Reel Knockouts

[ Film, Media, and Popular Culture ]

Reel Knockouts

Violent Women in the Movies

Edited by Martha McCaughey and Neal King

In the first book-length study of violent women in movies, Reel Knockouts makes feminist sense of violent women in films from Hollywood to Hong Kong, from top-grossing to direct-to-video, and from cop-action movies to X-rated skin flicks.



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6 x 9 | 291 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-75251-1

When Thelma and Louise outfought the men who had tormented them, women across America discovered what male fans of action movies have long known—the empowering rush of movie violence. Yet the duo's escapades also provoked censure across a wide range of viewers, from conservatives who felt threatened by the up-ending of women's traditional roles to feminists who saw the pair's use of male-style violence as yet another instance of women's co-option by the patriarchy.

In the first book-length study of violent women in movies, Reel Knockouts makes feminist sense of violent women in films from Hollywood to Hong Kong, from top-grossing to direct-to-video, and from cop-action movies to X-rated skin flicks. Contributors from a variety of disciplines analyze violent women's respective places in the history of cinema, in the lives of viewers, and in the feminist response to male violence against women. The essays in part one, "Genre Films," turn to film cycles in which violent women have routinely appeared. The essays in part two, "New Bonds and New Communities," analyze movies singly or in pairs to determine how women's movie brutality fosters solidarity amongst the characters or their audiences. All of the contributions look at films not simply in terms of whether they properly represent women or feminist principles, but also as texts with social contexts and possible uses in the re-construction of masculinity and femininity.

  • Acknowledgments
  • What's a Mean Woman like You Doing in a Movie like This? (Neal King and Martha McCaughey)
  • Part I: Genre Films
    • "If Her Stunning Beauty Doesn't Bring You to Your Knees, Her Deadly Drop Kick Will": Violent Women in the Hong Kong Kung Fu Film (Wendy Arons)
    • If Looks Could Kill: Power, Revenge, and Stripper Movies (Jeffrey A. Brown)
    • The Gun and the Badge: Hollywood and the Female Lawman (Carol M. Dole)
    • Caged Heat: The (R)evolution of Women-in-Prison Films (Suzanna Danuta Walters)
    • Sharon Stone's (An)Aesthetic (Susan Knobloch)
  • Part II: New Bonds and New Communities
    • Sometimes Being a Bitch Is All a Woman Has to Hold On To: Memory, Haunting, and Revenge in Dolores Claiborne (Laura Grindstaff)
    • Waiting to Set It Off: African American Women and the Sapphire Fixation (Kimberly Springer)
    • The Gun-in-the-Handbag, a Critical Controversy, and a Primal Scene (Barbara L. Miller)
    • Action Heroines and Female Viewers: What Women Have to Say (Tiina Vares)
    • Imagined Violence/Queer Violence: Representations of Rage and Resistance (Judith Halberstam)
  • About the Contributors

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Officer Rita Rizolli stops a pimp from beating a prostitute. They scuffle, he calls her a bitch, circles around her, and fires his weapon. Rita dodges, admires his agility ("Nice move, asshole"), and shoots him when he tries to fire again. As he bleeds his last she quips, "and don't call me 'bitch."'

In the middle of a robbery designed to bankroll their move from their dead-end lives, Cleo, Tisean, and Stony face down the local police with weapons drawn. An unwise bank guard shoots one, and the other two women blow him away with a hail of gunfire. Stony, the only survivor of the ensuing battles, drives off with the cash.

Mad at her philandering boyfriend, Mallory starts to make out with a man in an auto garage. At her command he goes down on her, but too soon commences intercourse. She whips a handgun from her purse and blows his brains out. "That was the worst fucking head I ever got in my life. Next time don't be so fucking eager!" She stalks off in disgust.

Why Mean Women?

Violent women draw strong responses, on-screen and off, whether they're agents of the law like Fatal Beauty's Rizolli, novice bank robbers like the heroes of Set It Off, or mass murderers like Mallory of Natual Born Killers. Violent women appeear in a variety of genres, from classic horror and film noir to 1970s blaxploitation and 1990s road movies. Our contributors wrestle with the meanings of women's violence in films from Hollywood to Hong Kong, top-grossing to straight-to-video, cop-action movies to porn flicks.

Sometimes violent female characters are malicious villains; other times they save the world from destruction or just uphold the law. In almost all cases, however, somebody will imply that such action, because done by a woman, falls below standards of human decency. This is why we call them all "mean women." Depictions of women's violence seem more horrific to many people, perhaps because we find far fewer of them than we find scenes of male violence. Moreover, cultural standards still equate womanhood with kindness and nonviolence, manhood with strength and aggression. Controversies abound over the potential for imitative violence (e.g., Natural Born Killers, Thelma and Louise), the use of women as agents of sexist or racist oppression (Aliens, The Silence of the Lambs), and the deviant status of sexually assertive women (Basic Instinct, Eve of Destruction, Fatal Attraction). The contributions gathered here analyze violent women's respective places in the history of cinema, in the lives of viewers, and in the feminist response to male violence against women. They focus less on victimhood than on the subversion of that hallmark of femininity.

