Reconstruction 5.4 (Fall 2005)

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"It's Not Easy Being a Cast Iron Bitch": Sexual Difference and the Female Action Hero / Diana Dominguez

Abstract: Lt. Ellen Ripley of the Alien series of films, Sarah Connor of the Terminator series, and Lindsey Brigman of The Abyss are examples of a special category of female role in Hollywood – the female action hero. To varying degrees of success, the three characters mentioned above defy the principal dilemma filmmakers seem to have in creating a character that can reconcile the presumably mutually exclusive aspects of "cast iron bitch" and traditional patriarchal societal views of femininity. Ripley, Connor, and Brigman infiltrate the male-dominated category of the action hero, but they are not "a direct feminine challenge" to the condition of feminine subordination which "means demanding to speak as a (masculine) 'subject,'" (Irigaray, "Power of Discourse" 76), for, to some extent, they defer to the men in more authoritative positions in their worlds. They each also deliberately embrace traditional feminine characteristics, thereby establishing a clear difference with male action hero counterparts. I argue that Ripley's and Connor's characters only achieve a limited success at maintaining sexual difference, for they each eventually repudiate the feminine, becoming, in effect, sexless and less "human" mirrors of male action heroes. Brigman, however, significantly embraces the traditional feminine qualities of wife and nurturer while maintaining her "cast iron bitch" personality and actions, serving as the model of a female action hero that most approaches the reality of women's own active qualities.


"It's not easy being a cast iron bitch. It takes discipline and years of training. A lot of people don't appreciate that."

<1> Those lines are uttered by the character Lindsey Brigman (played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) in James Cameron's 1989 film The Abyss, but they could just as easily have come out of the mouths of either Lt. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in the Alien films (1979, 1986, 1992, and 1997), or Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) of the Terminator films (1984, 1991, and 2003; although she does not physically appear, she is mentioned in Terminator 3 in a way that is significant to this article). All three characters are examples of a special category of female role in Hollywood – the female action hero [1]. To varying degrees of success, the three characters mentioned above defy the principal dilemma filmmakers seem to have in creating a character that can reconcile the presumably mutually exclusive aspects of "cast iron bitch" and traditional patriarchal societal views of femininity. A great number of films that claim to feature a strong female action hero generally correspond to two categories: exaggerated, campy productions featuring female protagonists that fall into the realm of male sexual fantasies (like 1996's Barb Wire with Pamela Anderson) or objects of male anxiety/derision (like 1995's Tank Girl with Lori Petty); or, serious attempts at showing the "equal" status of a female hero, but that end up stripping the woman of that status, either converting her into a traditional passive object for a male character (like 1997's The Peacemaker with Nicole Kidman and George Clooney), or turning her into a victim – the classic damsel in distress – who must ultimately be saved by the principal male character (like 1997's The Fifth Element with Milla Jovovich and Bruce Willis).

<2> The scarcity of strong, action-oriented but "feminine" characters seems to give much credence, at least in Hollywood, to what Luce Irigaray says in her landmark 1977 essay, "This Sex Which Is Not One": "Female sexuality has always been conceptualized on the basis of masculine parameters" (23). Recent films like the Tomb Raider series (2001, 2003), starring Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft, and 2005's Elektra with Alias's (ABC) Jennifer Garner seem to indicate a change in attitude about female heroism. However, while these films do portray their protagonists as physically and mentally tough and smart, they have also garnered criticism for the highly sexualized depiction of the female protagonists, suggesting that filmmakers and male viewers (the primary audience for action films) could not conceive of female heroism unless it is also tied to some kind of sexual connotation -- the fantasy of "taming" or "conquering" the "warrior" woman that perhaps dates all the way back to the tales of Greek Amazons, as Lyn Webster Wilde suggests in her 1999 book On the Trail of The Women Warriors (2) [2]. In general, however, most Hollywood films still seem to follow the edict that Carol Gilligan states in her book In a Different Voice: "active adventure is a male activity" (13). If a woman is to be "womanly," then she cannot also be what popular media has termed as "kick-ass" and able to fend for herself, even, or especially, against men. Because the majority of Hollywood films have been and still are produced and directed by men, who base their worldview "on the basis of masculine parameters" (Irigaray, "This Sex" 23), women's roles seem consistently to fall short of the reality of women's own active qualities. Gilligan states, not altogether facetiously: "It all goes back, of course, to Adam and Eve – a story which shows, among other things, that if you make a woman out of a man, you are bound to get into trouble" (6).

<3> This same concept of the non-active woman lies at the heart of Laura Mulvey's 1975 essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," wherein she claims that women in cinema only fulfill the function of the objects of the male's gaze or look, whether that male is the protagonist in the film or the spectator in the theater (1448-49). The women in these traditional films, Mulvey says, serve as catalysts to male action, but do not perform the main action themselves (1449). They are objects of desire or downfall, objects to be either possessed and tamed or punished and rejected by the male protagonists, and, by proxy, the male spectators (1450). In 1990, Mulvey wrote a follow-up article "Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' inspired by Duel in the Sun," in which she reads the female character's actions based on Freud's view of the construction of the feminine (moving from the pre-Oedipal "bisexual," active stage to accepting her status as a passive object of desire of the father substitute, a male lover or husband, in order to conform to patriarchy's requirement for women) (Irigaray, "Psychoanalytic Theory" 40-41). Mulvey posits that when a woman is the central protagonist, she is symbolic of a crisis of sexual identity. She claims that this type of female protagonist is inevitably trapped in situations which force her to choose between the "'correct path' … sublimation into a concept of the feminine that is socially viable" (148), and the path of "sexual passion, not based on maturity but on a regressive, boy/girl type of mixture of rivalry and play" (148) – in other words, a "masculinized" existence. Mulvey further claims that if the protagonist does not conform to society's expectations of her as a woman, the most common outcome is her death, implying that a non-traditional form of femininity cannot survive in the "real world" (148-151). Although Mulvey's argument specifically focuses on a woman having to choose between two men, each of whom represents either social acceptance or an unrestrained, non-conformist lifestyle – a situation not specifically faced by the three female protagonists discussed in this article – the dilemma inherent in Mulvey's analysis is the same: how to portray a woman on film who can be both non-conformist (i.e. heroic and physical) and traditional (i.e. "feminine" and socially acceptable) without having to kill her off or having to deny one side of her personality in order to "fit in" to society.

<4> Gilligan states, "… given the realities of adult life, if a girl does not want to be left dependent on men, she will have to learn to play like a boy" (10). But, this "playing like a boy" also serves to mark the female as the deviant, the outsider, as Mulvey claims, and as Carol Pearson and Katherine Pope state in their book The Female Hero in American and British Literature: "In general, female independent selfhood was and still is defined by the traditional patriarchy as theologically evil, biologically unnatural, psychologically unhealthy, and socially in bad taste" (6). These concepts all make their appearances, either blatantly or subtly, in many films that feature women in strong protagonist roles, including those discussed in this paper.

