When three of our top action heroes have names like Katniss Everdeen, Lisbeth Salander and Sookie Stackhouse, well, that at least counts for interesting. But when all three wildly different creations – The Hunger Games’ anti-war survivor, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s enraged goth hacker, True Blood’s deep-fried super-powered fairy – are engaged in essentially the same radical gender role rewrite project, that’s another thing entirely. Throw in Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s flinty-fine turn as the nearly genderless Kate Lloyd in the fantastic The Thing prequel and there’s no doubt: a new wave is cresting, something wild and long in coming.
How things look when it hits the shore (in particular, when the Hunger Games film version attacks multiplexes this March) will tell us whether Twilight’s Santorum values are finally in retrograde; whether the age of the girl as just The Girl, the Mom, the Object or the Sidekick is fading a bit; and whether the culture in general is ready to one-up Liz Phair by finally allowing heroines their invigorating, self-defining exile from guyville.
But first, maybe you want to know what the hell I’m talking about.
Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy is about a dystopian post-North America where tweens and teens are forced to kill each other on a nationally broadcast reality TV show. Our heroine is Katniss Everdeen – 16, and a loner who first experiences a boy’s romantic overtures as treachery, then as spiritual debt. With his every kindness, her indebtedness grows like a bad mortgage of the heart. Collins’ narratives are as non-erotic as Stephenie Meyer’s literary chastity belts, but you too might not be in the mood if, like Katniss, you were either starving, in pain or murdering children to survive. And while fans speculate endlessly over which boy Katniss would have chosen, I believe that, had she a choice, she would gladly have turned down both boys for one night of peace with her sister Prim and her mom. Readers of the trilogy know the truth of this.
But the key thing is this: when Katniss is hunting (alone or with Gale), at the market, at one with nature or with Prim, she’s full, complete, more. But after being torn between two romances she did not instigate, and after her body is waxed, shaved and peeled down to “Beauty Base Zero” so she’s ready for pre-Games fashion shows, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a more visceral, point-by-point depiction of female diminishment.
Anyway, if all this was just about one S.F. trilogy, it might be shrugged off as a weird pop culture blip.
But it’s not. As I type this, similar energies run through David Fincher’s deeply empathetic and subversive version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, starring Rooney Mara’s savagely calculated reanimation of the book’s icon, Lisbeth Salander. An angry, acidly hermetic 24-year-old hacker savant, Salander was raised by a hell-father of unknowable monstrosity and is raped by her social worker. For her own reasons, she agrees to lend her incredible computer skills to a disgraced middle-aged journalist (Daniel Craig) trying to solve a corrupt family’s mystery.
Salander’s work invigorates her. But as someone raised in sexual horror, she can only express herself in the language of fucking. When she offers her body to the journalist, he takes it, despite having nothing real to offer in return.
Salander’s bad decision visibly diminishes her. Away goes the off-putting mohawk, bulky jacket, fetish gear and the essential protective hardness. She wears foundation, combs her hair and becomes “pretty.” She even buys Craig’s character an expensive leather jacket.
But Fincher’s got her back: when she catches the older man out on a date, Lisbeth hurls the gift in the trash, jumps on her tricked-out Honda CB350 and leaves the usurious journo in the midnight dust. As fucked up as she is, she’s at least herself again. Salander does what the guilt-wracked, self-loathing Katniss of the first two Hunger Games books can only dream of doing: she escapes “romance.”
Meanwhile, after three seasons of making a fool of herself on the horns of love, True Blood’s Sookie Stackhouse is finally learning the Salander lesson and saying no.
Increasingly super-powered and weary of being “vampire crack” (talk about triple entendres), Sookie is faced with choosing between two hot vamps – serial liar Bill and sizzling bad-boy Eric. Instead, she says no to both of them, and so a door opens to a new Sookie, one in control of those light-blast super-powers and…are you seeing a pattern here?
If so, check out The Thing, which took Salander-style self-determination as far as Hollywood could stand. Our heroine is a paleontologist named Kate Lloyd (Winstead); the blunt name matches her no-nonsense character. She ends up with a group of Norwegian scientists in the Antarctic fighting a shape-shifting alien menace. Dressed in the same gender blurring winter wear as her coworkers and with not a stitch of makeup, Kate is not attracting or attracted. Undistracted, she is relentless.