This volume offers the first book-length treatment of violent women in the movies, though other analysts have tackled some of the issues addressed here. Indeed, a rich and diverse literature examines such movies as The Silence of the Lambs, Blue Steel,Basic Instinct,Thelma and Louise, and Terminator, as well as such genres as detective films and slasher movies. This volume adds to this literature, answering a decade-long debate about the role of these violent heroines in feminist progress.

Most feminists oppose violence, define it as patriarchal and oppressive, yet often enjoy scenes in which female characters defend themselves, save the day, seek revenge, and get away with it in the end. Many feminists insist that we can and should do better than patriarchs; hence, they celebrate images that define women's heroic power in "female" terms—giving birth, forming community, and remaining nonviolent even in the face of violence. Are the heroes in this book "phallic women," and if so do they reproduce male domination? Do they contribute to resistance or replication?

We argue that it's not the business of analysts to decide which images will suit sexist reaction and which feminist revolution, which express dominance and which resistance. Rebellion never runs free of oppression, and we should stop trying to get more mileage out of the oft-repeated argument that women in the movies bear marks of their patriarchal, heterocentrist, and white-supremacist origins. The places and patterns into which women fit in the popular imagination deserve attention, but we need to stop asserting that nothing is what it seems, that all of women's attempts at resistance in movies lead to failure.

Some might prefer that we celebrate movie violence only for women on the "right" side ofthe law, as in cop movies such as Blue Steel,Lethal Weapon 3, and Fatal Beauty. Others fear sellout and prefer their violent women to act outside the (racist, colonialist, patriarchal) law. Still others worry about racism even among the lawless women and so prefer vengeful force against men or the systems that abuse women first, as in Foxy Brown,Thelma and Louise, and Set It Off. After all, we can feel their anger and maybe duck the "recuperation" or co-optation that racism represents. Some dislike the sexual charge attending much of women's violent action. Others celebrate such images in most any context. Still others remain skeptical of those they see as "masculinist," "objectified," or otherwise "patriarchal." We find that most of our university students cheer vhen we screen such images.

We assembled this book on violent women in the movies not because we fear these women are too sexy, too co-opted by state authority, or too deranged, nor because we worry that women will imitate the violence. We do not think that becoming maternal or being objectified ruins the toughness of heroines. Many feminist scholars have worried precisely about these matters, and sometimes the contributors to this volume do too. But arguments in this book move beyond these in important ways.

The essays in this volume look at films not simply in terms of whether they properly represent women or feminist principles, but also as texts with social contexts and possible uses in the reconstruction of masculinity and femininity. We can use these images, whether they're lies or not. This is how Reel Knockouts discusses them. These analyses of violent women in film will help enable feminists to question assumptions about gender, violence, pleasure, and fantasy. They will allow film theorists to question models of female passivity and narrative closure. They also will help cultural historians and social scientists question assumptions about the development of political community among oppressed peoples.

Where do these women come from? Which genres welcomed them and why? What expectations shape them and in what ways? Which traditional images of femininity accompany their violence, and which disappear when women prepare to fight? Whom do they battle and why? What solidarity with others do they build? The contributions in this book shed light on the connections between female violence and feminism, racial identity, sexual identity, and generic patterns. Some of the authors here take more of an interest in pointing out the downsides of cinematic approaches; others spend more time looking at the positive uses of violent women.

We have chosen the chapters in this volume not because we agree with every interpretive point that each makes, but because they represent the best and most important trends in the study of violent women in film: assessment of political utility (Arons, Dole, Springer); analysis of generic roots (Arons, Brown, Grindstaff, Walters); application of psychoanalytic theory (Brown, Miller); and consideration of the meanings of "real" and "fantasy" (Brown, Halberstam, Knobloch, Miller) as well as "violent" (Arons, Halberstam, Miller). Contributors address popular reception (Dole, Halberstam, Knobloch, Miller, Vares), old stereotypes in new movies (Arons, Brown, Springer), and definition of violent womanhood through the formal elements of cinema (Grindstaff, Halberstam, Knobloch, Miller).

Why Mean Women Now?

Violent women in the movies arise in different eras depending on race and class. Low-brow movies on the 1960s drive-in circuits featured plenty of white trash mamas wielding baseball bats, broken bottles, and shotguns. In the early 1970s, blaxploitation movies made a star of prison-movie queen Pam Grier as a woman who would take no more abuse from whitey, while no-budget rape-revenge movies began to square off middle-class white women against hillbilly abusers. Such white women don't pick up guns in remarkable numbers, however, until the 1980s—by which point slashers such as Halloween had introduced us to the teenage "Final Girl" who could defeat the madman who skewered her friends. Science fiction/fantasy movies introduced big-budget female heroes in Aliens and The Terminator. In the 1990s, the doors opened wider.

