Copyright 2001 & Associated Press

[ May 9th 2001 ]

Associated Press writer Martha Irvine looks at the growing trend of female action heros and their relationships with their male counterparts:

Move over Wonder Woman. There's a new generation of tough girl in town - and she's not taking any guff. From Japan's Powerpuff Girls cartoon to the new movie "Tomb Raider,'' tough-talking, take-charge female characters are tossing bad guys all over movie and TV screens. Some wonder if they might be taking it a little far by emulating aggressive behavior traditionally associated with men. But young, female fans - the same ones who are excelling more than ever in the classroom and on the athletic field - seem to like their rough-and-tumble heroines just fine. Laura Fong, a 14-year-old from Hazlet, N.J., thinks the characters are "clever'' and "take action'' when they need to. Paula Garcia, a freshman at the University of California-Riverside, says they show that women can do pretty much anything, "even if it means saving the world.''

And teens aren't the only ones who think so. "It's a wholly positive change in my eyes,'' says Emily Donahue, a 26-year-old Boston resident who believes her generation, too, has been hungering for a new kind of role model. "The Barbie doll or Cinderella image is no longer the goal, because girls are no longer concerned solely with 'looking pretty' or waiting for their prince to come.'' The "tough girl'' phenomenon isn't altogether new. Hard-nosed, women protagonists began emerging years ago in the "Alien'' and "Terminator'' films, and on comedian Roseanne Barr's self-titled TV show. "She broke every rule for how to be a 'good girl,' from not apologizing for being fat to making fun of men,'' says Kathleen Rowe Karlyn, a University of Oregon professor and author of "The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter.'' Today, strong female characters are even more popular, from TV's "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer'' to the Powerpuff Girls, a trio of cartoon characters who giggle after walloping villains. "Tomb Raider,'' set for release in June and starring Angelina Jolie, promises to bring yet another to the screen: Lara Croft, a British archaeologist, photojournalist and adventure-seeking globe-trotter.

The trend has everyone from pop culture experts to merchandise marketers taking note. "Ten years ago, it was more the waif - the skinny, soft, gentle girl with little makeup, almost unisex - that young girls were aspiring to be,'' says Cassie Ederer, vice president of youth strategy for Convergence Mediagroup, a San Francisco-based company that helps companies create products for young people. "Now you look at it and it's almost the antithesis - it's healthy, strong, athletic.'' But not everyone's convinced that women are being portrayed on equal footing with their male counterparts. Consider the title character in the syndicated TV series "Xena: Warrior Princess,'' which is about to end its six-year run. She's tough and independent but also scantily clad, notes Sherrie Inness, author of the book "Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture.'' And, she says, America still has a long way to go when it comes to accepting real-life women who take strong stands - Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Attorney General Janet Reno, for example. "Even their looks are disparaged,'' says Inness, an associate professor of English at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Sarah Mercer, a 16-year-old from Charlotte, N.C., has noticed that, too. "It doesn't seem the same for men,'' she says. "It just seems like women have to work a lot more and be more manipulative to get power.''

Movies like "Charlie's Angels'' don't help, she says, because they perpetuate her feeling that "pretty women get ahead quicker.'' And there are other worries. Timothy Shary, who studies youth images in film, says he was troubled when he watched "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'' - a movie in which women warriors take the lead. The theater was full of young men who were "cheering on the girl-girl violence.'' "There's a perversity to that on some level,'' says Shary, a professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "It's relatively bloodless fighting, but it still hinges on an interesting drive toward physical violence and conflict.'' Some wonder if such interest might encourage girls - already becoming more violent, according to federal crime statistics - to be more aggressive. Fong, the New Jersey teen, doesn't think so. "I think in real life, girls are more interested in having friends and being accepted than being bullies,'' she says.

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