KIDNAPPED! WOMEN IN ACTION MOVIES

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Let’s say you’re a female character in a modern thriller or action movie. Unless you’re being played by Gina Carano, what have you got to look forward to? On a bad day, your sole purpose is to be stalked, tortured and sadistically killed. OK, we all agree this is not a terribly meaningful role for a woman, and probably not a very meaningful film either, and if you’re like me, you tend to avoid that sort of movie nowadays anyway, because you’ve seen it all before, many times, and it gets old.

savages 2But what of the slightly less reprehensible thriller or action movie, the kind aimed at general audiences that very often, may I remind you, are likely to contain as many female viewers as male ones? On an average day you’ll be the hero’s wife, girlfriend or daughter. On a good day, like Rosamund Pike in Jack Reacher, you’re even allowed to be a lawyer, have daddy issues and maybe a life that doesn’t revolve 100% around the hero, though you will ogle him lustily whenever he takes his shirt off.

Nevertheless, you will still get kidnapped, stolen, taken, held hostage. Maybe, like Rosamund, it will be one and three-quarter hours before this happens, but bank on it, sooner or later it will happen. Because this is the fate of female characters in action movies or thrillers. This is what they’re there for. This is their function.

commando 2And here’s a list off the top of my head. Maggie Grace and Famke Janssen in Taken and Taken 2? Blake Lively in Savages? Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Dark Knight? Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Die Hard 4.0? Annabella Sciorra in The Hard Way? Skye McCole Bartusiak in Don’t Say a Word? Kelly Carlson in The Marine? Dakota Fanning in Man on Fire? Alyssa Milano in Commando? Lucy Liu in Shanghai Noon? Kirstie Alley in Shoot to Kill? Mika Boorem in Along Came a Spider? Kidnapped, every last one of them!

Even in a film such as Hit and Run, where Kristen Bell arguably gets a bit more to do and has slightly better dialogue than your average female character, there will be a scene towards the end of the movie in which the hero looks up to see her – oh no! – sandwiched between menacing heavies. Yep, stupid bitch has gone and got herself kidnapped!

And the kidnaps keep on coming. Bullet to the Head, the new Sylvester Stallone movie? Stolen, the new Nicolas Cage movie? Go ahead – take a look for yourself…

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As that list showed, it’s a cliché that has been around for a long time. But I swear that recently it has got worse. Bad enough when it’s the wife or girlfriend (hardly ever mums or grannies – nobody cares about old women) but I’ve got to the stage where my heart sinks when it’s revealed that the hero of the film has a daughter. Because a daughter’s sole function is to get kidnapped. It’s true! Occasionally (in Ransom, for example) it’s a small boy who gets abducted, but as a rule, boys can look after themselves, whereas girls are there for the taking. If you took away films in which they’re kidnapped, small girls wouldn’t even exist in this genre.

Invariably, this is to give the hero incentive to kill some bad guys, to blackmail him into doing something he doesn’t want to do, or into not doing something that he ought to do. The female character, whatever her age, is the carrot. She’s a chattel. She’s cattle. A crime against her is a crime not against her, but against her husband, father, protector – just as Susan Brownmiller in Against Our Will relates how the rape of women in legal history was regarded first and foremost as a violation of male property.

lethalweapon 2I blame the current ubiquity of this daughter-gets-kidnapped trope on Shane Black, poster-boy for the wannabe Hollywood screenwriter. Traci Wolfe gets kidnapped in Lethal Weapon and Danielle Harris gets kidnapped in The Last Boy Scout. Even in The Long Kiss Goodnight, which subverts action movie clichés just enough to have a female lead rather than a male one, Geena Davis has a small daughter whose function is, yes, you’ve guessed it, to get kidnapped by the bad guys in the final reel. That Shane Black, he’s a one-man daughter-kidnapping machine!

I realise there are plots that actively demand the kidnapping of a female character (The SearchersThe CollectorCellular) and I’m not against it happening in principle. But lately it has devolved into a lazy, sloppy narrative shortcut that novelists, screenwriters and film-makers use without even thinking – it saves them the bother of having to work on their storytelling and find other, more dramatically interesting motivation for the hero. It’s as though their heads are still stuck in the era when the heroine kept getting tied to the railway track with the train bearing down on her. Will the hero defeat the moustache-twirling villain and rescue her in time? marine 2

So how about it, film-makers? Would it kill you to ring the changes a little? How about a story in which a small daughter kidnaps the bad guy, just for a change? Or in which the hero gets kidnapped and is saved by his small daughter? Or maybe just a story in which the female characters are more than just passive bargaining chips? In which they aren’t just something that belongs to the hero, but fully rounded characters who have better things to do than get kidnapped? Or if that’s too difficult for you, hell, why not do away with women in the action genre altogether? For heaven’s sake, it would be a darn sight less insulting to my gender.

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Stills taken from (from top to bottom): Taken 2, Savages, Commando, Lethal Weapon, The Marine, Bullet to the Head.

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ETA: I returned to the topic of women getting kidnapped in action movies, almost one year later, in a piece I wrote for the Telegraph.

