The rise of the young, feminist action hero

Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

"Hell is a teenage girl." That's the opening line in Jennifer’s Body, a satirical 2009 horror movie about a teenage vixen (Megan Fox) who kills and eats parts of boys from her school. It’s not like she wasn’t provoked: her killing spree starts after she is carved up by the members of a satanic rock group.

The botched sacrifice turns her into a demon with a taste for organ donation (from boys only). The film is like an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but sexier and bloodier and with lesbian overtones. Amanda Seyfried plays her bewildered best friend, attracted by some of the same things as the boys.

Buffy Anne Summers was certainly one of the trailblazers in the trend towards teenage heroines who embrace violence, but Buffy was 15 when called to be The Slayer, according to Buffy lore. She was not quite a woman, no longer a child, and she only killed demons.

Even Disney’s cartoon heroines – once a bastion of conservative values – have become more active and aggressive. 

Things have changed. The age at which teenage heroines embrace violence in movies has been falling fast in the past five years, and the trend is not matched by a rise in killer roles for boys. In Kick-Ass (2010), Chloe Grace Moretz plays an 11-year-old assassin called Hit Girl. With her mask and special costume, she fashions herself as a super-heroine, in a film that takes the mickey out of super-hero films.


Kick-Ass is based on a comic book by famed Scottish writer Mark Millar. He set out to shock, and achieved his aim. Not just bloody, this was probably the first film in which an 11-year-old girl used the C-word. Going up against a room full of drug dealers, her opening line is: "OK you c---s, let’s see what you can do now".

Moretz is the queen of tween gore. Since Kick-Ass, she has played the young vampire in Let Me In (a remake of a Swedish film), reprised her role in Kick-Ass 2 and wiped out most of her high-school class in the remake of Carrie. She turned 16 in February. The only young woman who comes close to shedding as much blood is Jennifer Lawrence, who’s now 23. She plays Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games movies, the third and fourth of which are now filming.

In the first movie, from 2010, she was thrust into a nightmare scenario where she had to kill or die. The series, based on a trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins, imagines a futuristic world in which America is divided into 12 rebellious districts, each of which has to give up two young people every year to take part in a televised killing contest in an artificial jungle. It’s like Gladiator meets Big Brother. Katniss is 16 when she volunteers in place of her younger sister.

What’s going on here? When did killing become a teenage girl’s new best friend? And given that sociologists and criminologists claim to have identified a rising tide of violence among teenage girls in many Western countries, who’s leading whom? Does Buffy have a case to answer? The answer is unknowable, of course. As with any discussion about violence in the media, the arguments are so polarised and factionalised as to become meaningless.

It is probably true that violence is more obvious in entertainment aimed at teenagers and children; it’s also true that it has always been there. Watched any Warner Bros 1940s cartoons lately? Read any Grimm’s fairy tales? Folk tales have always used violence to teach children about the world. Little Red Riding Hood has been warning girls about stranger danger for almost 420 years.

Even Disney’s cartoon heroines – once a bastion of conservative values – have become more active and aggressive. Cartoon girls in films such as Brave or Frozen are now uniformly spirited, athletic, even swashbuckling. They are feminist role models, bucking parental authority, choosing their own princes, and who’s to say that’s a bad thing?

If teenage girls are becoming more violent, do we blame Buffy or Lara Croft, or teenage boys? Because it’s certainly true that female violence in movies is most often reactive, usually in response to sexual violence.

The game changer in this regard occurred in the 21st minute of Thelma & Louise (1991), when Louise (Susan Sarandon) shot the redneck Harlan (Timothy Carhart) in the car park of the Silver Bullet Saloon, somewhere in Arkansas. Harlan had tried to rape Thelma (Geena Davis) on the bonnet of a car when Louise saved her. They were walking away when Harlan pushed his luck. "Bitch, I should have gone ahead and f---ed her," he said, knowing a woman wouldn’t use a gun. Louise turned and shot him in the chest. "You watch your mouth, buddy," she said, and it’s no exaggeration to say that women around the world cheered. Later in the movie, it became clear that Louise had been raped in Texas years earlier.

