Just Look At It: The Cultural Logic of Contemporary Action Heroine Cinema

Posted in 2010 Journal


In recent years, Hollywood has produced quite a number of action heroine films that feature sexually attractive women as the central action figure, such as the Tomb Raider series. The feminist theorists and postfeminist theorists take opposing stands on the representation of the action heroine, labeling it as regressive and progressive, respectively. This article intends to explain why there are such contradictory interpretations about action heroines by exploring the extra-textual factors that contribute to the production of such films. Navigated by Jean Baudrillard’s theories about postmodern culture and consumerism, this article argues that the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster movie is a composite commodity, full of digital effects and spectacles, which produces an audience that only look at the superficial images for sensual pleasure but do not look into the meaning of the film text. The action heroines are subject to this same cultural logic and are consumed as pure images. Therefore, the root problem about such representation is not what discourse is produced or what representation there should be for women, but what kind of dilemma female representation is faced with in this depthless culture.


In the late 1970s, Hollywood cinema entered the blockbuster era. Since then, action movies have been the major productions representing blockbusters. They served as a strategic move to wrestle off the competition from television and other home entertainment. Ensured by the speedy development of computer-supported filmmaking technology, the blockbuster movie still maintains its dominance in today’s market. The action cinema, increasingly incorporated with science-fiction and fantasy elements, has achieved remarkable popularity in this new millennium.

A review of the action movie chronology since 1970 would tell us that the majority of such productions feature male protagonists as the action heroes. They are the central agency pushing the narrative forward and finally saving the day, as in Die Hard, First Blood, and the Spider-Man series. Although there were occasions where women were the action heroes, as in the Alien series (1979-1997) or Terminator II (1991) 1 , these occasions were still rare before 2000. However, in the short period of the recent decade, the incarnation of action heroines becomes increasingly prominent. Especially after the “most iconic” (O’Day 201) figure of Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie) in a two-episode series (2001 and 2003), a proliferating number of Hollywood films put female leads in action, pursuing the evil-fighting, world-saving cause once accomplished by male characters, such as the Resident Evil saga that released its fourth episode this September, the Underworld trilogy, Elektra, Aeon Flux, and so on.

Two “contradictory” qualities co-exist in these action heroines. First, they are both intelligent and physically strong, as exemplified by their meticulous reasoning, ingenious tactics, their maneuver over vehicles and weapons, and their skills in boxing or Kong fu. Second, despite these conventionally masculine qualities, they still maintain their femininity with overtly sexualized bodies highlighted by particular costumes (tight, scanty) and body parts (breasts) in the films, as well as the actresses’ own star image as pretty and attractive (see Figure 1). Such combination of masculine power and feminine body differentiates the 21st-century action heroines from their precursors in the 80s and 90s (e.g. Ripley and Sarah Connor) who, exhibiting what Tasker calls “masculinity,” can be seen as an erasure of the female body rather than a redesigning of its potential for power (3).

Figure 1: Contemporary Action Heroines’ Sexualized Body (source: IMDB website)

Another important feature about action heroines is that their action is motivated by a “higher purpose” that enables them to “look beyond the immediate battle and see the larger implications of struggle” (Waites 207). That is, they act out of their moral imperative to mete out justice and eliminate the evil; as embodiment of the righteous, they fight for the common good 2. Their motivations for action mark a very significant break from some of the past representations of active women. One is the notorious archetype of femme fatale in film noir. She uses sex and pistol to achieve her own wicked purpose, representing the dark force to be investigated, punished, or destroyed. Despite being active, femme fatale represents a quite negative image of women. Another type is the final girl in slasher movies and somehow her derivative, the avengers (as in I Spit on Your Grave, Thelma and Louise). In both incarnations, women are victimized and tortured, and finally forced to toughen up and strike back. This is quite unlike the contemporary action heroines whose power is like a natural given and who do the right thing out of their own initiative.

This oxymoronic and also unique representation of women on the Hollywood screen constitutes the focus of this study. This article seeks to explore the rationale that works behind the production of such female images, particularly by looking at the cultural background and industrial mechanism in which contemporary Hollywood industry operates.

Progressive or Regressive

There has been heated discussion about this new representation of women among scholars of gender and feminism studies. Particularly prominent is the fervent debate that centers on the use of the popular notion of “postfeminism.” In the following section, a review of postfeminist concepts will map out its connection with and its departure from feminist thought, and then the application of feminist and postfeminist discourse to these action heroine films will be discussed.

