In recent years, women appear to have been given roles that are far more domineering in comparison to those in the past. Some say this is due to changing attitudes with the modern woman’s realisation that masculinity is just a socially constructed performance- the archetypal male is now often criticised rather than celebrated. While society’s stance on the function of women in the media has been altered, it would be foolish to believe or suggest that it has been a phenomenon of sorts as the extent of the speed of evolutionary thinking in our culture and the media is often overestimated.
With current trends in film and television it seems more likely that the motivation behind the increasing number of assertive roles for women is purely economic. While the answer to this question is at present unclear and difficult to determine because of the great number of factors to consider, the following will discuss points that are significant to the contention of each side.
‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider’ (2001), starring Angelina Jolie is based upon the incredibly popular video game series of the same name. The ‘Lara Croft phenomenon’ has had a span of influence covering much of the western world, not necessarily just through the computer games but also with the huge amount of marketing opportunities and products taken or made due to its success. In its cinematic form Tomb Raider was produced by Paramount Studios, who aren’t renowned for their history in action films aside from ‘Mission:Impossible’ which is a possible exception.
The series of adventure games starring Lara Croft have been programmed by all male teams at Core Design and distributed by Eidos Interactive, who in the 2000-2001 football season also sponsored Manchester City football club with increased publicity around the time of the film’s release. The games themselves are most popular with men. Computer games are frequently described as a typically male pursuit, which is perhaps somewhat of a generalisation but beautiful Lara Croft appears to have been designed as the overtly sexualised answer to Indiana Jones.
Lara’s representation always falls into one of three basic contexts: Lara as an action heroine, an object of sexual desire and a virtual icon. While these representations are simplistic and limited, her whole character and image adhere to society’s accepted or idealised female identity.
Lara’s virtual breasts are two of the most talked about things in recent times, ballooning to ludicrous proportions in the games. While feminists everywhere reeled against Tomb Raider and its perpetuation of a woman’s body as a commodity, there were also elements of the game (and now film) that rather than demean women, can in fact empower them.
Previously, our female action heroes have been just that. Heroes instead of heroines-feminised variants of the stoical tough guy’, with their typically depicted male traits. Muscle-bound, angry and lacking remorse, examples of these more primitive characters include Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the ‘Alien’ series and Linda Hamilton’s curious transformation of a terrified young woman to military obsessed and physically capable Sarah Connor in the Terminator films. The difference between our previous and modern heroines is based fundamentally upon image.
While Lara Croft as Tomb Raider professes to breakaway from the traditional idealised female construct and make a statement against it, there are many elements of her image that seem false or transparent. The choices made on her clothes include tiny shorts and a very tight t-shirt, coupled with an ever-present pair of pistols and backpack that act as a metonym for the character itself. Crude as it may be, Lara’s idolised breasts and the pistols somehow share a meaning. While the former act in a way that purports only a dangerous sexual power over men, the latter are that which is physically dangerous and life threatening. Though she may be agile and swift, without weapons Lara is simply a sexually alluring woman- she poses no threat to the average male in terms of physiological potency.
Lara fulfils many of society’s requirements in terms idyllic feminine beauty, bar one. She prompted further argument into the brunette versus blonde debate with her long chestnut-brown ponytail. Beauty is interpreted indexically by code of modern society, with the slim, blonde haired, blue eyed, big-busted female being its current ideal. Whether the creators of the Tomb Raider character made her a brunette purposefully, with the intention of introducing a woman who wouldn’t alienate much of the female audience with an impossibly aspiratory image or if it was simply a matter of personal preference for the programmers is unknown. However if the first case is true, the creators have worked upon the idiocy of that audience due to the hypocritically cartoon-like stylings of the rest of Lara’s body.
