Where Have You Gone, Sarah Connor?

Summer always makes me a bit nostalgic for childhood. I remember fondly the excitement of being out of school, the long days with nothing to do but read and the cool refuge from the hot Texas sun provided by a matinee of a summer blockbuster at the local movie theater.

Unfortunately, this summer’s action movies have left me nostalgic for more than the air conditioning. Only a few of the most highly anticipated movies of the summer feature more than one woman, and those women are primarily co-stars, not leads. After Earth and World War Z have wives who stay behind while the man goes on the adventure. Elysium co-stars Jodie Foster as a “bad guy,” but from what little information has been released on the plot, her weapon of choice appears to be government red tape. Even Monsters University only has one female student—and she’s a cheerleader.

To make matters worse, the characters who do get in on the action are mostly played by women who cannot believably fight. The Heat is a buddy cop movie starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, but it looks to be more comedy than action. The female hero of Kick Ass 2 is a young girl. And though Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts in Iron Man 3, Zoe Saldana as Uhura in Star Trek: Into Darkness, Gal Gadot as Gisele and Michelle Rodriguez as Letty in Fast and Furious 6, and Rinko Kikuchi as Pacific Rim‘s Mako Mori are supposedly tough, they are so thin that it’s hard to believe that they’re actually capable of action. In fact, though Uhura is present for two of the fights in the new Star Trek, in the first she mainly hides behind a wall, and in the second she merely fires a phaser—which, being a phaser, doesn’t even have any kickback.

This trend is disturbing but not accidental: The diets these women go on to prepare for their roles mean that no matter how much training they do, they’re not eating enough to build muscle. To prepare for her role as Catwoman, Anne Hathaway went vegan and was, by her own account, too weak to master the exercises. Not surprisingly she failed to build any muscle despite intensive training. Gwyneth Paltrow published her “elimination” diet in her book, It’s All Good, and indeed it does appear she does more eliminating than eating. And Alice Eve, whose totally unnecessary underwear scene as Carol Marcus in Star Trek: Into Darkness has prompted its fair share of criticism, told The Telegraph that to prepare for the role she ate nothing but spinach for five months. Perhaps that’s why she and her counterpart in the film, Zoe Saldana (who clocks in it at a whopping 115 pounds), spend most of the movie looking like they are about to cry.

I say we bring back Ellen Ripley. To prepare for her role in Aliens, Sigourney Weaver did dumbbell chest presses, squats, shoulder presses and rows—all with weights—and she didn’t diet at all. Did you hear that? Not at all. I say we bring back Sarah Connor. In Terminator 2, Linda Hamilton did basic soldier training and ate a high-protein diet, and, indeed, she has guns in her hands and on her arms. Or remember when a 140-pound Jamie Lee Curtis did a strip tease to protect her “cover” in True Lies? Now that was a motivated underwear scene. (Note to J.J. Abrams: Having Eve take her clothes off in the middle of rushing from one place to the next for no reason at all is simply objectification.)

These female heroes of yore were popular not just because they were badass: They were also fantastic characters. Unfortunately, the summer movie with the best female fights (and the most diverse casting) is probably going to be the one that provides the least opportunity for character development. Gina Carrano, an actual Mixed Martial Arts professional, and Michelle Rodriguez did almost all of their own fights for Fast and Furious 6, and those fights are pretty damn cool. But because Rodriguez’s character Letty has amnesia, she moves through every moment of the film when she’s not driving or fighting like she’s in a daze. Carrano as Riley never speaks more than one or two lines per scene.

Saldana, Eve and Paltrow are gorgeous and talented, and the problems with their performances are largely the result of underwritten characters. I don’t mean to body shame this summer’s starlets for being slender; I mean to shame Hollywood for asking them to starve themselves, and to shame a culture that thinks starving women are beautiful. It’s not a coincidence that many women action heroes are actually children—that’s about as big as Hollywood lets women get these days.

Media-savvy Geena Davis, in an interview about her movie The Long Kiss Goodnight (in which she played amnesiac CIA agent Samantha Caine who, like Jason Bourne, has forgotten who she was but not how to fight), explained why this matters:

Thelma and Louise had a big reaction, there was a huge thing at the time, that, ‘Oh my god, these women had guns and they actually killed a guy!’ … That movie made me realize—you can talk about it all you want, but watch it with an audience and talk to women who have seen this movie and they go, ‘YES!’ They feel so adrenalized and so powerful after seeing some women kick some ass and take control of their own fate. … Women go, ‘Yeah—fucking right!’ Women don’t get to have that experience in the movies. But hey, people go to action movies for a reason; they want to feel adrenalized and they want to identify with the hero, and if only guys get to do that then it’s crazy.

Long live Samantha Caine. Long live Thelma and Louise.

Cross posted at Bitch Flicks. For more images and stats on women in action movies, check out Feminist Fandom and follow Holly L. Derr on Twitter @hld6oddblend.


Holly L. Derr is the Head of Graduate Directing at the University of Memphis and a feminist media critic who uses the analytical tools of theater to reflect upon broader issues of culture, race and gender. Follow her @hld6oddblend.