I am reading The Geek Feminist Revolution, and it is making me think about heroes. Kameron Hurley, the author, has an essay about societally-based-in-the-1950s ideas of heroes (male, straight, white) and about how the only women who are killers and who could be considered heroes in movies are Thelma and Louise and Aileen Wuornos (in 'Monster'). She talks about Charlise Theron's Furiosa from the last Mad Max movie separately, and well, but Imperator Furiosa is not, overall, a killer. She may be one of the few women heroes who isn't propelled by rape -- once you look around, that trope is everywhere -- but her story starts with maintaining the status quo and ends with her having entirely overturned it.
(She isn't dealing with race here -- yes, of course, Luke Cage is a hero, how could he not be? And Falcon, and T'Challa. And many others whom I see on cable but whose names I don't know. But the field of combat/discussion is sexism here.)
So. Who are the women I see as heroes in movies, not as 'women heroes'? Not as sidekicks, or (forgive me, Rosalind Russell) as equal-to-men-but-in-a-men's-world, such as Hildy in 'My Girl Friday' (which was originally a man's role)? (I am exempting comedies from this, overall, because being a hero can be largely humorless. If someone has a hero who is female and in a comedy, I'd really like to know about it.) And what is a hero? For purposes of this post, I'm defining a hero as someone who goes up against impossible odds to achieve a goal that generally include keeping 'self and/or one or more other people alive, whether or not they are people the hero personally knows. (There are variations -- achieving an impossible goal can be heroic, but isn't always presented as such.) Another requirement is that the hero is someone with agency who chooses to use it to change the status quo for the better. By the end of the movie, something has to be different because of what the hero did. The stakes must be high, the difficulties many and the resources limited.
(Sexism example: Nobody complains about the Sundance Kid shooting people. They complain about Thelma and Louise blowing up the rude sexist trucker's truck. There's only one shooting in that movie, of a rapist, and I don't even want to hear about how he 'hadn't done anything yet' when he'd brutalized Louise in a way that made it clear that she's not his first victim.)
(Yes, Buffy and Faith are heroes -- but I'm thinking movies here, not tv, and the movie of Buffy was not so much about heroism as about overturning high-school and prom-night-movie tropes.)
Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, in Alien, Aliens, etc. My favorite is the second movie, because I went to see it with a really horrible boyfriend I was trying to break up with, and it gave me the courage to dump him. Ripley is a killer because of circumstances -- self defense and protecting the girl -- and her targets are the enormous aliens that are trying to kill them. Does it not count as being a killer if you use a spaceship to do it? Or if the victims are trying to kill you and are aliens?
(Ripley was originally a man's role -- it was written for Paul Newman, as was Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop. The name -- Axel Foley -- is a give-away, half Swedish and half Irish. I can come up with a few reasons why a black character would have that name -- but I seriously doubt that many black kids were named Axel until after the movie came out.)
Sally Field, in both Places in the Heart and Norma Rae. Neither of them has rape involved, present or past. This is steadfast, plugging, get-it-done heroism, not flashy. What changes is that through her hard work and steadfastness, and befriending outcasts (Danny Glover and John Malkovich), she keeps her home. It probably helps that Sally Field looks like a fluffy bunny in Places, and is sweaty and ungroomed in Norma Rae. I've worked in a factory without AC in the summer -- she looked like I felt on the assembly line. And that scene where she is dragged away to the police car, fighting for her life? She broke two ribs on one of the guys carrying her that day; she was dead serious in that fight.
Leia Organa, whether princess, freedom fighter, or general, is a hero. She's also a killer, unless all those dudes in white plastic armor don't count when she shoots at them and they fall down. She's also the Hutt-slayer and a liberator of planets. Over the first three movies (they will always be the first three for me, not the prequels) her character grows and develops. What we have lost when Carrie died was the rest of the story for her -- at least we have Movie 8 coming, with more of General Leia. (I have no idea why The Geek Feminist Revolution didn't include her as a hero, unless she's in an essay I haven't gotten to yet. I mean, she's the one with the two male sidekicks who think it's all about them.)
Karen Silkwood, played by Meryl Streep, is a hero, killed for trying to tell people about workplace safety violations in a plutonium factory. Meryl Streep also plays more of an action hero in The River Wild, and there are no rapes there -- and she does kill Kevin Bacon's character, who richly deserves it. However, Meryl Streep can play anything except a doormat; the closest she came to that was in Sophie's Choice, early on, where she is powerless to save both of her children from murder by the Nazis and never completely recovers afterward. It's a powerful role and amazing acting -- but she is not a hero, she's a survivor, and the two aren't necessarily the same.
