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I'm Cathy Leamy, a Boston cartoonist and medical writer. Check out my comics! They're mainly about health care and autobio stories.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

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supersonic ladies on a leash

Looks like Aeon Flux is out on DVD, and I'm sure sister action cheesefest movie Ultraviolet won't be too far behind. Every time I saw the commercials for these flicks, I thought of Jhonen Vasquez' parody superheroine character Lady Sexhole.

Image of Jhonen Vasquez's parody character Lady Sexhole

Media at my house is always interactive. Insert image of me yelling that line at the TV every time Ultrajovovich showed up to bare her midriff and shoot things and that's about the state of it.

To me, this kind of character always smacks of a media cliché I encounter in sci-fi and action stories - the Engineered Woman. She's a human machine, trained and/or superhumanly altered by and for the service of an organization (usually one with strong hierarchical or patriarchal overtones - a government agency, or a secret society run by old men in dark suits). More often than not, she's some kind of killing tool.

A related character type is the superwoman who doesn't need engineering but who still acts as a tool for an agency. Buffy Summers is a great example - in spite of her powers, she is still trained and managed by the Watchers, and even the Slayer power itself turns out to be the result of a group of male magicians thrusting it unwanted on the first Slayer girl. But what I find interesting about the list above is the weird voyeur-sadist angle - we're invited to watch these woman being broken, being altered. The transformation scenes are usually explicit.

Are there male examples of this kind of character process? Movies, TV, and comics are filled with "assassin superbaddie" men, but I feel like I don't usually see them in the explicit process of creation: being abducted from their former lives, being stripped of identities and emotions, being trained and forcibly reshaped. (I bet they're out there, but the only example I can come up with is Wolverine.)

It's also interesting to think on what the transformation strips away: all traces of traditional femininity, except the sexy bits. Swap out nurturing and caring for rock-hard stoicism and casual attitude toward killing, but leave the sex drive. It's like Lady Macbeth in leather.

Image of Ultraviolet mashed up with Lady Macbeth monologue

So as a final result, we end up with this power fantasy character - who wouldn't want to be a catsuited überpowerful babe with one-liners and assault rifles, seriously. But is it really a power fantasy? After the amp-up, these characters become immense sources of power, but they don't usually control it. Again, they're the tools and catspaws. Operations sets the agenda for Nikita, Buffy is ordered around by the Watchers when they come to town, and Bill is the boss. The women have the power but they don't call the shots.

It's frustrating. These are the characters held up as great female action heroes, but half the time they're just Barbie dolls built by their masters. Hot as all hell and great with guns, but uncomplicated by emotions or physical weakness. She'll do what you want to an inhuman degree, and she'll still look eminently sexable. That's a nice feature list for the owner, not a character description to aspire to. Again, are there male characters like this? Wolverine was a hard badass engineered and controlled by others, but he isn't usually presented as being deliberately sexed up on top of that. Well, maybe. He does walk around with no shirt on pretty often.

The gratifying moments come when the women fight back. Smash the masters! It's like Frankenstein, where the creation comes back around to boot the ass of those who try to control too much. Yay and all, but often it still feels to me a bit like women are portrayed as a force of nature, fertility and entropy rising up against the sterile clinical men who try to bottle them. Come on now, these are people, not dinosaurs from Jurassic Park.

12 comments!     click to join in

1 Quinn   (11:06pm - Apr 25, 2006)

I agree with you, but I would focus more on the rebellion aspect. Buffy throws off the Watcher Council, for example. They're not the good guys.

As for male examples, they're not as well known. There's Supercop, Jack Hawksmore from The Authority, The Invisible Man (from the Sci Fi TV show), Frankenstein (as you mentioned), Spider-Man (arguably), Captain America ("super soldier serum"), John Crichton, Stargate's Teal'c, all of Marv Wolfman's male leads (Cyborg, Beast Boy, Pariah).

But in no case is it as fetishized in the men (except possibly for John Crichton, who is sex on a stick). I think this, like many things, can be traced back to the "men write sci-fi" trope. Men write sci-fi (and comic books, and action movies) and therefore they're not going to fetishize Hugh Jakman. Ok, well, maybe him. But not the others. For the most part.

And, on the flip side, I can think of a female SF writer whose main character was altered by a government organization to become a killing machine for them, but I didn't feel like Jenny Casey was fetishized. Just a cyborg.

2 Dean   (9:26am - Apr 26, 2006)

Along with the above-mentioned Captain America, Japan's Ultraman and James Bond both fall into the category of "male heros trained/augmented by a hierarchal organization." Keep in mind that this was considered an acceptable model for men as well as women up until Spiderman, as a loner, came along. One could argue, of course, that for women, the "spiderman" model was never adopted (or if it did, the heroine loses her powers, ends up in a refrigerator, etc.).

