Female Action Stars: You Know You Want Them

In “Death of the Female Action Star,” (link leads to a cached post — the original was taken down) author Joel Shepherd laments the lack of female action stars in big budget Hollywood films. In fact, when a producer shopped around his Cassandra Kresnov series, this was the result:

‘They’re just not interested,’ he [the producer] said. ‘I mention she’s female and that’s the end of the conversation.’

Wow. Like, way to dismiss half of the human race there.

In his post, Mr. Shepherd wonders why A-list actresses don’t address this imbalance more aggressively, but I think the situation is far beyond their ability to solve. In fact, in order to create the conditions that are conducive to female action stars, it’s going to take—cue clichéd phrase—a village. And that starts with questioning our own preconceived notions that a female action star is inherently impossible.

Frankly, I’m not even sure the “female action star” on the scale of Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Sly Stone has even been born yet, let alone died. But hang on—what do I mean when I say “female action star?” First, allow me to set the parameters. For the purposes of this post, I’m referring to the idea of female action stars (of any genre) in big budget Hollywood films at the level of The Dark Knight and Avatar.

The lack of female action stars is an abominable state of affairs. We are losing out on some great entertainment. Unfortunately, even Joss Whedon didn’t have enough influence to get a Wonder Woman film made. If he can’t do it, what hope is there for the rest of us?

As I read Mr. Shepherd’s article, a few questions occurred to me:

  • Why aren’t there more female action stars in Hollywood films? (A question that bears repeating.)
  • Why do viewers seem to forget that in fiction, anything is possible? Execution is key, of course, but it’s entirely possible to create a plausible female action star.
  • Many women command key power positions in Hollywood. Why are they not championing more female action stars?
  • James Cameron seems to be the one person in Hollywood who can push through successful female action stars. His films make money. Lots of it, in fact. So why aren’t more studios following in his footsteps? (And remember, we’re talking Hollywood here, not independents or foreign films.)

I don’t have all the answers to those questions, but I do have some theories:

  • A corporate mentality of being averse to risk-taking because job preservation is highly valued in Hollywood society (e.g., witness executive Robert Shaye being on top of the world with nearly three billion from The Lord of the Rings trilogy to “choosing to depart New Line” *wink wink* after falling on the not-so-subtle knife of The Golden Compass’s box office disaster). This leads to…
  • Fear of failure. As they are wont to say in Tinseltown, “You’re only as good as your last picture.” Execs usually don’t last very long anyway. They know they have a cushy position; they want to hang onto it for as long as possible.
  • Institutionalized sexism, i.e., “Hey, we’re only giving the audiences what they want.” Studios pander to the sexism of viewers who are assuming they will not be entertained by female action stars (for all the obvious reasons). Hollywood suits also pander to foreign markets, many of whom may not accept a female action hero. For example, imagine a male action hero with a gritty, bloody face. Now imagine (c’mon, I know you can do it) a female action hero the same way. Don’t see that very often, do you? Inherently, there’s no difference, but many audiences, both foreign and domestic, still perceive one.
  • Unimaginativeness in general. Men and women alike seem to forget that in fiction, characters can be anyone and do anything. Anyone can be a hero, regardless of the body shape. Just ask a hobbit.
  • Because Hollywood executives are so risk-verse, no one wants to be the trend-setter. Studio One waits for Studio Two to make a move. Studio Two waits for Studio One. Rinse and repeat.
  • They’re selectively bad at math. Plenty of films featuring male action heroes have failed at the box (according to Hollywood numbers). And yet they continue to operate using the same formulas and equations.
  • Size of budget. The higher the budget, the more difficult it is for them to take the risk.
  • Catch-22: there’s no precedent for a female action star in a big budget film because there’s no risk; there’s no risk because there’s no precedent.
  • Studios underestimate viewer interest in female action stars. Haven’t they ever heard of Xena or Lara Croft? What about these “tiny” films called Aliens, Terminator 2, Kill Bill, and more recently, Wanted? All made buckets of cash and featured prominent female action roles. But if, according to Hollywood logic, no one is interested in female action stars, where did all of those ticket sales come from?

I realize that creating a receptive atmosphere for female action heroes is not a “zero to three hundred miles an hour” development. More like a slowwwww, slow burn that could take 10-20 years or more to start blazing. In order to create long-lasting change, a huge factor will be the right project, at the right time, involving the right people to move it forward. Actually, we’ll probably need lots of those. Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire is just around the corner. Will it help or hurt the cause? It’s too soon to tell now, although my box office senses are tingling.

It’s difficult to predict what type of female action star in a big budget film will shatter that glass ceiling. But if we don’t keep talking about the issue, we’ll never get to meet her.

What’s your take?


Heather Massey is a lifelong fan of science fiction romance. She searches for sci-fi romance adventures aboard her blog, The Galaxy Express. She’s also an author: Her latest sci-fi romance is Queenie’s Brigade (starring a female action heroine!) from Red Sage Publishing. To learn more about her published work, visit www.heathermassey.com.

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