It’s not giving much away to say that Penélope Cruz gets kidnapped in The Counsellor. Not only is it obvious from the trailer, which shows her being manhandled, but it’s clear from Michael Fassbender murmuring inane endearments to her in the first few minutes of the film that this will be the character’s chief function. She has no personality or meaning beyond it – her entire raison d’être is boiled down to being a gaming chip, whose abduction will hurt the man who loves her. It will presumably hurt her as well, but we’re not supposed to worry about that.

But even if you didn’t pick up on these clues, it would not be hard to guess that a kidnapping is in the offing – because this is what happens to female characters in action movies and thrillers. The hero has a wife or girlfriend or daughter? The hero cop has a female partner? There’s a female lawyer or reporter? Her function is to get kidnapped, held hostage, tied up or dangled as bait. Not all female characters get kidnapped, I grant you. But most of them do.

To read on, please click on the picture of Penélope Cruz being menaced (below) to be taken to the Telegraph website.

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36 thoughts on “KIDNAPPED! WOMEN IN ACTION MOVIES

  1. Great piece, Anne. I think a useful addition to the list is ‘Speed’ which gives us some neat twists. Our woman is unable to escape, caught between an old male rivalry and her nurturing desire to keep her bus passengers safe. She’s mentally not physically kidnapped and, of course, is claimed by the hero at the end…

  2. Sadly agreed: between the constant harangue of daddy issues, the demotion of women to completely powerless and abject just bugs the shit out of me. Modern filmmakers can’t seem to see women as human at all, just as sex objects and property. Apart from all the other reasons to hate it, I hated the Zemeckis Beowulf most because the filmmakers could not conceive of women as anything but sexual repositories — in contrast to the eleventh century monks who wrote the poem down who could at least see women as crucial as leaders in their own sphere adjunct to and inextricably intwined with the warrior one. Until we get some women making decisions in H’wood (who don’t themselves identify with and glamourise the current male power roles, eh Bigelow) nothing will change. Harvard boys with daddy-didn’t-approve-of-me issues choose all the releases. Rant over.

  3. Great post from Anne and comment from Kate. I have almost given up on modern Hollywood. The roles for women in action films are either implausible lightweight but kick ass Amazons or whinging spouses or kidnap victims. I had the misfortune to think that Taken might be an amusing two hour time filler but instead I spent all my time wondering if Famke Janssen (Jean Grey and Xenia Onnatopp, ffs) had an agent who hated her or a money problem and had to take any role offered to her. There is also the joy of True Lies which has a kidnapped wife (by her husband who then humiliates her) and a kidnapped daughter.

  4. this is fascinating! the trope goes way back to The Iliad, too …

    as i recall it was a boy and a girl kidnapped in Along Came A Spider. and the female FBI agent was, um… proactive? But yes, it’s a torrid cliche. One which reflects the terrible truth that sadistic men will kidnap girls and women in real life too.

    Shame we cant seem to get a movie about this – that doesn’t make it all about the man-as-saviour-complex!

  5. The most moving scene in Kickass showed Hit Girl wreaking havoc to free her blinded, kidnapped father. Plenty of problems with that movie in general, but it does provide the inversion you ask for.

  6. first off another fine post anne, you could say that hollywoods lazy imagination for women in captivity correleates with travis bickles idea in taxi driver in saving iris. thats just an idea.

    women being kidnapped is a plot device that will als never go out of fashion

    good post

  7. Thanks for all your kind comments. I haven’t really been trying to come up with examples of films in which a man gets kidnapped and a woman has to save him, since though I think reversed roles are fun it still doesn’t really address the situation, but one did occur to me this afternoon – Abel Ferrara’s ‘R Xmas. Needless to say, not mainstream.

    • After having mentioned Red Eye on FB, it did actually occur to me that (in addition to being a girl-gets-kidnapped film) also a scenario in which a heroine has to rescue her dad, who’s being held hostage. The only catch there, though, is that the dad doesn’t KNOW he’s being held hostage (there’s a hitman waiting outside to be given the word to kill him if need be), so I’m not sure if it counts.

      • I love Red Eye; if I had my way, it would be essential hen party viewing instead of egregious slush like Steel Magnolias or The Notebook. Extra points for use of hockey stick as weapon. I think I need to compile a list of girly action films like this. And The Net. Er, that’s all I can think of right now. Haywire (though I loved it) wouldn’t count, because it’s not girly enough.

        • Oh yes. And P2 (which I also love, and which, incidentally, makes a fabulous double bill with Red Eye) should definitely be on there, as well. Very hard to think of others, though; Jumpin’ Jack Flash, maybe? (Not that it’s brilliant or anything, but I give it huge points for having its plot revolve around a non-glam, black, female computer geek who saves the hero’s bacon. Hey, wait: that’s another movie where a woman rescues a kidnapped man! Full circle!)

  8. Kelly Carlson got kidnapped in The Marine but it was tongue in cheek. Not a serious movie… but a FUN ONE!

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  16. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for writing this. I knew when I went on the internet to look for movies involving kidnapped daughters, I would not fail to find a like-minded person who also thinks Hollywood writers can do better. I mean, there are so many movies under this premise that it should be its own genre. I’m also really happy to see the comments supporting your ideas. There’s just no way to defend this.