<5> Irigaray proposed in her 1975 essay, "The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine," that in order for women to introduce themselves into the traditional patriarchal discursive mechanism of society, they have to infiltrate it to then be able to destroy its exploitative nature. She asks, "How can we introduce ourselves into such a tightly-woven systematicity?" (76). One of the solutions, she claims, is to use mimicry, to "assume the feminine role deliberately … [to] convert a form of subordination into an affirmation, and thus begin to thwart it" (76). Simply challenging the patriarchal structure would maintain the sexual imbalance – the idea that the feminine must set itself up as an antagonistic opposite to the masculine – rather than defining the genders as simply different from each other. Irigaray claims that "to play with mimesis is thus, for a woman, to try to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse, without allowing herself to be simply reduced to it" (76). Pearson and Pope also talk of mimicry, and state that the cultural assumption is that "strong women are deviant and should be punished," and that these women, therefore, learn to disguise the qualities of strength, wisdom, and courage to survive, and mimic the societal, cultural expectations of how a woman behaves (10).

<6> Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, and Lindsey Brigman are characters that certainly infiltrate the male-dominated category of the action hero, but they are not "a direct feminine challenge" to the condition of feminine subordination which "means demanding to speak as a (masculine) 'subject,'" (Irigaray, "Power of Discourse" 76), for they all defer (or are forced to defer), in varying degrees, to the men in the more authoritative positions in their worlds. Each of the characters also deliberately embraces traditional feminine characteristics, thereby establishing a clear difference with male action hero counterparts. In this article, I will argue that Ripley's and Connor's characters only achieve a limited success at this sexual difference and mimesis, for they each eventually repudiate the feminine, becoming, in effect, sexless and less "human" mirrors of male action heroes. Lindsey Brigman, on the other hand, significantly embraces the traditional feminine qualities of wife and nurturer while maintaining her "cast iron bitch" personality and actions. The ending of The Abyss seems to imply "a utopian destination – of negotiated exchanges, of generosity and trust … [which] promises high rewards for mutual respect" (22), as Marina Warner states in her essay "Monstrous Mothers," in stark contrast to the endings of the Alien and Terminator films.

<7> Sigourney Weaver's Lt. Ellen Ripley in 1979's Alien seemed to usher in "a prototype for a new female lead that differs from the typical science fiction and fantasy film heroine," says Rebecca Bell-Metereau in her analysis of the feminist qualities of the film, "Woman: The Other Alien in Alien" (10) – although Princess Leia of the original Star Wars trilogy, which debuted in 1977, could lay claim to introducing the first female action hero (see my short discussion of Leia, par. 32). Ripley's character does lay a strong foundation for the image of an action heroine who does not give up her femininity in the process. As Bell-Metereau puts it, Ripley defies the traditional image of the woman in peril of this film genre: "she is not stunning, stunned, or simpering" (10). Additionally, the ending provides a complete reversal of the man standing alone, saving the world: "the female protagonist survives alone, not as a result of the rescue efforts of a man, but because of her own ingenuity, level-headedness, and humanity" (10).

<8> As a counterpoint to Ripley's cool-headedness in the face of danger, the film features one other woman, Lambert (played by Veronica Cartwright), who demonstrates many of the traditional attributes of the woman in peril in horror or science fiction films. Lambert constantly seems confused, indecisive, fearful, often on the verge of hysteria, and, when the alien attacks her, she is frozen, unable to act, prompting both her death and that of her fellow crewmember Parker. While the characterization of Lambert can be regarded as a not-so-subtle plot device, and makes Lambert rather unlikable, it serves to emphasize the very qualities that let Ripley survive in the end, the more "masculinized" qualities she possesses for leadership and survival against great odds.

<9> Ripley's interaction with the remainder of the crew, all male, lays the foundation for seeing her as a more traditional female. When they first come out of hyper sleep, she is the first of the crew to suspect that things aren't what they seem as far as the "distress" signal goes, but the men in the crew choose to ignore her warnings, asserting their male superiority. In spite of the logic she displays in following rules and making observations about their situation, her warnings and actions are constantly over-ridden. When she becomes the senior officer at Captain Dallas's death, her position as the leader is questioned or ignored by the remaining crew, and the revelation by "Mother" (the ship's computer) that retrieving and returning the alien organism to earth was the primary mission of the Nostromo under the direction of Ash, the science officer, emphasizes Ripley's (as well as Dallas's before her) lack of true authority. After this revelation, Ash, who turns out to be a robot, attacks Ripley by trying to shove a rolled up pornographic magazine down her throat, "cod[ing the attack] as a rape, with the added significance of the implied violence against women commonly associated with pornographic material" (Gallardo and Smith 48), placing Ripley squarely into the "female as victim" role. Ripley truly takes command only after Ash is incapacitated and literally decapitated by Parker, the black chief engineer, but her crew now consists of Parker (physically strong, but both a minority and a "low-man on the totem pole" figure) and Lambert (a "simpering," near hysterical woman who turns out to be useless and a hindrance in the fight against the alien), implying that Ripley is leader only because she is the most capable of the ones who are left, although this is a trope of the film's "slasher" genre, into which Carol Clover, in her landmark book on the modern horror film Men, Women, and Chain Saws, firmly places Alien (23).

<10> Two other plot elements endow Ripley with feminized characteristics that help to assure that her role does not become a parody of a male action hero. Toward the end of the film, Ripley seems to develop a "certain sentimental, illogical [and therefore stereotypically "feminine"?] attachment to Jones, the cat" (Bell-Metereau 18), which inadvertently saves her life when she refuses to leave him behind when only she, Parker, and Lambert are left. Her "sentimental" attachment serves to emphasize her nurturing tendency, something no other crewmember exhibits. The second plot element is one of the more controversial and often criticized scenes of the film. After Parker and Lambert have been killed, Ripley finally gets into the escape shuttle with Jones, the cat, and blasts away from the Nostromo, the "mother ship," which self-destructs and kills, she assumes, the Alien on board. Finally away from the danger, Ripley prepares for hypersleep on the escape shuttle by slowly undressing, with the camera lingering on areas of Ripley's body that clearly mark her as female. She is suddenly faced with the fact that the Alien has gotten aboard, and for a moment, she faces the Alien in an almost naked (supremely vulnerable) state. She manages to get into a closet that holds spacesuits, finally climbing into one for her final confrontation with the Alien and blasting it into outer space. Before stepping into the spacesuit, however, the camera focuses several times on the crotch of her white (bikini) panties – a very "feminine" undergarment. The scene could be viewed as an attempt to emphasize her vulnerability, to focus on the fact that she is a woman despite her seemingly unfeminine behavior, or to highlight the connection to the horror genre which often has scenes like this, as Clover explains in her chapter on the "slasher" film (21-64). However, it seems a rather crude attempt, especially considering that the rest of the film seems to purposely shy away from these more exploitative scenes. The scene, however, does emphasize the sexual difference of the main protagonist, clearly marking her as female. Arnold Schwarzenegger's "in the buff" appearances in the Terminator series aside, male action heroes rarely appear in scenes like Ripley's in Alien. The moment Ripley steps into the spacesuit, however, sexual difference is erased, and Ripley, the sensible, practical, and almost androgynous hero emerges onto the screen once again. The juxtaposition of the "skin-flick" and spacesuit scenes implies that Ripley survives because she is neither as macho or stubborn as a traditional male action hero nor as emotional or seemingly stupid as traditional "women as victims" who appear in other films in the genres of horror and science fiction; in other words, she is a character who appropriates the best of the two character types, what Clover has defined as the "Final Girl" (35) [3]. However, in terms of branding her as a "real" action hero, one must keep in mind that she is the sole survivor; there is no male around (unless one counts Jones the cat, who is male) who might all too easily usurp her status as the hero.