The paradigmatic representation of women as the subordinate, compliant sex has seemingly faded in popular culture but I would argue against this. While Lara Croft may challenge femininity’s connoted value, her physical features and thus sexual attractiveness are deliberately overemphasised (her breasts in particular) in order to draw attention to the primary differences between men and women. In doing this we are constantly reminded of these differences which are essential to justifying male superiority. If the character and actress who played her were only averagely attractive, the strength of her physical capabilities would outweigh her sexual attractiveness meaning she is potentially threatening. The fear that a powerful, armed woman would induce in men is radically increased and our existing social order could be deemed under threat itself. Currently, the idea of women possessing a greater physical strength than men is transgressive to what is accepted by our culturally defined personal ideologies. A character such as Lara Croft challenges Vladimir Propp’s theory of eight character roles. Typified male and female roles are reversed when a personality like Tomb Raider is placed in this framework. She is a model of gender subversion, acting in a way that is classically defined as masculine. In this way she becomes Propp’s hero, rather than the hero’s prize that are conventionally delineated as masculine and feminine respectively in many genres. Due to her attractive self-image, Lara Croft could be interpreted as a subservient being. While her actions on screen and in the computer games are belligerent and subversive to what is acceptably feminine, her appearance is in compliance to that which society recognises.
The Tomb Raider ‘phenomenon’ is one that has a uniquely composed audience- depending on which format is referred to. When the computer games’ target and received audience is analysed, a very high percentage of it will prove to be male. This is due to male dominated purchasing in the video games market which cannot be explained aside from the fact that it is part of the typified masculine construct that men should be more interested in technology than women. They prefer to play an aggressive role in their leisure activities that results in interactive games. Women on the other hand are portrayed as taking a passive role- preferring to watch television which requires little interaction. However when the film’s target audience is taken into consideration, results are far more even. While primarily the motion picture would always attract its core audience of male fans, the casting of Oscar winner (Girl, Interrupted 1999) Angelina Jolie may have had some effect on the female draw.
Jolie is not a figure associated with the type of character roles that some women find patronising and perhaps even offensive, for instance your run-of-the-mill, poorly written romantic comedy that centres on a woman’s quest to find ‘Mr Right’. Contrary to many other unsuccessful films (in terms of box office success and critical review) based on prevalent computer games, the casting director for Tomb Raider chose someone who had already established herself as a serious actress rather than someone who would simply act as ‘eye candy’, such as Milla Jovovich in the recent Resident Evil vehicle. A choice like this gave Tomb Raider some credibility before it was even released. There are in fact two Oscar winners in the cast- the other being Jon Voight who is coincidentally Jolie’s father. This associated credibility gave a greater dimension to the production and therefore appealed to a wider audience that incorporated a larger number of female viewers.
The camera work used in Tomb Raider is typical of a standard action film, although it utilises a fair amount of modern technology in its editing like Bullet Time, previously used in The Matrix. The fast, straight cut edits coupled with pounding music during action sequences conform to Schatz’s genre of order almost perfectly. His genre of integration theory is regarded as one that best describes film or television productions traditionally suited to a female audience. The technical conventions associated with these genre theories are very different. While the typical romantic comedy will at times use slow cuts and fades, Tomb Raider uses none of these, instead favouring set pieces with a frenetic pace and spectacular stunt work which are usually commonplace in films of an increasingly masculine nature and audience.
According to official figures released by the Film Distributors’ Association, Tomb Raider reached the places of fourteenth and fifteenth in the top box office gross charts of the US and UK respectively. With an approximate box office take of $131,000,000 in the US, the picture certainly proved its worth in the economic sense. While this is a phenomenal amount of money to make, this success was overshadowed by the film billed as its summer rival. Universal Pictures’ ‘The Mummy Returns’ grossed a total of $202,000,000 at the US box office, the fifth best of 2001. The two films were contested against one another (although not heavily) for a number of reasons, including their genre and locations. However the major detail to be analysed is that strong, capable heroines feature in each. Rachel Weisz reprises her female lead from 1999’s ‘The Mummy’ but the characterisation is much different, perhaps acting as a reflection of changing attitudes among the general public.
