Why don't female action stars look as strong as male ones?
Body Image, Comics, Fashion, Pop Culture, Superheroes

Why Have Female Action Stars Lost Their Muscles?

First published on Fanny Pack on 6th December 2016


I have nothing against Gal Gadot. Really, I don’t. She’s a beautiful woman, a fine actress, and I had the biggest grin on my face watching her knock ten shades of shit into Doomsday in the otherwise gloomy mess that was Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

She’s got the lasso, she’s got the armour, she’s got the red, white and blue, and she’s even got that hard-to-place exotic accent that a Themysicaran warrior woman really would have, IRL. Her hair is flowing and dark and her gaze is steely. She mostly looks perfect in the role. Mostly. It’s just that… there’s something that’s been bothering me ever since the first photos of her on set came out. The muscles, or I should say, lack thereof. I mean, I know Wonder Woman is super strong. But looking at Gadot – I just don’t believe it.

Wonder Woman: Film vs Comic

As soon as you put Gal Gadot’s slim arms up against the source material’s bulging drawn ones, the muscular difference is clear straight away. Source: Warner Bros/DC Comics.

This is in no way meant as a body-shaming thing, so I apologise to Gal in advance if it does. As both an action star and model, I know she must work hard on her body. Yeah, a model. You’ve probably seen in her that dumb TV commercial for Gucci Bamboo where she, amongst other things, plays a piano naked. (A scene that sticks in my mind because it always makes my mum crack up laughing whenever she sees it, and now me every time I see it too from the memory of her cracking up. Mum’s are the best.)

In addition to modelling, Gadot has High School basketball, two major pageant titles, and two years of military service in the Israel Defenses Force on her CV. Clearly, this ridiculously well-balanced mix of brawn and beauty is what helped her land her first most notable acting credit in the Fast and Furious series. Since being cast as DC comics’ strongest superherione, she’s now a firmly established a modern female action star in the mold of Angelina Jolie, Zoe Saldana, Mila Jokovich and Scarlett Johansson. Read: beautiful but deadly. These women are all fit, toned, flat-stomached and ready to fucking kill you as soon as kiss you, and I love each and every one of them for that. But there’s also a part of me that feels continually dissatisfied with the slighter frames these actresses sport compared to their male counterparts. It’s the part of me that sorely misses watching Linda Hamilton’s sweaty biceps bulging from the strain of doing pull-ups in Terminator 2 for the first time.

Twenty-something years later, Chris Evans performed this tangible feat of Herculean strength in Captain America: Civil War, sending a million Tumblr users into a sexually GIF-ed out frenzy.

Captain American helicopter pull

Nothing artificial in those arms. Just 100% BEEF. Source: Tumblr.

But we’ve never gotten anything remotely similar from his female co-star, Scarlett Johansson. Sure, as Black Widow she does great stunt work and she can sashay away after dropping a dude like nobodies’ business, but do you believe she’s as strong as all that clever wirework is tricking you into thinking she is? No, of course not. And yes, this is probably an unfair comparison considering the differences in fighting style and skillset between these two characters. But, if we’ve ended up with such a lithe and slinky Wonder Woman – a woman who can go toe-to-toe with Superman – how likely do you think it is that we’ll get the beefed-up version of the alien-strengthened Captain Marvel from Brie Larson we deserve in 2019? How long will it be until we get another Sarah Connor?

Scarlet Johansson as Black Widow in Iron Man 2

This is still the best scene from Iron Man 2, though. Source: cinesnark.

You could chalk it up to the biological fact that women aren’t as strong as men – 52% as strong in the upper body and 62% in the lower body, to be exact. But just because women can never look equally muscly as men, doesn’t mean they can’t get pretty damn close. You only have to turn your TV on during Olympics season to get a eyeful of lady abs, or switch over to Wimbledon in the summer to marvel at Serena Williams’ glorious man-crushing thighs. Or, just buy yourself a copy of 1996 TV action movie, Raven Hawk, to see body-building star Rachel McLish – the “female Schwarzenegger” – putting her real oiled-up muscles to real good use.

Rachel McLish in Raven Hawk

Don’t mess. Source: Amazon.

