Hanna Kicks Ass, As Do These Other Fine Ladies

Hanna, and the History of Kick Ass Heroines

In Joe Wright’s Hanna, the 16-year-old Hanna Heller (Saoirse Ronan) plays a warrior heroine who has been trained as an assassin by her father Erik Heller (Eric Bana), an ex-CIA agent. From their off-the-grid home in the wilds of Finland, Erik sends Hanna out on assignment. She crosses Europe tangling with evil minions of CIA operative Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett). One need only see Hanna physically dismantle teams of CIA agents to recognize how far evolved her portrayal of a young woman is from the girlish gaiety of Esther Smith (Judy Garland) in “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944) or the irrepressible effervescence of Pollyanna Whittier (Hayley Mills) in “Pollyana” (1960). But Hanna Heller is not the first kick-ass girl in popular culture. Generations of sisters doing it for themselves have cleared the way for Hanna to appear. 

Alien and the Start of the Violent Female Action Character

By some accounts, 1979 saw the cinematic birth of the original violent fem: Warrant Officer Ripley (the 29-year-old Sigourney Weaver) who made her screen debut in Ridley Scott’s Alien. In her 2010 study, “Violent Female Action Characters in Contemporary American Cinema,” Katy Gilpatric, writes: “Lt. Ripley paved the way for a new type of female representation in American popular culture. A sea change in filmic representations of female action characters occurred after the success of Alien.” “Why don’t you just fuck off,” Ripley says to her ship mate.  And as she smashes her spaceship’s computer monitor, she screams: “You bitch!” All of which leads up to a battle to the death with the acid-blooded alien.

Queen Christina: A Solider for Peace

Maybe Ripley inaugurated a new type of heroine. Yet she had her popular culture antecedents. In 1933, Greta Garbo, no shrinking violet as an actress, starred in Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina (1933), the fictionalized story of the 17th century Swedish queen who dressed and acted like a soldier, but yearned for peace. Indeed her toughness, rather than being represented by fighting, is portrayed by how tough she could be in negotiating a peace treaty, as well as living life on her terms. In real life, Christina has been described as “unconcerned with appearances” and “one of the most highly independent, unconventional, and outrageously colorful women in history.” Made before the Motion Picture Production Code (the Hays Code) was enforced, “Queen Christina” contains allusions to rumors that Queen Christina was bisexual. For example she kisses her lady in waiting on her lips. And, having tried to escape court life, she dresses up as a man and heads off into the country. Snowbound in an inn, she is forced to share a bed with the envoy from Spain (John Gilbert), who is also caught in the storm. In the film, she falls in love with the ambassador, and abdicates in order to be with him. (In real life she probably died a virgin and abdicated the throne in order to convert to Catholicism.)

Wonder Woman to the Rescue

Wonder Woman, the first female super hero, appeared in 1941, a time when the world was at war, and women were joining Rosie the Riveter in the war effort. Wonder Woman was the creation of William Moulton Marston, a psychologist and a feminist of a sort. In The American Scholar, Marston wrote at the time: “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power…. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”

Gun Crazy: a Girl and a Gun

While Wonder Woman was off saving the world from the Axis powers, 1949 saw the filmic birth of the gun-toting moll. In Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy, which was originally titled Deadly is the Female, Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) and Bart Tare (John Dall) are two outlaws, who drawn to each other by their love of guns, go on a crime spree. While a criminal, Starr is also an action hero, screaming out at one point, “No guts, nothing! I want action!” The movie advertised itself this way: "Notorious Laurie Starr...wanted in a dozen states...hunted by the F.B.I.! She was more than any man could handle!" Sam Adams, critic for the Philadelphia City Paper, wrote: "The codes of the time prevented Lewis from being explicit about the extent to which their fast-blooming romance is fueled by their mutual love of weaponry … but when Cummins' six-gun dangles provocatively as she gasses up their jalopy, it's clear what really fills their collective tank.”