<11> The evolution of Ripley into an even more feminized action hero happens in Aliens, James Cameron's 1986 sequel. Throughout the film, Ripley is cast as the voice of caution against impending doom that goes unheeded. The film opens more than fifty years after the ending of the first film, when Ripley, still in hypersleep with Jones the cat, is rescued by a salvage team who finds her drifting shuttle. She is eventually sent back to the planet where the Alien was found with a team of Marines to investigate why communication has been lost with the families that have been living and working there for the past twenty years. She only agrees to go after being told that the mission is to wipe out the Aliens. In addition to the Marines, the mission includes a Company representative and an android named Bishop, both of whom arouse Ripley's suspicions and fears, reminding her of Ash and the Company's directive to acquire an Alien specimen at all costs during her first mission to the planet. The only Marine that seems attuned to Ripley's doubts (and who pays attention to her fears and suggestions) is Corporal Hicks (played by Michael Biehn), who exhibits both distrust of and disdain for the Company's and the commanding officer's authority (Lt. Gorman, who consistently reveals that his officer status is not based on exemplary combat experience). To counterpoint and emphasize her more feminine portrayal, the two other adult females with more than "walk-on" roles in the film are marines who seem to have lost, or deliberately suppressed, their feminine qualities. Private Vasquez, who is physically masculinized, is portrayed as being more "manly" than many of the male marines on the mission. In one scene, she is asked by a male marine if she has "ever been mistaken for a man" (Aliens), and she retorts the way any good, thick-skinned, wise-mouthed, and tough-minded man would: "No, have you?" (Aliens). She even "dies like a man" at the end of the film, exploding a hand grenade she is holding rather than letting the aliens capture her to take over her body. The other female marine, Corporal Ferro, the pilot of one of the transport ships, is shown to be less intuitive than her male companion on the transport shuttle. The male marine hesitates in closing the door to the ship because, as he tells the pilot, he "senses" that something isn't right after having noticed Alien slime on the ramp to the drop ship. She harshly overrides his "intuition," and, as a result, they both die because they are attacked by an alien that has climbed inside the ship.

<12> The other main female character in the film is Newt, the frightened but incredibly "street smart" little girl that Ripley nurtures and treats like a daughter. This last element serves to emphasize even more strongly that only Ripley possesses that maternal, nurturing, and perhaps too sentimental characteristic that is traditionally considered a woman's "instinctive" domain. It is an important plot point that neither Vasquez nor the female medic on the mission to the planet with themcan reach the little girl, putting them into the same category as the male marines who give up trying to communicate with her. Ripley is also contrasted with the marines (both male and female) in that she exhibits visible and obvious fear throughout the mission (in fact, she is dismissed by most of the Marines as "hysterical") – as opposed to Vasquez, especially, who is trigger-happy and Rambo-esque in her desire (and even her physical appearance) to go after the Aliens. Ripley acts heroically only because her fear and desire for survival make her brave.

<13> While her own eventual confrontation with the alien queen serves to endow Ripley with masculinized qualities, it is obvious that she adopts these qualities because her very feminine "maternal instincts" are aroused. Because her own "child" (Newt) has been threatened, she destroys the alien eggs in the queen's lair in what Ilsa Bick calls, in her article "'Well, I Guess I Must Make You Nervous': Woman and the Space of Alien3," "a spectacular ejaculatory burst of (male) technological wizardry … Ripley the mother has crossed over into the territory of caricatured machismo phallicness" (50). Ripley later battles against the queen in the hold of the marines' ship when Newt is again threatened by the queen herself. In the battle scene, in fact, Ripley becomes an androgynous ideal of an action hero, for she dons the armor of a mechanized loader, which hides her femininity but does not quite make her a man (as she did in her battle with the Alien at the end of the first film by donning a space suit). In the ensuing fight with the Alien queen, Ripley cries out sounds of fear, unlike a typical male action hero, who would probably curse or make ironic comments while fighting, as exemplified by Bruce Willis in Die Hard (1988), or Arnold Schwarzenegger in most of his action films. By the end of the film, Ripley's femininity is back in place: she "maternally" puts the wounded and unconscious Hicks (blinded by Alien acid) and the dismembered android Bishop (who was torn apart by the Alien queen right after their arrival on the ship) into their "cribs" for hypersleep and lovingly helps Newt get ready for bed. Once again, however, while it is a strong female with both feminine and masculinized qualities who has saved the day, there is no strong male partner present to overshadow her.

<14> The third film, Alien3 (1992), disrupts Ripley's character growth in terms of a true female action hero. The film opens with a fire aboard the Sulaco, the ship on which Ripley, Newt, Hicks, and Bishop escaped from the Alien planet, which causes the ship's computer to push the cryogenic tubes in which they sleep into an escape vehicle, which crash lands on the planet Fiorina 161, a maximum security correctional facility inhabited solely by male convicts. Ripley is the only survivor. The film is a stark contrast to the previous two films' blend of "feminine/masculine" qualities in Ripley, presenting viewers with an androgynous protagonist from the beginning, effectively erasing sexual difference. To begin with, any physical aspects of femininity are blurred: Ripley must shave her head because of the lice problem on the penal station; in spite of the fact that there are no other women around (a sharp contrast with the previous two films), the men do not serve as counterpoints to emphasize her feminine qualities – all her dealings with the men on the station are confrontational and as masculinized as the men's own behavior; and, in the only sexual encounter Ripley ever has in the four films, she is the initiator, using a line, "it's been a long time," often uttered by the loner hero in traditional male hero films. The encounter itself isn't filmed, but there is a clear implication from the conversation the two characters have afterward that it was not much more than satisfying a biological need. Although the audience can understand and even sympathize with her fears of finding an Alien inside Newt, motivating her request for a thorough examination, the autopsy and Ripley's actions/reactions are brutally invasive and even cold-bloodedly clinical, which serves to strip from Ripley the maternal, nurturing characteristics that the second film went to such pains to emphasize. Her tears at the funeral of both Newt and Hicks lessen the apparent rigid stoicism that Ripley has acquired, but they do not really feminize her, for she stands silently throughout, trying to keep her emotions under control, most likely not to incite even further confrontation with the penal colony inhabitants, but her tears are not a mother's tears. Additionally, while the attempted rape of Ripley by several of the inmates certainly seems to label her as feminine (i.e. the traditional victim), it is quite symbolic to note that she is put into a position that implies penetration from behind, which certainly signifies further degradation and humiliation, but also implies a male-male rape, again blurring the gender references for Ripley.