No doubt many cultural changes have spawned mean women in movies. Late-twentieth-century trends include the health and fitness movement that made one's body a symbol of one's overall fitness as a citizen (witness the influence of Arnold Schwarzenegger); the student antirape movement that— through its new sexual assault policies, peer education programs, and press coverage—sparked a nationwide conversation about gender, violence, and power; and on a broader economic scale, the movement of middle-class white women back into the paid labor force. Barbara Ehrenreich observes the recent "decline of patriarchy," in which many women became economically independent of men (though often raising children in poverty) and many men gave up the pretense of providing for and protecting women. In this new world, women move away from the moral (and nonviolent) purity of the Victorian "Cult of True Womanhood" and onto men's turf—police work, military service, and a growing self-defense movement. Such a culture puts violent women (as heroes or villains) in its movies.

The feminist movement that represented the interests of professional women—less harassment and more pay at work, greater opportunities in politics, fewer compulsory ties to husbands, an end to stereotypes of women as unable to hold jobs, freedom from or assistance with housework, freedom to move in public without fear of random attack by men—also made those professional women seem tougher in our popular culture: larger, with bigger muscles, meaner, mouthier, and more likely to pick up weapons when attacked.

We, the editors, were enthused consumers of popular culture in 1991, a banner year for violent women in film, when the releases of movies such as La Femme Nikita,The Silence of the Lambs,Terminator, and Thelma and Louise drew mass media and scholarly attention. As academics and anti-sexual assault activists, we found uses for these images in our work. We wondered why colleagues accepted only the display of male aggressors and female victims as a consciousness-raising tool, and moved instead to celebrate women who knocked the stuffing out of men who bothered them. In our classroom strategies as well as in our own lives, it seemed not only easy but also productive to identify with, enjoy, and share images of women who could express their rage, defend their bodies, and usurp some of manhood's most vital turf. Although we share the feminist analysis of violence against women and of compulsory heterosexuality that underlies most sexual assault prevention work, we have tried different ways to attend to men's violence against women, specifically by deconstructing "violence" and the related ideas about "sex difference."

But we realize that violent women present quagmires for feminists. Fellow activists and journal reviewers have criticized our employment of images of violent women in our anti-sexual assault work as "Reaganesque" forces in a sort of a sex-war arms race—images that will escalate violence rather than stop it. Feminist activists, many of whom define any violence as masculinist and wrong, sometimes tell us that screening images of women's violence doesn't accomplish the consciousness-raising we think it does, but rather becomes "part of the problem." We criticize any visual culture that sexualizes male domination and have worked for years both in and out of the classroom to challenge structural inequalities. However, we reject arguments for women's pacifism in light of both the relative license to do violence given men and the obvious political uses of it for women. Our own approach sees the pervasive abuse of women by men as an activity maintained in part by traditional images of women unable to fight and of men immune to injury. Visions of sexually attractive vromen skilled with weaponry, licensed to kill, beating up men might rather take the wind out of the sails of the culture in which sex difference seems unalterable. Such images might challenge smug oppressors. For these reasons, we like the threat that women's movie violence presents to the all-important divide between women and men.

We wonder what effect such images could have on men who assault women partly because they're so confident that they'll win the fights. We also wonder what effect they could have on women who so often regard themselves as helpless victims and men as unstoppable predators. Of course, like most fans, we still have problems with the movies and want better ones. We assume that popular movies arise in part from male fantasies. We assembled this book not to demonstrate what should need no further proof—that violent women in the movies were born in a male-dominant society and reflect the interests of people living in it—but rather to recommend that we dig deeper into monstrous films to see what tarnished prizes lie there.

Volume Layout

This book begins by giving violent female characters a generic history. The essays in part one, "Genre Films," turn to film cycles in which violent women have routinely appeared: martial arts films, film noir/erotic thrillers, cop movies, and prison movies. Wendy Arons begins with Hong Kong martial arts movies, and shows how the popular cycles treat Asian women as sexual and violent at the same time, featuring characters who take for granted women's fighting skills, even as those women must perform their heroism amidst a gallery of less flattering archetypes: venal Dragon Ladies, dimwitted girlfriends, psychotic lesbians. The Hong Kong action genre has welcomed women as skilled fighters, while Hollywood has kept them mostly on the sidelines.

In "If Looks Could Kill: Power, Revenge, and Stripper Movies," Jeffrey A. Brown analyzes women's violence in erotic thrillers and finds women in positions recognizable from the martial arts movies: bisexual victims of stalkers, women who kill menacing johns and stand up for themselves—even as they operate in a genre often dismissed by feminists as oppressive for its objectification of perfected female bodies. These heroes puncture male fantasies of control over attractive women, as strippers slash and burn those who would subjugate them.

