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Sex Roles (2010) 62:734–746

DOI 10.1007/s11199-010-9757-7

ORIGINAL ARTICLE

Violent Female Action Characters in Contemporary


American Cinema
Katy Gilpatric

Published online: 7 March 2010


# Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Abstract This research is a content analysis of violent occurred after the success of Alien including the Alien
female action characters (“VFAC”) shown in American sequels and such films series as Terminator, Lara Croft, and
action films from 1991 through 2005. The analysis focused Kill Bill. It is now commonplace to see female action
on three aspects of VFACs: (1) gender stereotypes, (2) characters engage in hand-to-hand combat, wield swords,
demographics, and (3) quantity and type of violence. shoot machine guns, and employ high-tech weaponry to
Findings showed that 58.6% of VFACs were portrayed in destroy people and property—behaviors once the exclusive
a submissive role to the male hero in the film, and 42% domain of male action heroes. These tough female
were romantically linked to him. The average VFAC was representations seem to have moved beyond traditional
young, white, highly educated, and unmarried. VFACs notions of femininity and have drawn attention from
engaged in masculine types of violence yet retained feminist theorists who have debated whether they are
feminine stereotypes due to their submissive role and empowering images for real women (McCaughey and King
romantic involvement with a dominant male hero character. 2001), represent the ability of women to draw upon their
The findings suggest continued gender stereotypes set femininity as a source of power (Rowe-Karlyn 2003), or are
within a violent framework of contemporary American a kind of “post-woman” operating outside the boundaries of
cinema. gender restrictions (Hills 1999).
The present research adds to the ongoing academic
Keywords Film . Violence . Gender . Stereotypes . debate by examining female characters in American action
Content Analysis films to determine whether they are really moving beyond
traditional gender roles and norms, or are re-articulating
and re-presenting gender stereotypes in a new guise. There
Introduction is substantial literature offering interpretive analyses of
female action characters portrayed in cinema but relatively
In 1979, Sigourney Weaver played Lt. Ripley in the movie few studies that provide quantitative data. This research
Alien. Film theorists generally agree that the action utilized an empirical approach through content analysis.
character Lt. Ripley paved the way for a new type of The content analysis focused on three major areas of
female representation in American popular culture (Brown research. First, it examined the gender stereotypes displayed
1996, 2005; Clover 1992; Inness 2004; Tasker 1993). A sea by female action characters. Second, it created a profile or
change in filmic representations of female action characters average type of female action character from the demographic
data gathered. Third, it analyzed the quantity and type of
violence committed by female action characters.
The findings of this research help to reveal the
K. Gilpatric (*) contradictory nature of female action characters appearing
Department of Social Sciences, Kaplan University,
in contemporary mainstream American cinema. These
6301 Kaplan University Lane,
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33309, USA characters are female, yet they engage in traditionally
e-mail: gilpatric10@aol.com masculine forms of physical violence. They also appear in
Sex Roles (2010) 62:734–746 735

action movies alongside male heroes engaging in violence. (2001) and Dietz (1998) have found that female action
The success of American action films at the domestic box characters rarely get to play the main hero character.
office can be attributed to the targeted youth audience Magoulick’s (2006) analysis of television action heroines
(MPAA 2007). Media has long been recognized as an agent found that the heroine is usually shown in a romantic
of socialization (Bandura 1986; Blumer and Hauser 1933; relationship with a male protagonist who retained power
Gerbner 1970; Lazarsfeld and Merton 1948). Therefore, it and control over her. King (2008) conducted a content
is worth examining the representations of violent female analysis of 291 “cop-action” films and found that female
action characters shown in popular action movies because police characters, even though in a male-dominated profes-
of the potential to influence a young viewing audience and sion, usually maintained rookie status and were engaged in
their ideas about gender and violence (Gerbner 1998; romantic relationships with fellow workers. King (2008)
Huesmann 1999; Signorielli and Bacue 1999). also found that women were twice as likely as men to take
In addition to the potential problems of violent media on lovers during the course of the film. Eschholz and
influencing the socialization process, a feminist critique can Bufkin (2001) conducted a content analysis of 50 popular
be applied. Feminist film critics have a long history of films and found that female characters were more likely
analyzing the representations of women in movies and to be romantic, domestic, sensitive, and manipulative, and
comparing them to the inequities of real-world gender roles. male characters were more likely to be competitive, athletic,
Rosen (1973) critiqued the one-dimensional characters that aggressive, and risk-taking. The researchers concluded that
played stereotypical roles of good wife and mother. Haskell “on average, male characters were more masculine and
(1974) criticized the depiction of self-sacrificing female female characters more feminine” (p. 324).
characters in romantic melodramas. Mulvey’s (1975) Consensus on gender stereotypes can be problematic, so
psychoanalytic approach placed popular cinema inside a this research relied on an established standard of gender
patriarchal society that imposed an imbalance between traits employed in social science research (Eschholz and
active/male and passive/female ways of looking at charac- Bufkin 2001; Lueptow et al. 2001; Twenge 1997). The
ters in film. She asserted that female images serve as signs gender traits for masculine stereotypes include: dominant,
of visual pleasure for a “male gaze”, and that “the man’s aggressive, competitive, independent, ambitious, self-
role is the active one of advancing the story and making confident, adventurous, and decisive. Traits used for
things happen” (p. 11). feminine stereotypes include: affectionate, submissive,
By the 1990s, feminist film theorists argued against emotional, sympathetic, talkative, and gentle.
totalizing and essentialist readings of film. Instead they In light of the literature above regarding gender stereo-
proposed an active viewer who engages in her own types in the media, the first research question asked:
meaning-making processes as she uses what she sees on-
1. Do female action characters exhibit gender stereotypes?
screen to help construct her own identity (Dyer 2002;
McRobbie 2004; Stacey 2000). The very labels of ‘male’
and ‘female’ were challenged as being essentialist by Media Representations of Age, Marital Status, Race,
feminists who considered gender to be a social construction and Occupation
(Butler 1990; Lorber 1999). In addition, postmodern
feminists have challenged the privileged representations of The second focus of this research was the demographics
white, Western, hetero females in cinema and the resultant of the female action character. Previous media studies
problems of audience identificatory practices (Butler 1999; have shown a consistent pattern of female characters
Hooks 1996; Modleski 1991; Tasker and Negra 2007; Trinh depicted as young and unmarried. Elasmer et al. (1999)
1991). studied prime time television programs in 1992–93 and
The theories of these feminist media critics seem found that over 60% of female characters were in their
disparate. However, they have in common an understanding twenties and thirties and 12.6% were shown as currently
that female identities are informed by social codes rooted in married. Nearly a decade later, Glascock’s (2003) analysis
popular culture. Continued analyses of media representa- of prime time programs in 2001 found 58.8% of female
tions help to shed light on the ways in which our normative characters were ages 18 to 37 and 17.8% were shown as
ideas about femininity are formed in American popular married. Similarly for film, Eschholz et al. (2002) found
culture. that 71% of the female characters in popular 1996 movies
were in their twenties or thirties, and King (2008) found
Gender Stereotypes in the Media 80% were unmarried in action movies from 1968 to 2006.
Media studies have found increasing numbers of African
The first focus of this research was on the gender stereo- American characters in prime time television. Mastro and
types displayed by female action characters. Calvert et al. Greenberg (2000) examined over two decades of programs
736 Sex Roles (2010) 62:734–746

