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Viola Davis (and Variety) shouldn't have allowed Jennifer Lawrence to undermine women action leads

Brigitte Nielsen, Red Sonja, 1985

Variety’s recent piece is titled Jennifer Lawrence and Viola Davis Get Honest About Female Action Heroes, Motherhood and Press Tours Ruining Acting.

Pam Grier, Coffy, 1973

It features Viola Davis in celebratory conversation with Jennifer Lawrence. And it’s fine, as conversations go, for there's much to celebrate, except when Lawrence tries to present herself as a pioneer among women action leads.

Geena Davis, The Long Kiss Goodnight, 1996

Jennifer Lawrence (authoritatively): I remember when I was doing Hunger Games (2011), nobody had ever put a woman in the lead of an action movie, because it wouldn't work. We were told girls and boys can both identify with a male lead but boys cannot identify with a female lead.

Viola Davis: Oh, absolutely!

Jennifer Lawrence (looking up, to stress the momentousness of it): it just makes me so happy, every single time I see a movie come out that just blows through every single one of those beliefs and proves that it is just, a lie, to keep certain people out of the movies, to keep certain people in the same positions that they've always been in....just amazing to watch it happen and watch you at the helm (it's unclear if she meant, "watch yourself at the helm").

Milla Jovovich, Resident Evil, 2002

Not only is Lawrence wrong (we're all wrong from time to time), she's crassly appropriating a pioneering role for herself at the expense of more accomplished actresses who came before her, some who played action leads before she was born, in 1990.

She seems to be suggesting not only that she was told that women were kept out of action lead roles for decades, but that she believed it. She's more than hinting that women were sitting around, waiting for someone like her to come along and open the floodgates. Or she wouldn't be so amazed to "watch it happen" or so amazed that she or Davis is "at the helm".

Thing is, it's happened already, for decades.

Other women have been at the helm for decades.

Worse, listening to Lawrence, none of it feels like ignorance or oversight, as some are trying to suggest.

Daryl Hannah, The Job, 2003

A small selection of that Women as Action Leads Hall of Fame is below. Some women were action leads alongside men, but attacked the villainous or defended the innocent as energetically, as sexily, staying as — if not more — crucial to plot outcomes as the men were:

  1. Pam Grier, Coffy, 1973

  2. Pam Grier, Foxy Brown, 1974

  3. Pam Grier, Sheba Baby, 1975

  4. Sigourney Weaver, Alien, 1979

  5. Gena Rowlands, Gloria, 1980

  6. Linda Hamilton, Terminator, 1984

  7. Brigitte Nielsen, Red Sonja, 1985

  8. Anne Parillaud, Nikita, 1990

  9. Kathleen Turner, V.I. Warshawski, 1991

  10. Bridge Fonda, Point of No Return, 1993

  11. Michelle Yeoh, Project S, 1993

  12. Julie Pierce, The Next Karate Kid, 1994

  13. Stowe, Masterson, MacDowell, Barrymore, Bad Girls, 1994

  14. Sharon Stone, The Quick and the Dead, 1995

  15. Cynthia Rothrock, Sworn to Justice, 1996

  16. Pamela Anderson, Barb Wire, 1996

  17. Geena Davis, The Long Kiss Goodnight, 1996

  18. Pam Grier, Jackie Brown, 1997

  19. Demi Moore, G.I. Jane, 1997

  20. Franka Potente, Run Lola Run, 1998

  21. Carrie-Anne Moss, The Matrix, 1999

  22. Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu, Charlie's Angels, 2000

