Reading academic books on the subject leaves more questions than answers. Dubbing the genre “Chick with a Gun” might seem condescending, except many of these films themselves have a lot of problematic politics contained within. Are we really supposed to cheer on these former housewives-turned-outlaws? Of course, the femme fatale has long been a staple of Hollywood. But there appears to a genuinely new breed roaming the countryside.
Just to cite some instances of a woman or women being awesomely violent includes
Blue Steel, Fargo, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Out of Sight, and The Silence of the Lambs. The foundational text, however, remains Thelma and Louise. Some complain a proper update of Thelma and Louise hasn’t been done or even attempted in this era of needless remakes. Others believe once was more than enough. Certainly, it’s impossible to watch Thelma and Louise without getting its essential anti-sexist message. This is all a bit strange since as we are told over and over again that film is essentially a male domain and highly hierarchical for women. Why, then, are so many men (since they are making these films) populating their stories with transgressive women packing heat?
In the case of Thelma and Louise, we have what’s basically an American Western placed into a new arena. (Actually, it’s curious that in Unforgiven, the male characters often want to put down and throw away their guns, but the women are attracted to those pieces of steel.) Ridley Scott clearly empathizes with the characters, and though not exactly empty vessels, almost none of the males in the film can be said to be real characters; almost all are defined by the need to abuse and steal from women.
Sandra Bullock made her career from being a fierce but still subordinate ass-kicker in Demolition Man and Speed. Those screams are still her trademark. Then, there are those violent women so ruthless they make Tarantino seem tame. In Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction, male suspicion of dating or marrying some predatory fiend is exploited. The woman isn’t just a perpetrator but a penetrator, too. This type of violent woman is nobody’s role model – they’re too psychotic, guns or no guns.
The more current chicks with guns (or swords – the usual choice of phallic-like weaponry is not accidental) is an ambivalent figure. It’s hard to tell why girls are armed so well; putting aside honorable exceptions like Terminator 2’s Sarah Connor. The alleged incident that triggers their aggression is often pretty small. But we know there’s some larger reason and films usually are there to tell us what drove such nice girls over the edge. Not that one necessarily will always agree in certain cases like Kathy Bates in Misery torturing her male victim. (As a rule, most men portrayed in these films are so clearly they flawed they seem to be asking to be hurt.) What began as (perhaps) a cynical marketing ploy has developed into a troubling trend. Where once La Femme Nikita stood alone figuratively and literally, nowadays it’s hard to find a gal that isn’t ready to take out a bazooka and take out dozens of men.
While the criticism has been that such films amount to no more than male bashing a la The Color Purple, these films aren’t really anti-sex, much less anti-male. If anything, they seem geared to giving men a special erotic thrill seeing a man and woman exploring their toughness in conjunction. It’s difficult not to sense the weird sexual relationship in The Silence of the Lambs, Jodie Foster’s FBI agent has with Hannibal Lecter, and just what the nature of that attraction is remains left in a nebulous zone. The same thing occurs, if less cinematically, in Lethal Weapon 3 as a man and woman undress to compare war wounds. Lovely.
Nor is the thrill always in seeing men being blown away (though that’s become standard). Single White Female, after all, has a lot of girl on girl action – mainly physical in the I’m-going-knife-you sense. But, of course, there’s no denying that lesbianism and its (alleged) kinkiness comes up repeatedly even as girls get in touch with their inner Willis and Eastwood. In some cases, the issue seems to be directly confronted as in Girl, Interrupted. In most cases, the issue just sits there. One of the more recent oddball pairings: Alien: Resurrection, featuring the supposed lesbian love duo of Winona Ryder and Sigourney Weaver.
More importantly, the sexual problems of aggression are often left tantalizing unclear. Is the kiss between women that Thelma and Louise share a sexual one or a Platonic one? It’s clear that though Thelma and Louise are valorized they are hardly heroic in the classic sense. Its not so much that the women are right to pull out a magnum as the system is even worse for not protecting them. One soon gather it’s perhaps this more universal frame – films about the “system” or establishment being defied – that gets both men and women invested in these films. Whether it’s girls going wild in Set it Off or Ellen Ripley in Aliens forced to commit matricide, we get a sense that only death await women stepping too far out of line even if they have some just cause to do so. The male-dominated military-industrial complex that forced them into battle remains pretty much undisturbed if slightly bruised.
The overall message of such films is pretty fuzzy. Is the mass murder that Natural Born Killer’s Mallory commits the answer? Probably not. Thelma and Louise tells us rape is wrong. But we sort of knew that already. And, admittedly, the premise can get silly even when it shouldn’t, as though J.Lo shortening her hair and learning Kung Fu is supposed to stand for some great feminist apotheosis in Enough. It seems more absurd than profound. Tank Girl (featuring a young Naomi Watts as uber-sexy Jet Girl) should be credited for accepting a lot of this absurdity and going all the way with it. Whether the genre has reached a peak or is declining as more women are picking up a camera (behind the scenes) remains to be seen. But so far there’s no sign of baby waiting for a man to save her any longer. Just hand baby a glock (or a tank) and stand back!