and found that by 1997 African American representation on (Dill and Thill 2007; Jansz and Martis 2007; King 2008;
television reached parity with U.S. population statistics. Sapolsky et al. 2003).
Glascock (2001) found African Americans represented 14% Several analyses of media have expressed concern over
of characters on prime time television and was slightly the victimization of women in various media (Crosby 2005;
higher than the U.S. population. Although there has been Haskell 1974; Linz and Donnerstein 1994; Williams 1991).
improvement in racial diversity shown in the media some However, other media research has found that women are
groups have not fared as well. A Children Now (2004) victimized less often than are men (Dietz 1998; Eschholz
report found that Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans and Bufkin 2001; Smith et al. 1998). This fact mirrors real-
have been underrepresented in prime time television. world statistics because male offenders most often victimize
Similarly, Eschholz et al. (2002) stated that “Hispanics, other males (U.S. Bureau of Justice 1999). Sapolsky et al.
Native Americans, and Asians were almost entirely missing (2003) examined the top-10 action films from the 1990s
from the 1996 popular films line-up” (p. 314). and found that males were shown as victims significantly
Media studies have found that representations of women more often than females. Signorielli (2003) found a
portrayed in professional occupations are increasing. significant change in the ratio of female violence to female
Signorielli and Bacue’s (1999) study of prime time tele- victimization in prime time television over the past three
vision spanning three decades found that there has been a decades, stating “instead of 16 women being victimized for
significant increase in the number of female characters each woman who hurts or kills, the odds are even: women
cast as professionals. In a subsequent study, Signorielli and are equally likely to hurt or kill as be hurt or killed” (p. 51).
Kahlenberg (2001) found that “women were just as likely to Signorielli also counted the number of characters that were
be cast in professional (doctor, teacher, lawyer) and white- killed in network television from 1969 to 1988 and found
collar (secretarial, managerial, clerical) jobs as males” that 83% were male and 17% were female (in Linz and
(p. 10). Children Now (2004) reported that 28% of females Donnerstein 1994). This finding is also consistent with
in TV programs were portrayed in high-status occupations actual statistics because 64.4% of homicides in the U.S. are
such as executive/CEO, physician, attorney, judge, or other committed by male offenders, 7.1% by females, and 28.5%
professional, and only 5% were depicted as homemakers. unknown (U.S. Department of Justice 2007).
Similarly, Steinke’s (2005) research found an increase in the In this research real-world statistics were used to develop
number of female scientists and engineers depicted in a gendered orientation of violence. A U.S. Bureau of
movies from 1991 to 2001. Justice special report on women offenders (1999) compared
In light of the literature above regarding demographics female types of violence with that of males. The report
of female representations in the media, the second research found that females commit only 14% of all violent crimes.
question asked: Violent female offenders usually engage in simple assaults
directed at other females (75%). Female offenders usually
2. What is the demographic profile of the female action
have had some relationship with their victim who was often
character?
an intimate, relative, or acquaintance (62%). Also, more
than half of female offenders act alone (53%) and they
Violence and Gender in the Media rarely use weapons (15%). In contrast, male offenders
account for 86% of all violent crimes. They are most often
The third focus of the research is on the quantity and type violent toward other males (70%) and act in groups with
of violence committed by female action characters. Vio- other men (51%). Men usually have no prior relationship
lence is typically associated with masculinity. Eschholz and with their victim (64%) and use weapons (28%) more
Bufkin (2001) compared the biological sex of movie frequently than women. The report also states that the
characters to the specific gender traits listed above and “consequences of male violence are generally more serious
found that the traits of masculinity were highly correlated in terms of weapon used, injury, and out-of-pocket losses to
with violent acts shown in the movies regardless of the victim” (U.S. Bureau of Justice 1999, p. 3).
biological sex. The assertion of the study was that female Not all violence shown in the movies is related to crime
characters were masculinized when they engaged in because both bad and good characters engage in violent
violence. Media studies indicate that there has been an acts. Eschholz and Bufkin (2001) found a consistent pattern
increase in the number of female action characters over of masculine violence in popular films stating that it was
time. Signorielli and Bacue (1999) analyzed prime-time “significantly related to both offending and victimization
television spanning three decades and found an increase in in the movies. The ‘good’ characters, who successfully
the number of female characters within the action-adventure accomplish masculinity, and the ‘bad’ ones who challenge
genre. Other studies confirm this trend in various action- their dominators, repeatedly resort to violence and crime”
oriented media including film, television, and video games (p. 670).
Sex Roles (2010) 62:734–746 737

