I saw the Star Trek movie last night. Don’t worry–I’m not planning on disclosing any spoilers, unless you count the information that there are two women in a cast of about 20 central characters, and neither of them does anything even slightly beyond the bounds of gender-stereotyped behavior: in the high-tech future as imaged by Star Trek, girls are good at nurturing and languages and boys are good at fighting and science, and while men are captaining space ships, women are usually having babies. Actually, that did pretty much spoil the movie for me, all the glowing reviews out there notwithstanding. Sure, I realize the movie has to work with the template of the original series, which was hardly feminist. But isn’t that part of the point of nostalgia trips like Mad Men and Swingtown? They make it safe again to represent a world where men go to work and women chat as they push their carts around the grocery store.
The retrograde gender politics of Star Trek, combined with the equally retrograde (and totally terrible) Wolverine, which I saw last weekend, started me wondering, what happened to the female action hero in the last decade? The 1980s and 1990s brought us Ripley, Sarah Connor, and Trinity–not to mention Xena and Buffy. Now, from the Bourne series to Spiderman to Batman, we seem to have gone right back to the realm of Big Strong Men and the Little Women Who Love Them–women whose role is roughly indistinguishable from that of Fay Wray: squeal, get rescued and/or die. Although the ass-kicking female hero survives on TV, particularly in SF vehicles like Battlestar Gallactica, her presence in the movies seems to have reached almost zero.
I could write an entire post about how sad this is, and how much I miss the rough-and-ready women of the 1990s, but, the fact of the matter is, the all-too-easy erasure of these women has lead me to wonder, did they really make a difference in the first place? Did the presence of female action heroes signal anything beyond an increased ability on the part of feminists to enjoy a mainstream Hollywood movie? Obviously, it’s better to have empowered rather than disempowered female heroes; I would never argue otherwise. But the total prominence of the female action hero in the 1980s and 1990s, followed by her total erasure in the last ten years, makes her look like just another fad–something that was fun in the 1990s, like grunge, raves and Seinfeld. And if we could just consume her and then throw her away, like every other female type in the media, maybe she wasn’t all that tough in the first place.
When I was thinking about this blog post, I kept being reminded of a passage from The Feminist Memoir Project collection, in which Barbara Smith critiques a feminism that protests a film about Larry Flint but remains silent about the real-life torture of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima by the NYPD. The connection is the overvaluing of the media as a source of either uplift (Yay, Buffy!) or oppression (Boo, Star Trek!). So much of feminism, particularly in the blogosphere, is media critique–and on this blog, I am probably the biggest offender. I’m not saying thinking and writing about culture is pointless; if it is, I’ve wasted the last twelve years of my life, not to mention $74,000 in student loans. But the erasure of the female action hero without so much as a blip is a good reminder that changes in culture are meaningless if they’re not accompanied by changes in our material status–and that both can be undone in a heartbeat.