It's the most obvious and well-known manifestation of the female power fantasy: the woman who wields the sword, stake or big-ass space gun, going into battle with the boys and kicking ass for earth, Murricah or whatever noble cause she serves. She is physically fit and powerful, has immense power of conviction and takes pride in being as good or even better at what she does than the men she runs with. She is often a main character, but not always. She's very, very visible in our entertainment and fiction, but mostly sticks to genre fiction. From this description, people of my generation can probably rattle off an endless list of them, including but definitely not limited to...
And of course the immortal God-Queens of them all:
It's almost pointless to describe Action Girl, because you know her very well. She puts the most obvious definition of power in the power fantasy. She is strong, kicks ass, and the allure of being her doesn't need much explaining.
Allow me to explain it anyway.
(Before I go on, I want to make it clear that I'm using the term "Action Girl" because it is the name of a well-know trope that most people are familiar with. I usually do not in any way condone referring to adult women as girls, as I find it demeaning and infantilizing.)
The History of Action Girl
To understand the significance of the Action Girl archetype and the problems it may present, it's absolutely vital to first take a look at women and female-presenting fighters in actual history.
Women have always been warriors.
From Shaka Zulu's all-female warrior forces to the resistance fighters in any given militia throughout history, from the Soviet Night Witches back to the Viking warriors in unmarked graves, all the way forward again to Ching Shih, Queen Teuta of Illyria and Mary Read, frontier sheriffs and the Dahomey Amazons, there has rarely been a time and place where female warriors weren't just a shocking exception, they were unremarkable. There is no end to the list of historical female fighters, both individual warriors and fighting forces. In fact it would be fair to say that most cultures both ancient and more modern had very little problems with female warriors, miliray leaders and commanders.
And yet the history we are taught today is the history of Great White Men. To learn anything at all about historical trends and events that don't revolve around the Great White Men, you have to take specialized college courses. Great White Men are the lens through which we see history and it has left us with an extremely distorted view of gender roles in world history, to the point where most people don't know that in practically every culture under the sun, women have served every role imaginable, and there was nothing men did that women didn't do (up to and including impregnating other women.) It leaves many of us with the impression that when it comes to female empowerment, the graph shows nothing but a straight line upwards through time; the closer we come to today, the more equality women enjoy in all things.
This, sadly, could not be father from the truth.
Today, in modern Western cinema and fiction, the female warrior is treated as the exception to the rule. In my opinion, it seems very clear that our filmmakers, authors and storytellers have learned the same history we all have, and taken the same lesson from it: warriors are men by default, but sometimes, in exceptional circumstances, an individual woman with a masculine disposition can also be a warrior.
What Makes an Action Girl
The Action Girl as we know her today has several traits:
She is physically strong and has had some form of combat training. If she is not physically strong, her skill with her chosen weapon makes up for her physical shortcomings in battle. If she did not receive training, she has an innate or acquired "magical" ability to aid in direct combat. In genre fiction, she often has both. She almost always has a signature weapon (or unarmed fighting style.)
She is quick-witted and often jaded. If her arc includes a journey from "normal" girl to Action Girl, she will become more sarcastic and self-assured the more proficient she becomes in that role.
She is enlisted in some way, and she serves a cause greater than herself, usually but not always under direct command or guidance of a man. Much more often than not, The Action Girl is not a commander, she is a foot soldier in some way, with the focus almost exclusively on her direct combat skills rather than her military/strategic know-how.
People around her will often comment on her (perceived) gender and/or sex, positively or negatively.
Apart from combat skills, she will usually display other traits, hobbies and attitudes that are typically coded "masculine" such as raunchy humor, outspokenness bordering on rudeness, eagerness to take command, proficiency in sports, and so on.
She will sometimes be coded gay. If not, people around her or the audience will often project this ambiguity onto her, conflating her role as as a warrior with the "butch lesbian" stereotype.
There is something in her past to explain why she became an Action Girl, if her background is explored; she is motivated by a trauma, loss, an inspiring moment to illustrate the importance of her cause or any other reason to "explain" her.
A Note on Waif-Fu
Waif-Fu is the term used to describe the action when a small and physically frail-looking young woman holds her own in a physical altercation with a much larger opponent (often male, often visibly muscular, often more than one). Like so:
The term originated from fan reactions to the work of Joss Whedon, who often puts younger, frail-looking women in positions to kick a whole lot of ass, usually unarmed, but nowadays it's used to describe any fighting style used by a young woman with a certain body type. (See also Babydoll from Sucker Punch, Hit Girl from Kick-Ass, various characters from frighting games like Chun Li and Ling Xiaoyu and many, many others.) The term is often used in a derogatory, mocking way, usually as a criticism towards the author. Lately I've even seen the term to refer to any and all female warrior characters.
