Gender and Action Films 1980-2000

Cover of Gender and Action Films 1980-2000

Beauty in Motion



Table of contents

(19 chapters)

In this, the exciting first volume of a three-volume edited collection, you will be taken on a gender-focused adventure through action cinema's formative years. Through a series of in-depth case studies and analysis, each chapter focuses on the way that gender has been discussed in such films as the Mad Max franchise, sword and sorcery films, and the Angel trilogy. There are character case studies, including Ellen Ripley in Aliens, Sharon Stone in her ground-breaking work as femme fatale, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Keanu Reeves. We also take you on a journey through the action cinema of Wong Kar-Wai and Action Women in Colombian national cinema. The collection even takes you into the gendered dinosaur world of Jurassic Park. Whilst Action Cinema has often been derided, it has also been celebrated. We hope that this edited collection will make you want to revisit the action movies of the past, whilst we open them up to brand new interrogations.

Part 1 Masculinity and Anxiety


This chapter draws on my affective memories and personal history of fandom and fascination with the celebrity body of Sharon Stone and with the gendered narratives she embodied through playing a particular character type of the icy cool, feminine trickster who seduces a dominant or hypermasculine male action hero in Hollywood films of the 1990s. Through close analysis of images, scenes and dialogue, the chapter explores the construction of the Sharon Stone persona and character type within action-thriller film case studies of Total Recall, Basic Instinct, The Specialist and Last Action Hero. These films are positioned as pedagogical tools as well as pleasurable texts, engaging theory around fandom and ‘fictional realities’ (see also Frauley, 2010) to intentionally blur the boundaries between popular culture texts and the ‘real’ life of fans. From a fan perspective, this chapter explores the emancipatory potential of these filmic narratives and moral pedagogies; reconsidering what the feminine Sharon Stone character teaches the masculine action hero within the film, and what she also teaches us beyond the film. For while the rise and fall of the Sharon Stone character in action-thriller narratives is typically constructed in misogynistic moral terms anchored in eroticised violence, it is the strength, resilience, power and transcendence promised by her embodied star image and its seductive, defiant, idealized femininity which the fan remembers, and which echoes still in fantasy futures beyond the filmic text.


Action films have traditionally been included in a category of popular cinema that enhanced and celebrated male heroes as the epitome of masculinity. Classical representations of men in this genre included notorious characters such as Indiana Jones, John Rambo or John McClane, to name just a few, who were conceived as characteristic of heteronormative and male-based aesthetics. The films in which these characters appeared reaffirmed a model of masculinity that perceived women as just an accessory that complemented men's attributes, but there were other examples within the genre that offered more complex views in the treatment of gender roles. Therefore, this chapter will focus on the evolution of the roles played by men and women in the Mad Max action film series, and will discuss how the representation of gender is determined in the franchise by the mediation of space in the generation of male and female roles.

The different representations of The Wasteland in Mad Max have contributed to locate characters in positions that have traditionally been associated with either men or women, such as cars, roads, wilderness or domestic environments. However, the evolution experienced by director George Miller's gender awareness, from the representation of the original Max Rockatansky in the first Mad Max film to his relegation to a supporting role in the latest production, in favour of iconic Imperator Furiosa, has provided a description of how the resignification of these spaces has been fundamental in presenting female characters as autonomous, independent and performative subjects, and male characters as active yet not intrusive participants in the empowerment of women and in dismantling male privilege.


The 1980s saw both a return and rise to box office prominence of the once-popular Sword and Sorcery genre. Following on from Arnold Schwarzenegger's performance as Conan the Barbarian (1982), a raft of imitators followed. On the one hand, there were films like Krull (1983) and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983) with their big budgets and excellent casts. On the other were their ‘spaghetti’ variations, such as Conquest (1983), Hercules (1983) and the Ator (1982–1990) series, where poor production values, doleful acting, and even more atrocious dubbing remained more frightening than any monsters the hero encountered.