The term “postfeminism” originated from within the media in the early 1980s and gained greater currency from the 1990s. It has always tended to be used in this cultural media context as “indicative of joyous liberation from the ideological shackles of a hopelessly outdated feminist movement 3” (Gamble 44). Currently, this notion has been overloaded with different meanings, and the term is used variously and even contradictorily. According to Gill, there are three dominant accounts of postfeminism. It is regarded as first, an epistemological or political position in the wake of feminism’s encounter with “difference” (Alice; Brooks; Lotz; Yeatman), which especially draws on the critiques of essentialism launched by lesbian and women-of-color feminists; second, an historical shift within feminism (Dow; Hollows; Moseley and Read; Rabinovitz), as now the women’s movement has moved to a new stage and the battle has already been won; and third, a backlash against feminism (Faludi; Whelehan; Williamson), which blames an imaginary feminism for women’s oppression and advocates a “new” type of feminism as a correction for a previous, problematic “victim” feminism.

This article will focus on the second account of postfeminism, for it is most often applied to engage with the interpretation of action heroine films. This kind of discourse consists of narratives about feminism’s “success” in achieving gender “equity” and having given women “choice” with regard to work and family, particularly the choice to “engage in heterosexually attractive bodily behavior” (Projansky 79) and to invest in increasing their self-esteem without “sacrificing preoccupations with beauty, man and consumerism” (qtd. in Helford 59). This particular conceptualization is used to defend the action heroine as a progressive representation of women, for the powerful agency of the leading female provides a strong, active womanhood that has never been seen before, and the celebration of “personal empowerment” with an attractive feminine body is best exemplified by the sexually attractive female leads.

However, the critics who adhere more to the feminist ideal find this representation rather regressive. They condemn the sexualization of the female body in the films, which only repeats the previous oppressive practice of subjecting women to the male gaze, thus degrading them to the status of a purely sexual object. The claiming of her power cannot legitimize the sexual display of her body, and this representation only wastes the long-term effort by the second wave-ers to reject male objectification of the female body. So, despite the powerful agency of the female leads, and despite the fact that, in the film text, their power is neither affected by their sexually attractive body, nor by their romantic relationships, these women are still subject to the erotic gaze from the male spectators who look at them in a fetishistic way 4. These feminist critics are also critically engaged with the postfeminist discourse. According to Tania Modleski, postfeminism is actually “feminism without women,” meaning that it is a fake revolution designated by the patriarchal ideology to intrigue women into returning to a “best” position for both sexes.

“Through an array of machinations, elements of contemporary popular culture are perniciously effective in regard to this undoing of feminism while simultaneously appearing to be engaging in a well-informed and even well-intended response to ‘feminism’” (McRobbie 255).

Therefore, “by means of the tropes of freedom and choice which are now inextricably connected with the category of ‘young women,’” it is actually suggested “feminism is decisively aged and made to seem redundant” (McRobbie 255).

These opposing arguments, as varied as they are, focus solely on the textual details that only serve its overall theoretical purpose. In this view, such controversy can go on forever in a circular manner while no side is powerful enough to claim “victory” or to push the dispute to a higher level. The reasons for this inability to move on are multiple. Besides the fact that each theoretical stand has its own limitations and drawbacks, the more important reason is that each framework keeps asking the same question of what kind of discourse is produced from the representation in film texts. They fail to inquire why there are such disputable and oxymoronic representations of women, and where exactly is the source of their own debate. The key to these questions does not lie in the fact that there is an irresolvable conflict between feminism and postfeminism. Neither question can be answered simply from the perspective of feminist/postfeminist discourses, but needs to be interrogated from both within and outside the text, especially in association with the larger cultural and social background. As Tasker has pointed out, “ideological readings based solely on an analysis of [the films’] plots may be reductive, misleading, or both,” because:

“an experience of cinema is not limited to the duration, or content of a particular film, since texts are contextualized in a variety of different ways by the other mass media, and by the more immediate and diverse ways in which different groups appropriate images from those media” (30).

Such an understanding has been crucial to a variety of critical discussions of popular pleasure.

Therefore, the potential to look through the phenomenon and nail down the real cause of the conflict lies in examining the cultural logic behind all the texts, of which all the representations and receptions are only symptomatic. This includes exploring, in this post-industrial age, where mainstream Hollywood goes, how contemporary Hollywood production is operated, and what factors affect such industrial operation. By looking at this larger cultural context, we will be able to see the contemporary action heroine cinema more thoroughly.

Contemporary Hollywood: The Composite Commodity

As a response to the highly competitive multimedia marketplace, many changes have occurred in film industry practices. First, Hollywood has concentrated its resources on the “blockbuster” – the aggressively promoted big-budget movie with high production values, big stars, massive simultaneous release patterns and, increasingly, expensive special effects. Second, what were once ancillary markets for film – video, DVDs, and computer games – have largely become more important than cinema exhibition. Third, through the growing practice of “product placement” – of contracting to insert a partner’s products into a proper context on screen as a means of soliciting capital – the cinema manages to increasingly embed itself in our daily life. Fourth, there is a massive increase in merchandising – in the amount of products now licensed to individual films, such as soundtrack album, T-shirts, books, action figures, and so on (Turner).