I'm going to claim that what's happened is that female characters remained in the "traditional model" that men were also in. The difference is that the culture moved on from this for male characters but the model remained for female character. Compare "Mission Impossible" and "Charlie's Angels," both of which had modern remakes. Both started out the same-- an elite trained group received secret missions and instructions from their "home base." 20 years later, however, the remake of "Mission Impossible" wipes out the team, and disconnects Cruise from home base, leaving him to work on his own, while the modern "Charlie's Angels" stuck to the old model in which Charlie phones in the mission to his women.

Aeon Flux: so bad it was good, not quite bad enough to be good, or so bad it fell below "so-bad-it's-good" and went back into bad again?

3 Mister Wolf   (2:12pm - Apr 26, 2006)

Thoughts on Molly from Neuromancer? She funded her own transformation, but in a rather unpleasant way....

4 Jeph!   (5:24pm - Apr 26, 2006)

Dude, take heart -- there's always Xena, who became hard-as-a-rock thanks to evil men but sure as hell didn't answer to them ... and, over the course of the series, was taught how to be nurturing again by another woman.

That complete bucking of the stereotype could be why so many people responded so positively to "Xena", despite its being such poorly-written cheese so much of the time.

Post my comment! It isn't spam!

-Jeph!

5 Kitty   (9:52pm - Apr 26, 2006)

@Quinn - I agree; the fetish angle is what drives me up a wall. I think I wouldn't mind so much if there were more equality (engineered men deliberately sexed up) or if there were more engineered women who weren't so tarted up. I guess I'm mainly tired of action heroines toted as being powerful female characters when they're really just strong punchers in catsuits with not much power outside of physical strength and sexiness.

And man, Invisible Man, I loved that show! If it were on DVD, I'd buy it immediately.

@Dean - I'm not very familiar with Captain America's backstory. I know he was created by the military - do they also call the shots? Or is he empowered to set his own missions? I only ever see him in his leadership role with the Avengers, not in his own stories.

@Charles - Yeah, hmm, Molly. On the one hand, she operates on her own and handled all her upgrades herself, so she's individually empowered; but yeah, the way she did it, you're definitely encouraged to fetishize her. I think I'd need to read this again - it's been about five years since I last took a look at it.

@Jeph - Yay Xena!

6 Ming   (2:26pm - Apr 27, 2006)

I agree to a certain extent, but there are here are my 2cents on the subject anyways:

On the subject of the creation of superbadass females necessitating some type of breaking down before building them up - well, the kickass female warrior architype is a break from the convention. The convention in almost all cultures historically, whether you like it or not, is that woman are passive objects, dominated by men. Women in global culture are usally reflected in three architypes - the maiden/lolita, the mother, and the crow (as in the wise one). There are no equivalent levels really in men - and there are standard architypes of "male warriors", while there are very few female equivalents (amazon, Joan of Arc, Mulan, that's pretty much it). So the transformation to kickass warrior, traditionally a male gender architype, is much more radical when it came for women. Par of the breaking down, since most of the characters you mentioned were written by men, is a breaking down of the author's own perceptions from that cultural prism.

Then there is the "leaving the sex drive part". I agree that most male authors tilts towards too much sexuality - but do keep in mind many men sees women's sexuality as a weapon. Throughout history of mankind woman have been used their sexuality of been abused because of it. It is a the biggest part of what makes a woman, a woman in most men's eyes, especially for an average non-alpha male who's probably over-worked and under-sexed. Think about that for a moment. Not that I condonne it, but I can understand why there are plenty of characters who are drawn like Jessica Rabbit. And these character's sexuality are double edge swords - they can be empowering AND be degrading depending on circumstance.

With men, the stripping down and then being remade is such a standard convention that most of us don't even notice it anymore - just look at "Full Metal Jacket". The military, the corporate man, the traditional kung fu hero (a-la Drunken Master) - they all follow the convention. It is not as radical because people EXPECTS for that to happen to males - to transform them from boys to men and partake their role in society.

What we see from our current pop culture is also an evolution of the feminist movement - one that wanted to be "equal in every way" to men to one of open dialogue of what it means to be equal - and how the needs of a woman are different than that the need of a man. I think Buffy and Kill Bill really kind of explores that aspect. Look at Kill Bill for a second - she wanted to be an assassin NOT because of BILL, and in the training she was not broken down to be rebuilt on some notion of her new self. The old master is the architype of what an old kung-fu master is. When she learned the five point palm exploding heart technique she represented to be the NEW master - a new architype if you will. I see no problem with the presentation.

Finally there are plenty of examples of kickass women who didn't have to play to male power-sexual fantasies. There is Riply from Alien/Aliens (the 3rd and 4th doesn't count). There's Sarah Conner from Terminator. There's Michelle Yeo in Taichi Master, Police Story 3 and Heroic Trio (and to a lessor extent, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Trinity of the Matrix (now that's a role reversal if you ever had it - Neo had to be die before he can found his true self). The chick in Speed. You got Battle Angel Alita.