In "The Gun and the Badge: Hollywood and the Female Lawman," Carol M. Dole contributes to the extensive literature on female cop heroes a chronology of methods by which Hollywood filmmakers have tried to build the perfect woman with a gun. Cop movies have tolerated little violence from women (compared to the damage that their men do), preferring women as lovers and victims for men to protect. She argues that female cops do violence in the context of imagery of physical weakness, maternal instincts, the castration of men, and the sexuality of women. Female cops stand out from the much larger crowd of male cops as less violent, more rational, and more conflicted about treading male turf.

In "Caged Heat," Suzanna Danuta Walters reviews the women-in-prison genre, which features some of Pam Grier's earliest performances. Walters argues that this exploitative genre presents some of the campiest, gutsiest, and most brutal women anyvhere, many of whom are African-American. The revenge of tortured inmates does not always depend on their innocence (as in, say, The Shawshank Redemption), though it does depend on the vision of men as heartless scum who deserve to die in entertaining ways. Some of these marginal movie cycles run free of typical Hollywood constraints and so can offer the toughest women in the direst straits, finding some sisterhood in their rebellion against the Man.

Finally, in "Sharon Stone's (An)Aesthetic," Susan Knobloch examines the "feminist fatales" in what amounts to a sort of minigenre of Sharon Stone movies. The actor's restrained persona engages audience expectations of performative sincerity but then twists them in subversive ways as she gears up for murder. Knobloch finds that critics admire Stone's acting and find her more "real" when she plays a victim, whereas Stone's performances as violent and femalebonding heroes draw scorn from the arbiters of popular taste.

In all of these genres, loosely defined, women struggle with constraints on the use of lethal force. They prove to be tough indeed—far tougher than most of the men around them. The essays in the second section of the book, "New Bonds and New Communities," analyze movies singly or in pairs and survey uses of violent women in the larger feminist enterprise. For instance, how does women's brutality foster solidarity amongst the characters or their audiences?

Laura Grindstaff begins with a focus on the family through an analysis of Dolores Claiborne. Though rooted in gothic women's stories and melodramas, the movie turns away from the martyred mothers of classic Hollywood and builds a threatening family violence into its architecture, resulting in a sisterhood of purposeful bitches who respond murderously to male perfidy and aggression. These women do not connect easily: they exploit and mistrust each other across lines of class and age; but they find solidarity in the violence with which they defend themselves against misery and abuse.

Kimberly Springer examines the relation between vandalism, armed robbery, and rebellion against race-, class-, and sex-based constraints in Waiting to Exhale and Set It Off. Springer suggests that these movies depict black women's violence as coming both from a reasonable anger at a racist situation and from a devilish "Sapphire" within. The movies celebrate black sisterhood even as they pose uppity women as harpies and make sure that poor black women who dream of escape from dead-end lives die before the credits roll. Springer confronts the painful choices that we fans must make as we try to enjoy the few black female heroes in Hollywood movies while rebuking the film industry for recycling racist stereotypes.

In "The Gun-in-the-Handbag, a Critical Controversy, and a Primal Scene," Barbara L. Miller presents a film cycle in which meek white housewives come across handguns and make use of them, becoming figures of violent disorder to the shock of their families and friends. Miller reviews a decade of reaction to Thelma and Louise, showing that the movie remains a touchstone for women's belligerence. She employs psychoanalytic and postmodern theory to illuminate the formal elements of this small group of films, showing how the outlaw scripts subvert classical Hollywood characterization and form postmodern characters whose primal scenes involve more violence than sex, and whose stories lead them toward solidarity with women, but not men.

In "Action Heroines and Female Viewers: What Women Have to Say," Tiina Vares shows how women's political afffiliations shape their reactions to Thelma and Louise. She argues that, depending on those ties and beliefs, female viewers use different definitions of "violence," find various ways to integrate subversive images into their daily lives, and hold distinct ideals about which actions are really rebellious.

Finally, in "Imagined Violence/Queer Violence" Judith Halberstam considers the politics of female rage and the uses of terrorist culture, arguing that women's screen violence fits a larger trend toward aggression against straight white men by those they oppress: gays, blacks, women. From gangster rap to AIDS documentaries, these assaultive media intend to frighten. They can bond those who wield them in righteous solidarity and perhaps scare those who prey upon others into some second thoughts. Halberstam recommends that we not cede symbolic violence to the straight white men who have proved so willing to assault others for real, but rather adopt it to feminist, antiracist, and queer uses.

Themes of the Volume

Kidnapped and raped by rednecks working for the local mobster, the title character of Foxy Brown must fight her way from mortal peril. She slaughters the bad guys with a garden tool to the eyes, a jug of gasoline over their heads, and a match. One of the dripping thugs can smell what's coming: "This is gasolinel"

"You know it, motherfucker!" says Foxy as she lights him up. As the men scream and thrash, Foxy makes her escape, heading off to do more damage, including a memorable castration, to the local men who have abused her.