To be very brief about this: I find the term sexist as fuck. Not the term itself, (although I'm not a huge fan of the word "waif") but the fact that it exists at all, and for two reasons:
One, even though this is a trope that is not exclusive to fictional women, there is no male counterpart for this trope. For example, teenager Buffy Summers has magical Slayer powers that enable her to fight groups of much larger opponents hand-to-hand and win even though she is physically small and frail-looking. Teenager Luke Skywalker, on the other hand, has magical Force powers that enable him to fight groups of much larger opponents hand-to-hand and win even though he is physically small and frail-looking.
And yet what Buffy does is waif-fu. What Luke does is fight.
Second, waif-fu often appears in genre fiction or in fiction with a strong sense of heightened reality. In other words, fiction that asks us to suspend our disbelief somewhat. When the term waif-fu is used, it's usually used in the same breath as the word "unrealistic." It's often implied or outright stated that seeing waif-fu on the screen has broken the viewer's suspension of disbelief, something that would not have happened is the visually frail Action Girl was replaced by a similarly frail-looking boy or man, and regardless of any magical or otherwise established reason for her power. Whether the onscreen fight is "realistic" or not is inconsequential. The real question is why everything from plasma guns to healing gels in video games to space ships and magic is acceptable, but the sight of a young woman of a certain body type winning a fight is not.
But let's for a moment assume for the sake of argument that "realism" is bigger factor than sexism. Many martial arts rely on anything but strength to win a fight. I'm aware that most aren't suited to real-world combat, but the argument that the size and pure strength of the fighter is the only deciding factor in the outcome of a fight (even an unarmed fight) is barely worth considering.
Anyway, here's world champion Jade Xu's gold-winning wushu performance. You're very welcome.
The Good: Representation and Aspiration
If you want my personal opinion on the Action Girl done right, you won't have to look far.
As the most obvious and direct symbol of the female power fantasy, the Action Girl can be a symbol of female equality for many people. The Actions Girl incorporates many traits that are traditionally considered masculine and excels at them, to the point where she outshines even men. She is a specialist, the best at what she does, and what she does happens to be fighting for a cause, saving lives and protecting the innocent.
On an aspirational level, there is a lot we see in the Action Girl that we would like to incorporate into our own lives: who doesn't want to be brave in the face of danger both physical and indirect? Who wouldn't want to be the very best at what they do? Action Girl is outspoken, confident and gets shit done. She never waffles, she never fails to protect those closest to her, she is the mythical lioness who protects those who cannot protect themselves, or the avenging angel who carries out her mission with deadly precision and unwavering dedication. Whether her cause is noble or not, she achieves her goals, often at great personal cost, and only very rarely strays from her chosen path. She has agency even as a foot soldier and exercises that agency at every opportunity. And she is dedicated enough to work through great personal trauma and grueling training to become proficient at whatever combat skill she chooses for herself.
On the level of representation, in a culture where women warriors are unfortunately seen as a modern anomaly in the natural order, it can be very affirming to see a well-written Action Girl do what she does. It can be personally empowering (yes, I know I said I wouldn't use the word, but it fits) to have it reaffirmed for you through popular culture that the roles we are told should be filled by men can just as well be filled by women of varying age, ethnicity, cultural background and body type (although by no means a wide enough selection of any of them, because it's still modern western fiction, with all the egregious problems that implies.)
The Bad: Tokenism and Fetishism
Where the Action Girl archetype turns sour is when she is being written by someone who generally does not understand the female power fantasy or has no interest in creating that fantasy for their female audience members.
While the best of well-written Action Girls have a strong personality and agency, and are often seen interacting with other female characters, many creators seem content to stick a gun into the hands of their Smurfette and call it a day. You usually see the Token Action Girl in action movies rather than genre fiction. (Hell, it's like 90% of poor Michelle Rodriguez' career to date.) The Token Action Girl usually ends up doubling as the love interest.
Similarly, and often overlapping, when the intent is to include a female character to deflect accusations of sexism, you often end up with a Faux Action Girl. Much noise is made about her supposed combat prowess, but she usually ends up damseled, made to defer to a male protagonist, mistreated by the creator and generally useless.
Whether a female character who takes up a warrior role is a true Action Girl or a Faux/Token Action Girl is usually debatable. Much can be said for and against Trinity from the Matrix movies, for example. Tokenism is easy enough to spot, but even as a token, an Action Girl can still be a worthwhile and interesting character on her own. My personal observation however is that authors who resort to tokenism usually have no interests in writing interesting minority characters.
