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This weekend, a teenage girl joins the ranks of Pixar heroes — alongside an old man in a floating house, a superhero gone to seed, a robot, a car, a toy cowboy, a monster, an insect, a fish and a rat.
Next to such a list, Merida does not look at first glance like a particularly adventurous choice of protagonist for "Brave," the latest film from hit machine movie studio Pixar. She is, after all, an adolescent princess, a staple character of children's movies for decades.
But Merida, with her flaming hair, impressive archery skills and feisty Scottish brogue, is both a departure for the studio that created her and a powerful addition to what is becoming a cinematic trend in 2012: a new wave of action heroines.
Pixar has never had a heroine at all. Its protagonists, with all their variety in species, shape and personality, have until now been exclusively male. This particular heroine, however, is in good company on the broader movie landscape. She is one of a quickly rising tide of fighting females at the box office, whose creators offer relatable portraits of young women with both strength and compassion.
Daring to move beyond traditional movie tropes, which dictate that female characters must either be highly sexualized or victimized, Merida and some of her current box office companions are offering audiences a change, and 2012 could be the year of the real girl.
The damsel in distress
In 1979, according to a recent study by Dr. Kathryn Gilpatric of Palm Beach State University, action movies changed to make room for heroines when Ridley Scott's "Alien" starred Sigourney Weaver as Lt. Ripley.
"It is now commonplace to see female action characters engage in hand-to-hand combat, wield swords, shoot machine guns, and employ high-tech weaponry to destroy people and property — once the exclusive domain of male action heroes," she wrote.
But Gilpatric's study examined whether women shooting at things ultimately challenged any stereotypes of female characters, and femininity in general. Gilpatric analyzed 300 films — the top 20 most popular action movies each year between 1991 and 2005 — to see if any female action characters appeared and how they behaved.
The results, released in spring 2010, concluded that just ratcheting up women's potential for violence did not necessarily change her role.
"The findings suggest," Gilpatric wrote, "that (female action characters) seem to be inserted into the story to support and promote the actions of the male hero. (She) often appeared as a damsel-in-distress providing the impetus for a male hero to overcome obstacles in order to save her."
More disturbing for Gilpatric was how often these characters went from potential to literal victim. Almost 30 percent of the figures studied died by the end of the movie. Additionally, 47 percent of these characters were villains and "consequently killed as punishment for their bad acts."
The author concluded that "due to the success and popularity of the action genre, which is disseminated to a broad audience both nationally and internationally, we need to be concerned with continued gender stereotypes set within a violent framework."
Putting a gun in a female character's hands does not promote independence and self-respect, or challenge the dominance of men in action movies.
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