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Can Women Be Bad Asses? (Guest Post #1)

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Lisa and I will be inviting people to do guest posts every couple of weeks because we have some amazing friends, family, and (former or current) students who have great things to add to the conversations we are trying to have on the blog. This first guest post is brought to you by Neal, a student of mine (now graduated – congratulations, Neal!), who wrote a brilliant analysis of the film Zero Dark Thirty and its contribution to the “faux-feminist heroine” model:

I have a fetish for movies with strong female leads. My Netflix account has become overrun with genre suggestions such as “Romantic Comedies with a Strong Female Lead,” “Indie Films with Independent Women,” and (my personal favorite), “Emotional Lesbian Movies.” In all these films, however, I’ve found myself wanting good feminist heroines—not watching them.

KillBillImageOne of my all-time favorite film duos is the Kill Bill sequence by Quentin Tarantino. I’m wooed by his flare for irony, black humor, and well-orchestrated gore (not to mention his brilliant team of writers). Yet the more I re-watch Kill Bill (vols. I and II), the more I take issue with the female lead, Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman).

A while back, I was doing some reading on Kill Bill to see what established feminist scholars and bloggers had to say about Kiddo, hoping my feminist barometer needed calibrating—that Kill Bill’s heroine was in fact “feminist.” In my reading, I discovered a blogger (lost to me now, though I wish I could credit them) who coined the term “faux-feminist heroine” when speaking of Kiddo, effectively killing my hopes that she was a “real” feminist.

The term faux-feminist heroine applies broadly to lead female characters who are heralded by critics and advertisers as “strong” or “tough,” but in reality are just roughedged, prone-to-violence female stand-ins for male characters.

When I think about Kill Bill, this diagnosis holds true. Personally, I think the part of a female assassin/hit(wo)man holds endless possibility for the actress playing her. It opens the question, how do women kill? In my senior thesis on Shakespeare’s plays (bear with me), I explored the possibilities of women-as-murderesses; the passive, nonphysical alternatives which make them more unique—and successful—than men.

Yet Beatrix Kiddo is violent like a man. This of course speaks to the character of female assassins as just as tough as men, but what else does it imply? When it comes to “getting even,” “going in for the kill,” or “doing the dirty work,” men and masculine techniques are still the only worthwhile techniques.

I think the question we often ask about female heroines is, why can’t a woman wield a samurai sword? Yet I think the question should be, why does she have to?

Why is it, to be heroic, a woman must earn masculine capital?—that is, why must she always turn to male-ness in order to prove her worth as a bad ass?

While taking a class on American Masculinities, my professor had us watch the film Zero Dark Thirty (dir. Kathryn Bigelow), keeping an eye on main character Maya (Jessica Chastain), and if she adhered to or eschewed the ideals of “Hegemonic Masculinity” (i.e. ultimate badass-ery), the theme around which our class revolved.

ZeroDarkThirtyImageIn an original response, I claimed that Maya possesses Hegemonic Masculinity— that she is, in essence, a male with breasts. My professor politely corrected me that Maya can not be Hegemonic precisely because she has breasts. What I believe I originally meant to say was that Maya possess a great deal of masculine capital—she comes as close to Hegemonic, to maleness, that a woman can.

Simply put, Zero Dark Thirty is “[a] chronicle of the decade-long hunt for alQaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden . . . and his death at the hands of the Navy S.E.A.L. Team 6 in May 2011” (International Movie Database [], 2013). the initiative is lead by young CIA operative Maya, who has spent her entire twelve-year career tracking and trying to assassinate bin Laden.

The film opens with her assignment to the US Embassy in Pakistan to help coworker Dan (Jason Clarke) with the violent interrogations of al-Quaeda operatives and their connections to pinpoint the whereabouts of bin Laden.

In an early scene, we see Maya—dressed in her best pantsuit—enter a boardroom in which the CIA higher-ups are going to approve or disapprove a plan to track a compound which Maya is convinced houses bin Laden and his closest allies. When Maya enters the boardroom, she is relegated to sit in the back, presumably to keep out of the way while the men talk business.

Maya is compliant, watching the men (who turn out to be incompetent) grumble and whine about high costs and low effectiveness. After while, the head honcho of the CIA asks a series of (dumb) questions about alternatives that turn out to be ineffective, too risky, or plain impossible.