In view of all the industrial happenings today, a Hollywood blockbuster can rarely be presented as a single product, event, or commodity. Rather, it is a kind of “composite commodity,” linked to “the making of DVD, the computer/video game, the range of action figures, or the theme park ride – all aimed at extending the purchase of film beyond the cinema walls” (Turner 8).

This “composite” nature of today’s blockbuster movies marks a shift from production of a self-contained product projected on a cinema screen to reproduction of a series of commodities in different forms, media or platforms. This order of change from production to reproduction, which applies to all commodities now, has been detected in the writing of postmodernist theorist Jean Baudrillard. He assumes the movement from modern culture to postmodern culture is premised on the move to a post-industrial order, where reproduction has replaced production, and a consumer culture predominates. In his book The Consumer Society, Baudrillard argues,

Few objects today are offered alone without a context of objects which “speaks” them, and this changes the consumer’s relation to the object: [the consumer] no longer relates to a particular object in its specific utility, but to a set of objects in its total signification…The shop-window, the advertisement, the manufacturer and the brand name, which here plays a crucial role, impose a coherent, collective vision, as though they were almost an indissociable totality, a series (27).

Another post-structuralist theorist Fredric Jameson talks about postmodernism as a cultural logic, or cultural dominance, which leads to the transformation of the cultural sphere in contemporary society. He links the stages of modernism to monoploly capitalism and postmodernism to post-World War II late capitalism. Along the same route as Baudrillard, he also argues that postmodernism is based on the central role of reproduction in the “de-centered global network” of present-day multinational capitalism which leads to a “prodigious expansion of culture throughout the social realm, to the point at which everything in our social life … can be said to be have become ‘cultural’” (“The Cultural Logic” 560). Postmodern culture is seen by both theorists as the culture of the consumer society.

For this particular study of contemporary Hollywood, Baudrillard’s theorizations about consumerism and postmodern culture provide a critical tool to dissect the essence of American culture today. As a “composite commodity” which produces “endless circulation of commodities and desire” (Hill 93), contemporary Hollywood blockbusters exemplify the postmodern consumer culture quite well, for they have now “crystallized into unstoppable, or rather unendable, commodities” (Hill 93). Thanks to its “composite” nature, we can see the film at the cinema, or rather the multiplex, we can watch on DVD, on our screens – digital, plasma, hung on the wall – in our “home cinema.” We can watch, hire, and buy prequels, sequels, soundtracks, video games, box sets, directors’ cuts, producers’ cuts. We can play arcade games, buy merchandise, go to conventions. We, the consumers, never have the finished product; there is always another one, always another version, another desire. In this seamless network of choices, we have no choice but to choose one way or another in order to consume, as Baudrillard said, “in fact the consumer is sovereign in a jungle of ugliness, where the freedom of choice is imposed on him” (The Consumer Society 58).

Blockbuster, Special Effect, and Technology

Baudrillard theorizes “the logic of the commodity” in line with semiotics. In capitalism, “the commodity has become a sign with its meaning arbitrarily determined by its position in a self-referential system of signifiers” (Featherstone 53). Thus, the autonomy of the signifier, which is central to late capitalist society, enables the signs to float free from objects and are available for use in a multiplicity of associative relations. Baudrillard’s later writings emphasize the moves from production to reproduction. The endless reproduction of signs, images and simulations through the media effaces the distinction between the image and reality, and thus creates the “hyperreality,” where signs loseWeight Exercise the signified and become simulacra. Such overproduction of images leads to “an aestheticization of reality in which the masses become fascinated by the endless flow of bizarre juxtapositions which takes the viewer beyond stable sense” (Featherstone 89).

For Hollywood, the blockbuster movie is its major product now. The overarching quality is its intensive presentation of the spectacular, in particular, the dazzling special effects achieved by today’s sophisticated computer technology. An overwhelming number of the highest-grossing blockbusters in Hollywood history fall into the genre of science fiction (Star Wars), fantasy (Harry Potter), action/adventure (Pirates of the Caribbean), or a mixing of two or three of them (The Lord of the Rings). The majority of the efforts and cost put into these genre films are obviously aimed at producing the unique experience of the spectacular scenes, which are solely built up by the fantastic, awe-inspiring, and extravagant special effects. For the rest of this paper, the Hollywood films to be discussed refer to such blockbuster movies generically identified as action, sci-fi, or fantasy that use digital special effects as the selling point. The audiences to be talked about refer to the consumers in late capitalist America, who have easy access to these blockbuster movies and the relevant commodities, and who actively consume them by going to the cinema, buying/renting DVDs, purchasing the spin-offs, etc.