Violent means are also used to protect society and is a male-dominated film genre that frequently contains
citizenry, as is the case with male-dominated occupations violent female action characters (Sapolsky et al. 2003;
such as the military and police. In the past several decades Tasker 1993).
women have increasingly entered male-dominated occupa- Blockbuster action films generate the highest box office
tions in the U.S. (Wootton 1997). This change in American revenue of any film genre (King 2002; MPAA 2007). By
social reality has been reflected in the movies with the focusing on the most successful films in the most successful
inclusion of female police and soldiers as action characters genre this research tapped into social codes, norms, and
(King 2008; Tasker 1998). gender stereotypes ingrained in mainstream American
Violence can also take on a feminine form. Powers popular culture.
(1991) suggests that violence has been linked with the Of the 300 films in the sampling frame only those
archetype of protectress. Similarly, Tasker (1998) has containing a VFAC were included in the final sample for
argued that female action characters draw upon a heroic coding. To determine if a VFAC was present in the film
maternal motif to create stereotypes of mother and wife various resources were used including IMDB’s movie
who risk all to save children and loved ones. synopses, cast overviews, and links to external movie
In light of the literature above regarding violence and reviews. Where there was any doubt the movie was viewed
gender in the media, the following research questions in its entirety to determine if there was at least one VFAC
asked: present. The final sample contained 112 films (37% of the
sampling frame).
3. Has there has been an increase in the number of action
If an additional female action character was shown in the
films that contain female action characters?
film committing violent acts, was central to the story, and
4. Are female action characters engaging in more acts of
was confirmed to be a main character in IMDBs cast
violence over time?
overview, then that VFAC was also included. For example,
5. Do female action characters tend to commit gender-
when two female characters worked closely together, as in
oriented violence?
Thelma & Louise, or when they were arch enemies, as in
Kill Bill, then the second VFAC was added. The number of
VFACs was limited to three per movie. This limit ensured
Method that the VFAC definition of a leading character was main-
tained and that the coding process was not overly compli-
Units of Analysis cated. Of the 112 movies in the sample, 58% contained one
VFAC, 40.2% contained two VFACs, and two movies (1.8%)
Female action characters appeared in multiple scenes of contained three. The sample contained 157 different VFACs
violence within the films analyzed. Therefore, this research depicted in 786 scenes of physical violence.
had two units of analysis: (1) the Violent Female Action
Character (VFAC), and (2) the violent scene in which she Codebook and Variables
appeared. For purposes of this study, a VFAC was a leading
female character in the film who engaged in at least one The codebook had two sections corresponding to each unit
act of physical violence. Physical violence was defined of analysis. The first section was used to code the gender
as physical force exerted (with or without weaponry) in stereotypes and demographics of the VFAC. The second
an attempt to cause bodily injury, death, or damage to section was used to code each violent scene in which the
property. various VFACs appeared.
To address research question one, two variables were
Sample created to measure gender stereotypes: Love Interest and
Heroine Status. Love Interest indicated who the VFAC was
The films analyzed in this research were those ranked by romantically involved with and included the categories (1)
Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB) as the highest grossing male hero, (2) villain, (3) none, and (4) other. Heroine
American action films. The sample consisted of the top-20 Status reflected how the VFAC was represented in relation
action films (as determined by IMDB) released over a to the male hero, if one was present. These categories
15-year period between 1991 and 2005, totaling 300 included: (1) main heroine, (2) assists male hero, (3) assists
movies. The year 1991 was selected as a starting point and is protected by male hero, (4) is protected by male hero,
because it attracted feminist attention with the release of (5) villainess, and (6) other. The VFAC was coded as the
Thelma and Louise and Terminator 2: Judgment Day main heroine if she was the principal character in the story
(Brown 1996; Greenberg et al. 1991). The action genre and portrayed as strong, capable, and in charge. VFAC
was selected as the appropriate target population because it status declined as she went from being a main heroine, to
738 Sex Roles (2010) 62:734–746