This is when Maya steps forward, full of piss and vinegar, to tell the men why her plan must be executed her way. When the idiot boss says something to the effect of, “who are you to tell me what to do?” Maya unflinchingly responds, “because I’m the motherfucker who found him,” and proceeds to tap out of the room on spike heels.

A verbal samurai sword, if you ask me.

Many similar scenes—Maya using “masculine” language; Maya being too intense for emotional attachment (she hasn’t “been with” a man during her entire career); and Maya having a never-give-up work ethic—follow ad nauseam to let us know just how unfeminine Maya is. It chalks her up as “one of the guys.”

Until the end of the film, that is.

What fascinates me about the end of Zero Dark Thirty—like the end of Kill Bill Volume II—is that Maya (and Kiddo) cry. Not the subtle, joyous tears of a victor, but a more defeated, heartfelt crying; the type of crying that—pardon my language—women do.

In both cases, the mission has ended, the bad guy(s) have been vanquished, victory claimed, and the spoils of war taken home. In any other movie, the hero would settle down with a cigar and a scotch on the rocks, and/or go to bed with the svelte mistress.

But in movies with a heroine, the final cut is of crying that does not adhere to prior characterization. So my problem is this: if we are to believe that these (fauxfeminist) heroines are given so many masculine qualities throughout the film, why end it re-feminizing them in the most Hollywood way, with tear-stained faces?

I’m afraid I don’t have the answer to this question. I do know that women can be bad asses—my life is full of them, and I’ve seen most of them cry at least once. So perhaps this essay isn’t asking why female bad asses cry, but why the male ones don’t.

All I can say for sure is that one of two things need to change: our views of women as bad asses, or—more preferably—our views of what makes an actual bad ass.


Kill Bill photo:
Zero Dark Thirty photo:

5 responses »

  1. This is such an interesting analysis, Neal, and I am fascinated by the idea of reading different female film heroines through the lens of the “faux-feminist heroine.” Where does Lisbeth Salander from the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series fit in, I wonder?

    And I’ve been thinking a lot about Ripley from the Aliens series since you wrote this response in class, Neal. Ripley is my favorite hero/heroine, and I think it’s because she holds the best of traditional masculine AND feminine qualities in order to be the type of heroine she is. She refuses to break protocol, even defying her commanding officer, when someone should be quarantined (a smart move, if anyone remembers the dinner scene in Alien) and she is a fiercely protective mother figure to Newt in Aliens. Ripley and the Mama Alien battle over their “children” is a great storyline. She is a soldier, but she is also emotional at times (and not in the requisite end-of-the-film-put-her-back-in-her-proper-gender-box sequence). She is also part of a Science Fiction series, though, which often allows far more flexible gender performances than realism-based films like Zero Dark Thirty do.

  2. Lisbeth is a great example – I too wonder how she would fit in? She displays both traditionally masculine and feminine qualities, and although she is often physically violated, she displays great strength and intelligence that (like Neal mentioned) often makes use of less masculine (brute-force) modes of manipulation – she uses clever, subtle ways to control the world around her. It is troubling that she has to rely on the help of several male figures to help her overcome other male figures in the world – but I feel that’s more a comment on existing structures than a weakness. She is smart enough to know how to get what she wants and needs. Does the gender or politics of the author come into play here? I know, I know, the author is dead, but still….

    • While Lisbeth is extremely intelligent, she is also pretty physically brutal (however, most of those moments of physical brutality are either in response to someone else (Mikael or Miriam) being victimized or in response to her own victimization, which she believes will continue unless she responds in kind. And maybe that’s also a comment on existing structures? She isn’t disturbing in the way that Maya from Zero Dark Thirty is, since Lisbeth acts as she does from the very first to last moments of the books. Maya has the requisite breakdown at the end of ZDT, which goes into Neal’s reading of her as the faux-feminist heroine.

  3. By which I mean to reference Barthes, not the literal death of Larsson.

  4. I too am a big fan of Lisbeth, and think she is a great “break” of the faux-feminist mold. I think it’s interesting that, instead of sentimentality, the author/filmmakers give her intellect (both technological and “street smarts”) as her non-masculine means of survival. This intellect also infuses all of her brutal physical violence—I’m thinking especially of the entire plot she puts behind raping her own rapist—so that even when she is physically forceful, it is still not in the “brutish” way of male heroes.

    (This goes to imply that female heroines are smarter than their male counterparts, which actually is quite titillating to think about.)


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