I don’t for one second believe that it’s any of the actresses’ faults either. The Ripleys, Sarah Connors and Raven Hawks of the machismo-charged late 80s and early 90s have sadly died out along with tube socks and hair blow-dried to Heaven. You only have to read a handful of interview extracts with the female action stars of today to realise that the majority of their training goes towards squeezing into some kind of catsuit rather than looking like they can comfortably take down half a dozen S.H.E.I.L.D agents in an elevator.

Mother Russia from Kick-Ass 2

What’s this?! The rare-spotted muscular female action star in 2013’s Kick-Ass 2? Unfortunately, though ‘Mother Russia’ was a breath of muscular fresh air, her appearance was played off as a source of comedy rather than strength, exemplifying how “ludicrous” we’re supposed to find it that women who look like this exist. Source: ComicVine.

Suitably, this trend may have started in the movies with Catwoman – one of the very first female characters in superhero comics. “We’d go in my trailer, powder me down, put on the suit – and then they’d put this silicone goop all over me,” Michelle Pfeiffer reminisced on Inside the Actor’s Studio about playing the cat burglar in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns in 1992. “You get vacuum packed, but it sort of starts to squeeze you.” She also said that kickboxing lessons helped, but in reference to fitting into the suit, not for looking like she could kick any Bat-butt. Similarly, when Halle Berry played the character in the ill-conceived, Razzie-showered Catwoman in 2005, Berry resorted to the infamous ‘5 Factor Fitness’ plan formulated specifically for her to look her best (Read: skinniest) in the bra and belt combo she had to wear. Fast-forward to Christopher Nolan’s applauded redemption of the character in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, and Anne Hathaway says on Regis and Kelly that Nolan’s comparatively modest version of the iconic suit was, “unforgiving… It had to be a lifestyle change to get into that suit.” Compare these accounts then to Chris Hemsworth’s preparation for playing Marvel’s resident magical hammer-wielder, who bulked up so much he couldn’t fit into his Thor costume. I don’t think Halle Berry would have been let off the hook for that.

Halle Berry as Catwoman

Lest we forget. Source: Pinterest.

Once again, we could dismiss this as a circumstantial to different characters. As a cat-inspired thief, Selina Kyle needs a slim rather than bulky frame; as a femme fatale she needs to be sultry rather than butch, and that catsuit is far too iconic to ditch completely. Thor, on the other hand, needs to look every inch the Godly pillar of strength we know from myth and pop culture. And yet, even Paul Rudd packed on muscle to play the normally trim and averagely proportioned Scott Lang in Marvel’s Ant-Man in 2015.

Paul Rudd as Ant-Man.

I mean, I won’t complain THAT hard about it. Source: Marvel.

It seems you really can’t get away with playing any male character in an action movie without bulking up, but when it comes to female characters, Hollywood seems to have taken far too many queues from the Catwoman School of Heroine Design and deviated very little. You can see it echoed everywhere from Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft, to Kate Beckinsale as Seline in the Underworld series, to Carrie Ann Moss as Trinity in The Matrix Trilogy. Unlike her male counterpart whose sexiness is a by-product of his muscular appearance, a modern female action star’s muscular appearance is restricted by an expectation of sexiness. In fact, you could argue that because the films they star in are mainly marketed towards men, the actresses’ believability as sex symbols has to supersede their believability as strong women, or producers worry there might not be enough ‘eye candy’ to sell tickets. I mean, are we really supposed to buy that Zoe Saldana’s tiny arms can possibly lift a 7lb military rifle?

Columbiana

Source: YouTube.

Even the tagline for 2011’s forgettable Colombiana can’t help emphasising Saldana’s attractiveness over her strength for fear of fragile male egos feeling threatened.

Black Widow and Catwoman are supposed to be slinky catsuited heroines. I get that. But Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel are heavy-hitters. There’s no excuse for not making them look as nails as Superman and Captain America.

Unlike her male counterpart whose sexiness is a by-product of his muscular appearance, a modern female action star’s muscular appearance is restricted by an expectation of sexiness.

But there’s something else outside of Hollywood’s control that might be a deciding factor here, too. A huge amount of these actresses also cash cheques from modelling on the side. Charlize Theron may shave her head for Mad Max: Fury Road, but next month she’s got to paint herself gold for a Dior ad. Scarlett Johansson can cause psychic chaos in Lucy, naked-dive off buildings in Ghost in the Shell and roundhouse-kick super villains in The Avengers films, but after shooting wraps up she has to go Marilyn Monroe-it-up for Dolce & Gabbanna or lay still like a lifeless sex doll next to some Louis Vuitton handbags.