Bat Woman, and Equal Rights for Superheroes

1954 intro (l.) and Batgirl today

Bat Woman AKA Kathy Kane, another kick-ass female character, was a product of America’s rightward tilt in the 1950s. She was created in 1954 to give Batman some heterosexual bona fides, and thereby put to rest speculation that the Caped Crusader was having sex with Robin, as Fredric Werthman alleged in his 1954 red-scare tract Seduction of the Innocent. (Werthman also considered Superman communistic and Wonder Woman a lesbian.) Having noted that in at least one of the comic books, Batman and Robin (a minor) are shown waking up in the same bed, Werthan wrote, “The Batman type of story may stimulate children to homosexual fantasies, of the nature of which they may be unconscious. … Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and of the psychopathology of sex can fail to realize a subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures of the mature 'Batman' and his young friend Robin." After DC Comics retired her in 1964, Bat Woman was brought back in 2006, this time as Kate Kane, a Jewish lesbian. (In 1989 the Comic Code Authority was amended to allow non-stereotypical depictions of gays and lesbians.)

Nancy Drew, the Case of the Girl Detective

Left, Nancy Drew’s first novel published in 1930

Before the female superhero there was Nancy Drew. Created in 1930 by publisher Edward Stratemeyer, like Bat Woman she became a victim of the 1950s. Today she doesn’t stand out as a character who is going to kick your ass, but in the 1930s, in the books written by the series first ghost writer Mildred Benson, she did push boundaries, as a tough, sassy and sarcastic teenage sleuth. But during the conservative 1950s that was too much. According to Benson, her editor ordered that Nancy be made more “sympathetic, kind-hearted and loveable” and “less bold … ‘Nancy said’ became Nancy said sweetly,’ ‘she said kindly,’ and the like, all designed to produce a less abrasive more caring type of character.” Carole Kismaric and Marvin Heiferman, the authors of The Mysterious Case of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, argue that in 1959 Nancy Drew was “homogenized:” “In the revised books, Nancy is relentlessly upbeat [and] when asked if she goes to church in the 1969 The Clue of the Tapping Heels, replies, 'As often as I can' ... Nancy learns to hold her tongue; she doesn't sass the dumb cops like she used to."

Supergirl, a New Super Model

Action Comics #252 (1959); Helen Slater in 1984 Supergirl film

In 1959, the year that Nancy Drew was editorially “demurred,” Action Comics’ Kara Zor-El, AKA Linda Lee and Supergirl appeared. While Supergirl, Bat Woman and Wonder Woman were not explicitly feminist characters, by virtue of their existence, they redefined what it took to be a superhero. In “Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture,” Sherrie A. Inness, writes,  “The female hero can rescript stereotypes about what it means to be a woman. Just by being, she suggests that the male stranglehold on the heroic can be subverted.”

Modesty Blaise, the British Bum-kicker

 Left, Illustration by Enrique Badia Romero; right, Joseph Losey’s 1966 film version

The real-world kick-ass heroine like Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman) of films like Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill has her origins in “Modesty Blaise,” the British comic strip character created in 1963 by writer Peter O’Donnell and artist Jim Holdway (and then by Enrique Badia Romero after Holdway suddenly died in 1970). Blaise is a pretty orphan with a criminal past who, fortune in hand, volunteers with her trusty sidekick Willie Gavin as agents for Her Majesty’s Government. In the 1965 novel based on the strip, Blaise was billed as “England’s fabulous, feminine answer to James Bond.” Foreshadowing female action heroes to come, Modesty is an expert at unarmed combat and a devote of unusual weaponry, particularly the Japanese yawara (what Modesty calls a konga), a short wooden stick you grip in your fist. The Modesty Blaise comic strip and the resulting 13 Modesty Blaise novels, have been put to film in 1966, 1982 and 2003, with no critical success.

Coffy: Kick Ass Goes Ghetto

Coffy is a 1973 Blaxploitation film staring Pam Grier playing the title role, a nurse whose 11-year-old kid sister gets sick using contaminated heroin. So Coffy gets even … and violent. Giving the film two stars in 1973, Roger Ebert wrote: “At one point in the movie she's asked if she wants to kill everyone involved in the trade. ‘Why not?’ she says, and lets go with her shotgun. … She doesn't seem to be posing or doing the fashion-model bit; she gets into an action role and does it right.” Critic Karen Ross had took a more critical perspective, “Coffy let black audiences enjoy the sight of heroes kicking the white system and winning even whilst condemning the violence and recognized the implausibility. It allowed African Americans the ultimate escape to cheer on the heroine that fought corruption and crime and then leave the theatre to be blighted by the racism in society." The film’s advertising tag line: "They call her 'Coffy' and she'll cream you!"

