Even the most gentle among us wants to see a good ass-kicking now and then. Part of the draw, I think, is getting to see people like us--people that we can relate to--doing crazy, amazing things and taking charge. It's part of why characters like John McClane and Batman and Hercules are so lasting in pop culture as a whole and American pop culture, specifically.
There's no shortage of male action heroes. They're plentiful and varied--though, admittedly, over time many of them start looking the same (compare video game heroes--the same scarred, angry, bald white guy shows up over and over, but that's a post for another day). The female version of this character type, The Action Girl, while it's being seen more and more in various media, does not saturate the market in the same way.
There are a lot of reasons for this--maybe you remember Warner Brothers making waves in 2007 by saying they would no longer produce films with female leads? -- and this year, editor Frank Parlato, Jr. of the Niagara Falls Reporter made it pretty clear what he thinks of female-led movies when he was approached by a writer who had reviewed Snow White and the Huntsman and, in spite of the eyebrow-raising content of his response to the reviewer, it's depressingly not hard to image that there are plenty who share his views.
Then there's the perception that action films that star women can't succeed; people tend to back this up by citing films like Catwoman and Suckerpunch (which, if we're being honest here, are indeed lousy films, and both, incidentally, are great examples of Male Gaze in effect), and that's sort of like judging every Sean Connery film by League of Extraordinary Gentlemen--which is to say that it's unfair and only provides a narrow view of the subject,only looking at one not-so-great example, and it doesn't take into account things like the marketing the movies get, the writing, the star-power behind the film, and other factors in what makes a movie sell.
But sometimes, action movies that star women as the hero and not the victim in need of rescuing do get made. And they do sell.
Consider two of the twenty highest-grossing female-led action films: 1979's Alien starring Sigourney Weaver as Ripley and 2010's Salt starring Angelina Jolie as the title character. Ripley and Evelyn Salt are two very different and interesting characters that share an unusual trait: neither character was written for a woman.
When Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett wrote the early drafts of the script for Alien, the characters that comprised the crew were to be "unisex and all parts are interchangeable for men or women. Ripley's gender wasn't decided until Sigourney Weaver was cast in the role.
And then there's Evelyn Salt.
But a female action hero doesn't have to be portrayed with masculinity or without gender at all to be successful.
The top-earning female-led action film came out earlier this year, and set sales records for movies with a spring release.
There are plenty of examples from other media--Buffy, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, the Abhorsen trilogy, Charmed, Warehouse 13, Lost Girl, and tons of female-led anime.
One of the most shining examples of strong, action women on television has been Avatar: The Last Airbender and it's follow-up/sister series, The Legend of Korra. Both of these series are among the most popular animated shows of all time, with fans of all ages and all genders. And these two shows have some of the greatest female characters on television.
Okay, Pema may not actually fight much, but she's definitely a tough lady.
(And these are just the good guys.)
So, what's the secret, then? How can we get more characters like these?
It's in the writing, really, when all is said and done. In his essay "Why I Write 'Strong Female Characters,'" novelist and comic book writer Greg Rucka, says this about writing strong women:
Writers don't write Men or Women or Dogs or Salmon. Writers write characters, and at our best, if we do it well and with care and with thought, we invest in those characters a spark of life, a realism and nuance that makes them believable and relatable. We seek to craft characters who inspire empathy, characters our audience will care for, and as a result, will care about what happens to them, and thus will share the journey we have charted. A story, after all, is the character's journey. No character - no well-created character, at least - is defined by only one trait, by one aspect.That's why characters like Ripley, Katniss, Salt, Katara, Buffy, and so many others are so popular--it's the same reason why so many male characters are popular.
They're characters. They have flaws, passions, motives, and interests that make viewers and readers care about them.
So, how do you write a great female action character? It's like Greg Rucka says.
"The Quick Answer goes like this:
Q: How do you write such strong/well-realized/positively portrayed women?
A: I don't. I write characters. Some of those characters are women."