Scarlet Johansson for Louis Vuitton Fall 2007

Pretty dead. Source: Fashion Gone Rogue.

Is Chris Evans also the face of Gucci Guilty? Sure. Does Gerard Butler growl his way through commercials for Hugo Boss’ Boss Bottled? Yep. And Ryan Reynolds? You betcha. But they don’t have to worry about sporting the same bulky physique they did for Captain America, or Deadpool, or 300 because there’s only really one way a man at peak physical fitness should look: muscular. Doesn’t matter whether he’s punching Nazis in the face or staring wistfully into a sunset to sell you eau de parfum.

Angel Dust in Deadpool

2016’s Deadpool gleefully tore up the superhero movie rulebook, including the slim female action star trend by casting muscular, MMA fighter Gina Carano as villainess ‘Angel Dust’ to take on X-Men heavy-hitter, Colossus. Source: 20th Century Fox.

This brings us full-circle back to the lovely Gal Gadot, who – if you remember – was, and still is, a model as well as action star. Do you really think that if she chewed her way through a gallon of protein pills and weight-lifted truck tires for 6 months for BvS:DoJ like Batfleck, Gucci would have still let her film that dumb naked piano scene that my mum finds so hilarious? Of course not. Because most of us don’t consider muscly women to be conventionally beautiful. Sorry – most men don’t consider muscly women to be conventionally beautiful, not outside of the funny pages, anyway.

Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow

Emily Blunt’s push-up in 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow invokes the spirit of Linda Hamilton… But only in spirit. Source: Tumblr.

But you know what? Wonder Woman wasn’t created as a champion for men. She was created for us – for women. She’s our champion. Not just in fiction, but in real life now too. This year, the UN (controversially) named her as ‘Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls’, and whether you agree with that choice or not, no-one can deny that Wonder Woman has been a purpose-built feminist icon for the past 75 years. The very least Hollywood and the beauty industry can do to honour her and her history is to let us have a version of her that looks like she really can kick the teeth out of our oppressors. We know she’s strong on the inside. It’d just be nice to see it on the outside too.


For more on fictional heroines and their body shapes, check out ‘A Female Character’s Waistline Should Be As Realistic As Her Job Description.’


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Body Image, Fashion, Feminist/Gender Theory, Identity, Pop Culture, Society and Politics

There’s Nothing Empowering About Those ‘Body Positive’ Sports Illustrated Covers

Originally published on the Fanny Pack blog on February 23rd 2016


Last week the 2016 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue released no less than three different covers featuring three different body types: American model Hailey Clauson, UFC fighter Ronda Rousey (who appears in a body-painted swimsuit), and plus-size model and body image activist Ashley Graham.

Ashley Graham, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Annual 2016

Ashley Graham, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Annual 2016

Hailey Clauson, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Annual 2016

Hailey Clauson, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Annual 2016

Ronda Rousey, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Annual 2016

Ronda Rousey, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Annual 2016

It marks the first time a size 16 model has graced its cover and needless to say, the Internet went crazy. “Wow. Just, wow,” gushed The Huffington Post. “The body positivity movement is booming,” proclaimed Shape magazine. “And we couldn’t be more excited that SI picked women who add fuel to the fire.” Exactly the kind of responses that SI had been hoping to create as Assistant Managing Editor MJ Day made clear at their unveiling event:

“All three women are beautiful, sexy and strong. Beauty is not cookie cutter. Beauty is not ‘one size fits all.’ Beauty is all around us and that became especially obvious to me while shooting and editing this year’s issue.”

 She’s right, of course. Beauty certainly isn’t “cookie cutter” or “one size fits all” and seeing this (not so) ground-breaking idea finally appearing on the covers of an iconic beauty magazine gives it even more commercial validation for all those women out there who have never considered themselves to be ‘conventionally’ beautiful. And yet, as I looked at these uniquely beautiful cover girls in their swimsuits, all I felt was unease. There was just something about all this self-congratulation and buzzworthy empowerment that didn’t sit right with me.

Let’s break it down.