<15> Her death scene is also a gender-blurring element, for, on one hand, she "gives birth" to the alien inside her, a definite feminine quality,but, on the other, she does not exhibit the nurturing, maternal qualities she exhibited in Aliens, preferring to kill the alien at all costs, including sacrificing her life. The fact that the overriding trope of the film series is that the Alien actually "feminizes" all humanity (both male and female humans give "birth" to the Aliens after being "impregnated" by the "Facehuggers" that emerge from the Alien Queen's eggs) simply adds to the erosion of gender differentiation in Ripley. Rather than presenting audiences with a character who appropriates and embraces the traditional or patriarchal qualities of the feminine along with more masculine qualities of the male action hero (as was done in Alien and Aliens), Alien3 gives spectators an ambiguously-gendered hero who never completely assimilates the characteristics or qualities of either gender, thus blurring the very concept of sexual difference. In this film, Ripley's character falls into the role of the female Mulvey illustrates in her 1990 article on Duel in the Sun, the non-traditional feminine who cannot survive in the "real world" (148-151), and, therefore, as Pope and Pearson assert, must be punished (10).

<16> Alien: Resurrection (1997) further blurs the concept of sexual difference by presenting audiences with a "hero" who is both human and alien, a true deviant. The story takes place on the Auriga, a military research station housing scientists who have devised a way to "blend" Ripley's DNA with that of the Alien Queen, producing a human-alien hybrid. Into this setting comes a pirate crew with its smuggled cargo of frozen human bodies to serve as hosts for future Alien "breeding." In this film, even Ripley's role as a hero is ambiguous, as throughout the film there are hints that, because of her alien genetics, she cannot be completely trusted by the humans she joins forces with to escape the science vessel. She is viewed as a genetic experiment, a "perfect tool" by the scientists who created her, emphasizing the fact that she is no longer a human, let alone a woman. Because this hybrid being has retained some of the original Ripley's genetic material – and her trace memories – she has an ingrained distrust of the scientists' efforts to "tame" the new aliens into doing human bidding, and warns them that they will all die, resurrecting for audiences the unheeded predictions that the human Ripley gave in all three previous films. However, any attempt in this film to give Ripley feminine qualities is quickly juxtaposed with a scene in which her alien qualities make her almost a parody of a monosyllabic male action hero. In a scene which seems to emphasize her womanly attributes, but which reduces her to a "traditional" sexual object, Johner, a member of the smugglers' crew, attempts to seduce her as she practices dunking basketballs in the ship's recreation center. She seems to flirt with him at first, but then hits him with the ball in his crotch and ultimately sends him flying across the room with one shove. When he later finds out Ripley is a hybrid, he is disgusted at his urges, but relieved he didn't have sex with "it" (Alien Resurrection). When she kills several of the aliens who have escaped the lab, Annalee Call (who is revealed to be an android) asks Ripley how she can kill her own kind; Ripley's answer is a one-liner that audiences might expect Arnold Schwarzenegger to utter: "It was in my way" (Alien: Resurrection).

<17> Ripley is juxtaposed in this film with two other women, Annalee Call and the smuggler captain's pilot and girlfriend, Hillard. While Annalee seems to be quite feminine at first, the fact that she turns out to be an android once again blurs the line between human and synthetic, like Ripley herself. Ironically, Hillard, who dies halfway through the film, is closest to being the true version of the "new" female action hero: she is tough, can hold her own with the men around her, and can kill when necessary without qualms, but shows real concern for her lover, is a fully-sexual being, and sheds tears when her lover dies. By the end of the film, Ripley shows ambiguous "maternal" qualities. As she did in the second film with Newt, Ripley opts for a "synthetic" motherhood and openly rejects any biological connection to maternity. One of the newly born aliens turns out to be a misshapen hybrid, and Ripley uses its attachment to her as its "mother" or biological "equal" to lure it to its death. She then seems to accept Annalee as a surrogate "daughter" as the ship makes its final approach to earth. Ripley's last line in the film is symbolic of the dilemma of creating a truly feminine action hero: "I'm a stranger here myself" (Alien: Resurrection), she says about whether or not she will be accepted on earth. The end of the Ripley-Alien franchise effectively confuses and conflicts the very concept of a female action hero, blurring the boundaries of true sexual difference. The same arc – of sexually differentiated female hero to gender-blurring portrayal – takes place in The Terminator series, featuring Sarah Connor (played by Linda Hamilton).

<18> The Terminator, released in 1984, between the first two Alien films, seemed to capitalize on the non-traditional action hero status of Ripley in the first Alien (1979) film. Directed by James Cameron, who then went on to direct Aliens in 1986, Sarah Connor (the main character) seems almost a template for the qualities Ripley exhibited to a greater degree in that second Alien film. The film centers on the concepts of time-travel and apocalyptic fears of machines taking over the world. A cybernetic soldier – a Terminator – is sent from the future to change the past, to kill the mother (Sarah) of a future leader of a resistance force to the self-aware machines that have taken control of the world and killed almost all humans. Sarah seems to explode the stereotype of the traditional female in an action film: "a woman who fought for herself and did not fall apart the moment her man died" (Jones 64). A closer inspection shows that while she certainly is not the "simpering, hysterical" woman who becomes a hindrance to the male hero (Bell-Metereau, 10), she is only valuable in this film because she will be a mother – the mother of the future, as Kyle Reese informs her. Reese is the soldier from the future sent back by John Connor (Sarah and Reese's son) to Sarah's time to protect her from the Terminator, whose mission is to kill Sarah (Reese is played by Michael Biehn who would go on to play the "good" guy Hicks in Aliens). As Jason Jones says in his article "Terminating Femininity: Ideology and the Terminator Movies," "Sarah Connor is not a woman, merely a womb fighting to preserve her status as a womb" (64). Like Ripley, Connor is fighting for her survival, and, ultimately, for the survival of the earth, but it is clear that Connor would not be a hero if it were not for the son she will bear.

<19> Along with the traditional role of mother thrust upon her, however, Connor's character does exhibit, in the first film, highly feminized qualities. At the beginning of the film, she is seen getting prepared for a date, doing all the traditional "girly" things – putting on makeup, styling her hair, dressing in a flirty, sexy outfit. Throughout her ordeal, she shows fear in the face of danger, at some moments even displaying what can be described as hysterical reactions. She falls in love with Reese, resulting in their sexual union, which culminates in John Connor's birth and eventual status as the leader of the resistance (so that he can send his own father back to protect his mother and make his existence possible). By the end of the film, Sarah is pregnant, a specifically female condition. However, Sarah also exhibits more masculinized qualities in the midst of danger: she learns how to fight and shoot a gun, she learns how to build bombs, she performs first aid on Reese with very little squeamishness, and, after Reese dies, she manages to destroy the Terminator through quick thinking and survival instincts, rather than becoming hysterical and needing to be rescued by a man at the last minute. At the end of the film, she is pregnant, alone, on the run, and facing the raising of her son "with no support and no hope for her own future" (Jones 64), bringing together the concept of the female as victim (abandoned and pregnant) and the concept of a tough survivor (she'll do what needs to be done to assure the safety of her son). However, in spite of the fact that Connor's character seems to defy the stereotypes, it is important to note that her importance in the narrative is due to her impending motherhood, not solely to her own strength or place in history.