Carrie: Telekinetic Kick Ass Power

In Brian De Palma’s 1976 Carrie, based on Stephen King’s first published novel, the power of the female lead character Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is telekinetic rather than physical. Carrie is a heroine who, pushed to the breaking point, uses her psionic abilities to unleash deadly power against friends and foes alike—teachers, fellow students and her Bible-thumping mother. As the tagline put it, “If only they knew she had the power.” In her review of “terrifying and smart horror films that give women their due,” Letticia Trent includes. Carrie among those that “do an excellent job of using feminist themes and female perspectives.” She writes, “The complicated relationship between female sexuality and fundamentalist religions, the ‘mean girl’ syndrome amongst teenage girls, and Carrie’s personal awakening make this movie terrifying for reasons beyond Carrie’s last stand in the high school gym.”

Terminator’s Mom

A kick-ass female lead is perhaps not the first thing that comes to mind with the Arnold Schwartenegger famous “I’ll Be Back” features, The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991). Some feminists would however disagree. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) as the mother of humanity’s savior, John Connor, has attracted a large following. Critic Katie Button extols her heroine: “For me, Sarah Connor is up there with Ellen Ripley as one of the most kick-ass females in film history, and like Ripley—she is a survivor, a veritable science-fiction legend and popular enough to visit again and again … Arnie might get all the best lines, but Sarah Connor is the heart and soul of the earlier Terminato movies.”

Xena: The Reigning Warrior Princess

Between 1995-2001, Xena (Lucy Lawless) reigned as TV’s fighting bombshell. The syndicated TV show Xena: Warrior Princess, was a cultural phenomenon. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was nicknamed “Warrior Princess” by her staff. For literary critic Melissa Meister, “Xena has been creating a subversive feminist consciousness on its own since its premiere in 1995. The show's introduction is perhaps its best description, ‘In a time of ancient gods, warlords, and kings, a land in turmoil cried out for a hero. She was Xena, a mighty princess forged in the heat of battle. Her courage will change the world.’ ” In addition to being one tough woman, Xena transgressed social norms. In a 2003 interview with Lesbian News, Lawless said that after Xena’s female sidekick Gabrielle revives her with a mouth-to-mouth water transfer in the last episode, she (Lawless) decided that the two women were “definitely gay.” “There was always a ‘well, she might be or she might not be’ but when there was that drip of water passing between their lips in the very final scene, that cemented it for me,” said Lawless. “Now it wasn't just that Xena was bisexual and kinda liked her gal pal and they kind of fooled around sometimes, it was ‘Nope, they're married, man.’ ”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Chewing Gum and Kicking Ass at the Same Time

Joss Whedon, creator Buffy the Vampire Slayer, credits Xena with blazing the trail for the TV series (1997-2003). Whedon wrote the original script for the 1992 film, which met mixed reviews and which he hated. Only later, when the character reemerged on the Sarah Michelle Gellar TV series that “Buffy” became an icon. Buffy Summers, a high school student, is called to be a “slayer,” a female killer of vampires and other hellish creatures. Whedon said, “The very first mission statement of the show was the joy of female power: having it, using it, sharing it.” According to feminist critic Anne Millard Daughtey, Buffy, as a “symbol of female empowerment,” is the star of a show that “obviously promotes female strength and power.” Buffy, she says, “kicks butt and so can we all.” Or as Whedon put it: “I wanted her [Buffy] to be a cultural phenomenon. I wanted there to be dolls, Barbie with a kung fu grip.”

