After I finished my Star Wars marathon, I decided Indiana Jones would be a good next step, so last Friday I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark. And then I guess I was in the mood for more adventure set in Egypt, so I watched The Mummy, the late 90s version with (Oscar winner!) Brendan Fraser. And I realized that this whole thing has given an interesting perspective on the role of women in action movies over about four decades.
I still remember vividly my reaction to Princess Leia when I first saw the original Star Wars as a kid. Our first impression was very princess-like. She wore flowing white robes and had that soft cowl hood around her head, making her look angelic. And then she whipped out a blaster and shot stormtroopers. That blew my nine-year-old mind. After that, she sassed Darth Vader, who intimidated everyone else. I’d never seen a woman get to be like that in a movie before. But in my latest viewing, I noticed that once the guys are on the scene, she practically gets demoted. She gets them out of the detention area and she gets a few snappy lines, but she mostly functions as the person to get rescued and helped by the big, strong men. It had never occurred to me before how Han just assumes Luke is the one to put on the gun when they’re escaping from the Death Star. It’s like he doesn’t even consider Leia could be useful, even though this is only Luke’s second time in a spaceship (the first time was on the trip to the Death Star). Luke had said he was a pretty good pilot, so wouldn’t it have made more sense to have him helping Chewie while Leia shoots the gun? They’d seen her handle a blaster. And it’s even odder to watch now that we know more about Leia. She totally could have handled that gun. After her strong start, she spends the final battle watching anxiously, and then in the second movie she’s essentially a love interest.
She doesn’t really get to do much interesting stuff until the third movie, when she’s part of the rescue operation and then gets to do some fighting (with the infamous gold bikini in between).
Marion from Raiders comes during those movies. I remember reading an article the summer that movie came out about how it was the summer of strong women in movies. Marion could out-drink men and punched Indy when she saw him, and she took out some bad guys with a frying pan in a fight. They also referred to the Bond girl in that summer’s Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only, who was a scientist and fired a mean crossbow, and the girl in Dragonslayer, who posed as a boy. But Marion follows a similar trajectory to Leia, with a strong tough-girl start but then getting turned into the person who has to be rescued (and who keeps getting put in ridiculous costumes). Whenever she does something to help out, it backfires, like when she hides in the basket that makes it easier to capture her or she gets in the gun turret of the plane to shoot but then gets stuck there and has to be saved.
Then we get to The Mummy, nearly 20 years later. They basically split the character of Indiana Jones into two people, with Evie as the brainy archaeologist side and Rick as the action hero side. She drives a lot of the action with her choices (some of them bad). I would say that she’s actually the protagonist of the movie, rather than being a reward or a sidekick. She’s the one with the story goal who makes the choices at each turning point that drag them deeper into the story. She’s the one with the knowledge that gets them out of trouble sometimes—and often gets them into trouble. So this is all a huge improvement over the way women tend to be depicted in action movies. And yet she’s also the damsel in distress who needs to be rescued frequently, and a lot of this happens when she’s wearing either a sexy outfit or a sexy nightgown. I do like the way the romantic relationship in the movie is treated as a partnership and her brains are shown to be an equal asset to his brawn. Not every “strong female character” has to be quick with her fists or good with a gun. Evie is just about unflappable, has a lot of knowledge, and thinks well on her feet. I just wish she didn’t need rescuing so often.
The Star Wars prequels came out around this time, and I’m not sure Lucas knew what to do with Padme as a character. There had to be a girl, since this is the story of how Luke and Leia came to be. Padme has a position of power and is shown to be brave and smart, but most of the time, she exists as a beautiful lamp. She doesn’t really do much of anything that’s all that important to any of the stories other than give birth and motivate Anakin. She doesn’t even really make a lot of sense. Anakin has opinions and actions that go against everything she supposedly passionately believes in, and this doesn’t seem to change her view of him.
But I think we’ve come a long way by the time we get to the more recent Star Wars movies and TV shows. We get a heroine in Rey who doesn’t need to be rescued. She’s not a “Rambo in drag” type. She can be gentle and caring. One of her Force strengths is in healing. But she’ll fight if she has to. She makes choices and sometimes screws up. We also get to see an older Leia as a true leader who’s capable of making difficult decisions for the greater good. Then there’s Rogue One’s Jyn. I love how in the finale of the second season of The Mandalorian, Mando’s team when they take on the Imperial ship is three women.
Most important to me is that it’s no longer just The Girl with all the guys. When I was a kid playing Star Wars with the neighborhood kids, when we’d run around playing lightsaber battles or pretending our bicycles were X-wings or TIE fighters the girls would fight over who got to be Leia. Some of my earliest storytelling came from making up new characters to play when I didn’t win the fight over getting to be Leia. Girls today might fight over who gets to be the main female character, but they wouldn’t have to make up new characters in order for everyone to play. There are female X-wing pilots, commanders, politicians, mechanics, rebel leaders, etc. True, there are generally still more male main characters than female main characters, even when the protagonist is female, but that’s better than in the earlier movies when there were two female characters who had speaking roles, and one of those had one to two scenes early in the movie before vanishing.
Of course, not everyone is happy with this development, and female characters come in for some harsh criticism, but that’s a subject for another post.