<20> While in the first film Connor is the symbol of ultimate "womanhood," a mother, in the second film, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), even that quality is taken away from the character. The story takes place more than ten years after the first, with John Connor now a troubled teenager living with foster parents and Sarah confined to a mental institution because of her "delusions" and repeated attempts at blowing up the company developing new cybernetics technology (which she knows becomes Skynet, which unleashes the machines that become self-aware and destroy the world). The machines of the future have sent back a terminator, an advanced T1000, to kill John, and John of the future has sent back a reprogrammed T101 (the same model of the terminator in the first film) to protect the teenaged John. John and the T101 (Schwarzenegger) break Sarah out of the psychiatric facility, and together they must battle the T1000. In the scenes she has with her now teenaged son John, Sarah is a decidedly "unmotherly" mother: she is cold, calculating, non-nurturing, and cares more for what her son stands for rather than the boy himself. According to Jones, she becomes "essentially another (male) terminator" (64). Her obsession becomes destroying the company that will create the technology that leads to Skynet. Although the obsession is born of trying to change the future so that her son does not have to become the leader of the resistance in the future, it serves to make Sarah's character driven, angry, and devoid of any seeming compassion or sympathy – a caricature of man's worst nightmare: a man-hating, physically exaggerated, revenge-minded woman with a gun (who knows how to use it).

<21> It seems that Sarah has learned the lessons of being a hero all too well, to the point of erasing any of the feminine qualities she was still able to retain and display in the first film. The second film also casts Sarah into the role of a woman who uses men to get only what she needs; in this case, the string of boyfriends she has had are "bad fathers" for John, but useful in that they teach her survival tactics she needs to protect her son. These lessons she learns "in short, [deny her] any sexual difference of her own out of deference to her son" (Jones 65). In fact, the Terminator-turned-protector becomes a better nurturer to John than Sarah seems able to be. While Sarah can be read as an idealized mother – the mother who sacrifices everything for her child – her status as "legendary mother" denies both her femininity and humanity, turning her into a "skinny female version of Mr. Schwarzenegger's exaggerated musculature" (Maslin, qtd. in Jones 65). As in the Alien series, sexual difference is erased when Connor adopts these highly masculinized hero qualities but does not also embrace more traditional feminine behaviors. True sexual difference should allow audiences to see the hero as inherently female (and feminine) rather than a male hero with a different body structure.

<22> While Sarah Connor does not physically appear in the third Terminator film, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, her driven, obsessive warrior mentality makes its appearance in a significant scene, one that makes her an icon of the selfless mother/warrior hero who sacrifices even her final resting place for the sake of her son – the true hero of the trilogy. The film is set some ten years after Terminator 2, with John Connor now in his 20s (Nick Stahl), living "off the grid" in order not to attract the attention of any authorities or possible enemies from the future. Although he and his mother changed the future with their actions in Terminator 2 (avoided the "Day of Judgment" when the machines take over), John is not convinced that his and the world's existence are safe. The future comes calling again, in the form of a female terminator sent to kill John and his resistance lieutenants and yet another terminator sent to protect John. One of those future lieutenants targeted by the female terminator is Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), a veterinary assistant whose father is a US Air Force general who will be instrumental in unleashing Skynet. She is kidnapped-rescued by John and the T-101 terminator (Schwarzenegger), and eventually becomes part of the plot to destroy the female terminator and survive to create the resistance. In the scene that "features" Sarah Connor, the Terminator-protector, the T-800, takes John and Kate to the cemetery where Sarah is buried. John reveals to Kate that his mother died in 1997 of leukemia. Inside the vault, the T-800 violently punches his fist through the marble name plaque to gain access to the coffin inside, an action that angers and shocks John, only to reveal that the coffin contains a cache of guns rather than Sarah's remains. Rather than being a final monument to his mother's memory, the gun-filled coffin becomes symbolic of Sarah's true legacy – a warrior-woman who would even sacrifice her burial site for the sake of her son's destiny. The punch through the marble seems the last insult to her "femininity" – a kind of penetration into the final "womb" of death that removes the last traces of her possible femaleness. The T-800 explains that Sarah requested to be cremated and have her ashes spread across the desert, an act that simultaneously makes her both invisible and unforgettable (she is "nothing" but everywhere at the same time). She becomes a "legendary mother" without a physical presence, even if that physical presence were only her tomb and mortal remains.

<23> Additionally, as if to emphasize the non-nurturing aspect of this new warrior female, it is a "Terminatrix," dressed in red leather (can anyone say dominatrix?), who can assume all shapes and genders (the ultimate androgyny and erasure of sexual difference) who comes after John and his lieutenants. Shortly after the tomb scene, John and the audience find out that it was Kate of the future who reprogrammed the T-800 and sent him back in time to protect them from the "Terminatrix." Therefore, she is the one who can give the T-800 orders (not John) because John has been killed by the T-800 in the future; Kate reprogrammed the T-800 to go back and protect them, and, it seems she has taken up the reins of leadership of the resistance after his death. The T-800 also reveals that Kate is not only the co-leader of the resistance, but also John's wife. Although there is an awkward attempt to establish some kind of romantic/emotional connection between Kate and John to make the idea of their marriage logical (Kate reveals she had a crush on John when they were teens, living next door to each other – just before he disappeared; she confesses that he was the first boy she ever kissed; and, although she has a fiancé and is planning her wedding as the film opens, she seems hesitant about her impending marriage, implying her current fiancé is not the "one," as John apparently turns out to be), that aspect of their relationship seems strained in the film, leaving the impression that their marriage may not be much more than a warrior partnership. In fact, when the T-800 explains her importance in the future, he calls her John's lieutenant first, revealing she is also his wife almost as an afterthought, and the audience is left with the feeling that it is her military nomenclature that is her primary identity, not wife. The third film, like the first two, turns both Sarah Connor and Kate Brewster into single-minded warriors whose only purpose is to protect John at all costs, in effect, denying their own identities, erasing a sense of sexual difference in the process. In one scene, after Kate has accepted that she must fight for her survival, John tells her that she reminds him of his mother, symbolically (or perhaps even literally) passing the torch of the sexless warrior female hero from mother to future daughter-in-law. In addition, Kate is, significantly, only called by her maiden name (Brewster) by the T-800, not Kate Connor, and because it is revealed John has died in the future – with only a hint that they might be able to change the future – the film, once again, fulfills the edict that a strong, warrior-minded, heroic woman cannot survive alongside an equally heroic and strong male – either he must die in order to allow her to succeed on her own, like Ripley, or she must die to allow the real (male) hero to accomplish his heroic destiny – like Connor.

<24> However, in opposition to both Ripley and Connor, and standing as an example that a true ethics of sexual difference can be achieved, the character of Lindsey Brigman in 1989's The Abyss (significantly, also directed by James Cameron) successfully emphasizes the balance of "gendered" behavior in the female action hero without turning her into a parody of a male action hero. The film takes place on an experimental submersible drilling rig that is appropriated by the US Navy to find a nuclear submarine that has crashed in a deep underwater trench. A team of Navy SEALs (led by the Rambo-esque Lt. Coffey, played by Michael Biehn against he "good guy" type he played in Terminator and Aliens) is sent down to the rig to direct the investigation into the cause of the crash, which the Navy thinks was instigated by the Russians (Soviet Union). Bud Brigman is the leader of the drilling crew, and his soon-to-be ex-wife Lindsey is the designer of the rig, and comes down to the rig with the Navy SEALs. To add to their troubles, a hurricane is massing top-side, eventually causing a loss in communication between the submerged rig and its "mother" ship, and the human inhabitants of the drilling rig encounter underwater extra-terrestrials living in the deeper abyss on whose edge the rig rests. Tensions mount between the SEALs, the rig crew, and the extra-terrestrials, leading to a near apocalyptic confrontation that threatens to destroy the world, although it becomes evident that the extra-terrestrials are not aggressive or intentionally destructive – their eventual threat to destroy the world is more a wake-up call to the aggressive and violent humans, and a plea for humans to find a way to come together in peace (it should be noted that the film was released at the height of the Cold War, and seems to be Cameron's statement about political tensions and Reagan-era posturing).