Lara Croft, From Game to Screen

As Xena was transgressing feminine stereotypes and Whedon was working to redeem his vision for Buffy, in the world of video gamming, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (1996) became a phenomenon. (On Wikipedia, Lara Croft is discussed in over 7,500 words, 1,000 more than are devoted to Condoleezza Rice.) Lara is a beautiful, smart and athletic archaeologist who explores hazardous tombs and ruins the world over. She is the creation of Toby Gard, who, inspired by comic artist Nenah Cherry, designed her to counter female stereotypes of the “bimbo” or the “dominatrix.” Gard said he wanted Lara to be “a female character who was a heroine, you know, cool, collected, in control, that sort of thing” and that “it was never the intention to create some kind of ‘page 3’ girl [the topless models in British tabloids] to star in Tomb Raider.” (To that end Gard nixed a company plan to have a nude gaming option.) In 2001, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was made into a film starring Angelina Jolie. It was a commercial success, despite being dismissed by many critics. Roger Ebert, however, gave it three stars, explaining, “Lara Croft Tomb Raider elevates goofiness to an art form. Here is a movie so monumentally silly, yet so wondrous to look at, that only a churl could find fault.” The film made her an international star, and the go-to actor for casting directors seeking a kick-ass female lead, most recently in Salt (2010) as Evelyn Salt, the Soviet implant “salted” in the heart of America’s capital.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Kick Ass Poetry

Ang Lee’s 2000 martial arts classic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon redefined reality and the depiction on screen of kung fu fighters. Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and Jen (Zhang Ziyi), two female warriors, helped introduced to a mass Western audience the “wuxia” martial arts film. In the case of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon instead of Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan or Jet Li on center stage, the principal swashbucklers are two women. In his essay “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Meaning,” Steven D. Greydanus writes, “Crouching Tiger is the martial arts movie transfigured, remade into a thing of haunting beauty, poetic grace, and astonishing power.” The power of the women in the film is not only in their skill as fighters, but in their power to transform the worldview of the men who love them. When Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) lies wounded, Shu Lein tells him to meditate, “Free yourself of this world, as you have been taught. Let your soul rise to eternity with your last breath. Do not waste it on me.” He replies, “I have already wasted my whole life. I wanted to tell you with my last breath… I have always loved you. I would rather be a ghost drifting by your side, as a condemned soul, than enter heaven without you. Yet, because of your love, I will never be a lonely spirit.”

Kill Bill: New Icons or Gender Stereotypes?

The battle-dances of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon left their lasting imprint on how fight scenes are choreographed. In Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2 (2003 and 2004), Quentin Tarantino borrowed the stylized fights of Crouching Tiger and melded it to the over-the-top action sequences of super-hero camp and over-the-top manga violence, while throwing into the mix beautiful women who are out for each other’s blood. Some feminists, will say, perhaps understandably, that the creation of kick-ass heroines presents an illusion to society that gender roles have changed. Katy Gilpatric, in her study, “Violent Female Action Characters [VFAC] in Contemporary American Cinema,” notes, “The average VFAC was young, white, highly educated, and unmarried. VFACs engaged in masculine types of violence yet retained feminine stereotypes due to their submissive role and romantic involvement with a dominant male hero character. The findings suggest continued gender stereotypes set within a violent framework of contemporary American Cinema.”

The Girl Who…Wanted to Shake Things Up

Left, Pippi Longstocking; Right, Noomi Raspace as Lisbeth Salander

Yet something has clearly changed in the portrayal of women in popular film. The late Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl ….” trilogy of mystery books and their adapted films has given the world Lisbeth Salander, a tough, young, complicated woman who has an ambivalent relationship with, well, everyone. Larsson has said that Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace, in Daniel Alfredson’s 2009 movie trilogy) was modeled on whom he imagined the storybook character Pippi Longstocking would be like when grown up. Pippi, a pig-tailed girl, who lives by her self, does what she pleases and is oblivious of normal social niceties, has never met a person or situation that could best her. In the only interview he did about his mysteries, he said, “What would she [Pippi Longstocking] have been like today? What would she have been like as an adult? What would she be called? A sociopath? I created her as Lisbeth Salander, 25 years old and extremely isolated. She doesn't know anyone, has no social competence.” When Larsson was 15, he witnessed the gang rape of a girl, an experience that led him to abhor violence and abuse against women, a theme that is explored in his novels and the subsequent films. He named Lisbeth after the girl he saw raped, though his character was nobody’s victim.

Hanna, A Creative Response

Similarly, Hanna’s director Joe Wright has been influenced by violence against women. As he explains, “For a far more personal reason, what drew me to Hanna was its female protagonist.” After a friend of his had been sexually assaulted, Wright got angry: “There was an impulse to create, as a response to what happened to my friend, a strong female character who had grown up outside of gender sexual politics, who had never met another woman, never seen advertising nor had a clue what lip gloss was.” And from that fury came Hanna.

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