Some viewers have looked kindly upon violent women in movies. Blaxploitation included the provocative work of such actors as Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson, who starred as civilians and law enforcers battling evil "whitey." Blaxploitation emerged through a window of opportunity opened in the early 1970s for filmmakers to produce and distribute low-budget crime dramas for black audiences. A rarity in a production system unfriendly to black heroes, blaxploitation added an important chapter to the history of violent women in film.

Analysts of the genre have often enjoyed the women's violence within it, though with some important caveats. In his celebration, Darius James writes that Pam Grier "was a genre unto herself. She had no equal . . . no Caucasian equivalent.... Not only did the revenge motifs of Pam's films quell the racial hostilities of inner-city audiences hungry to see the whyte man get his ass kicked, she also presented the perfect model of the woman beyond male control." True enough, but perhaps Grier had no equal because she was black and saddled with stereotypes of animal aggression and matriarchal pathology. Springer's essay in this volume considers the painful choice between celebrating the presence of tough black women on-screen and criticizing the racist presentation of violence as a black trait.

Mike Phillips argues that images of black female violence "could cut both ways." On the one hand, when time came for Foxy Brown to castrate her white male nemesis, "[b]laxploitation fans loved this"; on the other, "the [assertive, black, ghetto] style offered the white world a whole new set of caricatures which validated old prejudices." Donald Bogle also observes that actors such as "Dobson and Grier represented Woman as Protector, Nurturer, Communal Mother Surrogate.... They were also often perceived as being exotic sex objects . . . yet with a twist . . . at times using [men] as playful, comic toys." We find no simple reading of women's violence in a complicated world.

Traces of blaxploitation survive today, in the form of homage. Witness the revival of blaxploitation heroes in Original Gangstas, in which single mom Laurie (Grier again) and friends tangle with a local gang that has taken over their neighborhood. Laurie teaches a self-defense class and later battles armed hoods. She pummels one in an alley and then grabs a handgun. The young thug asks in condescension: "How do you know that motherfucker ain't going to blow up in your face?"

"Well, let's find out," says Laurie, as she blows him away with crackling gunfire. After a pause, she gloats over the corpse, "Women's intuition." Sexy and lethal, pro-black and marketed to crossover audiences, blaxploitation heroines created dilemmas that have since become familiar in mainstream (white) Hollywood. For instance, what shall we make of a woman who appears both physically empowered and sexually attractive? What shall we make of a black nationalist whose abuse and revenge amuses millions of white viewers?

Many critics understand antiracist work and spectacles made of blacks for whites as mutually exclusive. What shall we make of the black female castratrix— surely a white male fantasy? One could argue that the masochistic sexual fantasies of men make poor choices for symbols of female resistance. Suppose, for instance, that Foxy Brown's castration of her white male adversary fits a masochistic male fantasy. Does this deprive the image of any feminist or antiracist punch? We can easily argue that most images in Western culture are white male fantasies, and that many of those are useful to feminists and others whatever their political pedigrees. The essays in this book grapple with just such complicated framings of and responses to women's on-screen violence.

Certainly violent women in movies draw mixed responses. Cheering audiences compete with scornful critics and disinterested viewers for the final word on women's violence. Academic controversies over mean women tend to focus on matters of co-optation and realism. With the final section of this introduction we turn to the literature on violent women in the movies to review reasons for rejecting them as tools in feminist struggle. Readers unconcerned with academic debates might want to skip this discussion and begin the essays.

Why Not Mean Women?

Carol J. Clover has famously observed that violent women abound in horror movies, as well as in the reviled slasher movies and a genre that she dubbed "rape revenge." These women rose from the depths of victimhood to chew their oppressors to pieces. Could groups of young men watch these videos, over and over again, in grudging affirmation of feminist strength? Could women take pride in the images or need we be ashamed of them? In this final section, we summarize the four main objections to women's on-screen violence among feminist scholars and others: that the violent female characters are too unrealistic, too sexy, too emotional, and too co-opted. We examine these charges in turn.

Too Unrealistic

Ellen Ripley orders the men to stay behind and wait for her; descends into the flaming, steaming, dripping alien nest; throws a young girl over one shoulder and a massive rifle over another; and confronts the monsters who slaughtered most of her company of would-be protector Marines. After a dozen men die trying, Ripley stands tall and defeats her gigantic enemy.

Many violent-woman movies, such as the Alien series with its invincible hero Ripley, strike people as uselessly unrealistic. The women seem too strong, their stamina inhuman, pathetic imitations of the silly male fantasies. Women often laugh at the delusions of men, especially their dreams of themselves as unstoppable locomotives of destruction. Why on earth would women want to join that phallic crowd?