<25> Lindsey Brigman is a self-described "cast-iron bitch" (The Abyss). She is aggressive, abrasive, outspoken, highly adept at her job as the designer of the rig in what is clearly "a man's world," and tough in the face of danger – all traditionally masculinized qualities and behaviors. Her character also displays feminine qualities. Although "tough as nails," she does not adopt a masculine physique or mannerism; it is clear she is a woman throughout the film. Her character also exhibits the more traditionally feminine qualities of fear, emotional outbursts, pleading tones, and a kind of "woman's intuition" in her assessment of what she perceives as the aliens' benevolent nature. A highly significant difference in Lindsey's characterization as compared to Ripley's and Connor's is that she is not denied a fully realized love relationship, which culminates in the renewal of her marriage (a highly traditional relationship) to Bud.

<26> A highly symbolic scene, which sets the stage for seeing Lindsey as a female hero that fulfills the promise of sexual difference, comes when her character is introduced. She steps off the helicopter, but the camera focuses only on her legs; she is wearing a skirt, stockings, and high heels, the epitome of a "womanly" female, as well as an objectifying device in film. However, when the camera cuts to the people on the bridge, one character groans and says, "Oh no, look who's with them -- the Queen Bitch of the Universe" (The Abyss). The comment implies she is not simply an object of lustful fantasy (given her character development, it is highly doubtful Lindsey would allow that without some kind of response – verbal or physical). She is also clearly not a simpering female who can be pushed around, for in the next scene that features Lindsey, she verbally harangues all the men around her, and it is obvious the men don't know how to, and, more importantly, wouldn't dare to "put her in her place."

<27> Later in the film, Lindsey reaches the ideal of an ethics of sexual difference in the scene that casts her in the role of the true female action hero: the emotional and gut-wrenching drowning scene. Lindsey makes the decision to let herself drown in order to save both Bud and herself. She takes charge of the situation and thinks "rationally" and "logically" for both of them; in fact, Bud tells her she is smart, rational, and more capable than he is of coming up with a solution to their problem. Bud, on the other hand, tries desperately (hysterically?) to think of some way to save both of them that doesn't involve Lindsey's drowning, but, ultimately, realizes that Lindsey's solution is the only way. However, Lindsey does not succumb to her fate in the stoic manner of a determined, fearless action hero: she panics, has doubts, shouts that she has changed her mind, and drowns with terror clearly showing on her face and in her eyes. What this film is most successful at showing, in fact, are the "feminine" and "masculine" qualities that both women and men can possess, bringing into question the whole concept of stereotypical gender-specific behavior. Bud exhibits what can be described as distinctive and traditionally "feminine" qualities: he nurtures his crew, shows hesitancy in aggressive confrontation, refuses to admit his relationship with Lindsey is over, and makes the first overt declaration of love. Other elements of the film brand Lindsey as a non-traditional female hero; clearly, no one, not even Bud, doubts her superior expertise when it comes to the design and mechanics of the rig, and she is acknowledged without question as the natural leader of the group after Bud's apparent death. She does not become the leader by default (there are clearly capable males around, including a Navy SEAL) as Ripley does in the first two Alien films.

<28> The final scene of the film might seem to cast Lindsey into the role of a traditional wife or "little woman" behind the man, when Bud greets her as "Mrs. Brigman," in effect, one could say, denying her a separate and independent identity. However, both Bud and Lindsey have had equally traumatic and harrowing opportunities to be heroes and "saviors" of the world (both "die" and are revived). Additionally, this final scene must be viewed in context: in an early scene Lindsey makes it clear she does not like being called Mrs. Brigman, and tells Bud that she didn't like it, "even when it meant something" (The Abyss). Their adventure of survival together, however, reawakens the love that is obviously still there, but Lindsey's initial reaction to his greeting at the end of the film need not be seen as submissive. Right before she kisses him, she cocks an eyebrow and gives a little smile, as if to say, "okay, the name means something now, but it doesn't mean I'm going to stop being the same 'cast-iron bitch' I've always been." Given Lindsey's consistent characterization throughout the film, it would be hard to assume she will suddenly become a traditional, submissive, and quiet "little woman." It is also hard to assume that Bud, based on his characterization, would demand that of her. The final scene, in fact, could be said to symbolize Irigaray's hope that "a world [could] be created or re-created so that man and woman may once again or at last live together, meet, and sometimes inhabit the same place" ("Sexual Difference" 17).

<29> Lindsey's relationship with Bud is one of the important differences between Lindsey and Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley. Neither of the latter two is allowed a long-term, mutually respectful, and loving relationship. In the first three Alien films, the men with whom Ripley has even a hint of a non-professional relationship are killed or maimed: Dallas in the first film, the captain she seems to trust more than anyone else on the ship; Hicks, in the second, who teaches her how to shoot the marine weapons and seems attracted to her; and Clemens, in the third, the doctor with whom she has sex. In the fourth film, the only hint of a sexual attraction is literally thrown away by Ripley. In the first Terminator, Sarah falls in love with and sleeps with Reese, thereby conceiving John, but he is killed by the Terminator; in the second film, John announces that all the relationships his mother had with men were for the sole purpose of learning survival tactics, and that she somehow managed to sabotage them all eventually. Throughout that film, it is implied that her best option is celibacy. In the third Terminator film, of course, Sarah Connor falls prey to the "sacrificial" female hero role, fulfilling the premise that heroic females cannot exist in the "real" world. In both these series of films, a relationship with the female hero means death for any male who dares get close romantically, almost as a sort of punishment for invading her independent state. Only Lindsey Brigman is allowed to have not only a relationship, but one based on mutual love and respect.

<30> What is disheartening to note as I conclude this analysis is that the second and third Terminator films and the third and fourth Alien films were released after The Abyss in 1989. Those four films effectively reversed or even destroyed any progress that the prior films (Alien, Aliens, The Terminator, and The Abyss) seemed to make in restructuring the female heroic role on film. By making Sarah a one-track-minded warrior woman with a terrorist mentality and making her a vivid icon for female "warrior-hood" even after her death in the third film, and by progressively stripping Ripley of not only her femininity but her humanity (giving her a shaved head in the third film, and making her an alien-human hybrid in the fourth), these female heroes become parodies of male heroic action protagonists, as if being a strong woman implies a form of sexlessness. They are neither women nor men; they look suspiciously like women, but only display masculinized tendencies and behaviors. They seem, also, to have no real place in the world (as Ripley's character says in Alien: Resurrection), as no other film since then has come close to creating a truly complex and "whole" female action hero in the pattern of Lindsey Brigman.

