The standard of what the audience will accept, that is to say a successful heroic figure belongs in an archetype, the archetype of the hero. According to Shawn J. Wittmier in his article “The Archetypal Hero in Modern Mass Media,” in order for the hero to be part of this archetype he or she must follow seven set lines. These lines are what the Hollywood movies and television series that are successful follow when portraying their heroes, both male and female. If these lines are not observed, the movie or television show will fail to be accepted by the public, as it happened with movies like “Elektra” and “Catwoman,” for example.
The secret of the fascination for heroes that Hollywood has been able to create lies in a secret: the stories in those movies have the power to take us to another place where we are both ourselves and at the same time we are somebody else, somebody stronger, since heroes possess all of the human attributes only amplified. This characteristic is what turns them into role models and archetypes, in which the values of intelligence, loyalty, courage, beauty and goodness reach their highest point. Umberto Eco, an Italian semiologist, once wrote that “the positive hero must embody, besides all of the imaginable limits, the strength exigencies that the regular citizen feeds on and cannot satisfy” This would be the simplest explanation, or maybe just one, of why people like action heroes. But what we must find out is why people like female action heroes.
Let us then examine Wittmier’s lines and what movies have fulfilled them, which ones did not, and finally what seems to be the ultimate result. The lines that Wittmier proposes are mentioned below, each one followed by a possible explanation as to how they apply to a few movies and television shows featuring female action heroes:
The hero usually suffers a great loss, which makes him [or her] set off on a quest.
The hero generally has a mentor or helper who helps him [or her] on his quest.
The hero must face a set of trials, which allow him [or her] to overcome “evil”.
The hero narrowly escapes death, usually more than once.
The hero escapes the “evil villain’s” stronghold or destroys him [or her].
The hero is then reintegrated into society with a new status, wealth, or marriage to the princess.
There has to be a happy ending.
In “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” we learn that her father had died several years ago, which is an episode that deeply affects Lara. He had died in the battlefield and she never had a chance to say goodbye, which is what makes her feel worse. So when she learns about the Triangle of Light, she goes on the quest of trying to acquire it before anybody else can, namely Manfred Powell, so that she can get her chance of seeing her father one more time and saying good bye.
In “Charlie’s Angels” the loss and/or the knowledge of a future loss is what sets them off on their quest. Eric Knox and Vivian Wood had teamed up to find Charlie and kill him. Even though the Angels had never seen Charlie, he was like a father to them. Besides, the former two had kidnapped Bosley, the girls’ friend and “boss,” to use him as bait to find Charlie, so that was a loss they had already experienced. These two losses triggered their going after the bad guys and stop them.
Sidney Bristow, the main character from the television show “Alias,” suffered several losses in the duration of the series: the first one was her fiancé’s murder, then came her friend Francie’s murder, her friend Will Tippin’s having to go to witness protection program, her mother’s betrayal, Dixon’s wife’s murder, and many more. All of these losses led to her trying to find the ones responsible for all of that and either take them in custody or kill them. Moreover, when she finds out that she had a sister, which was in a way also a loss because she had lost the opportunity of sharing her life with her, she sets on a quest to go and find her.
If we take a look at “Catwoman,” for example, her quest differs from the previous three. She was killed by order of Laurel Hedare, the owner of the company she was designing for. After a cat mysteriously revives her, she sets on a quest to try and find who killed her, and take revenge. However, she did not really lose anything because after all she is alive now. They did take her life however, but she came back much stronger than before and in the end she likes it, so she gained more than she lost.
Lara Croft requires the help of Mr. Wilson, a friend of the family and archaeologist, so that he can explain to her what the clock that she had found was for. Moreover, she has Bryce, the computer and technological expert, to provide her with gadgets of all kinds to both help her train and to make her quests easier.
The Angels have Bosley who helps them whenever they need him. He does so by communicating then with Charlie, working undercover with them, and basically helping them however he can, like he did for example at the end of the movie when he found the means of transport.
Sidney Bristow counts on Marshall’s help, the software experts of the CIA. He is also in charge of inventing state-of-the-art devices that help her in her missions. Moreover, her father, who works with her at the agency, functions as a mentor to her.
Patience Phillips discovers a sort of mentor after she becomes Catwoman. This person is the woman who owns Midnight, the cat that revived and converted Patience. The woman gives her information about what exactly happened to her and what the story behind catwomen really is. After Patience collected all this knowledge she decides how to go on with her new life.
Lara Croft faces, among other obstacles, stone monkey soldiers, a giant stone goddess, and most of all Manfred Powell who, she learns, had killed her father. After she fights him especially, she overcomes evil, that is to say, she is relieved of that calamity that surrounded her, and moves on triumphant.
Dylan, Natalie and Alex faced a bombing terrorist, men who were hired to kill them, and Knox and Wood whom they had to defeat. They had success in every one of these tasks, and in this way they not only faced but also vanquish the malevolence of their enemies.
Sidney Bristow had to face her fiancé’s death, her mother’s betrayal, and having to work undercover for an organization the CIA was investigating, among other tasks. Despite of those calamitous experiences, she could work out the situation victoriously.
Catwoman does not seem to undergo any trials. We could say that when she was acting as Patience she had to lie to the man she liked, police officer Tom Lone, not to reveal her other identity, since there was an order issued by the force to catch Catwoman. In the end, he finds out who she is and then understands that she was not guilty of what she had been accused. However, this trial does not seem to be on the same level and the previous three.
Lara escapes from death many times: from the robot at the beginning of the movie, from the men that break into her house to steal the clock, from the stone creatures in Cambodia, and from Manfred Powell.
The Angels evade death from two bombs, a shoot out, many different men that intended to kill them, and of course from Eric Knox and Vivian Wood.