Sometimes, fantasies of female omnipotence scare people with the notion that women might imitate that violence. Others sometimes respond and defend such violent fantasies as safely unrealistic and thus impotent. For instance, when critics complained of the potential of Thelma and Louise to serve as a how-to manual for homicidal rebellion, the film's producers reassured them that they had intended the movie as an unrealistic tale, and that real women get along with men pretty well. Women do not really act the way Thelma and Louise do, the defensive argument went; the movie was just fantasy. (See Barbara L. Miller's essay in this volume for more on this reception.) However, Lynda Hart argues (rightly, we believe) for an interpretation that does not impute displacement and dishonesty to the violent woman or her movie—an interpretation that allows for the possibility that women might actually do violence to men for the sake of other women. Yvonne Tasker offers a related and important caution that analysts of violent women in movies too often dismiss them as charades of no consequence.

Indeed, many people resist violent women in the movies because they're too fantastic and not "real" enough to seem like part of genuine feminist struggle. For instance, the early1990s set of violent women mentioned above sparked conversation in Hollywood about the parts that female actors where being offered:

Susan Sarandon, actor (Thelma and Louise): What we see in the media is closer to a man's idea of what women are. Women want to see things that are more surprising and truthful—not so sugarcoated.

Natasha Richardson, actor (Patty Hearst,The Handmaid's Tale): I would like to see more "real women'' portrayed in movies—vulnerable, strong, sexy, intelligent and full of the contradictions common to most women.

Sandra Bullock, actor (Demolition Man,Speed): Women want a variety of fantasies. It's nice to lose yourself in another womans life, but it has to be a real woman, not a man's creation.

Martha Coolidge, director (Rambling Rose,Introclucing Dorothy Dandridge): I think women want to see women portrayed in a more realistic way, that's all. That doesn't mean you can't have bad guys as women, but I kind of resent that the big breakthrough was, "Hey, let's make the really bad guys women." That fulfills another male fantasy: Woman as Monster.

Mariel Hemingway, actor (Personal Best,Star 80): This is a business run by guys who have fantasies about women and who want women to be a certain way. My way of dealing with it is to not be a part of it.

Annette Benning, actor (The Grifters, The Siege): What we need are more human roles.

Women in the movie business wish for violent female characters who do not look very much like violent men, and describe their wish in terms of "real" womanhood. In this volume, Susan Knobloch looks at a violent actor, Sharon Stone, often accused of unrealistic performance.

In her commentary on The Silence of the Lambs, Jodie Foster offered similar thoughts about her feminist heroism:

I think there's something very important about having a woman hero who's a true woman hero, in the most archetypal sense of the word, and yet doesn't have to clothe herself in men's clothing. She's not six-foot-two, she doesn't kill the dragon by being mightier. She actually does it because of her instinct, because of her brain, and because somehow she's seen something, a detail that other people have missed. And thats a real side of female heroism that should be applauded and should be respected.... Clarice is a real female hero, not a bad imitation of a male hero.

Foster explained, in another interview, "Male fantasy is interesting terrain.... Nobody is saying 'Don't make movies about male fantasy,' or 'Don't make movies about women who are complex and evil.' The thing to stress is that you want to create characters that are real."

The feminist study of popular culture often sticks at these issues of realism and progressive impact. In her review of 1970s feminist scholarship on sexism in the media, Suzanna Danuta Walters explains that those early studies described the persistence of sexist imagery and the relegation of women to home-and-family roles. Such work trains our attention on women's injury, oppression, or vilification as monsters. Feminist activists called our attention to the representation in the media of women's bodies as objectified and violated by the putatively more aggressive bodies of men. In the name of realism, feminists have neglected images of women as potentially active, violent, or vengeful.

Feminist scholars of film have rejected the simplest models of such socialist-feminist realism, rightly noting that one person's realism might amount to another's fantasy and that disputes over veracity lead nowhere because "realistic" images might not help activists anyhow. After all, stories of impoverishment and abandonment, abuse and endless workdays, however realistic, can't provide all of the imagery that a movement needs. Nor could depictions of women exploiting each other across lines of class or race prove very inspiring, however realistic they might be. Laura Grindstaff's essay in this volume considers tough women fighting across lines of age and social class. Images of women fighting for new rights might not always seem realistic, but they are worth circulating anyway.

Beyond asking whether images were true, analysts have asked what activists or their oppressors could do with them. Scholars have advanced more complex models in the interim, most famously Stuart Hall's reworking of Raymond Williams's distinction between the "dominant" and the "emergent." This model allows analysts to specify audiences who might read pop culture in particular ways that served the (proto-) political purposes of their communities. With this framework, analysts could distinguish between the "resistant" (i.e., feminist, antiracist) aspects of a movie or its audience, and the "dominant" parts to be reviled.