<31> Since the late 1990s, the film industry has seemed obsessed with providing audiences with female action heroes who are both highly sexualized (i.e. "fully female") and physically action-oriented, but they all seem to fall into the pattern that Mulvey asserts: she must either be subsumed into a traditional secondary role, or she must be killed ("Afterthoughts" 148-151). Or, as often happens in many recent films, the female hero must go off alone, in the tradition of the tough cowboy who rides off into the sunset without the girl. Lara Croft, in the Tomb Raider films (2001 and 2003), is sexy and emotionally vulnerable as well as tough and physically strong, but she is not given a fully-realized sexual or romantic relationship with the promise of a long-term, equal partnership. The character of Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) in the highly successful Matrix trilogy (1999 and 2003), although full of the promise of a true female hero in the first and second films, falls prey to the sacrificial female hero role in the third film, shattering the possibility of a heroic duo that will usher in the new world, highlighting my hypothesis that, if there is a strong male hero present in the plot, an equally strong female hero cannot survive [4]. X-Men (2000) and X2's (2003) Jean Grey, a character with the potential for both heroics and a long-term relationship, becomes a sacrificial female hero in the second film at the moment her powers become more substantial,and Halle Berry's Storm is something of a background character in both films. In Catwoman (2004), the female protagonist played by Halle Berry seems to represent the hopeless situation of film female action heroes: she must decide between her life as an independent quasi-heroic figure or the promise of a loving relationship; she cannot have both (in the tradition of Ellen Ripley and Sara Connor). The character of Elektra (Jennifer Garner) in Daredevil (2003) is both highly feminized and action-oriented, and has a romantic (and sexual) relationship with Matt Murdock (the Daredevil), but, as with many female action characters, the relationship is short-lived. After trying to kill him, thinking he killed her father, she is ostensibly killed. The 2005 film Elektra takes up where Daredevil left off, with the very much alive Elektra now a ninja assassin who seems soulless and obsessed with her new role of a hired killed until she makes friends with the father/daughter pair she is hired to kill. While the story contains Jungian symbolism in its exploration of Elektra's search for her soul and heroic character, and even allows Elektra moments of considering the possibility of love and family (with the father/daughter she has now vowed to protect against other killers), the end of the film presents yet another in the long line of female action heroes who, in order to continue to exist as a quasi-heroic character, must deny herself the trappings and/or complications of romance or domesticity [5]. Like Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley before her (and even Sarah Connor's future daughter-in-law Kate Brewster), Elektra travels the heroic journey alone.

<32> Parenthetically, I would argue that the original model for a female action hero who successfully merged physical heroic action with both "feminine" appearance/qualities and a significant (and equal) romantic relationship was Princess Leia of the original Star Wars trilogy, released in late 2004 on DVD, introducing a new generation to the Star Wars phenomenon. Her character (played by Carrie Fisher) debuted in 1977, pre-dating Ellen Ripley by two years in what is now titled Episode IV: A New Hope, and found both love and the ability to contribute heroically to changing the universe on an equal footing with her male partners in 1983's Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, six years before the appearance of Lindsey Brigman's self-professed "cast-iron bitch." No discussion of Leia, however, can be complete without mention of the (in)famous and controversial metal bikini scene in Return of the Jedi, when Leia is captured by Jabba the Hut after rescuing the carbonite-encased Han Solo and made into a (most likely sexual) slave girl, complete with skimpy slave girl outfit and a chain around her neck that Jabba holds and yanks at will. It can certainly be argued that the scene serves to compromise Leia's heroic status, as neither Luke nor Han are put into such blatantly exploitative and humiliatingly vulnerable situations. Being put into a specifically female sexual victim position (threat of rape; sex slave), however, serves to emphasize the sexual difference of Leia's hero status, making her a specifically female action hero. Her skimpy outfit might be seen as a precursor to Ripley's controversial "crotch" scene in Alien. However, Ripley's scene erases sexual difference when Ripley steps into the spacesuit, cloaking her in androgyny, which then allows her to perform her final heroic act in killing the Alien. I would argue that the metal bikini scene, on the other hand, serves Leia's character in a much more empowering way. Leia turns her "sexual difference vulnerability" into a direct "weapon" when she uses the chain that enslaves her to strangle Jabba, something he clearly neither anticipates nor imagines. The scene is rife with sexual innuendo in a way that Ripley's scene is not, turning Leia into a sex object/victim at the same time that it moves her into the realm of sexual fantasy, which anticipates the sexually-charged portrayals of today's female action heroes like Lara Croft, Elektra, and Halle Berry's Catwoman or Bond Girl Jinx in 2002's Die Another Day (something of a departure from traditional Bond Girls, for she is just as – if not more – sexually aggressive as James Bond himself). As with these new heroic females, Leia's metal bikini moment serves to attract men in the audience while also sending out a message of empowerment to the female audience (see paragraph 2 and note 2).

<33> However, even that landmark portrayal has, sadly, succumbed to the "female action hero dilemma." Although George Lucas has tried to give audiences a new Leia to root for in the first two Star Wars prequels (Episode One – 1999; Episode Two – 2002), for many fans of the original trilogy, Padme/Amidala, Leia's mother (played by Natalie Portman), does not live up to the success and popularity of her daughter, although momentary glimpses of Leia's feisty, outspoken, and feminine nature do appear. The third Star Wars prequel, Episode Three: Revenge of the Sith, released in May 2005, unfortunately strips Padme of those feisty, heroic qualities, turning her into what can only be described as a throwback to the medieval damsels in distress who pine away for their lovers and wait to be rescued. Like Elaine of Astolat in the Arthurian tales, who dies of a broken heart after she is rejected by Sir Lancelot, Padme dies from her grief at having lost Annakin. The medical robot attending Padme as she lies on a table in a medical ward tells the concerned Obi-Wan and others that there is nothing physically wrong with her, but she is dying – she has lost the will to live. She gives birth to her twins, whispers to Obi-Wan that "there is still good in him [Annakin]" (Revenge of the Sith), then closes her eyes and dies. Her demise left this viewer disappointed and deflated, to say the least. The bright spot in the Star Wars franchise is that Lucas is planning to release all six of the films in a special DVD package, allowing the full story to unfold in its chronological order, meaning that viewers will be rewarded with the evolution of a female heroic character, rather than what I would call the devolution of that character that the big screen release schedule gave viewers.

<34> Irigaray states, "In order for an ethics of sexual difference to come into being, we must constitute a possible place for each sex, body, and flesh to inhabit … [but] to do this requires … both space and time" ("Sexual Difference" 18). This new place must include room for the female/feminine gender as well, on its own terms, not simply as the opposite of or a parody of the male/masculine gender. Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, and, especially, Lindsey Brigman (and Princess Leia before them) seemed to promise the ushering in of that "ethics of sexual difference," but, unfortunately, succumbed to Ripley's fate of being "a stranger here" (Alien: Resurrection). However, there is the beginning of a change in perception of the female hero from a more personal and familiar direction.