Of course, the Big Kahuna of heroic self-definition is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, especially Buffy in her last moment on screen when, minus the distraction of her vampire lovers Spike and Angel or a man-created legacy to tie her down, she can finally, after 144 episodes of striving, get to live.
Still, why this deluge of Exile from Guyville properties now? You could just as easily ask why it’s raining fairy-tale-based films and TV shows, but I’ll give it a go.
I see three factors at work.
1. THE NAMES
The easiest to crack is the weird name thing. Not to ball-peen hammer my point too hard, but in properties that are all about questioning or opening spaces where it’s okay for heroines to be more, epic and amazing, it just makes sense to have people with fantastic names to match the mission. You just better buy into an enraged aggro-goth tattooing “I AM A RAPIST PIG” on a screaming rapist pig when her name is Salander instead of, say, Jody. (I love the way “Salander” sounds like an especially pissed off verb. “She salandered her money manager until he begged for mercy!”)
2. ROM-COM BRAINWASHING
Another is the auto-critique of romance that these narratives so often represent. A single, smart, beautiful, for-now middle class New Yorker friend gave me an idea via her growing contempt of the one genre dedicated to female viewership: rom-coms. Her antipathy for the genre was simple: “Because they’re about making me go fucking insane, is why.”
She said rom-coms drive her around the bend by (1) making marriage look like the most nightmarish state of human bondage imaginable and (2) insisting that all single women must drop everything so as to enjoin that bondage at the exclusion of all other things, pronto. It’s basic cognitive dissonance — and when you look at the diminishing returns of recent genre efforts, it seems as though my friend has company.
Jump-cut from rom-coms to another form of action entirely, the Underworld films – those interchangeable video game-style werewolves-and-vampires shoot-outs featuring Kate Beckinsale in a catsuit. (Another is coming out next month.) I’d always assumed the films were about dudes ogling Beckinsale’s aerodynamic, leather-clad bod wreaking gory havoc. Wrong.
When Beckinsale stripped down to make soft-focus love with some hunk, the theater erupted in howling disapproval – from women. Women who did not brave a winter Manhattan night to see their action heroine surrogate become some dude’s bottom, but rather to enjoy her kicking ass, and often.
Claiming rom-com apostates and action film lovers as core constituency for anything may seem a stretch too far. But I think they both mine the same dissatisfaction.
The female half of the entertainment market is tiring of being pandered to in degrading, conservative fantasies while reacting really well to tales of possibility, no matter how dark.
That half of Comic-Con audiences already dressing as Katniss? Or Doctor Who devotees snatching up pricey Amy Pond and River Song action figures? They’re the base — the P.R. shock troops for properties that represent this new wave. And based entirely on apocryphal evidence and years in the S.F. nerd trenches, I’m here to report that those people are more often female than not.
That base is waiting for the Hunger Games film with a passion eclipsing Potter or Twilight because it’s based on real need here in Depression 2.0, a need for a self-defined someone who beats the odds, the economy, and the expectations placed upon her gender. (And yes, I know how it all ends – with acceptance, qualified hope and a sad awareness of limitations. Not exactly Love Story.)
Meanwhile, yet another Twilight-corrective book has been greenlit for a film version: Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, which tells of another nightmare future in which youth are force-fed crap pop culture and made to endure prettifying body modification – or else. And the heroine’s name? Tally Youngblood. Katniss would be so proud.
Anyway, as Thunderclap Newman sang decades ago, there’s something in the air, and it’s all so incredibly exciting. This is gender egalitarianism creating itself without knowing it, which is why it might be real. Films in which men live without required romantic subplots or obsessive girl problems are unremarkable, the usual, expected. But films in the Katniss, Salander, Stackhouse and Lloyd wave, films in which the equation is gender-flipped with such passion – that’s punk rock. That’s the beginning of a leveled playing field and the end of dissonance, one story at a time.
Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. His column "Grey Matters" runs every week at Press Play.