Charting The Evolution Of The Female Action Star

For decades, Hollywood has been asking eye-rollingly moronic questions of its female-identifying audiences. The slapstick, bro-heavy comedies of the ’90s and ’00s wanted to know if women could really be funny. The more recent slate of dramas and crime thrillers have inquired if they can be unlikeable too. But action movies? Action movies have been posing perhaps the most taboo query of all: Can women kick-ass?

The mind-numbingly obvious answer is … yes, but it’s taken cinema a while to fully grasp the concept.

It’s worth noting that female-led action films have been around for over a century. When movies first got their start in the early 1900s, men were headlining the big features – Westerns and musicals and swashbuckling romances – but women were often the stars of something called the “serial” film genre. These movies were released in episodic-like installments, featuring the same female characters flirting with disaster, wielding weapons, and effectively playing both the damsel in distress and the strapping hero who comes to save her. But, with every step forward, society often takes two steps back and after these “chapter” movies disappeared from screens in favor of male-fronted features, it took a good 60+ years before the first mainstream female action star was born.

In Ellen Ripley, cinema was given a blueprint for the formidable heroines to come.

Ridley Scott’s sci-fi Alien franchise made a bold decision for its time, gender-swapping its intended male lead and casting Sigourney Weaver in the role. What was even more impressive was Ripley’s arc over the course of those first few films. A by-the-books, low-ranking officer, Ripley transformed into a fearless leader, one whose ability to dispatch Xenamorphic menaces with whatever blaster happened to be lying around felt believable and earned. She wasn’t a natural-born fighter, but her grit and survival instincts were forged in the unforgiving void of space. In Ripley, the same hyper-masculine traits that made heroes like Clint Eastwood and Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme so appealing and aspirational were both embraced and challenged. Ripley proved women could be cold, almost apathetic warrior types with a limitless capacity for violence, but also that they harbored feminine intuitions and abilities that perhaps made them even more powerful.

Weaver wasn’t the only actress of this time period to push the action genre forward. Linda Hamilton followed in her footsteps, playing a hardened mother trying to protect her son and save humanity alongside another mainstay, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in The Terminator franchise. Pam Grier, the reigning queen of Blaxploitation films, combined an effortlessly cool and sexy exterior with some impressive ass-kicking abilities in films like Coffy and Foxy Brown. And, on an international scale, Chinese Wuxia films and Japanese revenge epics like Lady Snowblood would go on to inspire imitators in directors like Quentin Tarantino and blockbuster vehicles like Charlie’s Angels.

The ’90s and early aughts built on this foundation, though not every female-led action film that would drop in the next 20 years felt like progress. For every leather-clad dystopian revolutionary and small-town schoolteacher-turned-CIA assassin, there were infantilized sex objects and one-dimensional Femme Fatales. All were entertaining – Milla Jovovich deftly straddled the thin line between funny and deadly in The Fifth Element – but most existed within the confines of the male gaze. TV found a way to challenge that view though, particularly with characters like Buffy the vampire slayer, super-spy Sydney Bristow in Alias., and badass pilot Kara Thrace in Battlestar Gallactica. These women challenged conventional norms — they were geeky, flawed, and often broken outcasts assuming a mantle thrust upon them — while fulfilling a specific fantasy guaranteed to earn ratings: guys wanted to watch them, girls wanted to be them.

That male gaze aspect so prevalent a decade before would be interrogated further in the 2000s as stylized storytelling from the likes of Tarantino, the Wachowskis, and Ang Lee competed with an emerging subgenre – action films with video game influences.

Kill Bill will likely be remembered as a formative installment in the lineage of powerful women who pack a punch on-screen. Tarantino harnessed Uma Thurman’s charisma and undeniable beauty to mold a different kind of action star in the form of Beatrix Kiddo – a betrayed woman and desperate mother with revenge and redemption on her mind.

Thurman’s commitment to selling complex fight sequences filled with the kind of martial arts moves that would terrify the masters is matched by the other actresses Tarantino employs in this duology. In many ways, Lucy Liu’s stern and unforgiving Yakuza mob boss is even more terrifying than Beatrix and Vivica A. Fox’s suburban mom is just as worthy a champion. Each woman represents different facets of femininity – innate power, relentless drive, an almost unlimited capacity to endure hardship, and a maternal protective instinct that can quickly morph a colonial-style kitchen into an unrecognizable warzone.

And few actresses have done more to define the action heroine than Michelle Yeoh, a woman who not only taught Jackie Chan that women belonged outside of the kitchen, she handed him his ass in the process. Yeoh jumped from stunt-heavy performances in Hong Kong action films, often acting alongside greats like Chan, to subverting the love interest trope by playing a super spy on James Bond’s level in Tomorrow Never Dies and an expert swordswoman in Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – a film that introduced Wuxia to a new generation of American audiences.

