Copyright 2003

[ August 18th 2003 ]

In the opening moments of Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, Angelina Jolie gets to discover an underwater treasure trove, escape from terrorists, punch a shark in the nose and ride to safety on its fin. She's not to be messed with - nor are the ladies of Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, a trio of high-flying, butt-kicking women who dole out punishment to anyone who deserves it. Both summer movies provide a superhero picture of female empowerment, an image of ''girl power'' that matches up with the manly deeds of male action heroes.

Yet they also provide endless grist for teen male fantasies. Jolie starts her derring-do in a skimpy black bikini and quickly switches into a skin-tight diving suit, which, despite covering every inch of her body, leaves nothing to the imagination. The Angels - Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu and Drew Barrymore - do their share of titillating as well, and in case the movie didn't do it for you, they posed barely clothed on the cover of the laddie mag Maxim. The caption advertises "a triple helping of hot wings.''

It seems that Hollywood has found a way to appeal to feminists and juveniles at the same time. Let the gals beat up the bad guys. But only if they can pass for Playboy centerfolds. ''The problem with so-called girl power in recent Hollywood cinema is the adolescent quality of the notion,'' said Christopher Sharrett, a communications professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. ``There's a tendency to make films about women that are in fact crafted for adolescent boys.''

Of course, there's more than one side to this equation. Women have the right to be sexy on camera, and anyone of proper age has a right to look. Anyone who stars in movies is bound to be good-looking. And there's no reason why young women shouldn't thrill to the sight of heroines holding their own with heroes on-screen. But the irony of Lara and the Angels is still hard to miss. Like the Spice Girls before them, they're selling sex to pay for empowerment.

There was a time when female action heroes didn't have to show skin. Ripley took no prisoners in the Alien movies, and did she wear a bikini? ''Sigourney Weaver wouldn't put up with that,'' said Susan Douglas, a communications professor at the University of Michigan and author of the book Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female With the Mass Media. And when Alien director James Cameron turned Linda Hamilton into an action heroine in Terminator 2, he accentuated her biceps, not her breasts.

But that was then, and this is now. The age of soft-core men's magazines, Bud Lite ads, ''Stripperella'' and scantily clad ''wrestling'' babes has blurred the line between going off and taking it off. These days, Hollywood's action heroines can strut their stuff only if their curves stay lodged in the minds of 15-year-old male viewers. ''We're seeing a kind of post-feminist version of girl power,'' Douglas said. "Post-feminism wrongly suggests that women have achieved total equality with men, and therefore, under those circumstances, it's now fine to go back to what we used to think of as sexist or objectifying portrayals of women.''

But the independent film world has found a way to meet these challenges with brains and brawn. Last year, Real Women Have Curves gave us a young heroine grappling with issues of body image and family expectations. And in 2003, a pair of successful indies feature heroines who don't need outlandish fantasies to make their marks, who can get tough without almost getting naked. Bend It Like Beckham and Whale Rider have captured audience imaginations by featuring young women who maintain their femininity and still manage to go where the boys are -- to lead and compete with them, not to arouse their hormones.

Beckham is a sports saga for the Title IX age, with two attractive young women (Parminder K. Nagra and Keira Knightley) showing their mettle on the soccer field and in life. Sex is part of the story line, but Beckham steers way clear of drooling, juvenile fantasy. Like Beckham, Whale Rider is about a young woman who has to overcome limited views of what a young woman can do. Twelve-year-old Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is in line to become chief of her Maori tribe in New Zealand. She's tough, headstrong and up against prejudice in the guise of tradition. She isn't even allowed to partake in her tribe's leadership lessons. But she becomes a leader anyway. Lara Croft can have the shark. Pai gets to ride the whale, and it actually means something.

The best hope on the Hollywood scene may be Michelle Rodriguez. She stepped into the ring with the fellas in the indie Girlfight, and she has since become a favorite of Hollywood action producer Neal H. Moritz (The Fast and the Furious, S.W.A.T.). Rodriguez is sexy, but she's also tough as nails, and she's never mere eye candy. When she curls that upper lip, you know she means business.

Heroines come in infinite sizes, shapes and colors. But the movie industry, as usual, has but one shade in mind: green. Hollywood executives know that teenage boys hold the keys to the kingdom. Their disposable income and repeat business are as reliable as death and taxes. And so action heroines still have the potential to inspire teenage girls -- but they're certain to be a hit with their kid brothers.

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