As its producers anxiously counted the inconclusive box office receipts last weekend, critics and audiences could at least breathe a sigh of relief: the all-female Ghostbusters reboot was not terrible. In fact, depending who you spoke to, it was actually pretty good. After months of ridiculous controversy over the decision to remake the 1984 sci-fi action comedy with female leads, here was a clear retort to misogynist detractors. Women can be funny, too! Women can blow things up, too! Women can kick butt, too!
The trouble with the girl-power Ghostbusters, and indeed with many of Hollywood's attempts to cast women in action roles, is that one little word. Too. In an industry where the vast majority of directors and writers (and the protagonists in their movies) are men, the studios take predetermined formulas that were originally built around male characters, slot women into them and call it progress. Original cast member Bill Murray does make a cameo appearance that nudges the audience in the ribs, and the women do blast one ghost in the crotch, but mainly Ghostbusters director Paul Feig gets no thematic mileage from the gender swap.
From a feminist perspective, the one thing to admire about Feig's reticence is the lack of romantic subplots for the women whose friendships are depicted as the key relationships in the film. Otherwise, the director seems to have cast women simply for the sake of doing so; the comic characters are all nicely developed but they are just taking over what were originally male roles. The Ghostbusters haters are grossly out of line with their refusal to share their sacred nostalgia space with the opposite sex – not to mention their racist attacks on actress Leslie Jones – but they've got one thing right: It is a male space.
Ever since the Lumière brothers shot a train rolling into a country railway station in 1895, film has been a medium that has demanded action: The movies have to show movement, and the more the better. In popular film, that means Buster Keaton falling over, John Wayne pulling the trigger or Christopher Reeve and his many successors leaping over tall buildings in a single bound. At the core of popular cinema is a man engaged in powerful and highly visibly physical action.
Once you start noticing the extreme maleness of the movies, it can make you want to cry – or laugh out loud. The widower in Jean-Marc Vallée's recent drama Demolition is incapable of expressing socially correct grief over the loss of his wife in a car accident and instead joins a wrecking crew. As Jake Gyllenhaal bashes down walls with a sledgehammer, the outlet for the character's pent-up rage and emotional isolation is so wildly oversized, it's darkly funny.
Is it to grossly stereotype women to point out they are much less likely to trash the house? Nor are they going to shoot the neighbours – or their own dinner.
The apparent gap between the action demanded by the medium and women's traditional activities was brilliantly exposed by the Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman in her 1975 classic Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, in which the title character prepares food in her kitchen in real time. The lack of drama in these sequences is both hypnotic and political. Jeanne is not only a widowed housewife and mother to a teenage son but also, not coincidentally, a part-time prostitute: She plays all roles open to a women. But every movie does demand action and eventually Jeanne kills one of her clients as her domestic routine goes off the rails.
That was the European art house cinema of the 1970s. Today, as Hollywood largely abandons the traditionally female-centred romcom in favour of bigger-budget franchises that, whether they are comic or dramatic, depend heavily on action, it is rare to see any notion that women might take action in different ways or for different reasons than men. Mainly, commercial movies have featured an army of active men and the occasional "girl with a gun" whose violence is largely a source of sexual titillation. When Hollywood studios do create real female action heroes, they drop them into plots that any man could perform just as easily, creating such creatures as Lara Croft, a lusty adventurer who needs only looser clothing and a Y chromosome to turn into Indiana Jones.
Of course, way back in the 1990s, Thelma and Louise was supposed to change all this, turning the outlaw genre on its head as it placed its increasingly desperate characters in a feminist plot triggered by inattentive male partners and an attempted rape. The film culminated in that lovely moment when Thelma, an accommodating housewife played by Geena Davis, and Louise, an overworked waitress played by Susan Sarandon, blew up the rig of a truck driver who had repeatedly harassed them on the road. Davis subsequently starred in several female-centric action movies – the thriller The Long Kiss Goodnight and the pirate movie Cutthroat Island – but the truth is, 25 years after Thelma and Louise drove off a cliff in the film's much-debated ending, Hollywood's main response to calls for equity is to give female characters some agency in men's stories or drop them into traditionally male roles.
The results can be as lightly entertaining as Ghostbusters, but they can also, for all their earnest attempts at balance, produce transpositions that are weirdly unconvincing. In this summer's The Legend of Tarzan, Jane (Margot Robbie) loudly disputes the notion she's any damsel in distress and promptly escapes her wicked captor through a combination of ingenuity and strength. But she's recaptured within minutes because the plot requires her to be rescued by Tarzan in the end.
And then there's the shipwreck that is the new Alice Through the Looking Glass, a movie that opens with an extended sequence in which the adult Alice (Mia Wasikowska), captaining her late father's galleon with skill and courage, escapes a band of pirates. If Alice is busy living an adventure worthy of Hornblower why, one wonders, does she need to follow a talking butterfly through some looking glass? To rescue the Mad Hatter from despondency and fix a lifelong rift between the White and Red Queens, it turns out, as the film changes Lewis Carroll's character of attitude into one of agency, repurposing the aggravated voice of reason who underlined Wonderland's nonsense as a pleasant blond action figure.
Of course, there are exceptions to this thoughtless deployment of girl power. Last year, in the midst of the testosterone-fuelled monster truck mash-up that is a George Miller movie, many critics noticed that the plot of Mad Max: Fury Road revolved not around Max but around Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a woman who was rescuing other women from sexual slavery in a postapocalyptic Australia.
For all their vicious violence, survivalist plots can offer rich material for those wondering what a female-centered action movie might actually look like, because their scenarios often combine the need for exuberant self-defence with the need for small-scale life skills.
In Patricia Rozema's recent drama Into the Forest, two teenage sisters (Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood) struggle to survive alone in an isolated house in the West Coast woods after a continental power outage brings civilization to a halt. There's a graphic scene where one sister, desperate for protein to feed her pregnant sibling, shoots and butchers a wild pig. It's followed by a gentler one, where the two young women render the fat. As one pours powder from a box very clearly labelled "lye," she remarks to the other that it will be nice to have soap again.
Based on a popular American young-adult novel, Into the Forest is an independent Canadian film that has been seen by small audiences. How many of those viewers might have known what you get when you add lye to boiling animal fat – or could be counted on to recall that, in pioneer times, soap-making was traditionally woman's work? Still, that combination of soap and slaughter marks a provocative moment in recent cinema where women take vigorous action without any "too" in sight.