According to Altman, when watching genre films, the audience, while expecting the known routine about the genre, would more look forward to something that transgresses what is familiar. For instance, when watching an action movie like Tomb Raider, the audience knows that there is going to be gun shooting, hand-to-hand combating, or car racing and explosions. Based on this knowingness, the audience also expects something new, maybe not a gun fight on ground with both sides equally armed, but a fight where Lara Croft, for example, rocks nimbly on bungee rope to kill the heavily armed enemy with bare hands. The audience waits to be surprised and amazed by the deviation or upgrade from the conventional. In order to keep providing such surprise and amazement that holds the audience, the filmmakers generate more special, more splendid, and more visually pleasurable spectacles through what is offered by the rapidly growing digital technology. This endeavor to give ever more and fresher images by exploiting high-tech special effect goes on and on in such a contagious and ever-escalating manner that the whole film industry just cannot stop its obsession with technology to produce and reproduce spectacles.

If the digital-tech is intended to replicate the reality as closely as possible, the end is, however, heading to the opposite. What Hollywood does is to actually enhance the illusion of reality and create a “hyperreal” world. Since there is never a final version of the “real world” produced by the industry, the production and reproduction of the “perfect image” leads to the massive proliferation of images. These images are produced for the sake of being produced, bringing pleasure in their pursuit of the already abandoned “reality.” Then, they end up becoming free-floating signifiers dislocated from the signified. The original value of the image, to represent the real world, has been lost. In its place, the re-assigned value for the image has nothing to do with the reality, but replaces reality, turning into the hyperreality. By “reality,” it does not mean the filmic “realism” by which actual human life can be reflected, but indicates the referent originally attached to the signs, or the meanings that can be read from the images. For example, villains destroy the hero’s vehicle for escape, and the hero uses another way to chase, a common scenario in action films. Any design imaginable is used in different films to provide a more refreshing experience, such as the hero running a shortcut, riding a motorbike, or even driving a tank or flying an airplane. In Tomb Raider II, when Croft loseWeight Exercises her underwater vehicle and oxygen mask in deep sea, she punches a shark and holds it as a motor to get out of the water. While audiences are watching these various emergency tactics, they are prepared to be shocked by whatever imaginative measure is taken. So as they see Croft use a shark as a vehicle, they are so preoccupied with marveling at how thrilling it is to ride that ferocious creature, or busy with comparing this scene with similar scenarios from other movies in terms of sensual enjoyment, that they barely think about more than what meets the eye, or link her action to any further implication. Although the movie is full of such action pieces, they look at each action as an action, the images as fragmented images. Whatever potential significance pointing to sexism/racism/imperialism, is lost in the endless presentation of images. These images are the priority commodities to be consumed, and they trivialize the potential deep meaning to the extent that it gradually disappears.

Spectacle versus Narrative

Since most of the investment is spent in producing the larger-than-life digital effects, the marketing of movies now tends to focus on their appeal as spectacle rather than as narrative. There are vigorous criticisms of Hollywood’s preoccupation with special effects, in that this focus deprives the movies of their unique qualities as narrative and resonant stories; that contemporary cinema is losing its soul, its human referent, and eventually its audiences.

As Metz said about the classic Hollywood, when a spectator is in the cinema for a film, he “watches” and he “helps” (92). He watches the seductive images as an object of desire, but the structure and meaning of film narrative has to be actively constructed, processed, and mastered by the viewers (Metz 92). That is to say, the pleasure of watching films is supposed to be from both the narrative and spectacle. However, as the “visual display is elevated to a defining feature of the genre” (Tasker 6), such distinction between narrative pleasure and visual pleasure dissolves, and the cinematic pleasure is almost equivalent to visual pleasure.

However, this does not mean the narrative or meaning is totally absent; it is “absent” in the sense that it is eclipsed or overwhelmed by the spectacle. With the over-amplified emphasis on the visual feast widely and intensively promoted by film marketing, the audiences are largely implanted with this preference to the spectacular. This is what they are made to think they have paid for and what deserves their attention. With this purpose in mind, they pursue only the surface value of the movie, the spectacle, and dwell comfortably on it. Even if they sometimes feel lack of plot or creativity in the story while watching the film, an explosion or a marvelous scene of a wonderland will work quite well to convince the audience to put aside their doubt and to indulge in the visual guilty pleasure. In this way, the audiences have minimum active engagement with the movie, but sit there passively and loosely, waiting for the images to impose on them and distract them. For them, the movie is not to be mastered, but to be tasted. Besides, based on a knowingness resulting from genre routine and intertextuality with other content or media, the audiences can foresee what is going on and thus care less about the plot. They would rather resort to the other set of “rules” of pleasure because “the criteria for the good life revolve around the desire to enlarge one’s self, the quest for new tastes and sensations, to explore more and more possibilities” (Featherstone 118). Therefore, the logic becomes like this: as long as they are offered an upgraded fill of visual enjoyment, they do not mind hearing the old story again. As this kind of logic carries on and moves forward, as long as people are satisfied and pleased with the surface value of a movie, they just stop there and do not care to seek the deep meaning of it.

