize Theron burnishes her already athletic CV as a bisexual, groin-kneeing Cold War MI6 agent in Atomic Blonde, in cinemas Wednesday 9 August. The latest action heroine to kick patriarchal ass, she joins the similarly empowered ranks of Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Angelina Jolie in Salt, Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games, Sigourney Weaver in the Alien quartet, Helen Mirren in Red and Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell.

The girls are back on top. In her book The Terror Dream, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and feminist Susan Faludi noted that in America – and thus Hollywood – there was a cultural land-grab by alpha males in the wake of 9/11. In the atrocity’s uncertain aftermath, men were recast as heroes protecting home and hearth from outside evil-doers.

Former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “From the ashes of September 11 arise the manly virtues… masculine men, men who push things and pull things.”

Cowboy-booted president George W Bush quoted “an old poster out West” when he put a bounty on Osama Bin Laden’s head “Wanted: dead or alive”. Dark Horse and DC Comics produced cartoon strips inspired by the ordinary heroes of 9/11 – one featured a humbled Superman gazing up at emergency service personnel (of which few were female). Truly, life had become bad art.  

It hadn’t always been that way. In America, the frontiersman/gunslinger archetype emerged in early 19th-century literature, thrived in the simplistic silent film era and enjoyed a boost in the 1930s, when actual heroism was required of ordinary folk.

John Wayne shone as the perfect role model, and his never-shoot-a-man-in-the-back code and bow-legged machismo saw him stride on into the peacetime 50s. But with Vietnam and Watergate, trust in the American dream collapsed and anti-authoritarian loners such as Dirty Harry and the vigilantes played by Charles Bronson stepped forward.

In the ultra-right Reaganite 80s, Hollywood remade them as Johns Rambo and McClane, and that mechanical ubermensch the Terminator. As the 90s dawned, Batman led the way for more complex caped crusaders. But as Marvel’s Avengers assembled this century, men were still doing the majority of the heavy avenging: the Fantastic Four are three-quarters male; only one full-time Avenger is female; likewise the Guardians of the Galaxy (although that outfit contains a raccoon and a tree, so the mix is complicated).

Face it, the world of fantasy cinema is more riven by gender inequality than the BBC. The female ass-kicker’s biggest adversary remains entrenched misogyny. When the female reboot of Ghostbusters was announced last year, opprobrium started building among shall we say “traditionalists”, contributing to its trailer becoming the ninth-most disliked video in YouTube’s history.

Sexism mixed with racism (against African-American star Leslie Jones) demonstrated the very worst of social media’s tendency to knock on front doors and run away. Faludi laments the fact that America’s reaction to the very real threat of 9/11 was a retreat into “platitudes and compensatory fictions”. 

Action roles for historically passive women are needed now more than ever to counter this backward surge. It can’t just be John Wayne and John Rambo who are relied upon to “push things and pull things”. There is hope. Gadot has extended her Wonder Woman contract, with Jenkins set to helm the sequel. 

Next year we’ll see Taraji P Henson as a hitwoman in Proud Mary and Alicia Vikander in a Lara Croft reboot. The future’s brighter for women in front of and behind the camera, but battles must still be fought and asses must still be kicked.  

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Atomic Blonde is in cinemas Wednesday 9th August