  17. Thanks, Michelle. I KNEW I wouldn’t be the only one annoyed by this!

    On a positive note, in White House Down – by no means the most sophisticated action movie ever made – the Channing Tatum character has a pubescent daughter (played by Joey King, who just manages to keep her precocious character bearable) who inevitably ends up getting held hostage by the bad guys, but who is also a fairly well developed character in her own right. She is as much a thorn in the villains’ side as her dad, does intelligent and intrepid things (even though she’s credibly terrified) and actually gets to perform the film’s crowning triumphant/symbolic heroic gesture.

    Maybe I should put together a blog celebrating intrepid daughters in films. If I can think of more than one example, that is.

  18. Has it ever occurred to you that you simply might not be the primary audience for these films?

    Has it ever occurred to you that the actual intended audience–i.e., men–might not have such a severe problem with this?

    Has it ever occurred to you that this whole concept is rooted deep in the history of the human race… and it’s not exactly easy to re-wire thousands and thousands of years of biological and social conditioning, especially if the only reason to do so is to satisfy some outspoken internet bloggers who openly admit they don’t like movies?

    Maybe you should take your own advice and stop going to movies, and stop telling the people who actually make movies how to do their jobs. It’ll probably make everyone happier.

  19. Dear Franklin,
    Has it ever occurred to you that you simply may not be the intended audience for this blog?

    Has it ever occurred to you that by making a post like this, you’re coming off as a high-testosterone TROLL?

    Maybe you should take your own advice and STOP. Just sayin’.

    Love,
    Kaji

  20. > Has it ever occurred to you that you simply might not be the primary audience for these films? Has it ever occurred to you that the actual intended audience–i.e., men–might not have such a severe problem with this?

    Franklin, if I may paraphrase your answer as “Has it ever occurred to you that mainstream culture is constantly sending women the message: This is not for you, you don’t matter, you won’t find representations of yourself here” then, funnily enough, the answer is yes. Yes, it has occurred to me, and it really pisses me off.

    Has it occurred to YOU that half the human beings in the world are women, that women watch films, that women enjoy action films, that women spend their money on tickets for films and therefore are indeed part of the ‘intended audience’ for these films? Has is also occurred to you that many men do in fact have a ‘severe problem with this’, where ‘this’ equals ‘massive sexist bullshit’? Has it occurred to you that many men care about gender issues and believe that women should be able to see characters in films that represent them, are interesting, and have agency? I mean, not you, obviously. You’re not one of those men. But has it occurred to you that they exist?

    > Has it ever occurred to you that this whole concept is rooted deep in the history of the human race… and it’s not exactly easy to re-wire thousands and thousands of years of biological and social conditioning, especially if the only reason to do so is to satisfy some outspoken internet bloggers who openly admit they don’t like movies?

    What does this even mean? Is this some kind of lame-brained ‘Oh, men HAVE to rescue women in Hollywood films because of how we lived on the savanna thousands of years ago’ evo-psych bullshit? Because DUDE. If this is the level of logic we’re dealing with, I give up. I honestly don’t even know what you’re trying to say with this paragraph.

    > Maybe you should take your own advice and stop going to movies, and stop telling the people who actually make movies how to do their jobs. It’ll probably make everyone happier.

    Maybe you should take your own advice and stop going to movies, stop commenting on blogs, and stop being a ridiculous troll. That would certainly make me happier.

  21. I loved this blog Anne :) as a woman myself I think that more screenwriters should make movies such as Avatar (the blue people) OR Underworld. At least in these types of movies women have a more important role and they are not getting kidnapped or used as bait or some other BS like that.

    • Thanks You Kno It. Maybe there should just be more women writing screenplays and making films. I’d hate for them to create nothing but fine upstanding female role models, though – I wouldn’t want every female character to be kick-ass and ballsy, or sensitive and virtuous, or saintly. I just want to see a wider variety of female characters: heroes and villains, nice and nasty women, women you’d want to be your friend and women you’d steer clear of. I think variety is the key.

  22. It has always bothered me that women are given such feeble roles in action adventures. As you say, a kidnap victim, or the love/sex interest. Not only does it make women appear inconsequential when it really matters, but the love story sub-plots always slow down the action. As soon as a woman is first introduced into the story, I groan inwardly because, no matter what her outward function is as the plucky, dedicated, hard-headed: District Attorney, cop, scientist, doctor, kindergarten teacher, crime scene investigator, journalist, deep sea diver etc., her role is reduced to being the smarmy (yet sexy) love interest, who is at some point running with the hero, stumbling, needing to be picked-up, being held with a gun or knife at her throat and usually ending up somehow, in her underwear.

  23. Gawd yes, the boring love interest! I remember seeing The Terminator when it first came out and being thrilled because a) it was thrilling b) Linda Hamilton turned quite credibly from being a dim waitress into a strong survivor and c) the love scenes were INTEGRAL TO THE PLOT and not just tacked on. Three out of three!

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