Whenever a film like Wonder Woman or Atomic Blonde is released, one thing is certain: critics will take notice of the violent heroines who lead the story.
It happened with Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, Evelyn Salt in Salt and Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill. Whenever a heroine appears, some critics will argue that she is a landmark, as in the case of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman.
Some will complain that she is simply “acting like a man”, whereas others will celebrate her, as in the case of Theron’s “smart, combat-ready action spy”. And there will inevitably be talk of a new era of female empowerment and “butt-kicking” heroines.
But there is nothing special or unusual about women kicking butt in film. Murder and violence are ever popular subjects in cinema, and women have taken part in the bloodshed from the beginning.
An early heroine
One of the earliest heroines who aspired to violence can be found in a silent film from 1923, La Souriante Madame Beudet. The titular character is a bored housewife who despises her boorish husband. So great is her dislike, in fact, that she fills a handgun with bullets in the hope he will accidentally shoot himself.
Monsieur Beudet discovers the bullets, but it never occurs to him that his wife had ill intent toward him. Instead, he stupidly concludes that she must have meant to kill herself rather than him.
Nearly 100 years after the film’s release, the joke appears to be on us. Monsieur Beudet’s reluctance to think that his wife is capable of murder mirrors our own surprise whenever violent women appear onscreen.
In this early film, Madame Beudet’s near act of violence is a form of feminist commentary. It is a cry of frustration and a desperate act caused by an unsatisfying marriage.
Women’s desire to escape their circumstances also appears as a motivating factor in film noir. Translating as “black film”, film noir is a genre made up of crime dramas and detective thrillers. They were first made in the USA in the 1940s and 50s – well-known examples include The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and The Lady from Shanghai.
Noir films are diverse, but their hallmarks include male protagonists, violent crimes and the femme fatale (“fatal woman”), a beauty who sexually manipulates men for personal gain. Femmes fatales don’t always conspire to kill people, but some do go to such lengths. Phyllis Dietrichson of Double Indemnity, Cora Smith of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Kathie Moffat in Out of the Past all spring to mind.
These femmes fatales are not violent simply because they’re “bad”. Phyllis, Cora and Kathie all kill for money, which would help them achieve independence. Indeed, Cora repeatedly says she wants to “make something” of the business that she runs with her husband. The grim reality is that she can only accomplish this by murdering the dolt.
Highbrow and lowbrow
In other films, the purpose of women’s violence can be quite different. Some filmmakers use deadly women to shock audiences and challenge our values. Interestingly, this strategy appears in films at opposing ends of the cinema spectrum: “highbrow” art films as well as “lowbrow” exploitation cinema.
“Exploitation” cinema is a genre named for the way these films “exploit” taboo topics to lure audiences. Themes include drug use, vigilantism, gratuitous sex and, in many cases, homicidal women.
Violent heroines correspond with the forbidden pleasures of exploitation cinema. As the “nurturing” sex, women “shouldn’t” kill people and it is scandalous to see them do so. Female killers thus appear aplenty in exploitation genres: in rape-revenge films like Ms .45 and I Spit on Your Grave, in blaxploitations Foxy Brown and Cleopatra Jones, and in prison films The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage.
Violent women’s subversive power also explains their appearance in some art films: thematically and aesthetically ambitious works that challenge established film norms. Violent women provide a means of pushing the boundaries. Feminist art film classic Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles famously ends with a housewife committing an act of murder. Extreme French film Trouble Every Day concerns cannibalistic Parisians plagued by sexual longing. Provocative art-horror film Antichrist is a story of spousal conflict that ends in violence.
In each of these films, the female characters’ aggression expresses their alienation and angst. Each film is concerned with the extremes of human experience: oppressive domesticity, taboo desire and marital strife. Through their violence, women in these art films “speak” their unspeakable emotions, making them spectacular and bloody onscreen.
Violent women today
Violent women have been around for decades. So why are we still so surprised by them?
One reason is that we are in two minds about women’s aggression. On one hand, thinkers from Aristotle to Sigmund Freud have characterised women as the passive sex. On the other, our narrative tradition is filled with tales that portray women as the nastier gender. The Gorgons, Euripides’s Medea, and the duplicitous femme fatale all suggest that, however tough a man might be, women are “more deadly than the male”.
The incompatibility of these two ideas dooms us to endless surprise. We fall into the habit of thinking that women aren’t as violent as men, and so are impressed anew whenever another deadly woman appears.
Medea by Ernst Legouv(1807-1903)
One explanation for the enduring appeal of violent women in film is that cinema provides a space where we can realise our fantasies. Whether they are good or bad, deadly women offer enjoyable images of empowerment. Talking about her love of film noir, Angela Martin calls this “the treat of seeing women giving as good, if not better, than they got”. Physical vulnerability is an everyday reality for women, so the idea of fighting back is appealing.
And as Carl Jung has written, cinema “makes it possible to experience without danger all the excitement, passion and desirousness which must be repressed in a humanitarian ordering of life”.
Another explanation is simply that violent heroines provide product differentiation in a marketplace saturated with male action heroes. For example, when the first Alien film appeared in 1979, the film’s heroine, Ellen Ripley, helped distinguish her franchise from masculine competitors. Wonder Woman has a similar function today, standing out from the numerous male-led Marvel franchises.
A new feminist era?
Whenever a new “butt-kicking” heroine appears onscreen, some will be tempted to see her as evidence of a new feminist era. Certainly, there does seem to be some correlation between violent women and past feminist movements. Film noir emerged when women found new freedoms in wartime America, and many female-led vigilante films of the 1970s coincided with second-wave feminism.
Such links are compelling. However, it is more accurate to say that violent women appear consistently throughout cinema history. Sometimes they facilitate discussions of feminist issues, but they also offer remarkably consistent pleasures across the decades. They are fantasy figures, subversive mavericks, and an enduring part of our narrative tradition.