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Main character in 'Brave' fits trend toward realistic female heroines

Published: Thursday, June 21 2012 5:10 p.m. MDT

Gilpatric's findings are not the only criticism of female action characters around. Dr. Jeffrey Brown, a professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University, published his book "Dangerous Curves: Action Heroines, Gender, Fetishism and Popular Culture" just last year.

His criticism of the genre adds to Gilpatric's. Even when women in action movies are fighting for their own causes and taking their own shots, rather than cheering on the sidelines or acting as the love interest, the way they are portrayed and costumed is not exactly respectful, Brown argues.

"The standard uniform is a tight latex bodysuit," he said.

Brown pointed out that after the startling success of strong female action heroines like Ripley and Sarah Connor of the "Terminator" films, filmmakers seemed to shift focus in the 1990s and 2000s to making sure its women were overtly sexualized.

"I always found it strange that Hollywood moved away from that," he said.

"Whether portrayed in live action film and television by supermodels and centerfolds, in cartoons by anime-inspired wide-eyed preteen waifs, or stylized polygons and pixels in digital games, action heroines are conventionally beautiful, glamorous and sexualized," Brown argues in his book.

He, like Gilpatric, concludes that merely including female characters in fighting in action movies does not by itself provide examples of independence or strength. If these characters are dressed almost exclusively in skimpy outfits, they are objectified rather than empowered.

The new action heroine

Amidst this ongoing scholarly debate, female action characters are cropping up in 2012 looking and acting considerably different.

"It's really changing right now, isn't it?" said Gilpatric. "My findings aren't really applying. It's like the year of the woman."

Indeed, some of the most popular films of the year so far feature genuine action heroines who are neither overly sexualized nor sidelined. Katniss Everdeen of "The Hunger Games," a massive box-office success, is a particularly resonant character for both Gilpatric and Brown.

"'The Hunger Games' is a good example," Brown said. "They don't play up her sexuality in any ridiculous way."

Wrote Angela Watercutter in Wired magazine, "Her brain is as sharp as the arrows in her quiver … and her heroism isn't necessarily something that's played up as sexy. (Jennifer) Lawrence (who plays Katniss) is a beautiful girl, but she's a good Katniss because she's an incredibly multifaceted actress, not because she looks good holding a weapon in spandex."

Katniss, importantly, is also not violent out of vengeance or ambition, but because it is demanded for her survival. "She's a hunter, not a killer," said Lawrence of her character in an interview with Vanity Fair.

Katniss is perhaps the most popular but not the sole example of this new wave. "Snow White and the Hunstman," which has so far grossed more than $125 million, features its heroine, Snow White, as exuding what New York Times film critic A. O. Scott refers to as "modest, real-girl appeal," rather than beauty of an unattainable degree. She both leads forces into battle and, like Katniss, is as much a symbol of compassion as fierceness.

Enter Merida. "Passionate and fiery, Merida is a headstrong teenager of royal upbringing who is struggling to take control of her own destiny," state the press notes on "Brave." Like the others, Merida is not present to be ogled but rather to be admired.

"I wanted a real girl," the film's first director, Brenda Chapman, told the New York Times recently. "I wanted an athletic girl. I wanted a wildness about her … I wanted to give girls something to look at and not feel inadequate."

Brown is hesitant to say that the influx of positive action heroines this year will permanently alter Hollywood tradition, pointing out that while these films have been quite successful, so has "The Avengers," which features "Scarlett Johansson in a black bodysuit … flirtation really seems to be her power."

But maybe, he said, "maybe the public generally wants more realistic depictions of female heroines. … It's good for a young generation of women."

Related article: Disney and Pixar's new film 'Brave' is a story about family

He said he's already planning to take his daughter to see "Brave."

email: lmarostica@desnews.com

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