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In Praise of Kick Ass Heroines: Haywire and the Believable Ass-Kicking Woman

Posted on Jan 23, 2012 in Blog, Feminism, Gender, Reviews | 4 comments

How to create a credible heroine, in three easy steps:

1) Give her muscles.

2) Give her a combat background.

3) Give her sensible shoes.

Tonight, my sweetie and I saw Haywire. I knew I’d like it, because I have a soft spot for female vigilantes, but I wasn’t aware of how deliciously insidious the film would be.

On the way home, my sweetie asked how I could reconcile my feminism with loving a character that needed to ascribe to male ideals of power in order to be considered strong.

It’s a fair question, but I think it slightly off the mark, because this film is about male power without being pointedly about gender. That is to say, the power that is on display throughout the film: physical strength, combat, cool headedness, strategy, logic, weaponry, and stamina, are ascribed masculine attributes.  But that Mallory, as a female protagonist, possesses these in spades isn’t really what the film is about.

Gina Carano fighting Ewan McGregor in HaywireIn fact, very little attention is played to Mallory’s gender except in one line late in the film in which Ewan McGregor says, “Don’t think of her as a woman.  That would be a mistake.”  This is in reference to the feat the other operative is about to attempt, by taking Mallory out, but it’s also a nice directive to the audience.  The use of this line so late in the film works to drive the point home: If you’ve been thinking this movie is about a chick kicking ass as a means of titillation, you’re using the wrong lens. McGregor’s delivery is spot on.  A lesser actor would like try to turn this into a dig or a double entendre. Instead, this line is effective in its deadpan.  In the world of the film he’s saying, “Don’t underestimate her, or you’ll get your ass handed to you.” To the audience he’s saying, “You’ll like this movie more if you let go of the fact that she’s a woman.”

A couple years ago, critics were falling all over themselves about Salt, another espionage film starring a female lead.  The oft-cited anecdote described the writer and director as proud of themselves because the character was written for a man to play, and then, after Tom Cruise passed, they got the brilliant idea to cast Angelina Jolie instead.  Forgive my cynicism, but casting the most famous actress in Hollywood in a big-budget action film isn’t the most subversive thing in the world.

The brilliance of Haywire is that Soderburgh actually cast a woman that looks like a fucking Marine, a gorgeous Marine, but a Marine. This makes the fight scenes, which often use a stationary camera and long shots, spectacular to watch.  There is no doubt that the star Gina Carano, who had a real career in Mixed Marial Arts, is pulling off these stunts, hard core.

As a woman who likes action films, I’m always painfully aware of the way women are represented in such films.  When we’re lucky to get a woman who isn’t a shrinking (or shrieking) violet, she’s usually a skinny sex pot that tries to kick ass while wearing stupidly high heels and eyeliner.  You can guarantee there’s a least one seduction scene (which is apparently the only “female” power she gets to demonstrate), and the star will be so skinny as to make any fight seem woefully mismatched. Just watching Carano kick ass in sensible shoes and deliver a credible and solid flying kick with her sturdy legs made me want to give Soderbergh a bear hug.  The fact that the only obvious makeup Carano wears in the film is 1) day old eyeshadow from a really bad night and 2) tactical paint is the most refreshing fucking thing I’ve ever seen. (My only quibble with this is: can anyone tell me how long it’d take for a woman to do her own cornrows? That pushed my suspension of disbelief a bit.)

I usually have to go into every film willing to undermine my gender principles a bit.  I have to force myself to forget about the hair and makeup and anorexic body types. I have to put up with the pout and whimper, rape threats from the bad guys, and heavy handed gender dialogue, just so I can watch a decent fucking action movie.

Haywire was pure relief in this case. There were Very Bad Men who didn’t threaten to rape her and yet somehow maintained their status as Very Bad Men (shocking, I know).  Carano demonstrated some awesome fighting skills and solid acting chops. No where in the film was she made the butt of a joke because of her gender, nor treated as a sex object. She was treated with respect, even by the people who wanted to kill her.  I told you- insidious.

Folks are touting this as the next Bourne series, and I’d love it.  Soderbergh has earned my trust, not just as a stylish and confident director, but as a Dude Who Gets It. Brava.

Fight scene from Haywire

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4 Comments

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  1. Darius Whiteplume

    This film was just barely on my radar, but will have to take a look.

    I wonder what you think of Zoe Bell? I am trying to remember her first real starring film , Angel of Death, but all I come up with is that it was a fairly run of the mill hitperson being hunted… Perhaps a lot like The Mechanic? If nothing else, though, she gets huge props for Death Proof. Video of her riding the front of the Challenger, which apparently used no safety equipment, if phenomenal, is on an old post of mine: http://adventuresinnerdliness.blogspot.com/2010/02/nerd-girl-of-note-49.html

  2. Darius Whiteplume

    Oops. Nevermind. Video was removed by YouTube!

  3. Allison

    I haven’t seen any of the films she’s acted in (except for Whip It, which probably doesn’t count for this conversation), but I do appreciate the trend of casting stunt women in performing roles. It certainly adds an air of veracity that otherwise is missed by waifs who are smaller than the guns they’re shooting. Gina Carano’s been getting some flack for her understated acting, but I have to say, she’s acting like an action hero. Her acting is certainly on par with Jason Straitham, Bruce Willis’ early action films, and she’s WAY better than Stallone. I think it’s great to have women who actually can kick ass in roles that require them to kick ass.

  4. wunelle

    I agree with this, every word. Maybe it’s not unheard of for a woman to be portrayed in film as the psychological and intellectual equal of a man–although even that is much rarer than what is found in nature–but action films always sell a false stereotype. I loved that Gina Carano here could really kick the asses she’s shown kicking. And the fact that it’s a woman doing the ass-kicking is incidental. It just happens to be the sex of the particular character; it might have been a man and the story would have unfolded the same. We could use much more of this kind of egalitarianism.

    I enjoyed the review!

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