Action movies, which have long been the provenance of hyper masculinity, have only recently allowed women a place at the armory. The journey from Sigourney Weaver’s desexualized Ripley in Alien to Angelina Jolie‘s sexually charged Lara Croft in Tomb Raider has marked something of a sea change in popular conceptions of gender.
Tough women characters were once stripped of their sexuality once they were handed a machine gun, but now tough women characters are expected to possess an aggressive sexuality that can easily spill into lesbian subtext. Although few action movies contain openly lesbian characters (the campy flick D.E.B.S. being a notable exception), they play a significant role in challenging gender norms, which is key to making room at the box office for lesbian lead characters.
Scholars of women in action movies have argued that women’s action roles are both transgressive and maintain traditional heterosexual, gendered boundaries. Many of these heroines are based in stereotypical roles such as the dominatrix, which has long been a transgressive female identity—she both sexually dominates men and exists to satisfy them. Similarly, the female action hero transgresses gender boundaries by occupying traditionally masculine spaces—that of the battlefield, particularly—yet maintains an appearance of hyper-femininity to draw in male viewers and underscore her identity as female.
Though this can be likened to a one-step-forward, two-steps-back situation, female action heroes do destabilize gender norms enough to provide an entrypoint for lesbian subtext that has increasingly spilled over into overt, campy representations of lesbian sexuality. For example, Jennifer Garner’s title role in Elektra has her engaging in a same-sex kiss that, despite its undeniable part in the lesbianism-equals-death trope, is performed with something of a wink.
This marks a change from the 1990s, when female action heroes were either stripped of their feminine sexuality in order to masculinize them enough to carry a weapon, or hyper-sexualized to drive home their masculinity. For example, the character of Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), was buff to the extreme, but focused only on the safety of her child. In G.I. Jane (1997), Demi Moore’s character stripped down to the physical basics until she was nearly indistinguishable, physically, from a man—except for a lack of sexual desire. In The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), Geena Davis’ character transformed from stereotypically feminine to stereotypically masculine, complete with a macho sex drive.
But with the box office successes of Charlie’s Angels (2000) and Tomb Raider (2001), female action heroes began to experience a feminine sexuality charged with masculinity that has rarely before appeared on screen. In these two films, as well as subsequent ones such as Elektra, Catwoman and Aeon Flux (which are all chasing the Tomb Raider box office mirage), the sexuality of the female leads takes on an aggressive and queer edge: These women come out on top, with the result that their male sexual partners are forced to take on passive roles that can easily be read as feminine.