Therefore, the “present age which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence…” (Debord 11) develops an aesthetics of sensation, an “aesthetics of the immediacy and unreflexiveness of primary processes (desire), as opposed to the discursive which has its basis in secondary processes (the ego)” (Featherstone 122). These aesthetics facilitate a vicious circle among the audience and the film industry. With the endless flow of fascinating images and simulations, the audiences keep demanding more and better images to feed their enlarged appetite. In order to satisfy such demand, the studios work desperately to come up with the more and the better to surpass the previous products and their peers. This, in turn, only serves to consolidate the already “spoiled” audiences’ obsession with pleasurable visuals to the effect that they do not look into the depth of, but only look at the surface of the films. These aesthetics and this circle is exactly the cultural logic operating behind contemporary Hollywood production, as well as behind the action heroine cinema.

Contemporary Action Heroines

Although these action heroine movies cannot compete with those market-commanding mega-productions in terms of the money invested and earned, they do share quite a lot of the features of blockbusters – casting of big stars, generic affiliation of action, adventure, sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. All these thus facilitate the extravagant use of special effects to create the spectacular.

These movies well illustrate what is described as the “composite commodity” well. Most of the movies are adaptations from other popular media, or some are later adapted to other media. For instance, the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider series and the Resident Evil saga are respectively adapted from the hugely successful and popular namesake video games, which are also constantly updated for game players. Elektra is adapted from another Marvel comic 5, while Aeon Flux is from an animated television series that aired on MTV 6. More often than not, these cinematic versions of the media content only account for one of the many products in the long streamlines of consumer commodities. The merchandise for these movies includes DVDs, Blue-Rays, soundtracks, novelizations, books, action figures, photos, posters, clothes, and so on. Besides all these tie-ins and spin-offs, there are various activities, commercial or not, going on behind the screen. Lara Croft is perhaps more well-known as the “digital heroine” – the protagonist in the video game in search for ancient treasures – than as the one played by Angelina Jolie in films. This game also brings up a large fan group. Although there is a “most iconic incarnation” by Jolie in the films, the fans take great pleasure in role-playing Lara Croft and getting together for contests. All this has thus further consolidated the popularity and publicity of the franchise among various media receivers.

For a large part, the production of these films is not so much about telling a particular story, but more about bringing a different experience of pleasure from what is expected of the other familiar media. The cinematic rendering of Tomb Raider game content is not particularly for telling a fantastic story of adventure (though the story does validate it as a film). The viewers may have already been familiar with the content from the game, however fragmented it may be. Or they may have had déjà vu from the previous action/adventure saga like in the Indiana Jones series. The purpose is another visual presentation of the story. What the game players experience in the virtual world wholly made of digital graphics is quite different from what is offered on the big screen in cinema. The real(istic) images (even though some are also made by digital technique, they are made to “fit into” the “real” world), the enlarged effects of shooting, bombing, or monster growling, and especially the human agency of flesh and blood are all attributes to bringing the fresh experience. More importantly, seeing a favorite star – the perfect image – materialize the virtual figure from the computer adds to the pleasure, in that she may fulfill the player’s psychological projection.

Watching such films is actually a process of consuming the images, the spectacular, which only floats on the surface of film texts. A cursory scratch of the visual is enough and welcome, and any further inquiry into the depth would jeopardize the beauty of such a viewing experience.

It is important to note that the images to be consumed in the action heroine films are not only the spectacles made by special effects and other cinematic techniques (like make-up, cinematography, and stunt) as in a “regular” blockbuster like Spider-Man. There are also, more emphatically, the spectacles of the female stars’ bodies which are highlighted by the generic fact that it is a woman who occupies most of the screen time.

Speaking of the first kind of spectacles, these films are replete with various imaginative and breathtaking scenes, shots, stunts, and set pieces. Though not as fancy as those in the mega productions, they do provide certain sensual relish at the level according to the production condition (like the budget or the technological state at the time of production). For viewers who went to the cinema at the time of release, it would be intriguing to see Angelina Jolie fighting a fierce robot at the beginning of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, or jumping from the balcony to rock back and forth on her rubber ropes for prolonged action; it would be exciting to see pale-faced vampires with ferocious fangs or werewolves mutating from human form to hideous wolves in Underworld; and it would be thrilling to see zombies jumping at humans or the grossly monstrous licker looming behind helpless people in Resident Evil. All of these spectacles, the examples of which can go on forever, play a great part in holding the audiences in their seats or on the edge of their seats.