Male action heroes in the modern age have gone through just as much Frankenstein convention characters as the females characters you mentioned. How'bout Rambo? Robocop? Late 80s Swartzenneger film like Total Recall? Those bulging physique of the 80s is definitely the sexualizatioin of the male ideal, is it not?

Alright, rants done.

7 Bill Burns   (6:26am - May 1, 2006)

I agree that the "basic training" movie is the male equivalent of what you're talking about. One difference, though, is that men in those movies (and the real life situation, for that matter) are being trained to work as part of a unit, whereas the "engineered woman" works alone. Gender solidarity for men, isolation for women?

8 Phil   (7:10am - May 6, 2006)

Ming and Bill: I get your point about boot-camp stories, but there's a key difference. In stories with a male protagonist, even if the training is quite brutal it's generally portrayed as being necessary, justified and making him unambiguously a better and more effective person. Also, it's usually shown as a process following voluntary enlistment rather than conscription. By contrast, in these "engineered woman" stories the woman usually doesn't seek or consent to what happens to her, the process is generally portrayed as to some extent (and often completely) an act of evil, and the woman is shown as suffering permanent mental or emotional damage from the process that often doesn't make up for the powers.

On specific cases: I haven't seen the film but it's notable that in the original TV series Aeon Flux doesn't have any kind of traumatic recruitment and training or patriarchal controller. She's shown as an utterly self-created and self-directed person. On Buffy, it's a bit unfair to describe Buffy Summers as a tool for an agency. From the first episode to the last over seven years, the Watchers individually and as a group are constantly shown as inhuman, incompetent and undeserving of authority, and are constantly shown being defeated, humiliated, sidelined and taught humanity by Buffy.

However, Joss Whedon's TV shows in general do show a mildly creepy obsession with the (often hyper-skinny and waiflike) superpowered woman who is hideously damaged in receiving her powers and then further damaged by their side-effects. As well as River in Firefly, Buffy and Angel have Drusilla, Cordelia Chase, Fred Burkle and Gwen Raiden, all of whom fit the pattern to some extent and most of whom come to tragic ends. I just hope he doesn't let that element take over when he does Wonder Woman.

9 Ken Begg   (11:32am - May 8, 2006)

Don't forget Remo Williams/The Destroyer, both in the series of novels and the movie with Fred Ward, who is a perfect male analog to what you discuss here. The Williams of the book is particularly appropriate to this discussion. He becomes, along with being a perfect assassin, an irresistible sex machine after learning how to perfectly pleasure a woman, while personally losing all interest in sex in the process.

10 Mariana   (9:40pm - May 15, 2006)

Add to the list of male characters that fit that profile The Six Million Dollar Man, and Jarod from The Pretender.

11 Mickle   (2:16pm - May 22, 2006)

"Gender solidarity for men, isolation for women?"

You know, now that you mention it, I think that's the part that really makes the difference in whether or not a certain character is just a engineered sex-object fighting-machine or not. It also explains why I want to forgive Joss Whedon for things I can't forgive other writers for.

If River Tam was never anything but how she is portrayed in Serenity, I would probably dislike her. But since I was a fan of Firefly first, I got to see River playing with Kaylee before I ever saw River fight. The final episode (one of my favs) is all about River finding her place as part of Serenity's crew and family.

Buffy's greatest strength has always been her friends. The abyss that was the final season was apparently supposed to be about the dangers of not listening to them and turning into an authoritarian dictatorship - just like the one that created her.

Far too often writers just concentrate on women as not only sex objects but potential mates; they forget to see women as people in their own right with varied friendships and alliances. It's rare enough to see friendships among women in science fiction and action movies that I can't help but love the shows and movies that have them.

12 eyeless   (5:24pm - Feb 28, 2007)

mmm. AS a female, it's hard to get a positive role model at all and at first glance, the idea of female action heroes seems an advancment when it comes to traditional sex roles.

Unfortunately, they still follow the same bacis rules and functions of the steryotypes, especially how they look. But more often than not, our heroines still need 'SAVING' at one point or another.

So on one hand, we have these hardcore kickers of ass and then they throw them into the extreme and have them cowering and vulnerable.

It's completely whacked in the head and I hate to make this a feminist rant and all, but Goddamn, when can we ever get cut some freakin slack?

And you know what would make it a little easier? Some EQUALITY. AS you said before, it would not be so bad if there were movies that specifically catered to female taste and had male characters deliberately shown in a sexual light. But noooooo. Can't have that can we?! That might make all the boys out there feel bad about themselves.

(Not that I want guys to feel bad about themselves or to have them objectified, I don't. But, do we females have to keep having this done to us? Why don't any guys stop gorging themselves at this trough and go, "wait a second, I think there is something wrong with all this...")

*sigh*

I'm over it.

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