  23. Angelina Jolie, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, 2001

  24. Milla Jovovich, Resident Evil, 2002

  25. Daryl Hannah, The Job, 2003

  26. Angelina Jolie, Salt, 2003

  27. Kate Beckinsale, Underworld, 2003

  28. Uma Thurman, Kill Bill I, 2003

  29. Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby, 2004

  30. Michelle Yeoh, Silver Hawk, 2004

  31. Halle Berry, Catwoman, 2004

  32. Charlize Theron, Æon Flux, 2005

  33. Jennifer Garner, Elektra, 2005

  34. Angelina Jolie, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, 2005

  35. Milla Jovovich, Ultraviolet, 2006

  36. Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek, Bandidas, 2006

  37. Jodie Foster, The Brave One, 2007

  38. Angelina Jolie, Wanted, 2008

  39. Zoë Bell, Angel of Death, 2009

  40. Olga Kurylenko, The Assassin Next Door, 2009

  41. Angelina Jolie, Salt, 2010

  42. Zoe Saldana, Colombiana, 2011

  43. Gina Carano, Haywire, 2011

Note: This isn’t an exhaustive list and doesn’t include sequels, or it'd be unwieldy. Still, that's over 40 (forty!) lead roles, well before Hunger Games put arrow to bow.

Gina Carano, Haywire, 2011

Viola Davis (or someone at Variety) ought to have told Lawrence that it was all right to talk about how pioneering action roles were for her, but not about how pioneering she's been for everyone else. Someone (who knew there were warrior queens before Davis and warrior princesses before Lawrence) should have intervened to tell Davis that a generation of boys have grown up identifying quite nicely with women as action leads. So, screenwriters, producers and directors kept putting women at the center of the action screen, for decades.

Angelina Jolie, Salt, 2010

Audiences, for their part, prefer tall (ish) good-looking action leads; if they're sexy, even better. So, casting directors shy away from shorter, chubbier actors, and don't hesitate to tell actors who think they fit the bill, to trim tummies, bulk up biceps before cameras roll.

Charlize Theron, Æon Flux, 2005

Demands on "screen" physicality are made of almost every action lead, some implicit, others explicit. For heaven's sake, even Christopher Reeve was told to get in shape before his role as Superman. Should he have put his foot down and stomped out? Surely, less endowed folk must expect such orders as a matter of routine?!

Anne Parillaud, Nikita, 1990

There's an element to the flow and drama of action that audiences find sexy. The incredible Hulk in full flow is surely more captivating than Professor Charles Xavier, even if they're both making quick work of the local villain? You want to see the exercise of power, of force, of speed, of agility as part of the action. That's artistic, cinematic; nothing to do with the UN Charter on Equality.

Bridget Fonda, Point of No Return, 1993

Producers and directors don't overthink things when they've got a tall, muscled actor; they'll have him lose his shirt in the first minute and his vest if possible in the first hour. When they've got a pretty woman, they'll get their cameras to flatter more, not less, even if she keeps her clothes on. Of course many filmmakers go overboard, needlessly hyper-sexualizing, but for the most part they're doing what they do anyway in typical action flicks.

Michelle Yeoh, Project S, 1993

So, no, there's no grand conspiracy, no "lie, to keep certain people out of the movies, to keep certain people in the same positions that they've always been in." Certainly not in the context of picking action leads.

Men are more natural choices as action leads, for the same reasons that they're the ones who're ordered first to defend or protect or attack or rescue, or lift or operate heavy or dangerous machinery. They're usually the last to be rescued in a disaster. They're more likely to use foreheads, fists, knuckles, elbows and knees with deadly impact than women. That's not misogyny. It's fact.

It's also about what audiences expect, men and women, with all their assumptions and biases intact, flawed or not. Close your eyes and think "scrap in a bar", who comes to mind: men or women? Think "scrum in a stadium", who comes to mind? You get the point. It's not equality metrics, it's everyday life. It's not filmmakers keeping women out.

Should men be the only choices as action leads? Absolutely not!

But there's no algorithm making these decisions any more than there's an evil casting director making evil choices. And there shouldn't be. An algorithm, that is.

If anything, Hollywood has often gone against the grain by casting women as action leads to liven up the drama, to enrich stories, to spice up plots, and to entertain. Rarely perfectly, but always differently: a good thing.

Lawrence wasn't talking about women as strong female leads (where Hollywood has fared poorly and there has been an active bias against women), but she was certainly talking about women as action leads (where there's less, if any, evidence of bias).

Either way, someone should have told Lawrence not to use the interview to step all over fellow actresses who've achieved far more, far earlier than she has. Someone should have told her that it was OK to talk about lies and lying, but not to go on air and give a live demo.

Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on culture and society.



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