Arwen Undomiel, one of two named women characters in Lord of the Rings (seriously: Rosie Cotton is a walk-on so Sam will have someone conventionally female to come home to) is a hero, and a swordfighter, when she rides down to the ford to bring Frodo up to Rivendell. I have fantasized at times about a version of LOTR from her viewpoint -- being the witness, seeing what's happening but not able to change the war, then choosing mortality over immortality because with Aragorn she had found something she could not find with another elf. There are hints in the books of their marriage being considered miscegenation by Elrond and others, but it can't be said overly strongly because he is Elrond Half-Elven, after all. What would her story look like, from her viewpoint? She wasn't Eleanor of Aquitaine, riding bare-breasted toward Jerusalem with the Crusades -- "the troops were dazzled" -- because sexuality barely exists in Tolkien's writing other than bromance. If anything, she is stuck being more like Katherine in Henry V -- outside the "men's discussion" of war and tribute and appeasement, but she escapes being the property that must be exchanged for the treaty to take place. But to get back to Arwen, heroes are people who act, and Arwen does act, in the scenes we see -- that is her choice. The book and movie show us the aftereffect, the willing bride and queen -- they don't show the inner struggle she went through to get there. (FWIW, I have a hard time not reading Merry and Pippin as kid sisters to Frodo, but that's me. Tomboy kid sisters who get into scrapes and out of them.)
Eowyn, also LOTR, is certainly a hero -- gets into armor, rides into battle, kills the Witch King --"No man can kill me." "I am no man." She also shows 'womanly' virtues by caring for the ailing king, her uncle, and mourning her brother. I would dearly love to see a story in which she and Arwen are hanging out and talking, since they are the co-rulers of neighboring countries. Peter Jackson has much to answer for in not having Faramir's courtship of and marriage to Eowyn in the movie. Yes, it was three hours long. It could have been three hours and five minutes.
I don't see Galadriel as a hero. Yes, she turns down the Ring. But that's it. Nothing changes for her after the movie -- she goes into the Weat, where all the elves were going anyway. She's a queen, a wise woman, a visionary -- but not a hero in these terms. And -- JRR Tolkien, why could you not have put Arwen and Galadriel in the same room *once*?
Speaking of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Katharine Hepburn plays her as a hero in her own eyes who is stuck in a proscribed women's role and trying her best to get out of it at times by manipulation and scheming (traditionally considered women's weapons). But she also brings knives to her sons when her husband has imprisoned them, so they can fight their way out --"It's 1183, and we're all barbarians." Much as I love Kate's movies, it's hard for me to call her a hero. A strong woman, yes, but in that narrative (play or movie) not heroic. She does not change anything. At the end of the story she's going back to her own prison, and everyone who was alive when the movie started still is, though their relationships have shifted a bit. Hepburn played the roles that were available, and women-as-equals or women-as-partners were her forte. But not heroes. But Kate Hepburn's movies could be an entire other post or three.
I am not sure whether Celie, in The Color Purple, could be considered a hero. She does not overturn the status quo as much as go along with it for her own survival. Much of the time she doesn't have agency, and when she does it's fairly minor -- designing women's trousers is not quite like going over a waterfall in a raft with your son and two murderers (The River Wild).
Regardless of Hollywood's prejudices, Black Widow is a hero, as well as a survivor. I would like to see a movie in which we see both of those -- the agency she has is to change herself after Hawkeye refuses to kill her. And yes, she's a killer -- it's her job. I'm not sure she's written as well as she deserves. Fanfic does better by her than the movies do, at this point, much of the time.
What women are your movie heroes, and why? (Y'all are forgetting to tell me why...)
ETA: It's a series, not a movie, but all the major women in Black Sails are heroes, in particular Eleanor Guthrie (who singlehandedly tries to keep the village of Nassau profitable), Max (who goes from slavery and prostitution to managing businesses, owning land, and not employing anyone enslaved), and Anne Bonney (who is a pirate, no excuses, no arguments, and who takes down a murderous thug who had already killed several men -- she noticed the shards of broken glass over to the side, and once she had them, it was as if she had her swords again.) They are all complex, complicated characters, who love and hate and make deals and make compacts and agreements and understand how their world works when many of the men around them don't.