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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Women to the Rescue (originally published 11/00)

Despite their generally bad reputation, stereotypes do have their uses for storytellers. In the hands of a skillful writer, a well-placed stereotype can quickly and efficiently sketch in a peripheral character, thereby saving precious time for the purpose of more fully developing the characterization of the story's central figures.

Unfortunately, there is also a darker side to stereotyping. The undisciplined use of this shortcut for major and minor characters alike naturally leads to weak and shallow fiction, but that's only the beginning. When consistently applied in many stories over a period of years, fictional stereotypes have a nasty habit of slopping over into the real world and affecting our attitudes toward real people.

One example of such a pernicious stereotype is the widely accepted image of the helpless woman. Where would storytellers be, after all, without the damsel in distress? The simpering, quavering female victim waiting for the hero to come to her rescue has been a mainstay of action movies for so long that we need to be reminded from time to time that not all women in real life fit this well-worn cliché.

It is a refreshing change, therefore, to see women portrayed as the lead characters in action stories; as the ones who come to the rescue rather than waiting to be rescued. The recent movie reprise of the "Charlie's Angels" television series may have its flaws, but at least it represents a small counterbalance against the passive and weak stereotyping of women in most action pictures. For a sampling of how earlier filmmakers have portrayed women as action heroines, look for these titles on home video.

"Hannie Caulder" (1971). In this decidedly offbeat western, Raquel Welch stars as a frontier wife who is out to take revenge on the three outlaws who raped her and murdered her husband. She manages to persuade a gunslinger, played by Robert Culp, to teach her how to handle a gun, then goes after the bad guys with a vengeance. What makes the film so odd is that it was directed by Burt Kennedy, who had by that time made something of a specialty out of doing comic westerns, such as "Support Your Local Sheriff" (1969) and "Dirty Dingus Magee" (1970). Despite the rather grim subject matter, he tried to force this one into that mold as well by having the three outlaws, played by Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, and Strother Martin, play off each other like a western version of the Three Stooges.

"The Bionic Woman" (1976). Initially introduced on an episode of the "Six Million Dollar Man" television series, the character of Jamie Somers was eventually spun off into her own series. This two hour pilot episode originally aired in two parts, part one of which was a segment of "The Six Million Dollar Man" and part two of which served as the first segment of "The Bionic Woman." Outfitted with sophisticated prosthetic legs, along with improved versions of one arm and one ear, Jamie takes up the typical life of the superhero: mild-mannered schoolteacher by day, but secretly a government agent with extraordinary powers.

"Cleopatra Jones" (1973). At the height of the "blaxploitation" era, African-American model Tamara Dobson made her bid for screen stardom in this action-packed spy thriller. As a kind of female James Bond, she takes the war on drugs to the streets in style in her armament-laden black Corvette. As it happens, Cleopatra's principle nemesis is also female -- a drug dealer who goes by the name "Mommy," played by Shelley Winters. The film was successful enough to spawn a sequel, "Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold" (1975).

Sad to say, some of the best examples of action heroines in the movies remain unavailable on video. Neither "Fathom" (1967), with Raquel Welch as a skydiver who gets mixed up in a spy plot, nor "Modesty Blaise" (1966), director Joseph Losey's screen realization of a British comic strip featuring a female superspy, can be obtained at this time. Even "The New Adventures of Wonder Woman" (1977) remains unavailable, despite persistent rumors of a revival of the series for network television. Until then, the new Charlie's Angels on the big screen and Xena on the small screen will have to be the standard-bearers for distaff heroics in the popular culture.

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