Many thanks to SLK for the transcript

Adelaide Advertiser

17 January 2001

Tough Girls' New Guide


Female empowerment is making TV macho men an endangered species.

ROBERT FIDGEON and CRAIG TOMASHOFF look at the latest action heroines. TELEVISION, in case you haven't noticed, has undergone a radical change in recent years.

Gone are the days when you'd watch some handsome cop/PI/super-hunk dispense justice with a swift kick, several right crosses or a bullet. There was comfort in the predictability of it all and security in the knowledge that the baddie would get his just deserts and the hero would rescue the girl. But not any more. The TV tough guy is a dying breed. Action heroes have undergone a sex change. Female empowerment is decimating the ranks of the macho crime-fighters. MacGyver's gone. Superman and Batman are passe.

Television today is choked with female action heroes - Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Tia Carrere's Relic Hunter and Peta Wilson's La Femme Nikita. More are on the way with Queen of Swords (about a female Zorro), Dark Angel, Witchblade and Cleopatra 2525. The futuristic Dark Angel stars Jessica Alba as a scientifically enhanced warrior who saves the world while discovering her past.

``This is the pay-off for 100 years of feminism,'' says Xena: Warrior Princess star Lucy Lawless. ``Women now have equality and the pulling power to get TV shows on the air.'' Australian television has resisted the temptation to jump on the female action-hero bandwagon. Ocean Girl is way too gentle and Dog Woman's Magda Szubanski isn't really built for it.

Our networks prefer feminine to physical, with heroines such as Rebecca Gibney's Jane Halifax, though there was a time last year when Water Rats writers appeared determined to turn Dee Smart's Alex St Clair into a female Rocky Balboa. The sex swap isn't confined to TV. The female action hero is also taking over the big screen.

Mel Gibson's Lethal Weapon has been rendered impotent thanks to the blockbuster Charlie's Angels, a movie about three women dispensing the sort of rough-house justice that a battalion of Jackie Chans would struggle to pull off. Men should have seen it coming. After all, TV producers have been softening them up for 40 years.

The Brits started it all in the early-1960s. The moment The Avengers got Honor Blackman to don all leather and dispense judo justice while wimpy Steed stood by with bowler and brolly, macho men were doomed. Blackman's replacement by Diana Rigg (Emma Peel) only made it worse. The Americans fell in love with the show, along with Rigg's looks and judo skills, in 1966. Ten years later, they unveiled their own oestrogen-enhanced heroines: Charlie's Angels. Boasting equal parts of cleavage and courage, Charlie's Angels was the first of the shows that used sex to sell their heroines.

It's a criticism that Xena creator Rob Tapert still faces today. ``Hard-core Xena fans say we've had Xena use her sex as a weapon,'' he says. ``I argue that's not contrary to her being a hero - as long as we don't exploit her.''

TV's Charlie's Angels retained some semblance of pecking order. The women weren't allowed to think for themselves. They were told what to do by Charlie. The year 1976 was the beginning of the end for the male action hero. That was when America launched the stars and stripes-clad supergirl Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman and Lindsay Wagner's The Bionic Woman. Both were sexed-up female equivalents of established male superheroes. When the three shows ran out of steam, things went quiet for female action heroes for a while. Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly had a moment of glory with Cagney & Lacey in the '80s but it was Xena in the mid-'90s who relaunched the superwoman.

Xena was a spin-off of male counterpart Hercules. She wasn't regarded as a feminist standard-bearer at the show's premiere. ``It wasn't until around episode eight that the media started picking up on the fact Xena was a strong female role model,'' Lawless says. ``That came as a shock. We hadn't really thought about it in those terms. ``The show was simply about a woman who decides to go it alone, except for the help of another young woman. They walked the Earth with no visible signs of male support.'' Rob Tapert, who later married Lawless, had always wanted to do a show centred on a female action hero but could never get the green light.

``It took the success of Hercules to give studio executives the confidence to say yes,'' says Tapert. ``Even then, I was under instructions to make sure men played a key role in the first episodes.'' He believes the success of Xena is because it was in the right place at the right time. ``We exist in a world of many single mothers who want to have somebody on television who has the power and doesn't need a man to get the job done,'' he says.

For Buffy creator Joss Whedon, the motivation was ``simply being tired of seeing women as the victims''. ``I've always been more interested in Batgirl than Robin,'' he says. ``I needed to see women taking control.'' Like Tapert, Russ Krasnoff, head of Columbia TriStar Television that came up with both VIP and Sheena, believes the shows reflect society. ``Women are now leading major corporations,'' he says. ``They are leaders in every role in society. Our audience responds to that.''

Then and now

THEN: 1950s - Clark Kent - George Reeves, Dean Cain (90s), Superman. 1960s - Captain Kirk - William Shatner Star Trek. Dr Who - various actors, Dr Who. Bruce Wayne - Adam West, Batman. 1980s - MacGyver - Richard Dean Anderson, MacGyver. Michael Knight - David Hasselhoff, Knight Rider. 1990s - Captain Picard - Patrick Stewart, Star Trek: Next Generation; Captain Sisko - Avery Brooks, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

NOW: Buffy Summers - Sarah Michelle Gellar, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Xena - Lucy Lawless, Xena. Sam Waters - Ally Walker, Profiler. Sydney Fox - Tia Carrere, Relic Hunter. Nikita - Peta Wilson, La Femme Nikita. Captain Janeway - Kate Mulgrew, Star Trek: Voyager.

Caption: 1970s COURAGE: Charlie's Angels. HEROINES: Main image - Sarah Michelle Gellar from Buffy the Vampire Slayer ; (left) Dee Smart from Water Rats ; (right) Peta Wilson from La Femme Nikita. Illus: Photo (color): cast of tv program 'charlie's angels' Photo (color): sarah michelle gellar in tv program 'buffy the vampire slayer' Photo (color): dee smart in tv program 'water rats' Photo (color): peta wilson in tv program 'la femme nikita'


Return to The AXIP News Archive