Girls on Film: Gina Carano, Hollywood’s First Female Action Star?

Girls on Film: Gina Carano, Hollywood’s First Female Action Star?

Jan 19, 2012

Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.

Gina Carano in Haywire

When we first see Gina Carano as Mallory Kane in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, the camera settles on a close-up of her face. Save for a touch of eyeliner and minor wounds, Mallory’s skin is bare. Her features are naturally striking, but not accentuated, and when we finally see her full body, her form is not swathed in curve-emphasizing fetish wear that trumps style over suitability. When she settles down for a tea and is greeted by an unwelcome face, she cracks her neck, gripes, and waits; she doesn’t finger a hidden, phallic sword; she doesn’t try to seduce the man across from her. They talk, and when he attacks, they fight with harsh fury, not obviously choreographed violence. There is no space for liquid movements that are equally dangerous and sexual – for an explosion of violence to be as alluring as a late-night tryst.

This is because Mallory Kane is a real action hero; the first female ass-kicker with the potential to become a real action star.

As Soderbergh tells it, he’d been itching to make spy movie with a ‘60s edge, but it never quite came together until he saw the Muay Thai kickboxer fighting on television. As he explained to AV Club:

“I saw her fighting on TV, literally by chance, channel-surfing. … I landed on one of her fights, and I just thought, ‘Wow, she’s really something. Kind of an interesting combination of elements.’ She’s beautiful, she’s brutal. When she was interviewed she seemed charming, and not at all weird or freakish, or egotistical. … And when Moneyball blew apart, that very same week she got beat in the last fight she had. I thought, ‘You know, I’ve always wanted to do a spy movie in the sort of ’60s vein. Why don’t I just combine these two things? Make her the spy and build this movie around her. She can break people in half. This could be fun.’”

Gina Carano in HaywireSoderbergh wasn’t creating a heroine based on lusty admiration, a la Quentin Tarantino creating Kill Bill for Uma Thurman. This wasn’t an attempt at waif-fu, to take the least likely heroine and make her the alluring ass-kicker or irresistible femme fatale. Nor was this an attempt to craft a feminist hero speaking on the divide between men and women like Demi Moore in G.I. Jane. Soderbergh was simply driven by the idea of seeing Carano take on the traditional action hero role: “All I was motivated by was, ‘It would be really cool to see a woman do this stuff for real.’”

This switch in motive makes all the difference. Haywire is, by all intents and purposes, a classic action movie. It’s designed to titillate the audience with a larger-than-life ass-kicker who rules dynamic fight sequences, backed by a basic story that does nothing more than act as an entertaining path for Carano’s physical prowess to shine. Kane is the top muscle in a network of for-hire force, and her moves drive the narrative. As such, there is no interest or need to make her walk the tight-rope like the tough heroines who preceded her – great, dynamic, and adored women we might love, but who were always framed somewhat or largely by gender expectations.

For decades, Ellen Ripley has reigned supreme in the world of tough, unstoppable heroines, and for the most part, she is. She was a game-changer for women in cinema, busting through barriers and being named not only the best female heroine cinema has seen, but one of the best characters we've ever seen. Nevertheless, Ripley was never able to exist without scenes and plots focusing on her gender. In Alien, she’s choked with a phallic, rolled magazine, and much more damningly, stripped to ill-fitting bikini briefs so the camera can watch the crack of her behind as Ripley bends to do some work before the final, vulnerable attack. This sexualization became even more distinct in Aliens, as her fellow female hypersleepers wore shorts and more suitable tank tops as she still walked around in skimpy garb. But with that sexual, feminine door open, every bit of power emanating from Ripley became increasingly connected to her sex. She became a mother figure for Newt, an impregnated mother and host for the alien in Alien 3, and finally mother of an alien child with Alien Resurrection.

