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. I mean can you even body-shame a 5’10” model? Yeah, that’s right – 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?


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.’

Scarlett Johansson as 'Motoko Kurasungi' in 'Ghost in the Shell'
Anime, Identity, Manga, Pop Culture, Sci-Fi, Society and Politics

Hollywood vs. Anime: Dawn of Whitewashing

Why race matters when it comes to casting anime adaptations.

Two weeks ago we got out first glimpse at Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kurasungi from the upcoming live-action adaptation of 90s cyberpunk classic, ‘Ghost in the Shell’. This casting sparked a tonne of outrage when it was first announced last year, and this image of Johansson in costume for the role has only served to dredge all of this vitriol back up again. Why? Because yet again Hollywood has inexplicably chosen to race-swap an Asian character, and to add insult to injury – they were even reports that Paramount and DreamWorks ran tests to make Johansson look “more Asian” using VFX.

What the actual fuck, Hollywood?

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a live-action anime adaptation lose its ‘Japaneseness’ in translation, and it looks like it certainly won’t be the last. It all started with the terribly conceived ‘Dragon Ball Evolution’ movie (2009) that cast white actor Justin Chatwin in the role of ‘Son Goku’ for the live-action adaptation of Akira Toriyama’s iconic ‘Dragon Ball’ franchise. The film was a massive commercial and critical flop, and more importantly, a painful disappointment for fans.

Dragon Ball Evolution

The cast of ‘Dragon Ball Evolution’

Fast-forward to 2014, and ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ (2014) is released to far better reception. The film was loosely based on Katshuro Otomo’s manga, ‘All You Need Is Kill’ (I use the word ‘loosely’, loosely here) and starred Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. Since then, it seems that Hollywood has begun snapping up live-action anime rights like they were going out of style. In the last few weeks, Netflix has announced its plans to produce a live-action ‘Death Note’ film adaptation starring white actor Nat Wolff as ‘Light Yagami’, and we’ve even had reports that several studios are battling it out for the live-action rights for Pokémon. And let’s not forget those ‘Akira rumours that have been circulating around for years now. The way things are going you can probably look forward to Zac Efron playing Kaneda in 2018.

Tom Cruise in 'Edge of Tomorrow'

Tom Cruise in ‘Edge of Tomorrow’

You might be wondering why any of this matters – why, in these fantastical stories in which cyborg cops patrol the streets of future Tokyo or a teenager possesses a supernatural book and chats to an invisible Death God that looks like Robert Smith on an acid trip should it matter what the races of the characters are. And you’d be right to think this if it were not for the fact that Hollywood has an unfortunately long track record of whitewashing characters of colour – particularly Asian characters. From Micky Rooney as ‘Mr. Yunioshi’ in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ (1961) to Tilda Swinton as ‘The Ancient One’ in Marvel’s ‘Doctor Strange’ (2016), the only thing that seems to have changed in the last 40 years is that the offensive accent has been dropped.

Mickey Rooney as 'Mr. Yunioshi' in 'Breakfast at Tiffanys'

Mickey Rooney in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’

The argument I hear constantly in defence/explanation of these casting decisions is that big budget films need a “bankable” star in order to justify and recoup the money the studio shells out for them. Director Ridley Scott took this line of defence in response to criticism levied at him for his whitewashed casting in ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ (2015).

“I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such […] I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”

Despite the fact that I’m pretty sure the director of ‘Gladiator’, ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Alien’ could get a 3-hour film in which an old man picks chewing gum off the bottom of his shoes financed if he really tried hard enough, this argument is incredibly depressing and frankly inexcusable. If a “bankable” star has to be white in Hollywood then why is that something industry leaders like Scott can just shrug off and accept? It’s not something that would ever be acceptable in any other job sector without serious human rights violations, so why should the film industry be exempt?

Tilda Swinton as 'The Ancient One' in 'Doctor Strange'

Tilda Swinton in ‘Doctor Strange’

The cold, hard truth is that directors like Ridley Scott – and Hollywood in general – just doesn’t seem to care about race – even if it has a detrimental effect on the authenticity of the story they’re trying to tell and sell to us on screen. And, as writer/director Max Landis recently explained on You Tube, even if directors and writers do care, the combination of financial fears and lack of opportunity for actors of colour to make it to ‘A-List’ status has created a “broken system” set against them. For anime fans, all this means that for the foreseeable future we can look forward to a sea of white faces masquerading as our favourite Japanese heroes, heroines, and villains.

Popular Shonen Jump anime characters: Goku, Luffy, Naruto, Ichigo, Gintana.

A casting-call of some of the most beloved anime characters.

This problem is particularly relevant to anime and manga adaptations because of the quintessential ‘Japaneseness’ of the medium. Anime – as well its unique visual style – is filled with stories, characters and themes that rely deeply on the country’s cultural heritage, social and political history, and distinctive sense of humour to be understood. For non-Japanese otaku, this allure of ‘otherness’ is what makes us binge-watch an entire show on Crunchyroll, or spend hours styling a ridiculous wig before a convention, or empty our pockets for imported plush toys.

We don’t love anime despite it being Japanese; we love anime because it’s Japanese.

Anime Fan vs. Non-Anime fan cartoon by Loldwell

And whilst there has unfortunately been evidence to the contrary, to me the idea that an audience will only pay money to see characters on screen that match what they look like has as much basis in reality as the fictional worlds those characters inhabit. I think the amount of tears we all collectively shed whilst watching a child’s imaginary friend fade to nothing in ‘Inside Out’ proved that. (Uh, spoilers for ‘Inside Out’, btw.)

It is of course true that miscasting doesn’t automatically mean a film will be bad. ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ – despite rinsing out every ounce of Otomo’s manga it could get away with – turned out to be an interesting and well-executed sci-fi action movie. But, if a film starts off by miscasting the race of it’s main character, then how much respect do you think those pulling the strings really have for the source material, or for us – the fans?

Image Credits

Featured image: Scarlett Johansson in ‘Ghost in the Shell’ / Movie Web

  1. Cast of ‘Dragon Ball Evolution’ / Playstation
  2. Tom Cruise in ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ / Cinema Blend
  3. Mickey Rooney in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’/ Wikipedia
  4. Tilda Swinton in ‘Doctor Strange’ / The Metro
  5. Anime characters from ‘Shounen Jump’ / Anime World Info
  6. ‘Critically JaPanned’ by Loldwell / Loldwell.com