assisting the male hero, to being protected by him— following categories: (1) martial arts or hand-to-hand
indicating a more submissive role. combat; (2) knives, clubs, non-firearms; (3) guns or
The first section of the codebook also contained demo- firearms; (4) military and high-tech weapons; and (5) other.
graphic variables for the VFAC. The variables included: Age The Level of Destruction variable was also set up as a
Range, Marital Status, Race (based on U.S. Census catego- scale and included the following categories: (1) no damage,
ries), Education Level, Occupation, and Realism. For the (2) property damage only, (3) individual injury, (4)
Occupation variable, coders recorded the VFAC occupation individual death, and (5) multiple injuries/deaths. Coders
as portrayed in the film. The variable Realism was added did not assume that property damage created collateral
during the informal codebook testing and therefore was not injuries or deaths unless these were specifically shown in
part of the literature review. It became evident that the the scene or indicated in dialogue.
codebook needed a variable to distinguish those VFACs that The Motive variable was created to identify if there were
were portrayed as superheroes, extra-terrestrials, and vam- any gendered motives for violence depicted in the scenes.
pires. The Realism variable consisted of the following values: Motive did not relate to the plot of the film (i.e. issues of
(1) real, (2) part real, and (3) unreal. Real and unreal jealousy or revenge) instead it was specific to the single scene
characters were based on human qualities or lack thereof. being coded. If the VFAC engaged in violence to protect a
The middle category indicated characters that were human child or loved one, then Motive was coded (1) feminine. If the
beings but also engaged in unrealistic physical feats. For VFAC engaged in violence to protect a stranger or society at
example, the Bride (played by Uma Thurman) in Kill Bill large, then Motive was coded (2) masculine. If a gendered
Vols. I and II, was a human being with unrealistic martial motive did not occur, then Motive was coded using the
arts abilities that enabled her to leap and flip through the air following categories: (3) self-defense, only if the VFAC did
while killing dozens of enemies using a special sword. not engage in the “first strike” defined below; (4) escape, if the
The second section of the codebook contained variables VFAC engaged in violence in order to flee from her captors/
for the violent scene unit of analysis. The variables attackers; (5) evil, if the VFAC was a villainess; or (6) other.
addressed the quantity and type of violence the VFACs
engaged in. Quantity of violence was determined using Coding
variables for the coding of each scene: Start-Time, End-
Time, and Total Seconds (i.e. number of seconds calculated Before formal coding began the codebook and instructions
by subtracting Start-Time from End-Time). The type of were tested twice for reliability. During these pilot tests two
violence committed by a VFAC was determined using five coders were trained using verbal and written instructions
variables: Target, Relationship, Weaponry, Level of De- and asked to select several movies from the sample that
struction, and Motive. These five variables were used to spanned the study period. Each coder gave feedback that
determine if the VFAC engaged in masculine forms of was used to refine codebook instructions, increase reliabil-
violence and were based in large part on the U.S. Bureau of ity, and identify potential problems in coding films that
Justice statistics outlined in the literature review. spanned the 15-year period.
The Target variable identified who or what was the target The coding tests revealed that over time action sequen-
of violence for the VFAC. Target included the following ces appeared to be getting shorter and occurring more
categories: (1) male, (2) female, (3) property, (4) alien or rapidly, which made it difficult to establish the start and end
other life form, and (5) other. If the VFAC engaged in times. Codebook instructions were refined to pinpoint the
violence with many people at once, then coders were exact start and end time of each violent scene in order to
instructed to identify the predominant gender present. For achieve an acceptable level of reliability within a two-
example, if the VFAC shot at a group of police and they second margin of error. Specifically, timing for the violent
appeared to be mostly men, then they were coded as male. scene began when the VFAC made the “first strike”, which
Aliens were not gender coded. was defined for coding purposes as the first moment she
The Relationship variable identified the relationship of made a physical movement that resulted in an act of
the target to the VFAC. Relationship included the following physical violence. For example, first strike occurred when
categories: (1) intimate, (2) acquaintance, (3) stranger, (4) Lara Croft pulled the trigger on her gun or when Catwoman
alien or other life form, and (5) other. If the VFAC engaged cracked her whip. Timing stopped when the VFAC stopped
in violence with multiple people, then the coders were engaging in the action. Intercoder reliability reached a
instructed to identify and code the VFAC’s relation to the minimum level of 80 percent agreement for all variables in
primary target of her violence. the codebook before formal coding began.
The Weaponry variable was created as a scale and coders As researcher, I watched and coded all movies. To ensure
were instructed to identify the highest level of weaponry intercoder reliability a subsample was established using five
used by the VFAC in the scene. Weaponry included the coders (including the two coders from testing). Each coder
Sex Roles (2010) 62:734–746 739

was asked to select seven films from the sample—one from distributions for the two variables are shown in Table 1. Of
every other year beginning 1991, 1992, or 1993. The the 157 VFACs coded, only 15.3% were depicted as the
subsample was purposive to ensure that at least one movie main heroine, and 58.6% were depicted in a submissive
from each year was included. Of the 35 films selected by the role to the male hero. Submissive included the categories of
five coders, eight were selected by more than one coder. This assists male hero (28.0%), assists and protected by male
resulted in a subsample of 27 different films (24% of the hero (5.1%), and protected by male hero (25.5%). Seventy
sample) that contained 46 different VFACs shown in 212 percent of VFACs were portrayed in a romantic relation-
different violent scenes. The subsample was coded by two ship. Of those VFACs shown in relationships, over 60%
coders (researcher included), and eight of the films in the were involved with the male hero.
subsample were coded by three coders. Crosstabs for the two variables contained several cells
Two tests of reliability were used for each unit of with a frequency less than five. In order to run chi square
analysis. Kappa coefficients compute chance between analysis the categories of assists male hero and assisted and
coders’ choices of the data available to them, whereas protected by male hero were combined. In addition, the
alpha and pi compute chance according to the probability of categories villain, villainess, and other were excluded. The
choices available within the data set (Krippendorff 2004a). results for the recoded data are shown in Table 2. These
Cohen’s kappa and Krippendorf’s alpha were used to results serve to highlight the relationship between the
determine reliability for the VFAC unit of analysis. The VFAC and the male hero. Chi square found a significant
alpha coefficient was suitable for the nominal variables and relationship between the recoded variables. The results
the smaller subsample of 46 VFACs (Krippendorff 2004a). showed that VFACs were most likely to be submissive in
Cohen’s Kappa and Scott’s pi were used to determine terms of being protected by the male hero when they were
reliability for the violent scene unit of analysis. The pi romantically linked to him. Further, those VFACs that had
coefficient was suitable for continuous and ordinal varia- no romantic involvement were most likely to be main
bles and the larger subsample of 212 violent scenes. heroines and least likely to be protected by the male.
Intercoder reliability was strongest for manifest content In answer to question one, the results showed that the
such as Age, Marital Status, Race, all of which had over .90 majority of VFACs maintained gender stereotypes with
kappa and alpha coefficients. Heroine Status, although latent respect to feminine traits of submission and affection. On
and reliant upon subjective interpretation, achieved .91 kappa average, most VFACs were depicted in some type of
and alpha. Three variables for the VFAC unit of analysis fell romantic relationship and often romantically linked with the
below .80 including Realism (.79 kappa and alpha), Education male hero of the story. More than half of all VFACs were
(.73 kappa and .74 alpha), and Love Interest (.72 kappa and shown in a submissive role to the male hero of the story.
.73 alpha). According to Krippendorf, a minimum acceptable Further, the more submissive a VFAC was to a male hero,
level of reliability is .80, but those variables with coefficients i.e. protected by rather than assisting, the more likely she
between .667 and .80 may be used for “drawing tentative was to be romantically involved with him, thus linking the
conclusions” (2004b, p. 241). feminine traits of submission and affection. The results also
All variables for the violent scene unit of analysis showed that main heroines were less likely to exhibit these
reached above .80 for both kappa and pi coefficients feminine traits than were other types of VFACs.
including: Target (.81 kappa and pi), Relationship (.85
kappa and pi), Weaponry (.94 kappa and pi), Level of
Table 1 Frequency distribution for heroine status and love interest.
Destruction (.85 kappa and pi), Motive (.84 kappa and pi),
and Total Seconds (.81 kappa and pi). Heroine Status n %
Coders wrote in occupation, if known. Coders also Main Heroine 24 15.3
included a brief explanation of what happened in each violent Assists Male Hero 44 28.0
scene and commented on the general character of the VFAC Protected by Male Hero 40 25.5
and her violent actions. This information was helpful in Assists & Protected by Male Hero 8 5.1
understanding the circumstances of VFAC actions as well as Villainess 28 17.8
clarifying and supporting the overall research findings. Other 13 8.3