In ‘The Mummy’ her character Evie began the story as a bumbling, clumsy librarian and only late in the plot proving herself physically but in the sequel she returns as an all-fighting, fervently protective but ultimately beautiful mother, a point that can later be addressed. The contrast between the film and its predecessor suggests Hollywood had realised a substantial profit could be made from giving the green light to films with women cast in dominant, physical roles- perhaps upon basis of highly successful television shows such as Buffy and Xena. While film executives have now found that a female action hero can be successfully marketed, they were deterred from this idea for some time due to films such as ‘The Long Kiss Goodnight’ starring Geena Davis. The picture was poorly received suggesting that at the time, cinema audiences didn’t accept the ideologies of feminine ascendancy being fed to them. The film was perhaps released in a period where society’s cultural ideals had not progressed enough to be influenced by such ‘radicalism’.
One way in which Tomb Raider’s plot poses an exception to the rest of its genre and protagonist’s construction is that Lara has nothing as such to ‘protect’. In films such as The Long Kiss Goodnight, Terminator 2 and The Mummy Returns, the female characters only become so forceful and physically aggressive when trying to protect that which defines femininity itself-their children. Lara Croft is different in that she is a single woman, unaffected by the mental imbalances (which are seemingly derivative of marital status) that other roles have implicated into their characters, for instance Bridget Jones. This is one reason why Tomb Raider could indeed be societal advancement it professes.
Hollywood’s motivation for the greater amount of assertive roles given to women recently could be because of changes in our own ideologies but certain factors would suggest that it’s based more upon how much money a studio can make from a particular demographic. Women are key viewers to attract for any production- they do after all make up half of the possible audience. For example, take the success of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and to a lesser extent Xena: Warrior Princess. Research has shown that the audiences for these shows are roughly 75% female but why is this? Primarily because most modern women will respect a contemporary heroine that can stand up for herself rather than one who in the ‘Bond Girl mould’ would shrink back behind the hero at any sign of trouble. The likelihood is that women don’t dislike the action genre itself, rather the testosterone-filled, typified elements of it that can sometimes be interpreted by the female audience as misogynistic. Buffy the Vampire Slayer incorporates the ‘human element’ that women respond to more than men. Each programme has a great deal of characterisation rather than constant explosions and action sequences that can become dull.
The recent growth in pictures with women taking a dominant lead is more than likely due to the success of programmes like these- Hollywood executives have picked up on a trend that’s paid off in a big way. This can be compared to ‘Girl Power’ in the late nineties that utilised a similar notion- the feeling of empowerment. Popular feminism was brought into the public eye by the Spice Girls, contributing to the ‘ladette’ culture that became rife in the mid-nineties. Following this there was a great influx of similar all female pop groups who embraced a culture of drinking, smoking and having a good time, which was on par with their male counterparts. Angela McRobbie calls this ‘popular feminism’ because it depicts a mainstream interpretation of feminism that incorporates aspects of pop culture but doesn’t necessarily maintain an adherence to traditional feminist principals.
Despite cynicism in the idea that women have suddenly become the more prominent sex, it does appear true that contemporary masculinity is in some kind of crisis. As women have become increasingly assertive and successful in a work environment, the male’s role has become somewhat confused. Conventions have been thrown aside with the traditional role of the man as the sole provider for his family becoming less common. The hegemonic emergence of the ‘new man’, one who is emotional and will share his feelings has further closed the gender gap. However with the media’s continual inferences of these dramatic cultural reforms, it does in fact stunt the rate at which these changes can really take place. To illustrate this point, ‘Lad’ culture could be considered. This social uprising amongst young men only came about as part of a rebellion to an ideology conveyed by society and institutions that they could neither live up to or succeed in.
In conclusion, it is difficult to ascertain how much society has changed and whether the media has modified itself in response to whatever changes may have occurred. There is no certainty as to whether the increase in dominant female characters will continue- it’s more likely that it is simply a trend. After a period of time, the current winning (and high grossing) formula will fail, become less popular with film and television executives therefore meaning these films won’t be produced. New trends will mare while old one weld be revived. Whether Tomb Raider was somely a chance for me trends will emerge while old ones will be revived. Whether Tomb Raider was simply a chance for men to ogle a woman’s breasts concealed by a layer of faux-feminist ideas is yet to be seen.