<35> Greater advancements in promoting sexual difference in female action heroes have been made in television. Popular series like Xena: Warrior Princess, La Femme Nikita, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Fox's Dark Angel, TNT's Witchblade, and ABC's Alias all feature protagonists with highly developed physical skills, body features that clearly mark them as female (although it can be argued that they, like their big screen counterparts, are portrayed in an unrealistically sexualized fashion), and long-term relationships (albeit conflicted and fraught with problems) with one "significant other" (or, in the case of Buffy, two different significant others). Most remarkably, the Sci-Fi Channel's long-running and critically acclaimed series, Farscape (1999-2003, with special mini-series or feature films planned periodically to follow up on the story line), features a fully realized heroic couple (almost equally matched in physical skills – Aeryn Sun, the female main character, as a non-human, is stronger physically, something John Crichton, the male human main character, concedes and accepts – but clearly sexually different). In the critically well-received and highly anticipated four-hour mini-series follow-up in October 2004, Aeryn and John were married and had a child, realizing the potential established by The Abyss's Bud and Lindsey Brigman.

<36> Sadly, in spite of the promise these television series seemed to imply in how strong, heroic females are portrayed (even with the criticism they have garnered regarding the highly sexualized nature of the female protagonists), all except Alias have been cancelled by the opening years of the new millennium. While all the series mentioned are available through re-runs, DVD packages, and the promise of mini-series or even feature films, these aspects cater mostly to the already existing fan base, rather than generating new fans, or breaking new ground by allowing the story lines and characters to evolve further. It remains to be seen how Alias, which returned for its highly anticipated fourth season in January 2005 and has been renewed for the 2006 season, will fare, and whether the creators will continue to evolve Sydney Bristow's relationship with Michael Vaughn into a true partnership on the model of Lindsey and Bud Brigman (or Leia and Han Solo). It also remains to be seen whether the strides television has made in portraying female action heroes as both "feminine" and physical, as well as romantically attached more or less successfully (i.e. long-term, committed), will eventually find their way to the big screen. The question must remain unanswered for the moment. Will the "real world" ever be ready for that seemingly unimaginable creature: a woman who can be nurturing, loving, sexual, vulnerable, and feminine, but also "kick-ass," able to overpower and kill the "bad guys," and save the world (or universe) – all at the same time?


[1] Although it can be argued that the concept of a female action hero existed before 1979's Alien (as I do in this essay in my brief discussion of Princess Leia of the original Star Wars trilogy, par. 32), it is generally accepted among critics, scholars, and the general population that Lt. Ellen Ripley's appearance in Alien is the first instance of a true female action hero in the tradition of male action heroes – especially in science fiction films. In the interest of space and coherence, this article focuses on Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, and Lindsey Brigman because of several common traits shared by the characters and the films. [^]

[2] Films like Tomb Raider, Elektra, and others like them that have been released in recent years feature female protagonists whose physical skills and intelligence seem to be accepted as a matter of fact by the general viewing audience, both men and women, unlike the female protagonists of earlier films like Barb Wire. However, it should be noted that these films tend to emphasize the female protagonist's physical/sexual endowments, sometimes at the expense of "common sense" attire for the kind of physical activity they engage in; this is especially true of the Tomb Raider films, which is what draws the most criticism, primarily from feminists. Lyn Webster Wilde's assessment of the kind of fascination the ancient Amazons inspired throughout history sums up the attraction this new breed of celluloid heroic females seems to hold for modern audiences (both men and women):

The very idea of the Amazons, of ruthless women warriors who live apart from men, excites people at a deep level. It brings out the sex-warrior in some women: they would like to do violent things to the men they feel have hurt and abused them; it acts as an erotic goad to many men – they love the thought of being dominated by a beautiful springy-limbed maiden, or of subduing her after a fair fight. Others of both sexes feel very disturbed by the idea of women engaging in battle, rejecting their "natural" tenderness in favour of ruthlessness and mastery. (2) [^]

[3] Clover describes the "Final Girl" of slasher films as the one who, alone, "looks death in the face" and who "finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or to kill him herself (ending B)" (35). Ripley, then, is a Final Girl who kills her attacker. Clover says: "The Final Girl is boyish, in a word. . . . she is not fully feminine – not, in any case, feminine in the ways of her [female] friends. Her smartness, gravity, competence in mechanical and other practical matters, and sexual reluctance set her apart from the other girls and ally her, ironically, with the very boys she fears or rejects" (40), all qualities that describe Ripley's character. The "crotch" scene in Alien, although criticized and possibly even gratuitously exploitative, also aligns Alien with the conflicted sexual/gender undercurrents present in many slasher films. A detailed analysis of the gender and sexual issues present in that controversial scene is beyond the scope of this article; for a more nuanced reading of this controversial scene, see Clover's discussion of the complex gender issues at play in slasher films (42-64), and Gallardo and Smith's analysis of the scene itself based on that conflicted sexual/gender element in their chapter on Alien (54-57). [^]

[4] Although it should be noted that Neo (Keanu Reeves) does not survive in the strictest sense of the word (he physically dies as he merges with the machines and finally defeats Agent Smith, ending the war between the humans and the machines), he is the ultimate savior of mankind in the film. The Oracle's final words to the little girl Sati imply that Neo may return in another form, representing the highly important stage of apotheosis described in Joseph Campbell's now classic Hero with a Thousand Faces, his cross-cultural investigation into what is traditionally called the Hero-Myth Cycle. Apotheosis is best exemplified by the story of Avalokiteshvara, the Lotus Bearer, the Bodhisattva of the Mahayana Buddhism of Tibet, China, and Japan. Campbell explains: "when, during his final life on earth as a human being, he shattered for himself the bounds of the last threshold (which moment opened to him the timelessness of the void beyond the frustrating mirage-enigmas of the named and bounded cosmos), he paused: he made a vow that before entering the void he would bring all creatures without exception to enlightenment" (150), words that seem to describe Neo's final actions in The Matrix Revolutions. Although it can be said that Trinity also sacrifices herself for the good of humanity, her death is seen as final – there is no intimation of a transfiguration, or a return from death in a higher, spiritual form, the stage that Campbell calls the Master of the Two Worlds, another quality that marks the true heroic character (230-31). Neo, then, is the one who will be remembered as the hero, in spite of Trinity's equal sacrifice (in the sense that she also gave up her mortal life). [^]

[5] It should be noted that followers of the X-Men and Elektra comic series will know that Jean Grey is eventually reborn into an extremely powerful being, the Phoenix, and that Elektra is an ambiguous hero at best, as she is, in the comics, a ruthless assassin (one of the criticisms aimed at the film Elektra by the comic fans is the downplaying of those ruthless qualities, making her into a conflicted, vulnerable character who turns into an assassin out of grief and revenge, but who has the proverbial "heart of gold" that can be reached by the right person or people). However, audiences exposed to these characters only through the films may not see that development unless Hollywood decides to continue the series in both cases and keep to the comic story lines. In the films, then, the characters fall into the sacrificial female hero role (Jean Grey) or "loner" (no romantic ties) role (Elektra) -- unlike Lindsey Brigman. If the producers/creators of the film versions of these stories do decide to continue their story lines, then we may see Jean become stronger and Elektra become even more conflicted and possibly become an anti-hero (or, hope against hope) a fully realized female hero with a "more or less" healthy romantic relationship, like Lindsey Brigman, Princess Leia, or Aeryn Sun (see discussion of those characters in paragraphs 32 and 35). [^]

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