Love Interest
Results Male Hero 66 42.0
Male Villain 19 12.1
Research question one dealt with VFAC gender stereotypes. None 47 29.9
Two variables, Heroine Status and Love Interest, were used Other 25 15.9
to identify gender stereotypes present in VFACs. Frequency
740 Sex Roles (2010) 62:734–746

Table 2 Percent heroine status within love interest: male hero only. assisted or were protected by a male hero. Only 4% were
Heroine Status depicted as housewives.
Special attention was given to the Realism variable
Main Assists Protected by Average because during the coding process it appeared that VFACs
Heroine Male Hero Male Hero were becoming more unrealistic over time. This assumption
Love Interest n=13 n=45 n=35
was confirmed using chi square analysis with post hoc
Male Hero 46.2% 60.0% 82.9% 66.7% testing. The results are shown in Table 3. The percentage of
None 53.8% 40.0% 17.1% 33.3% real VFACs decreased over the time periods, while the
percentage of part-real and unreal VFACs increased. Post
χ2=7.49, p ≤ .05, df=2, n=93 hoc tests showed that the presence of real VFACs had a
standardized residual of 2.0 in 1991–1995 versus −2.4 in
2001–2005 indicating a significant decline in realistic
Research question two focused on VFAC demographics. VFACs. Part-real VFACs had a standardized residual of
Results showed that over 90% of VFACs were portrayed as 2.5 in 2001–2005 indicating that they had a significant
young women, most in their twenties (55%) and thirties impact on the change in realism. This finding was
(38%). The percentage for VFACs in this age range was explained by looking at the data. A number of part-real
higher than the U.S. female population estimated to be VFACs were shown in several heroine action films and
27.3% (U.S. Census 2006). The VFAC’s age makes sense sequels during 2001–2005, including Kill Bill (2002, 2003),
when compared to the youth audience targeted by film- Lara Croft (2001, 2003), and Resident Evil (2002, 2004).
makers because 55% of all movie-goers are between the In answer to research question two, the demographic
ages of 12 and 39 (MPAA 2007). The data also showed that profile of the VFAC showed that she was typically young,
81% of VFACs were not married. This statistic was also white, unmarried, highly educated, and often depicted in a
high compared to the estimated 60% of U.S. females male-dominated or high-status career. Additionally, VFACs
between the ages of 20 and 34 who are not married (U.S. became increasingly unrealistic over the 15-year period.
Census 2006). The final focus of the research was on the quantity and
Results found that 74.5% of VFACs were white, 9.5% type of violence committed by the VFAC. Research
were African American, 9.5% Hispanic, 5.1% Asian, and question three asked if there had been an increase in the
1.4% other. African American and Hispanic VFACs were number of female action characters over time. Frequency
underrepresented when compared to their estimated U.S. distributions in Table 4 show that there appeared to be an
populations of 13.5% and 15.1% respectively (U.S. Census increase in the number of VFACs. However, analysis of
2008). It should also be noted that Halle Berry played one- variance (ANOVA) revealed that there was no significant
quarter of the VFAC roles coded as African American. change, F(1, 13)=3.82, p <.10.
The data revealed that over 60% of VFACs were Research question four asked if the quantity of VFAC
employed and most tended to have high status jobs. These violence had increased over time. The coding process
findings suggest the VFACs’ occupations were more in line produced the continuous variable Total Seconds, i.e. the
with real-world statistics because nearly 60% of all women total number of seconds of violence recorded for each
over the age of 16 are employed. Women account for 51% scene. ANOVA tests for the variables Total Seconds and
of all U.S. workers in the high-paying management, Year showed a significant change over the 15-year period,
professional, and related occupations (U.S. Department of F(14, 771)=2.30, p <.01). Both variables were then tested
Labor 2008). The education level of VFACs was difficult to
code because it was often not mentioned in the story. Table 3 VFAC realism: 1991–2005.
However, 11% of VFACs had Ph.D. status inferred by their
Time Periods
title or occupation. This far exceeds the U.S. female
population who hold doctoral degrees, which is .8% (U.S. 1991–1995 1996–2000 2001–2005 Average
Census 2007). It was also estimated from occupational
status that 24% of VFACs held bachelor’s degrees, which is Realism n % n % n % %
higher than the U.S. female population of 17.8% (U.S.
Real 36 85.7 35 71.4 25 37.9 61.1
Census 2007). Over a third of the VFACs were portrayed in
Part Real 2 4.8 4 8.2 18 27.3 15.3
male-dominated careers. These consisted of 14.5% of
Unreal 4 9.5 10 20.4 23 34.8 23.6
VFACs who were scientists, engineers, or computer
programmers, and 23.4% who were in the military, law χ2=29.0*, p ≤.001, df=4, n=157
enforcement, or security services. However, only one *0 cells have an expected count of less than 5. The minimum expected
VFAC with a Ph.D. was a main heroine, the rest either count is 6.42
Sex Roles (2010) 62:734–746 741

Table 4 Frequency distribution for films, VFACs, and violent scenes by year.