For the most part, the sword and sorcery genre predominantly focused on the male in the canon. However, using Yvonne Tasker's (1993) work on spectacular and hard bodies in action cinema, this chapter will provide an analysis of how female characters in the sword and sorcery genre are portrayed, using Barbarian Queen (1985) as a case study.


Formulaic in both their narrative and character development, buddy-cop films are unique in their ability to present ideas about masculinity and the journey towards manhood without sacrificing the likeability or relatability of their male leads. The focus of this chapter is how aspects of masculinity are depicted when there are two or more male protagonists in an action film. Examples I have selected for analysis are the highly successful franchises Beverly Hills Cop (1984–1993) and Lethal Weapon (1987–1998). In the case of Beverly Hills Cop, the male dynamic is unique in that there are a trio of male leads (as opposed to the traditional duo), each of which depicts masculinity in different ways, often resulting in the lead characters jostling for the role of the alpha-male. In contrast, the Lethal Weapon franchise explores the dynamics of age and the importance of mateship and mentoring in the construction of relationships between men. In both examples the necessity of vulnerability in the dynamic of solid man-to-man peer relationships is also paramount. The enduring popularity of these films and their subsequent sequels is indicative of the fact that while pop-cultural ideas around masculinity may be in a constant state of flux, elements of the stereotypical action hero remain prominent.

Discussions about the male action hero will be informed by Susan Jeffords Hard Bodies (1994), while concepts of maturing will be explored through the lens of Joseph Campbell's construct of the Hero's Journey and Carl Jung's archetypes, which, as I will demonstrate, are central components of the relationship dynamics present in each film.


In 1990s America, the question of what made a ‘real’ man was at the forefront of debates about sex and gender. During this pivotal moment, hegemonic masculinity was experiencing numerous threats to its ontological security. For instance, masculinity was infamously pronounced in crisis, the advent of the ‘new man’ betrayed anxieties about an image-conscious and feminine performance of masculinity, and there was mounting pressure from civil rights, feminist and queer groups for straight, white, masculinity to be held accountable. In short, the issue for masculinity in the 90s was that of legitimacy. The response from Hollywood was hardly to be expected: during this time of ontological crisis for masculinities, cinema experienced an influx of crisis films which featured leading men in disguise or masquerade. Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break is one such film that represents the masculinities of its protagonists as masquerades to represent a crisis in the definition of manhood. Through Judith Butler's pioneering theory of gender as a performance, this chapter argues that Point Break's depiction of masculine masquerade both complicates and confirms masculinity's insistence on invoking the rhetoric of ‘the real’ in order to retain hegemonic dominance. Masculinity crisis cinema has been extensively studied, yet the action genre is frequently left out of this discussion (the exception being David Fincher's Fight Club) despite its unique questioning of how manhood is built. Thus, in this chapter there will be an exploration as to how Point Break demonstrates that masculinities both abhor and need crisis in order to secure their continuation in patriarchy.

Part 2 Transformative Femininity


Alien franchise protagonist Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) returns in the series' second film instalment, Aliens (1986), as ‘a full-fledged hard-body hero’ (Gallardo & Smith, 2004) to assist in the rescue of a group of colonists from an Alien invasion. As each of the rescue team's male officers are killed or proven incompetent or traitorous, Ripley quickly steps forward as the surviving group's leader and principal strategist, forming a strong emotional attachment to the colonists' only surviving child and providing structure and stability to the remaining soldiers. Her heroism is defined by her maternal leadership of the group; as the most sensible and competent member, she prioritizes the group's needs above her own. Ripley's full embodiment of motherhood amplifies her machoism and maternal control over the surviving group, allowing her to reconquer her fears of the Alien species and protect her adopted child when she is kidnapped and nearly killed by the Alien Queen. This chapter thus traces Ellen Ripley's transformation from sceptical consultant to macho-mother and its importance to the franchise's overarching narrative, as well as the evolution of the macho-mother hero in more recent science fiction action films such as Mad Max Fury Road (2015) and The Cloverfield Paradox (2018).