But while these sweeping epics and high-brow arthouse films earned critical praise, more franchise fare, like Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider series, Jovovich’s Resident Evil run, and Kate Beckinsale’s Underworld saga also deserve some love. The storytelling in these movies was rarely revolutionary, but the women who headlined them added charisma, mystery, and a kind of swagger normally reserved for their male contemporaries. Jolie in particular was a revelation in the role of Lara Croft. A proven dramatic actress whose presence was electric on-screen, she was alluring and refined, happy to play puppeteer to a revolving marionette line of hunky love interests, flipping an action trope on its head. Suddenly, men like Daniel Craig (who would, ironically enough, go on to fill 007’s perfectly-fitted tux) and Gerard Butler were the Bond girls and Jolie was the smarter, more capable hero leading us on death-defying adventures, solving ancient mysteries, and swinging from temple vines in ripped shirts a la Indiana Jones.

It was perhaps this era, more than any other, that began to hone in on what exactly a “female action star” could be. Instead of auteur directors helming slick martial arts flicks and burying social commentary in citizen uprisings, these films treated plot as filler and relied solely on the magnetism of the women at the top of the call sheet. It was as if Hollywood finally realized that, yes, kickass heroines sell tickets, and suddenly the need to surround every woman, no matter how self-sufficient and well-versed in hand-to-hand combat, with a team of male sidekicks slowly started to ebb. The YA dystopia boom helped with that, introducing fans to teen rebels like Katniss Everdeen and Tris Prior, fairly ordinary girls who would evolve into government-toppling warriors, but this next generation of badasses helped to push a pretty novel concept at the time as well. These women were inspirational, sure, but they were often flawed, sometimes unlikable, and almost always conflicted on how to best use their abilities to do good.

Action movies might not have created the “antiheroine,” but they certainly gave her the spotlight, one she continues to control as the genre moves into this next phase of feminine representation on screen. Our high-octane lady heroes now are even more intimidating, possessing supernatural abilities and ruthless bloodlust that easily overpowers their male antagonists. Instead, the conflict comes from within.

Across multiple films, Charlize Theron has been able to craft morally-questionable spies with muddled allegiances and an unforgiving war captain living in an even harsher wasteland, questioning who to trust and how far she was willing to go to usher in a better future. Scarlett Johansson, who was regulated to the background in 10+ years’ worth of Marvel movies, finally got her chance to revive her Black Widow character for a solo showing that touched on the traumatic childhood of the future Avenger, exploring the personal and political consequences of the Red Room in a story about found family and the bonds of sisterhood. In both Guardians of the Galaxy films, Zoe Saldana (whose consistently proven she can kick ass with films like The Losers and Columbiana) found room for Gamora, her alien assassin for hire, to evolve from a cold-blooded killing machine to a woman haunted by her past, conflicted about her parentage, and welcomed by a chose family of weirdos just as f*cked up as she was. Black Panther’s Dora Milaje, the awe-inspiringly fierce bodyguards meant to protect Wakanda’s king, stole nearly every scene, giving us elite, expertly trained African warriors bonded by loyalty and tradition — and fighting against those ideals in an effort to save their kingdom. And in DC showings like Birds of Prey and Wonder Woman, not only were action heroines created and directed by women, they felt refreshingly authentic, responding and relating to their surreal, hyper-violent surroundings in a way that was relatable and empowering.

Perhaps this, more than the traditional male model of an action hero, is the way the genre moves forward for women. Instead of male-filtered views of what a “strong woman” should be, the next step is for female directors, names like Chloé Zhao, Patty Jenkins, Cate Shortland, and Cathy Yan, to interpret that term. And, instead of fitting into an already established mold of billionaire playboys, detached androids, gun-happy outlaws, and all-powerful gods, the next step for female action stars and the movies that house them is to make them more human. To see these women – with their sculpted physiques and unlimited potential – struggle with the same feelings and prejudices and choices that real women often face makes them feel … well, real.

And to finally be gifted heroines in every age bracket. To show that women in the genre can (and should) be allowed to get older, wiser, and deadlier. Carrie-Anne Moss may have brought Trinity to life when The Matrix first dropped in the late 90s, turning out dazzling action sequences and high-speed car chases in her skin-tight leather onesie, but it’s the franchise’s long-awaited reboot that tasks her with stepping into a headliner role, playing a woman with extraordinary abilities finally coming into her own and refusing to accept the prescribed path. Linda Hamilton has returned for another go at her Terminator character Sarah Connor, who may have aged and hardened over the years but never lost her ability to face down engineered killing machines. And Jamie Lee Curtis has proven she’s the ultimate Final Girl, playing a weathered Laurie Strode whose decades-long blood feud with a psychotic serial killer just can’t seem to die. These women, these stories, prove the female action hero role isn’t regulated to any certain age, body type, or demographic. It doesn’t rely on how conventionally attractive these characters are to male audiences. Instead, their success and the diverse lineup of women looking to follow in their footsteps — shouldering tentpole franchises and indie darlings, and genre-bending adventures — give us a map forward.

Rather than hyper-sexualized tough girls defined by their ability to “hang with the guys” and indestructible “chosen ones” gifted with infinite power, the next crop of female action heroes will just be women doing something that comes naturally to them – kicking ass and taking names.