Unfortunately, this shift from realism to various audience activities retains the most serious problem of the putatively rejected "positive-image" framework. Both frameworks lend themselves better to moralistic denunciation than to building knowledge of complicated genres. For example, we can see Ripley's resourcefulness and ability to fight as "resistant" because we like that part of the film, and then interpret her handling of weapons or her bossing of black men as "dominant" because we were embarrassed by liberal guilt or outraged by the apparent racial subordination (see discussion of racism in Aliens below). In another context, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick pokes fun at this theoretical model ("kinda subversive, kinda hegemonic") as "the good dog/bad dog rhetoric of puppy obedience school" and dismisses it for its "intense moralism" and "wholesale reification of the status quo." The "dominance/resistance" framework pats some images or interpretations on the head as useful to "us" and slaps others as collaborating with oppressors, leaving aside the pesky matters of what anyone means by "us," how we know what "we" do with the images, and what any "dominant" group might do with them, mean by them, profit from them, and so on.

Like critics of dominant/resistant images and interpretations, we intend this volume to offer readers ways to use images—inaccurate, irreverent, or othenvise offensive as they might be. However, we have assembled this volume in the spirit of celebration more than diminution, not because we have divided the good dogs (feminist visions) from the bad dogs (male fantasies), but because we know that movies belong to both breeds at every moment for every audience, and we'd rather take space discovering patterns in film narrative and reception than bark at them. The skewering assessments of violent women in the rich film literature tend to leave one wondering what such heroes must do to escape derision as hollow, limited, male fantasies.

There must be more to analysis than condemnation, the perpetual unmasking of violent women as frauds whose "resistance" to some reified patriarchy must always be undercut by recuperation into a "dominant" order. We'd like to move beyond the objection that violent women are often unrealistic, sexy, nurturing, emotional, or working for the government. Thus, this volume explores uses of violent fantasies, and so moves beyond critiques of them as sexist and otherwise oppressive. Male fantasies abound in our male-dominated culture, and surely these violent women are among them. How could they not be, after all? They didn't drop from the sky pure of our culture's taint. Can't we find use for them despite their being unreal male fantasies?

Too Sexy

Catherine makes passionate love to a man tied by his wrists io his bedposts. Just as they appear to climax together, she draws an ice pick from the satin sheets and stabs her lover over and over as he screams, thrashes, and bleeds.

Analysts observe that many violent women on-screen look like runway models: young, thin, large breasted, and bare skinned. Many feel that this pulls them from the realm of feminist activism and back into the uselessness of male fantasy. But must they be victims? Does Catherine Tramell—the sexy, rich, supersmart, fearless, enterprising woman in Basic Instinct—really not prevail, just because similar female characters die in this and other movies? Maybe violent women fail even when they succeed. But where, other than to the satisfaction of moralizing ("bad puppy") resentment, could such an argument lead? Judith Halberstam's essay in this volume argues that down Catherine's path of imagined violence lies a genuine victory.

Analysts also complain of women being drawn into the fetishism of male sexuality and thus never amounting to powerful images for women. For instance, Linda Mizejewski worries that the cop movie Blue Steel blunts its subversive force for women and sinks into a conventional male-fantasy world by reducing "the gun significations into the simpler terms of female desire, penis envy, and male fetish." That is, violent woman Megan "buys into the biological identification of gun as female phallus." Perhaps women who kill become phallic, and thus sexy, and thereby useless to feminism.

Other scholars decry the sexual vulnerability of female heroes (whose attractiveness or sexual assertiveness draws predatory male attention), as though survival of such attacks made them seem weak, and as though male heroes didn't face the same problems in a number of genres. Of course, male heroes of cop movies can also be sexy and sexually vulnerable. Recall those extended S/M scenes in cop movies in which ultrabutch men leer at, trade homoerotic "I'm-going-to-fuck-your-ass" lines with, and then beat the stuffing out of half-naked heroes; or enjoy sex with women while murderers stalk them down their halls toward their imperiled bedrooms. Does a woman's sexiness really make her less of a threat while she's beating a man senseless or shooting him dead? Jeffrey A. Brown's essay in this volume offers a rebuttal of the presumption that a female character's sexiness diminishes her toughness or the film's feminist potential. Wendy Arons's essay shows that female stars of martial arts movies are both sexy and empowered. Perhaps such images reconfigure what feminists have for years critiqued, namely the equation of sexiness and female subordination.

Too Emotional

Clarice feels her way through a room plunged into total darkness. A madman stalks her with his pistol raised for the kill. Breathing hard and obviously terrified, Clarice holds her own gun with shaking hands. Only when she hears the clack of his pistol cocking does she fire into the dark and blow him away.