These movies came into being since the late 1990s when filmmakers began to tap computer technology to generate splendid images on a large scale. High-grossing blockbusters of fantasy/sci-fi/action genres (e.g., Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Lord of the Rings, and all in the series) were proliferating at a skyrocketing rate. A race was on between these big titles in terms of how fancy the images could be, be it the computer generated images (CGI) or the celebrity faces. And as the business chain converged with other media, this race was like an epidemic, penetrating into people’s daily life in the form of various consumer goods. The multiplication of images was not limited to the screen, but spilt over to home entertainment, personal computers, cartoons, action figures, posters, and so on. This multi-media spill-over makes it impossible for people to think about what signified points correspond to what signifier, for there are too many of them, for every one is a copy, and no original exists. The only message sent by the blockbuster industry to the consumers is perhaps “ready to be blockbuster-ed!” Therefore, while watching these action heroine movies, audiences have already been brainwashed by that message after having been bombed with endless distractions and sensual stimulus from so many blockbusters and have become passive and bottomless receptacle. A habitual mechanism is set up in them to process the image, any image – swallow it and then spit it.

The second kind of spectacles – the display of female body – is similarly subject to this mechanism. The representation of action heroines is treated or “streamlined” like the first kind of images: look at it, marvel at it, and then move away and forget it. No matter how important and heroic the role the female lead has played in the story, no matter how strong and smart she is, no matter how resolutely she rejects a romantic relationship and pursues justice, it just does not matter, for that level of meaning is far beyond the more pleasurable domain of consumption. So when Croft is fighting a gang of villains quite skillfully, one may not look at this scene thinking that this woman is powerful. Instead he may look at the scene as a scene, for he gets what he wants, and hence no need to go further to make any interpretation. Or one may have a more fragmented looking, looking at her slim legs, her rangy breasts, or her cool but sexy eyes, a way of bricolage-ing that makes it even harder to induce deep meaning.

More often than not, the female lead that narratively leads the story and finally resolves the problem, the most significant agent in the movie, is actually considered as the “extra bonus” in watching the films. She is simply one of the consumer images that intend to amuse and entertain. So the derivative logic of the action heroines is not  what postfeminist reading suggested: “As long as women are strong and smart, who cares to be subjected to erotic objectification?” but the quite tricky opposite: “As long as women are offered as attractive eye-candy, who cares about their superb abilities?” The audiences see the movie with a preferential order that is preset by their overall experience of blockbusters. The first to come to their eyes is what is pleasurable to the eye, the fast-paced fierce action involving punching, kicking, shooting, and bombing, or the erotic scene of naked Croft having a shower. All this is exactly what the marketing is promoting to the public. The finest scenes and shots are masterfully compressed in the movie trailer, telling us what to expect from an action/adventure film like Tomb Raider. This industrial strategy well orients consumers’ watching habits and convincingly labels the spectacles as the most valuable commodities offered in such films, which would satisfy enough once consumed. The audiences would rather stick to the eye-candy aspect of the woman than further process the fact that this same woman is smart and strong, for such films are thought to be sensual enjoyment that is best coupled with a pack of popcorn and a cup of coke.

In the past, female images on screen were portrayed as passive and victimized, a vacuum sign designed by film apparatus to entice an erotic look from male spectators. Now, even if women are portrayed as active and strong, they are still subject to erotic objectification. It is not only because the female characters on screen are indeed depicted as sexually attractive, but also because the viewers treat everything simply as hollow but visually pleasurable images, which is largely prescribed by the postmodern condition where people only dwell comfortably on the visual surface, the spectacularization of everything.

According to Turner, the cultural approaches to “film as representation” are ultimately to focus on the relations between films’ representational “languages” and ideology. There are two broad categories of culturalist approaches to the relation between film and culture: textual and contextual. Textually, the ideological meanings are conveyed through the conventions and codes for both narrative and image. For instance, stories that end with the reunion of a man and woman in love may testify for the discourse of heterosexual marriage and family.

However, the ideological meanings tend to disappear in these texts. This does not mean that there are none inherently, but the reading of the texts produces none. On one hand, the narrative is overridden by the spectacle, so the meaning that can be made from the narrative is quite minimal. On the other hand, the excessive presentation of images, or the spectacularization of images, entails only sensual amusement to be “looked at” but not to be “looked into.” Therefore, when we examine the contextual element of these films, we come to know that the textual failure to produce ideological readings is, for a large part, if not wholly, due to the overall cultural paradigm of the postmodern condition: depthlessness, the over-proliferation of commodified images, and accordingly, the sensation-seeking receivers who endeavor to “taste” everything but never “digest” it.