Year Films VFACs Violent Scenes Total Seconds of Violence Mean Scene
Length (sec.)
n % n % n % n % n

1991 6 5.4 9 5.7 35 4.5 1,444 7.6 41.3


1992 4 3.6 5 3.2 19 2.4 575 3.0 31.9
1993 5 4.5 5 3.2 27 3.4 867 4.6 32.1
1994 7 6.3 9 5.7 34 4.3 894 4.7 26.3
1995 10 8.9 14 8.9 50 6.4 1,039 5.5 20.8
1996 5 4.5 6 3.8 36 4.6 984 5.2 27.3
1997 10 8.9 14 8.9 49 6.2 1,225 6.5 25.0
1998 5 4.5 7 4.5 31 3.9 622 3.3 20.1
1999 10 8.9 15 9.6 64 8.1 591 3.1 9.2
2000 6 5.4 7 4.5 27 3.4 419 2.2 15.5
2001 6 5.4 8 5.1 49 6.2 1,330 7.0 27.1
2002 6 5.4 10 6.4 53 6.7 608 3.2 14.3
2003 14 12.5 19 12.1 129 16.4 3,853 20.4 29.9
2004 9 8.0 16 10.2 114 14.5 2,725 14.4 23.9
2005 9 8.0 13 8.3 69 8.8 1,706 9.0 24.4
Total 112 100.0 157 100.0 786 100.0 18,882 100.0 24.2

using regression analysis which showed there was no grouped into three time periods and treated as ordinal
significant linear relationship, β=−.048, t=−1.34, p < .20. variables. Chi square analyses were used to analyze the data
The non-linear trend is understandable when looking at the for the five variables: Target, Relationship, Weaponry,
frequencies displayed in Table 4. The total seconds of Level of Destruction, and Motive.
violence had peaks and valleys. Total seconds of violence The data for the Target variable are shown in Table 5.
in years 2003 (20.4%) and 2004 (14.4%) accounted for Target changed significantly over the time periods. VFACs
over one-third of the violence shown during the 15-year were shown in violent scenes most often fighting against
period. These higher numbers were attributable to a few males. Fighting against males declined in periods 1995–
films: Kill Bill Vols. I and II (2003, 2004); Lara Croft: The 2000 and 2001–2005, while violence against aliens in-
Cradle of Life (2003); Terminator 3 (2003); Underworld creased. Post hoc tests showed a standard residual of −3.2
(2003); Catwoman (2004); and Resident Evil: Apocalypse for aliens in 1991–1995 and 2.2 in 2001–2005 indicating
(2004). Several years had small amounts of total seconds of that the absence or presence of aliens had a significant
violence. Referring to the data for the VFAC unit of impact on the VFAC target of violence. A standard residual
analysis revealed that four main heroines appeared in years of −2.3 for females in 1996–2000 also had a significant
2003 and 2004 when total seconds of violence peaked. impact and called attention to the lack of female-on-female
Conversely, no main heroines appeared in any of the films violence during that period. The category of other included
during the years 1998, 1999, and 2000 when total seconds such targets as dinosaurs and animals. On average, VFAC’s
of violence were low. This suggests that the appearance of
main heroines in the films impacts the quantity of violence. Table 5 Target of VFAC violence: 1991–2005.
In answer to question four, the results showed a significant
Time Period
change in the total seconds of violence shown in each scene
over the 15-year period, but there was no linear relationship. 1991–1995 1996–2000 2001–2005 Average
Therefore, an increase in the quantity of VFAC violence over
Target n % n % n % %
the study period could not be established. Instead, there were a
few years that contained movies with more seconds of Male 114 71.3 133 66.2 223 54.7 61.1
violence, especially years 2003 and 2004, and several years Female 18 11.3 10 5.0 50 12.3 10.1
that contained fewer seconds of violence. Property 13 8.1 17 8.5 29 7.1 7.7
Research question five asked if VFACs committed
Alien 15 9.4 41 20.4 106 26.0 21.1
gender-oriented violence. In order to easily interpret and
display the findings in tables, the violent scenes were χ2=29.07, p≤.001, df=6, n=769
742 Sex Roles (2010) 62:734–746

target was a male or group of males in 61.1% of the violent high levels of destruction. Table 6 illustrates that on average
scenes and female in 10.1% of the scenes. The findings VFACs used some form of weaponry in over 59% of the
here support a masculine orientation for VFAC violence violent scenes (excluding other weaponry such as cars, fire,
because statistics show that real world violence occurs most and poison). U.S. crime statistics show that 28% of male
often between offenders and victims of the same gender offenders use weapons versus 15% for female offenders
(U.S. Bureau of Justice 1999). (U.S. Bureau of Justice 1999). Therefore, the high use of
The data for Relationship variable were analyzed using weaponry by VFACs supports a masculine orientation for
chi square. The results found that Relationship did not VFAC violence.
change significantly over the time periods, χ2(8, n=773)= Data for the variable Level of Destruction are shown
13.98, p <.10. On average, the target of VFAC violence above in Table 6. Level of Destruction was set up as a scale
shown in each scene was most often a stranger or group of ranging from no damage to multiple injuries/deaths. Level
strangers (36.7%, n=284). Acquaintances were the targets of Destruction changed significantly over the time periods.
in 26.5% (n=205) of the scenes, followed by aliens 19.0% The highest category, multiple injuries/deaths, appeared in
(n=147), other 10.0% (n=77), and intimates 7.8% (n=60). 14.6% of the violent scenes in period 1991–1995 and
The findings here support a masculine orientation for increased to 22.9% by 2000–2005. This finding suggests
VFAC violence because statistics show that real-world that VFACs were causing more death and damage as a
male violence is most often directed toward strangers and consequence of their violence. On average, individual death
less often toward acquaintances or intimates (U.S. Bureau occurred in 40.7% of the scenes and multiple injuries/
of Justice 1999). deaths occurred in 20.7% of the scenes.
The data for the variables Weaponry and Level of Weaponry and Level of Destruction appear together in
Destruction are shown in Table 6. Weaponry was treated Table 6 because their relationship was statistically signifi-
as a scale ranging from martial arts and hand-to-hand cant, χ2(16, n=786)=191.51, p <.001). The use of martial
combat to high-tech weaponry. Weaponry changed signif- arts by VFACs resulted most often in individual injury
icantly over the time periods. The use of martial arts was (68.3%) and resulted less often in individual death (11.0%)
lower in periods 1991–1996 and 1996–2000 than in 2001– or multiple injuries/deaths (9.8%). Conversely, the use of
2005. A reverse trend occurred for firearms. The increased military and high-tech weaponry resulted most often in
use of military and high-tech weapons in 1996–2000 can be multiple injuries/deaths (44.8%) versus individual injury
attributed to several VFACs who were depicted as futuristic (19.0%) or individual death (12.1%). Post hoc tests found
military personnel. These characters included Lt. Ripley in that nearly all of the cells had a standard residual value of +/-
Alien: Resurrection (1997), Private Flores and Navy Pilot 2.0 that validated the high level of correlation between the
Ibanez in Starship Troopers (1997), and Lt. Cmdr. two variables. For example, the variable martial arts had a
Devereaux in Wing Commander (1999). Each VFAC used standard residual of 6.8 for individual injury versus −3.8 for
high levels of weaponry against alien attackers resulting in multiple injuries/deaths. High-tech weaponry had a standard
Table 6 Weaponry used by
VFAC and level of destruction Time Period
inflicted: 1991-2005.
1991–1995 1996–2000 2001–2005 Average