Sidney Bristow is probably the one who faced death the most. She was even once captured by the North Koreans and was about to be executed when someone saved her. Moreover, she faced many shoot-outs, had to dismantle bombs with Marshall’s help, engaged in serious physical combat repeatedly, besides the fact that she is constantly working undercover and that alone puts her in considerable danger if she is ever to be caught.
In “Catwoman,” the hero-to-be Patience actually dies before she transforms from the regular woman into Catwoman. After that episode, even though she is under attack in several occasions she does not seem to think she is in any danger, she became fearless so she does not believe she is facing death. However, she does become frightened once at the end of the movie after Laurel Hedare stabs her, but she quickly recovers from it and wins the fight.
When Lara is fighting Manfred Powell, the evil villain, she ends up killing him.
All of the Angels escape the attacks of the villains, included the attacks by the main villain, Knox, who dies due to the Angels’ intelligence and expertise.
Sidney Bristow, even though sometimes she is kept hostage or caught by the villains, always ends up being rescued or escapes by her own means. Furthermore, she sometimes also destroys the villains, like she did with Lauren, one of the most evil villains in the show.
Catwoman fights the movie’s evil villain Laurel Hedare at the end of the movie, which concludes with the latter’s accidental death.
This point, even though it seems more to apply to a medieval novel, may apply on these movies as well if we take the basic meaning of the line, which is that after the hero has finished his or her quest there is a change or a reward for them.
In the case of Lara Croft, after she undergoes her quest and returns home, she seems happier and satisfied. So much so that she decides to put on a dress to visit her father’s grave, like a sort of homage to him since she had flatly refused to wear that same dress before when Hillary the buttler offered – which, judging by the way she answered him when he did, it made us believe that she always refuses because that is not her style.
The Angels, after escaping death, rescuing Bosley and saving Charlie seem to be more appreciated by him and they are given well deserved vacations, therefore enjoying some kind of new status.
As for Sidney Bristow, one of her many quests, one of the most significant ones for her, was to save her love interest Michael Vaughn from his wife’s clutches, Lauren, who was a traitor. She pretended to be a CIA agent when she actually worked for a criminal organization. She married Vaughn to obtain extra information from the agency that was of great importance for the organization she worked for. When Sidney finally defeats her and saves Vaughn, she gains him back (they used to be a couple) and starts a new chapter in her life as regards her relationship with him.
In “Catwoman,” after Patience dies and is revived she returns to society with a completely new status: as a catwoman.
In “Tomb Raider,” Lara achieves her goal of seeing her father one more time and she also destroys the man who killed him, to then return to her normal life.
In “Charlie’s Angels,” the girls save Charlie and they go on well-deserved vacations.
In “Alias” Sydney and Vaughn live happily ever after.
In “Catwoman,” Patience takes revenge on the woman who tried to kill her, and her reputation is cleared. She decides to go on saving other people who may need her help, although by doing so she leaves her boyfriend because she prefers to focus on saving other people. That ending is not so happy for him.
As we can see, “Catwoman” did not fulfill all of these rules established by Wittmier, and incidentally it is the one of the movies that did not receive a good acceptance neither by the critics nor the audience. Wittmier adds that “heroes must strictly follow the pattern of hero archetype in order to receive acceptance. Any deviation from this pattern leads to undermining the character’s familiarity and acceptability.” This is exactly what happened to “Catwoman:” since the main character did not follow the archetype she was not accepted too well.
However, this list is not the only one that has been created or researchers have come up with; Christina Larson presented her own list in her article “Seven Mistakes Superheroines Make: Why the Latest Action-babe Flicks Flopped.” According to her, every female action hero that has broken at least one of the rules she mentions has failed to receive a positive reception by the audience. Those rules are:
- Do fight demons. Don’t fight only inner demons.
- Do play well with others. Don’t shun human society.
- Do exhibit self-control. Don’t exhibit mental disorders.
- Do wear trendy clothes. Don’t wear fetish clothes.
- Do embrace girl power. Don’t cling to man hatred.
- Do help hapless men. Don’t try to kill your boyfriend.
- Do toss off witty remarks. Don’t look perpetually sullen.
Let us analyze two of the movies featuring female action heroes that have failed to be accepted by the majority of society, and check if what Larson claims is true. In “Catwoman,” Patience Phillips ends up shunning human society when she decides to leave all of her life behind, including her boyfriend, to save people in danger. Moreover, she does wear fetish clothes. “Elektra” also wears fetish clothes, she does exhibit mental disorders and is sullen rather than witty. Moreover, she seems to struggle too much with her inner demons, and at least at the beginning she did shun human society. We do not see any of these rules broken neither in “Tomb Raider” nor in “Charlie’s Angels,” or even in “Alias,” even when Alex from “Charlie’s Angels” and Sidney from “Alias” have been shown wearing fetish clothes, but that was only as a cover in a mission, not because that is what they had chosen to wear emblematically. We can conclude, then, that Larson was indeed right: if a female action hero breaks any of the rules mentioned above, the audience, that is to say society, will not accept them or the movie or television show will flop.
Moreover, there is also a key to a good action movie, as Stephanie Mencimer states in her article “Violent Femmes.” She assures that there should be “an inverse relationship between the amount of special effects and the amount of dialogue. Talk too much and the heroine loses her mystique and starts to remind men of their ex-wives.” Here lies another mistake that “Catwoman” made. Patience talks too much in comparison to Lara Croft or Charlie’s Angels. In addition, the movie puts a lot of emphasis on the sentimental relationship between Patience and Tom Lone, and also on what happens within Patience herself as she undergoes and tries to cope with the changes that turned her into Catwoman.After including this entire dilemma there is not a lot of action in the movie, not as much as in other action movies which have been successful.