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Saturday, February 19, 2011

"Timecop" and women in action movies

I watched this 1994 movie with Caleb this weekend.  I saw it before, and I didn't remember the plot that much, and I didn't remember that the lovely Mia Sara co-starred (an imdb search shows that she still works regularly in television, I was glad to see). What I do remember is how much I liked the movie purely because it handled the female character in such a refreshing way.  In most action movies in the 1980s, and even 1990s (and even in some movies today), the female was murdered early on as a plot device, to justify the male lead's behavior as avenging angel.  The only other portrayal was what the Bond movies, and some others, did - where the hot woman of the day appeared briefly, had sex with the male lead, and disappeared.  If she reappeared, it was only to be justifyable dispatched is some gruesome way, ostensibly for her evil ways, but clearly just as much for her unapologetic sexuality.  See Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) for a particularly repulsive example of this.

In Timecop, the woman is murdered early on, as expected, but because of the time travel plotline, she reappears several times, is allowed a tiny bit of character development, and the male lead acts very tender and respectful toward her.  She is also featured in the final showdown/fight scene, in a surprisingly active role - she doesn't stand in the corner, biting her fist and screaming - she climbs over the roof in the pouring rain!  Quite exceptional for that time period.

Of course, the female lead in current action movies is slugging the bad guy and packing a weapon, but this is a quite recent (and welcome) development that I give Thelma and Louise (1991) at least some credit for - once women saw female characters sticking up for themselves, they were less willing to sit through a movie with their boyfriends and husbands watching women cower in the corner.  Of course, Alien (1979) gets a lot of credit too, as does the first Die Hard (1988), where Holly McClane (played by the magnificent Bonnie Bedelia) doesn't totally sit around waiting to be rescued.

I've actually discussed this with Caleb, not with this movie, but a movie we watched that was made in the 1960s, where the female lead literally just screams and screams every time they are threatened.  Having seen only Angelina Jolie-style female ass-kicking portrayals in film, even he noticed this passive and silly characterization (though no doubt he was also responding to comments I had made previously). 

I'm not necessarily in favor of women acting like male action stars and shooting anything that moves.  That's hardly my vision of a feminist paradise.  It's more the issue of agency - whether the female character is engaged in moving the plot forward, or if she's merely a device to facilitate and justify the male character's actions.  I'm quite happy to witness the death of that ubiquitous passive portrayal of women, and I'm especially happy that my children are generally not exposed to it.



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