Some fear that Hollyvood films like The Silence of the Lambs undercut tough women by imbuing them with strong emotions, such as fear, maternal protectiveness, or ambivalence about killing. In her book surveying popular culture, Tough Girls, Sherrie Inness argues that signs of weakness among violent women in movies sap their subversive potential: "This emphasis implies that all tough women are not as tough as they appear and therefore pose no significant threat to male hegemony." Carol M. Dole's essay in this volume provides examples of the facts that violent women can be small, devote themselves as much to childcare as to combat, lose their weapons as soon as they use them, and still disturb old ideas about women's incompetence or passivity. But are we so suspicious that Hollywood must be putting something over on us that we'll have to reject such violent women as not "really" tough? Films like Lethal Weapon reveal that emotional expressiveness and sexual attractiveness are common among heroes rather than distinguishing traits of female characters per se. Mel Gibson has certainly made a career of playing men so volatile they seem ready to pop their screws. What may seem feminine at first glance often turns out to mark toughness and heroism in general.

Too Co-opted

Officer Megan Turner finds that her father has beaten her mother and for a moment looks stunned. "You hit her again, you son of a bitch."

The patriarch screams, "You don't have nothin' to say about it!"

Megan slams her father up against the wall, telling him that he's under arrest, manacles him, forces him into her car, and makes him admit what he's done.

In Blue Steel, Megan blows two men away: an armed robber in a grocery store and a serial killer on the street. In both cases she's in uniform acting as a police officer. Several critics have noticed that the few female heroes of the large cop-action genre tend to uphold the law more carefully than men do, perhaps serving repressive, antifeminist purposes by doing so. Such women might be patsies, in other words, playing into a patriarchal system that hates all women.

Camilla Griggers argues that violent women such as Ellen Ripley of Alien fame use their violence on behalf of a militarized patriarchy that employs white women to supervise the men of color who work the lower rungs of such institutions. Does Ripley (however unwittingly) serve a military-industrial complex and, if so, spoil our pleasure at watching her? Does she represent a conservative feminism that tells white women, specifically, that they can have a place in a white, male power structure only if they dominate others?

Answers to these questions are laden with untested and untestable assumptions about what various producers intended, how audiences responded, what characters wanted. Tiina Vares's essay provides an all-too-rare exemplar of audience study. This book cannot possibly decide whether the movies studied are hegemonic (bad) or subversive (good). We take it for granted that they're all both all the time in ways that undercut the moralistic distinctions. We like morals, of course, and wouldn't produce books like these if we didn't think that they, and the movies they study, could do some good. But we'd rather grant from the outset that one's victorious fantasy will send another away unsatisfied in a manner unlikely to be captured by intensive interpretation.

Some of the films with violent women will be co-opted: racist, homophobic, procapitalist, nationalist. Others will be feminist, queer, or antiracist. We hope that all of these violent women frighten people who snicker at women's protests. Whatever their roots in male fantasies, their places in dominant orders, or their distance from real lives, may these images at least subvert the notion that women will suffer abuse patiently. Like many of the most notable moments in the history of popular film, the blaxploitation genre disappeared before long—a passing oddity in the menu of white-producer tastes. And women have a long way to go before they reach parity with male cops on-screen.

Perhaps many of the violent women studied herein share similar fates; it's not possible to know. What will become of the suburban housewives with handguns, or the gender-bending cops working white male turf? Can Hollywood stand another Sharon Stone or Kathy Bates? In "Caged Heat" Suzanna Danuta Walters recommends that we watch the lowest genres—the independently produced, grind-house, or straight-to-video fare such as women-in-prison movies—for the subconscious of our popular culture. The current crop of high-profile violent women may indeed find themselves driven back to those haunts before long. Whatever the case, we'll take these women seriously now, not as ideals of a utopian age or role models for kids, but as pop-cultural players shaped by fights over race, class, and family values in a vital game of sexual politics. They disrupt dreams of women's gracious acceptance of all that men hand them, and right now that's good enough for us. This volume studies violent women in the movies not merely as patriarchal pawns or broken promises but also as possible tools in the liberation of women from racial, class, gender, and other political constraints that oppress women and deny them equal chances and equal rights.

Martha McCaughey, author of Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women's Self-Defense, is Associate Professor and Director of Women’s Studies in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Appalachian State University. Neal King, author of Heroes in Hard Times: Cop Action Movies in the U.S. is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Belmont University in Nashville.

"Too violent? Too sexy? Too passive? Too tough? The first book-length treatment of violent women in the movies, Reel Knockouts aims to provoke engagement and launch debate. What do women want these days? Who wants violent women? How? Why? From Hong Kong to Hollywood, contributors track criminals and tail cops, scrutinizing the mixed messages proffered by noir, horror, action, activist, and even porn pix in light of contemporary concerns with violence and the representation of violence. Throughout, political passions prime interdisciplinary insights: beware the Jesse Helms of America! Violent women = unnatural power and/or unruly sex? HA! A 'wanna' read."
—Christine Holmlund, Associate Professor of French, Film, and Women's Studies and Head of Cinema Studies, University of Tennessee