Therefore, these films, being the vessels of depthless images when the “end of history and the end of social” prevails (Featherstone 98), has turned into something apolitical. The ideological implantation, if any, into these film texts is made invisible. According to what Baudrillard said in Simulacra and Simulation, “representations, as a visible and intelligible mediation of the real, could refer to the depth of meaning” (39). But here, these images of women are purely simulated images, i.e. simulacra, in which all sense of origin is lost in the play of endlessly replicating sign systems. Reality has entirely disappeared beneath the glossy, seductive, surfaces of simulation. These “representations” of women, which produce no deep meaning, not only conceal the fact that there is no such reality as what is represented (that women can be superheroes), but also block the possibility of finding out the real reality: that women are actually exploited to boost the box office. In this way, any feminist political engagement with the film texts is trivialized and invalidated.

Therefore, as we try to look back at the debate over contemporary action heroine cinema, we may find the key point that creates such ramification is actually the sexual display of the female hero. The postfeminist reading embraces it as the adding of choice that enables women to return to femininity and to engage in heterosexually attractive bodily behavior. And the feminist criticism of such reading reproaches sexual objectification of women’s body for male gaze. It is all about the difference in textually interpreting the spectacularized images of the female characters. But, in the text, there are also other spectacles (like the scenes created by special effects), which are equally important in producing the cinematic pleasures. These spectacles, as a significant indicator of what the extra-textual value system is behind all these images and representations, are largely ignored in that debate. That is to say, the two sides of the dispute both take up the issue of what ideological interpretation is made of the film’s text, but fail to recognize the overall cultural logic behind the production and the kind of reception which is also affected by this same logic.

So, for those who advocate the postfeminist interpretation of the action heroines, the problem is that they easily assume that the active agency of the heroine constructed by narrative provides enough support for their contention, that equality, independence, and power has already been achieved. They do not realize that the narrative is no longer essential for suturing all the pieces of shots, images, and scenes together into an intact story, but that it now serves as an expedient locus where numerous extravagant spectacles can be presented. The real protagonist of these films is not the narrative-commanding woman, but the flamboyance of spectacles, and the image of that woman only serves as one of the contributors to that spectacular luxuriance.

For the feminist criticism of treating the heroines as an eroticized object for gaze, it directs the blame to the patriarchal society that appropriates females as a plaything and reinforces that ideology by representing them as excessively sexualized. The “male gaze” criticism is based on the condemnation either of the masculinist ideology or of the masculinist backlash against feminism. However, why is there still or even more objectification of the female body, though women begin to play more diversified and more important roles in films? This line of thinking cannot provide a sound answer, for it fails to think about whether there is any other factor playing a significant part in such representations.

In addition, it should be noted that besides the frequent displays of the female body, there is recently an increasing number of occasions where the sexualized male body is displayed for female gaze and pleasure. Of course, this is far from proof that “equality” has been achieved here, or a consolation for women suggesting that women’s suffering is offset by the exploitation of men’s bodies. But, it is worth noticing that the exploitation of the male body or female body is actually not specifically against either men or women, but simply an exploitation of spectacularized images to attract people for a swift skating on the florid surface. Therefore, in addition to criticizing the male dominating ideology, it should be recognized that this depthless commodity culture, which helps grow the demand or thirst for consuming pleasurable spectacles, also needs critical engagement. Within this cultural logic, for a women’s image to become a commodity on screen, it has to be sexualized. This has become such a habitual practice that no one doubts it. As naïve or simplistic as it may sound, in some sense, if the industries, be it the film, game or any other image industry, were not creating so much desire for consuming spectacles, it would be much more likely to feature un-sexualized women in films without worrying that no one will watch them, and it would be much easier and fairer for feminist efforts to reject objectification of women.

Therefore, in view of what has been said about the feminist/postfeminist debate, the root problem is not what kind of representation of women should be produced, but what kind of predicament female representation is faced with in this cultural logic. For women to get a voice through the film media to be heard by many people, it is now important to participate in the production and reproduction of popular culture. Within the massive expansion of information, images, and products, it almost becomes a routine to use spectacularized images to get attention and thus to get that voice. But in becoming such an image, they are more likely to be looked at in a pleasurable glance than to be looked at truly for that voice. While the image is consumed, the voice is lost.

Further Implications: Postmodernism and Feminism

While feminist film theorists may have largely failed to recognize how the postmodern cultural logic affects female representation, some other feminist theorists, however, do dedicate themselves to interacting with theories of postmodernism.