Sarah Connor was similarly tough, but always defined as the expendable mother striving to save her hero son. Alice in Resident Evil kicked ass in a sexy dress, in a film bookended by glimpses of her barely-covered body. Kill Bill was about a vengeful bride, eager for payback after losing her husband and baby, a sexy, leather-clad lady kicking the arses of other sexy ladies. Nikita was the young and sexy femme fatale. Lara Croft was as much about boobs and butt as she was about smarts and strength. Angelina Jolie’s Salt was much closer to the mark, but still framed as the femme fatale, and though very actively involved in her own stunts, still a sexy, waif-fu heroine. Zoe Saldana is now making her mark, but as another capable, yet sexy, ass-kicker. As GQ described her recently: “Like Jolie, Saldana's physicality— all fluid angles and long lines—is part of what makes her so much fun to watch; before the bad guys are finished staring, they're already dead.”

Saldana is also the woman amongst male cohorts, much like Michelle Rodriguez, the closest we’ve come to a gender-neutral action star to date. As a young girl, she starred in Girlfight, denying the female-framed expectations placed on her to become a fight champion. But it was an indie film, seen by a modest audience. She’s strived to stay type-cast in strong roles, “My entire career is made up of those girl-power moments. I don't mind typecasting because I know what the alternative is,” but her type-cast trajectory is also a fully supporting one. From the soldier Rain Ocampo, to the sexy driver Letty, to the space-travelling Trudy Chacon, her action-star potential is marginalized into often painfully brief blips in other characters’ cinematic quests.

Gina Carano in HaywireIn Haywire, everyone plays support on Kane’s quest – Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor, and even Michael Douglas. As with any big action star – Schwarzenegger, Willis, Stallone, Norris, Seagal, Van Damme… – Carano’s skill is all that matters. And it isn’t that Kane’s gender is removed; it’s just irrelevant. This is the first mainstream film that allows its female action star to be tough without the ever-rampant signifiers that cling to strong heroines.

She has sex, but we don’t see it. She showers, but it’s not so that the audience can delight in her body; in fact, the audience doesn’t get to see it. She gets a “babysitting job” where she must play the attractive wife, but it’s framed no differently than a man putting on a tux. She has a father, but he doesn’t oversee her violence, nor condemn it; he’s merely concerned as any parent would be. We are aware that she is a woman, but we are not forced to see her as mother, as sex object, or even as completely macho man-woman (like Pvt. Vasquez in Aliens). Each has its place, but it is wildly invigorating to see an action film where gender politics and gender stereotypes do not come into play.

Soderbergh’s camera is so intent on showcasing Carano’s skill that it rests and doesn’t cut away from the impact. The violence is not softened or amplified by a score, and rather than choreographed into some slick dance, it’s brutal ferocity shown as bluntly as any match fight would be. Soderbergh wants us to see a woman who can actually deliver the power of an ass-kicking heroine, and he doesn’t let anything get in that way. She delivers violence and receives it. She’s damaged, bandaged, and never carried away from the fight in a powerful man’s arms a la Helen Mirren in Red. Haywire is all about power. Her power. Though some, like Jezebel, worry that Carano’s voice being altered for the film is a move to make her “sound sexy,” it’s just another piece of her obvious authority. You see her, you hear her, and you watch her in action, continually knowing she’s an unstoppable powerhouse.

Haywire plays to Carano’s strengths. This is a fighter with little acting experience, but Soderbergh is able to coax a powerful charisma within her, which teamed with the fight scenes, offers a woman quite adept at leading the action world. In fact, situated in an environment where the weaker geek is increasingly becoming the hero (Green Hornet, 21 Jump Street), Mallory Kane is helping to keep intimidation and skilled prowess in the action world.

Quite simply, Mallory Kane is a dynamic powerhouse we can believe in. She wasn’t crafted by man. She is not pinned behind the male gaze. We are not forced to lust after her with sexy makeup, pouty lips, and slow, revealing shots of her skin. If we find ourselves attracted to her, or as I put it after watching the screening – enamored by her, it has nothing to do with sexual expression. It’s admiration based on skill with no qualifiers needed. It’s just like the male action stars we’ve come to love over the past 30-40 years. Mallory Kane simply delivers adrenaline-filled action, no qualifiers necessary.

We just need Hollywood to recognize this and let this be more than a one-off anomaly.

Categories: Features, In Theaters
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