The pros are obvious. Women of all shapes and sizes deserve to feel loved, sexy, and beautiful, and celebrating that breaks down the harmful monotony of the ‘one-size’ beauty culture. A lot of women feel undervalued and invisible when they can’t see themselves on a cinema screen, or a catwalk runway, or a shop window, or a magazine cover, and so the more the body positive movement is allowed to infiltrate all of these fiercely image-conscious industries, the more women will feel healthier and happier in their own skin without the crushing pressure to constantly change themselves.

Let’s also not forget SI’s clear target demographic: heterosexual men. Another misconception that the ‘one size’ culture helps to wrongfully prevail is the idea that there is similarly a singular type of woman that all straight men find attractive. But from my research of actually, y’know, talking to straight men about their tastes in women this just simply isn’t true. Men have a very diverse range of sexual tastes and desires that different kinds of women can easily fulfil. Sometimes they can even open them up to new fantasies they didn’t even know they had.

'Not Models' photo shoot calling out an M&S campaign for claiming to use "real women", from Stylehasnosize.com

‘Not Models’ photo shoot calling out an M&S campaign for claiming to use “real women”, from Stylehasnosize.com

Speaking of the straight male demographic, let’s get into the cons. There is always a fine line to tread between owning your sexuality and allowing it to be owned by others. This is something that has plagued feminist debate for decades, especially when feminist artists and performers use nudity or provocative imagery as a means of self-expression. Whenever I think about this debate, I am always reminded of a particular section from art historian John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1975):

“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. […] From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. […] She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….

 “One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”

As inspiring as the body positive movement is, you can’t escape from the fact that these covers are sexualised female bodies for the approval, delight, and consumption of male eyes specifically. They still place sexuality and image as the most valuable trait for any women of any visible description. Ashley Graham is a role model for plus size women. But who cares about that unless she also looks great in a bikini! Ronda Rousey is a successful and respected female athlete. Yeah, but is she hot though? Any way you slice it, it’s the same old objectification but with a ‘body positive’ Get Out Of Jail Free card attached.

Now THIS is an empowering cover. (Ronda Rousey on the cover of Sports Illustrated May 2015)

Now THIS is an empowering cover. (Ronda Rousey on the cover of Sports Illustrated, May 2015)

It’s also worth noting that out of the three covers released, not one single woman of colour has been featured. I guess racial inclusivity and body inclusivity are two completely separate things to SI. 

In fact, I think I’ve finally worked out what that feeling of unease is that I just couldn’t find the reason for earlier. It’s exactly the same feeling I get from all those “real beauty” Dove adverts. For years, the personal care brand Dove has – in the brilliant words of Mark Duffy – “passive-aggressively assaulted women’s physical insecurities to sell beauty products.” Think about every Dove TV advert you’ve ever seen. Did you ever worry about not having soft enough underarms, firmer skin, or more radiant under-eyes before watching it? Nope, me neither. But apparently Dove thinks these are pressing issues to further women’s empowerment. Who cares about the patriarchy when you have a natural-looking glow!

Dove's 'Campaign For Real Beauty' Ads revealed to have been Photoshopped.

Dove’s ‘Campaign For Real Beauty’ Ads in 2008 were revealed to have been Photoshopped.

Hijacking an aspirational movement or trend like body positivity to use as an empty marketing ploy for easy headlines is certainly nothing new, but judging from the trend-worthy hype those SI covers have generated it’s effectiveness clearly hasn’t diminished either.

I’m not saying that Ashley Graham and Ronda Rousey aren’t empowering women. I’m just saying these particular photos of them aren’t. And incidentally, if you want to see some real body positive photos of women (and men) that don’t reduce their models to sex objects, then take a look through this great collection on Bustle.

Although I can see some of the positive benefits of using models of different sizes, when you break it down SI is still a magazine that pedals eroticised photos of swimsuit models to cater to straight male sexual fantasies and little else. The only difference here is that the editors have found a way to trick people into applauding that.


 

IMAGE CREDITS

1 – 3: Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Annual 2016 featuring Ashley Graham, Ronda Rousey and Hailey Clauson.

4. ‘Models vs. Not Models’ photoshoot campaign from Stylehasnosize.com

5. Sports Illustrated cover featuring Ronda Rousey, May 2015

6. Hacktivist photo from Dove’s ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ advert campaign, 2008

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