n % n % n % %

Weaponry
Martial arts, hand-to-hand 61 37.2 59 28.5 126 30.4 31.3
Knives, clubs 28 17.1 23 11.1 94 22.7 18.4
Firearms 53 32.3 75 36.2 134 32.3 33.3
Military and High Tech 8 4.9 28 13.5 22 5.3 7.4
Other 14 8.5 22 10.6 39 9.4 9.5

Level of Destruction
No damage 5 3.0 22 10.6 46 11.1 9.3
Property damage 21 12.8 16 7.7 39 9.4 9.7
Chi square: Weaponry χ2= Individual injury 75 45.7 89 43.0 156 37.6 40.7
28.20, p≤.001, df=8, n=786; Individual death 39 23.8 36 17.4 79 19.0 19.6
Level of Destruction χ2=19.44, Multiple injuries and deaths 24 14.6 44 21.3 95 22.9 20.7
p ≤.05, df=8, n=786
Sex Roles (2010) 62:734–746 743

residual of -2.6 for individual injury versus 4.0 for multiple better or worse. From a superficial or visceral viewpoint it
injuries/deaths. appears that the emergence of the VFAC is an indicator of
These findings support a masculine orientation for gender equality. However, by looking more closely this
violence because statistics show that the consequence of research found that the VFAC was most often portrayed in a
male violence is more serious in terms of weapons used and submissive role and was romantically involved with a
injuries inflicted (U.S. Bureau of Justice 1999). dominant male hero character, thus reifying gender stereotypes.
Chi square analysis found that the variable Motive Instead of accepting female action characters as empower-
changed significantly over the time periods, χ2(10, n= ing role models, it is useful to take a critical view and
786)=51.48, p <.001. Feminine motive for violence shown understand that VFACs are a market-driven commodity.
in the scenes decreased from 22.0% in 1991–1996 to 8.2% Mainstream movies are created to capture the largest audience
in 2001–2005. This meant there were fewer scenes of possible (Sklar 1994). It is no accident that the most succes-
VFACs using violence to protect a child or loved one. sful films adhere to gender stereotypes and strive to be non-
Masculine motive increased from 17.1% in 1991–1995 to offensive in order to appeal to a mainstream audience.
28.0% in 1996–2000, and then decreased to 16.1% in Within the film industry, the action genre commands the
2001–2005. This meant there were more scenes of VFACs highest box office revenue. Of the top 100 domestic box
using violence to protect citizenry or society during 1996– office hits of all time, 59 are action blockbusters with a
2000. This time period contained several VFACs who were main male hero, and each has grossed over $185 million
depicted as futuristic military personnel and as such took on dollars (IMDB 2008). Hollywood has attempted to break
the role of protecting society. the action genre barrier for females with movies such as G.
Self-defense as a motive rose steadily in each period, I. Jane (1997), Lara Croft (2001, 2003), Kill Bill (2003,
while escape and evil declined. Self-defense was coded 2004), and Alien series (1979, 1986, 1992, 1997, 2001).
when VFACs responded to attack and did not initiate the However, these films have generated far less box office
first strike of violence in the scene. On average, masculine revenue than blockbuster male-hero action movies. Accord-
motive was 19.5%, feminine motive was 11.2%, self-defense ing to IMDB (2008), only four action-heroine movies have
was 24.2%, escape was 12.1%, evil was 18.1%, and other earned over $100 million at the domestic box office: Lara
was 15.0%. VFACs were shown using masculine motives Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), both Charlie’s Angels movies
less often than shown using self-defense. Feminine motives (2000, 2003), and Miss Congeniality (2000). The sample
were shown least often. Therefore, the results do not support used in this research is evidence of the fact that action
a gender orientation for motive of VFAC violence. movies with a main heroine are relatively rare. Of the 300
In answer to research question five, the results showed movies included in the sampling frame, 37% (n=112) con-
that VFACs exhibited gender-oriented violence for four of tained a VFAC and only 7% (n=22) contained a main heroine.
the five variables tested. Target, Relationship, Weaponry, Instead of breaking gender barriers and portraying
and Level of Destruction were all found to be masculine. empowering female roles, most VFACs were shown as
Weaponry and Level of Destruction showed significant sidekicks and helpmates to the more dominant male hero
change over the time periods, and the relationship between and were frequently involved in a romantic relationship
the two variables was significant. with him. Over 40% of all VFACs were portrayed as
In summary, the results of the research found that girlfriends or wives to the male heroes in the movies. The
VFACs maintained feminine stereotypes of submission findings suggest that VFACs seem to be inserted into the
and affection, especially in relation to male heroes present story to support and promote the actions of the male hero.
in the films. VFACs on average were young, white, highly The VFAC often appeared as a damsel-in-distress providing
educated, and unmarried. There was a significant change in the impetus for a male hero to overcome obstacles in order
VFAC realism over time. VFACs engaged in masculine to save her. This was more likely to occur if the VFAC was
types of violence because they most often fought against also linked romantically to the male hero. The exceptions
males and against strangers, and they often used weapons were the few VFACs depicted as main heroines. Main
and caused high levels of destruction. However, there was heroines were less likely to be romantically linked to the
no significant increase in the total seconds of VFAC male hero, and therefore less likely to assist or be protected
violence over the 15-year study period. by him. This was to be expected because main heroines
took on the role of the central hero figure and therefore
were less likely to exhibit feminine stereotypes of submis-
Discussion sion and affection.
A more troubling finding was the number of VFACs that
The VFAC is a recent addition to contemporary American died in the films. Coders took notes on what happened in
cinema and has the potential to redefine female heroines, for each violent scene and VFAC deaths were counted. Nearly
744 Sex Roles (2010) 62:734–746

