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Setting aside the sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero cross-genres, the action genre is still a rather large field to mine. Historically, we tend to associate Hollywood blockbuster action films directly with masculinity. Men like Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington, Sylvester Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger have oeuvres ranging across decades of action films that have brought them prestige and a whole lot of money.
The big franchises — James Bond, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, Bourne, all but the most recent Mission Impossible and Fast & Furious films included — relegate the few female characters to the role of victims, eye candy, or love interests who must be protected and kept separate from the action. More recently, two other tropes have become popular; the agent who uses “womanly wiles” to seduce her target, and the sexless military woman who toughs it out.
I’m not trying to say that women should not play these sorts of characters. However, overwhelmingly, they are the only roles we see them in, and this creates a distorted image of what women are capable of, both in film and in reality. The well-worn plot arcs limit the range of roles for women, are usually disempowering, and are devoid of creativity to boot. Even films such as Fast & Furious 6, which has been lauded for its casting of Gina Carano and Michelle Rodriguez, still have scantily-clad women as set dressing, fewer female characters overall, and most of the female character development happens off-screen. Further skewing representation is the dearth of queer* women, WOC, and older women in action films.
Here are some actresses and films that have bucked the trend:
Firstly, let’s shift the focus to the Hong Kong golden age of action cinema, the ’80s and ’90s films which spawned the likes of Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and John Woo. Michelle Yeoh, who is Malaysian born and of Chinese descent, is an acclaimed actress whose mainstream successes include Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Supercop, as well as Tai Chi Master. She worked alongside Cynthia Rothrock, one of the few American actors to become a star in Hong Kong, in Yes, Madam, another classic of this era. Kelly Hu, Hawaiian born American with Chinese and English ancestry, was also in the kung fu action business, but has been consigned to TV work more recently, working in series like Arrow. As these actresses have aged, their roles have diminished, but their skills are just as sharp.
Back in the US, we have the likes of Angelina Jolie, whose repertoire includes Mr and Mrs Smith, the infamous Salt in which she was cast as the leading role that had been written for Tom Cruise, and the earlier film Wanted. Lucy Liu and her co-stars in Charlie’s Angels paved the way for the small-scale film D.E.B.s, an action-comedy including a lesbian spy-villain romance, and hopefully more female ensemble films to come. Actresses like Michelle Rodriguez and Zoe Saldana lend talent to films such as Girlfight and The Losers (both older titles), while RED stars veteran secret agent Helen Mirren. Every actress mentioned has a variety of other titles to her name in other genres also worth checking out.
Lastly, let’s get excited for upcoming film Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron as a bisexual spy romantically enamoured with a villain played by Sophia Boutella. And if you need any more titles to get you going, I suggest an in-depth Google search.
* This article employs queer as the reclaimed umbrella term used to refer to all who identify as LGBTQIAP+.