According to Craig Owens, both feminism and postmodernism argue that the “grand” or “master” narratives of the Enlightenment have lost their legitimating power; both argue that Western representations are the product of access not to Truth but to power, admitted only to male subjects; and both present a critique of binarism, and insist on “difference and incommensurability.” Inspired by these commonalities, some theorists argue that feminist theories “should encourage us to tolerate and interpret ambivalence, ambiguity, and multiplicity as well as to expose the roots of our needs for imposing order and structure no matter how arbitrary and oppressive these needs may be” (Flax 49). In this argument, postmodernism becomes a sort of therapeutic corrective to feminism’s universalizing tendency. In a similar vein, Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson (1990) wish to adopt Lyotard’s critique of meta-narratives for a feminist social criticism, which they argue, would eschew the analysis of grand causes of women’s oppression, focusing instead on its historically and culturally specific manifestations. It would also replace unitary conceptions of social identity, treating gender as one relevant strand among others, attending also to class, race, ethnicity, age, and sexual orientation.

This move to anti-essentialism finds perhaps its most powerful voice in the work of Judith Butler, who contends the very category of gender is simply a performance, the effect of repeated imitation of “a phantasmatic ideal of heterosexual identity” (qtd. in Thornham 28). Therefore, rather than clinging to gender as an explanatory category, feminists should celebrate its dissolution into “convergences of gender identity and all manner of gender dissonance” (Butler, “Psychoanalytic Discourse” 328). Its abandonment promises the possibility of new and complex subject-positions and of “coalitional politics which do not assume in advance what the content of ‘women’ will be” (Butler, Gender Trouble 29).

However, how powerful this abandonment and subversion is in pushing the feminist cause forward remains a question. As Modleski points out, Butler’s strategy is an “extremely individualistic solution to the problem of women’s oppression” (Thornham 27). More importantly, despite the similarity between feminism and postmodernism, feminism is itself a “narrative of emancipation” and “its political claims are made on behalf of a social group, women, who are seen to have an underlying community of interest, and of an embodied female subject whose identity and experiences are necessarily different from those of men.” And “if we remove gender (or sexual difference) as a central organizing principle – how can a feminist political practice be any longer possible?” (Thornham 27) Of course, this “central organizing principle” is “just another…totalizing fiction which should be deconstructed and opposed in the name of difference” (Stefano 71).

Based on what has been said about the spectacularized image of action heroines, my point is that the potential provided by postmodernism to deconstruct and to subvert is counteracted by what is after the deconstruction: is it another deconstruction? If it is, what is the meaning of the first one? It is actually meaningless, or at least the meaning is abolished by this postmodern attitude of playfulness, the postmodern culture of depthlessness and flatness, where making meaning is pointless. After all, postmodernism, unlike feminism, is not a politics: it has no strategies of resistance and is not concerned with social and political change. That is a dilemma faced by feminism in its engagement with postmodernism, a dilemma similar to female representation.

And it remains to be investigated why there is such dilemma. Is it because of a “bad timing” for feminism? Is there any good to “postmodernizing” feminism before women have ever been put on the agenda of master narrative? Or is it because the discourses of postmodernism, which seem to be able to deconstruct everything mercilessly, are actually still a masculinist invention to exclude women? All of these questions and any other potential propositions are worth studying in the future.


1 In the four episodes of the Alien films, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), a female warrant officer on a spaceship, survives the attacks from extraterrestrial creatures and manages to defeat them every time. In Terminator II, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the mother of the future Savior, fights together with T-800 Terminator to protect her son from being killed by a more sophisticated Terminator, T-1000.

2 For instance, Lara Croft’s treasure-seeking endeavors are aimed at preventing the evil force from abusing the mystic power of the treasures, such as time-reversing Magic Triangle in Episode1 and the Pandora’s Box in Episode 2. Alice in the Resident Evil series is constantly trying to expose Umbrella Corporation’s research on a viral weapon and find the cure for the already infected victims.

3 Here mostly referring to second-wave feminism. Described as the post-1968 Women’s Liberation Movement, second-wave feminism focuses on defining women’s oppression and advocates collective political action organized around abortion legislation, demands for legal and financial equality, and against pornography and sexual violence against women.

4 According to Laura Mulvey (1975), the female character is the sexual object subjected to the gaze from male characters and male spectators. The male spectators gaze at women in two possible ways, voyeurism (by investigation, punishment, and devaluation) and fetishism (by objectifying her with a glamorous image).

5 As we have seen numerous Hollywood movies that originate from Marvel Comics, like Spider-Man, Iron Man, Fantastic Four, Hulk, X-Men, etc.

6 An American cable television channel, originally for playing music videos but now primarily for broadcasting a variety of popular culture and reality television shows targeted at adolescents and young adults, while still playing a limited selection of music videos.

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