30% of all VFACs died by the end of the movie. Of the 2002; MPAA 2005, 2007). Due to the success and
VFACs who died, four (8%) were main heroines. These popularity of the action genre, which is disseminated to a
included the two heroines of Thelma & Louise (1991), broad audience both nationally and internationally, we need
Captain Walden in Courage under Fire (1996), and Lt. to be concerned with continued gender stereotypes set
Ripley in Alien3 (1992). Another 47% were evil and within a violent framework. In addition, citizens around the
consequently killed as punishment for their bad acts, and world are exposed to the violence in action media and we
45% were categorized as submissive to the male hero. A should be concerned with the violent way in which
critical review of these death scenes revealed disturbing American culture is portrayed globally (Gerbner 1994).
imagery because VFACs died heart-wrenching deaths in the This research found no significant increase in the
arms of male heroes. Some examples include: Dizzy, the number of seconds of VFAC violence shown over the
jilted girlfriend in Starship Troopers (1997), who sacrifices 15-year period. Instead, there were clusters of films that
her life to save Johnny’s; Nyssa, the good vampire in Blade displayed certain types of VFAC violence. During 1996–
II (2002), who lets Blade carry her into the morning light as 2000 several VFACs were depicted as futuristic military
she crumbles into dust; Trinity, the faithful girlfriend in personnel who used high-tech weaponry to fight off alien
Matrix Revolution (2003), who saves Neo and then dies in attackers in outer space. Subsequently, in 2001–2005
his arms; Elektra, the heroine in Daredevil (2003), who several partially realistic VFACs engaged in martial art
battles Bullseye then crawls to Matt as he listens to her combat, and used knives, clubs, or other objects when
heart stop beating with his ultra-sensitive hearing; and fighting. VFAC violence seemed to move away from a
Valerious, the immortal Princess in Van Helsing (2004), distanced type of fighting that relied on powerful weaponry
who willingly lets Van Helsing impale her and end her toward a more up-close combat style with exaggerated
tragically-cursed life. These examples of dying, self- physical action. Further research to extend the study period
sacrificing women illustrate the extreme end of submissive is warranted to see if this was a continuing trend.
affection and feminine stereotypes shown too often in VFACs tended to be masculine in their orientation for
popular action movies. violence, which was expected because VFACs by definition
The profile of the VFAC as being young, white, were violent. The target of VFAC violence was usually a
unmarried, and highly educated is aimed at the youth male or group of males (61.1%) and often strangers
audience. Many young viewers may not match up with the (36.7%). VFACs used weapons most of the time (59.1%)
VFAC profile, yet they identify with the normative social and frequently caused a high level of destruction with
codes that are embedded in these films—social codes that multiple injuries and deaths (20.7%). These findings alone
reflect what is valued in American culture. might indicate that the VFAC was a strong, empowered
VFACs also appeared to become more unrealistic over character. However, most often VFAC violence was guided
time. VFACs included superheroines, extra-terrestrial by or served the interests of a dominant male hero, thus
beings, and vampires, all of which were aided by special reinforcing gender stereotypes.
effects and computer generated imagery. In addition, coders As Hall (1997) suggests, images and representations in
noticed that violent scenes seemed to occur more frequently media stem from gender norms, roles, and values deeply
and in short bursts, thus increasing the rapid pace of action. embedded in our culture. They are the means by which
These changes can be explained by advances in digital power and ideology are made to signify particular dis-
technology that have made special effects and the editing courses, create maps of meaning, and “re-present” social
process easier and less costly (Metz 2006). As Pfeil (1995) reality to the viewer. In this way, the majority of the
suggests, the movie industry “offers us an altogether VFACS examined in this research both re-presented and re-
different economy of pleasure, in which a giddying blur articulated a social reality based on normative social codes
of high-speed chase and the gratifyingly spectacular release and gender stereotypes. Those few VFACs who were main
of aggressive impulse occurs at regularly recurring intervals heroines were more outliers to, rather than representations
throughout the film” (p. 23). Coder comments reinforced of, social norms and stereotypes.
this view with references to VFACs engaging in a constant The debate continues as to whether the few action
stream of battles with bad guys and aliens, dodging bullets, heroines that we are familiar with, such as Lt. Ripley, Sarah
jumping out of windows, and being pursued in high-speed Connor, or Lara Croft, have broken down gender barriers in
chase scenes. action films. This research provides evidence that the
The rapid action and heart-pounding special effects in majority of female action characters shown in American
action movies translate into income for Hollywood—the cinema are not empowering images, they do not draw upon
more explosions and carnage the better. Blockbuster action their femininity as a source of power, and they are not a
films generate the highest box office revenue of any film kind of “post woman” operating outside the boundaries of
genre and are the most internationally exported films (King gender restrictions. Instead, they operate inside socially
Sex Roles (2010) 62:734–746 745

constructed gender norms, rely on the strength and Eschholz, S., & Bufkin, J. (2001). Crime in the movies: Investigating
guidance of a dominant male action character, and end up the efficacy of measures of both sex and gender for predicting
victimization and offending in film. Sociological Forum, 16,
re-articulating gender stereotypes. 655–676.
This research has limitations because it examined only Eschholz, S., Bufkin, J., & Long, J. (2002). Symbolic reality bites:
female action characters and therefore is unable to make Women and racial/ethnic minorities in modern film. Sociological
claims about changes occurring for male action characters. Spectrum, 22, 299–334.
Gerbner, G. (1970). Cultural indicators: The case of violence in
Male action heroes dominate the action genre and their television drama. The Annuls of the American Academy of
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