Rape turns women into killers in movies, in a way that audiences will accept. Even so, Thelma & Louise was controversial. Scriptwriter Carrie Khouri was labelled a "toxic feminist".

"Kiss my ass, kiss my ass," she responded. "I was raised in this society. Let them get their deal worked out about the way women are treated in films before they start hassling me about the way men are treated. There’s a whole genre of films known as ‘exploitation’ based on the degradation of women and a whole bunch of redneck critics extolling its virtues, and until there’s a subgenre of women doing the same thing to men in numbers too numerous to count, as is the case with exploitation film, then just shut the f--- up."

She’s right, of course. Killer women have been around in exploitation film for decades, even in arty exploitation movies by the likes of Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill, parts 1 and 2). Many of the films are written and directed by men, for men’s enjoyment.

You can tell a man made Sucker Punch (2011, Zack Snyder) by the fetish costumes. It’s about women confined in a mental hospital that’s more like a brothel: they wear short skirts and ponytails and dance for male "clients". The whole film is a tease for salivating boys, and there are many like it each year.

Feminist movies about teenage violence are different.  It’s often protective, as when Katniss takes her sister’s place in The Hunger Games. These films attack an obvious taboo, seeking to empower girls by turning the violence back on men.

That’s got to be part of why Lisbeth Salander became so popular in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009). What became so compelling was not just the violence she unleashed, but her struggle to contain and channel her rage.

Ever since Harlan died in the car park, men have had to watch their mouths, lest they run into someone like Louise – or even worse, someone like Aileen Wuornos, the real-life Florida prostitute who killed seven men before she was caught and executed. Charlize Theron won an Oscar playing her in the film Monster in 2003.

The new year promises plenty more, including The Hunger Games 3, Angelina Jolie in Maleficent (a  re-envisaging of Sleeping Beauty), and something called Vampire Academy, about two 17-year-old bloodsucking best friends locked in a fortified boarding school.

The trend is here to stay.

Twitter @ptbyrnes


The 10 toughest women on film

Alien, 1979, dir: Ridley Scott
The character was originally male, but the change of gender put a fire under the role. Sigourney Weaver’s performance empowered  young women to think they could go where no woman had gone before.

Silence of the Lambs, 1991, dir: Jonathan Demme
Jodie Foster took us deep inside the fear as Agent Starling was drawn into the dark world around Hannibal Lecter. Foster has played many brave women, none braver than this.

Monster, 2003, dir: Patty Jenkins
Wuornos is no role model, but a powerhouse performance by Charlize Theron goes close to explaining how a woman abused since childhood could kill seven men. Feminine rage has rarely been so stark.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 2009, dir: Niels Arden Oplev
In the original Swedish version, Noomi Rapace creates an epic character as she tries to control her desire to hurt people.

Leon the Professional, 1994, dir: Luc Besson
Natalie Portman is astonishing in her first film, made when she was 12. New York hitman Jean Reno adopts her after Gary Oldman kills her family. She becomes his protege in a role that predates Kick-Ass, and kicks more ass. And it’s a love story!

My Brilliant Career, 1979, dir: Gillian Armstrong
Judy Davis struggles womanfully between her desire to write and her desire for Sam Neill. Headstrong, exciting and complex, Sybylla’s dilemma struck a chord with many modern women.

Zero Dark Thirty
, 2012, dir: Kathryn Bigelow
Jessica Chastain embraces the dark side ofthe intelligence life in her dogged hunt to find Osama bin Laden. She pays a high price.

His Girl Friday, 1940, dir: Howard Hawks
Rosalind Russell becomes the best newspaperman who’s not a man in this inversion of The Front Page. Hard-boiled, quick-witted and cynical, she runs rings around the competition in a role that tried to redefine the idea of a modern woman.

The Long Kiss Good Night, 1996, dir: Renny Harlin
Geena Davis discovers, after eight years ofamnesia, that she was once a trained killer for the CIA. It’s a ridiculous movie, but she’s fabulously lethal and well ahead of her time.

The African Queen, 1951, dir: John Huston
An odd choice perhaps, but Katharine Hepburn makes the transition from African missionary to white-water-running naval commando seem entirely natural for a woman of breeding. Small and delicate does not mean she can’t fight.