Monday, June 13, 2011

Why I Love Ass-Kicking Women

artwork by Jeremy Colwell

The summer before 8th grade I had a copious amount of free time, during which I discovered Xena: Warrior Princess via reruns on Oxygen. I'd grown up on various 90s girl-power cartoons featuring female crime fighters, but they were nothing compared to Xena. Immediately I was hooked. I loved the gaudy 90s camp and comical special effects, but most of all I loved Xena. And Gabrielle. Here were two women who consistently out-fought and out-smarted men, women, and deities. They were best friends and went on adventures together. Xena had more or less super-human strength, snappy comebacks, and this general badass attitude about life. Gabrielle was more sensitive, but her friendship with Xena taught Gabrielle to toughen up while it taught Xena to open up.

Yeah, Xena is campy and cheesy and kind of formulaic. Good bests evil. Woman-power. Blah blah. But what I love about Xena is sort of this fundamental connection I feel because I can relate to the characters. I like action-y movies and TV, and those are definitely dominated by men. And while I can often relate to the main male characters (comic book heroes are great, all about outsiders and secret identities, etc.), having Xena was a step up from that.

I recommended Bridesmaids to a straight, male friend recently and he ended up seeing and it and told me, "You tricked me into seeing a chick flick!"
"It's not a chick flick! It's just a Judd Apatow movie with a female cast!" I replied.
I don't think Bridesmaids is all that different than other Apatow movies. The formula of the story is very similar, the style is the same, the humor is all familiar, but there is something fundamental about seeing women pooping themselves and joking about bad sex that is so much more relatable for me as a viewer than when I see the same thing from male characters. This sort of fundamental ability to relate is definitely true in action genre as well. (And just to clarify, I definitely do not relate to characters just because they are women. I cannot handle the way women are portrayed in most rom-coms and rarely relate to them. I recently saw a musical that had only four female characters and no one else, but it was so un-friendly to women that I could not relate to their characters at all. It was set in the 50s and 60s though...)

It's kind of a no-brainer, it's easier to relate when you can see yourself as the characters you're watching.

So I finished the Xena series a while ago, but I only got into Buffy: Vampire Slayer about a year ago. I was unsure of the first few episodes, but then I got into it. It's pretty similar to Xena, but in modern day, and with teenagers. Buffy is not a perfect show. It's pretty white-bread 90s (literally white bread, not a whole lotta diversity in Sunnydale), Buffy is (or well, the writers were) entirely too reliant in having a boyfriend (I have the same problem with Veronica in Veronica Mars), but overall Buffy is a cultural liaison: ladies can kick ass too.

The speed through which I am zipping through Buffy (I just finished season 5) prompted Netflix to suggest the 2004 documentary Double Dare.


Double Dare follows Jeannie Epper and Zoë Bell, two famous stuntwomen, as they navigate their careers and the challenges that stuntwomen face. First of all, their job is really hard. Sure, I have imagined myself as Xena, kicking ass and jumping through trees, but I have never actually in my wildest dreams thought I could remotely do anything like that. Because I can't. Lucy Lawless' stunt-double, Zoë, is awesome. And so is Jeannie. Now in her 60s, Jeannie is still working. According to IMDb, Jeannie has done stunts in 136 movies. That's insane.

But beyond having to be a really badass (and/or crazy) person to do the job in the first place, there is not a lot of work for female stunt people. Jeannie brings up the idea to make the categories for stunt awards sex-segregated at the Taurus World Stunt Awards, but is shot down because there simply aren't enough stuntwomen working and doing stunts comparable to the kinds that men get to do. Because that's what gets written for men and women, not because stuntwomen can't do really badass stuff.

What I really liked about Double Dare was the relationship that Jeannie and Zoë develop, which is one founded on Jeannie's years of experience and mentorship, but is fundamentally friendly and helpful. This kind of relationship is echoed throughout TV programming about badass ladies. Buffy and Willow, Xena and Gabrielle, Veronica and Mac... unlike shows (and general media portrayals, culture, etc.) that show women competing with each other out of some sadistic girl-vs-girl innate nature, these shows demonstrate that even super badass fighters and geniuses, like Buffy, Xena, and Veronica, need help from their equally badass and powerful or talented friends.

When stuff like Real Housewives can captivate a nation, it reminds me that valuing and modeling friendship is really important. And this is kind of where Sex & the City falters, because although it's held up as this great-American show (I've seen every episode and went to both movies on opening day, I criticize but I do not hate) about female friendships, Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda aren't always the best models for good friends. Actually, they kind of suck at being good friends a lot. (Especially Carrie.) The issue facing American media is not so much finding "good" girls or "bad" girls to demonize or celebrate, but that we should be showing realistic friendships between people because they are actually compelling and make sense. So what makes superbadass Xena or superslayer Buffy or supersleuth Veronica relatable and "real" (despite their very un-real TV circumstances) is the way they are portrayed and the relationships they have. Which kicks as much ass as they do.

1 comment:

  1. I've always been a HUGE Buffy fan, and I recently discovered Xena and have been marathoning my way through it this summer. Netflix also recommended Double Dare for me, and I've been considering watching it, I'm glad to hear its good.

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