As bad as tokenism get, fetishism is worse. This is where the actions of Action Girl are presented as a visual performance for male consumption, heavy on Male Gaze and almost always heavily sexualized. In these cases, the clearly defined sense of personal in-universe agency that partially defines the Action Girl is completely stripped away. The most obvious recent example of this bastardization of the trope is Sucker Punch (but more on that movie later.)
Much can be said about sexualization of female characters, and a whole heaping lot of it depends on author intent and context. An Action Girl who, for example, simply dresses in revealing clothes or freely acts on her sexual impulses needn't necessarily be a fetish girl. Much of it depends on how egregious the Male Gaze gets. Everyone draws that emotional line where the Action Girl goes from being a powerful female character to a wank object in different places. Some examples are very obvious, some are not, and the fetish action girl often exists in a gray area. But whenever the Action Girl becomes more object than subject, when (in a visual medium) we are asked to spend more time looking at her physical features than we are exploring her personality and actions, that's where you start straying into fetishism. If the Action Girl who was previously sexualized is also depowered and (sexually) humiliated in some way, there is a good chance (but again, not a certainty) you're looking at wank fodder rather than feminist-friendly action fiction. (An obvious example being the depowerment and infantalization of Action Girl Samus Aran in Metroid: Other M.)
This depowerment often comes at the hands of the fan community, if not the author. Many fan art depicts Action Girls stripped of most if not all clothing and drawn in submissive positions, often completely counter to their personality and temperament as presented in the universe they inhabit. Almost all video games that support modding have many fan mods to strip or somehow alter the Action Girl to make her more visually pleasing to the male gaze.
For another example of this debate and how controversial and subjective it is, look no further than all the recent talk about comic books, a genre that gets a very bad reputation based purely on its collective (although by no means entirely representative) treatment of their female heroines, especially in feminist critiques of New 52, and the genuinely horrible things that happen to women who write said critiques.
Action Girls and the Culture of Violence
Another nice big can of worms that I'm only going to hint at opening is the role of violence in media. The question here becomes whether it is productive and healthy to teach women that they too can be violent like men, or whether it would be better to do the opposite and strive for media where violence isn't the ubiquitous problem-solver. Indoctrinating women into the culture of violence is not a force for good. To put it bluntly: we don't need more action girls, we need less action boys.
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I know where I stand on the subject. In very general terms, I absolutely believe that we've gone more than a bit overboard in presenting violence as a normal and acceptable way to solve problems. Your mileage may vary. But in the context of the Action Girl archetype, I'm inclined to be very forgiving, because I don't think the appeal and power of the Action Girl power fantasy lies in the violence.
It would be wrong to pretend that Action Girl isn't partially defined by the violence she perpetuates on anyone who crosses her path. But where she differs from Space Marine and Action Dude is that for all intents and purposes, she is still perceived as female. This gives her much greater opportunity to explore the emotional and psychological side of her existence as a warrior, something male fighters aren't often allowed to do in fiction (or real life, because gender-essentialism is the fucking devil.)
Buffy Summers often comments on how she has no innate desire to fight anyone and shows deep regret when she hurts people who don't "deserve" to be hurt in her opinion. Katniss Everdeen only fights because she is forced into a position where she must do so to survive. All of them that I can think of fight to serve a higher purpose beyond their own gain. Most comment at least once on the nature of violence. Even when the Action Girl is a villain, antagonist, anti-hero or obstacle, there is usually something in her background to explain why she resorted to violence. And because women have audience permission to have feelings about this sort of thing, we the audience get a slightly different message about their actions. Not always, but often enough.
Besides that, and much more importantly, it's my opinion that the core of the power fantasy (as opposed to the objective representation) of Action Girl doesn't lie in her ability to inflict damage. Sure, we would like to be able to kick as and do awesome karate as much as the next person, but there is a lot more to it. At the heart of the Action Girl archetype lies an unshakable and strong core of agency: Action Girl decides her own fate, acts according to her own values and cannot be coerced or persuaded into doing otherwise. She is strong in the physical sense, true, but she carries this strength through her entire character. Her ability to win fights is what enables her to exercise her agency. It is a means to an end, not her entire raison d'etre. Even when she is victimized, her physical and mental power will allow her to bounce back and be stronger for it.
Take away Action Girl's guns and swords, take away her rank and status, take away her agency, take away her loved ones, at the end of the day she will still be Action Girl. She is an unstoppable force, and god help any immovable object in her path.
Next Time: The Bella Rose