The association between motorcycles and sex, and motorcycles and action, is highly gendered and very few action films star women on motorcycles. This chapter examines little-known Australian film, Shame (1988) and the American made-for-television remake Shame (1992) as rare examples of films starring heroic women on motorcycles. The protagonist of both films is a motorbike-riding lawyer (Cadell) who rides into a country town blighted by an endemic rape culture. The film(s) have been largely overlooked in critical discussions about gender and action films. This chapter utilises scholarship about gender and action films, and about the rape revenge genre to explore how Cadell is cast as feminist avenger and agent of change. Rather than being a bombshell or a babe, in the tradition of Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor, Cadell is a tough action chick who embodies (female) heroism. She, as Sara Ahmed (2017) would describe it, snaps, and that snap prompts viewers to examine misogyny, rape, revenge and shame.


In almost 100 years of Colombian cinema, very few productions have had action-oriented narratives at the core of the film, as this cinema has chiefly developed around mainstream genres of melodrama and popular comedy. Rather than a cinematic end, ‘action’ has worked more as a specific means, mainly through thrillers, for directors to represent, question, and denounce the Colombian armed conflict – a central national issue for over 70 years. Whilst such films have tended to showcase male heroes, some recent productions subvert this tradition, and echo aspects of contemporary action cinema in Hollywood, where female representations problematise the perpetuated male image of the action hero.

This chapter examines contemporary Colombian films that offer hybrid images of female warriors who are (anti)heroic or disruptive, within the conventions of the action genre and within the dominant patriarchal discourse of Colombian narrative cinema, concentrating on Rosario Tijeras (Maillé, 2005) and La Sargento Matacho (González, 2017). Following research on Colombian cinema, context and conflict, this chapter highlights how female characters subsist in the public sphere, taking an active part in illegal armed organisations. It also questions how these representations may promote typologies of female emancipations (victimisers, anti-heroines, hybrid tomboys and war fighters), articulating key notions of emancipation. Ultimately, this chapter reiterates how postmodern representations of the female body subvert classic features of the Hollywood action cinema, by offering inaugural images of tough women within the Colombian/Hispanic popular culture and contexts, by examining particular sequences through Creed's multiple views on the female multi-faceted representations in cinema and Tasker's ample theory on action women and bodies.


The Jurassic Park film franchise offers a complex portrayal of gender issues within a long-running science fiction action series, although not one without problematic moments. This chapter examines selected examples from the series to explore this complex picture. These include moments in the series that display female characters such as Ellie Sattler, Sarah Harding and Claire Dearing with power and agency and the top of their respective professions, noting that Jurassic Park is unusual among science fiction films for its presentation of such accomplished female characters. The chapter also addresses the sexualisation of the character Ian Malcolm and the role of the more typical ‘action star’ from later films, Owen Grady. Finally, it considers the question of sex-selection for the non-human characters, namely the dinosaurs, as significant plot points advance upon the premise that the entire dinosaur population in the series consists of non-breeding females, a fact that is later shown to be untrue. The chapter addresses each of these examples through key issues relating to the production, presentation, and violation of the human and non-human living body across the full Jurassic Park series.

Part 3 Gender/Politics and 1980s Action


With its worldwide fame for making action films, Hong Kong cinema has been defined as masculine. Action films, including the costumed martial arts films and the modern gangster films, have been a major genre in Hong Kong cinema from the 1960s on. Despite the dominant masculinity, women still play significant roles in some of these films. In fact, fighting women leave footprints in the history of Hong Kong cinema, which precede their counterparts in the West and even provide models for Hollywood after 2000.

This chapter focuses on the female characters portrayed by the acclaimed Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, whose works have an ambiguous connection to mainstream genres. He modifies Hong Kong action films and creates unconventional female characters such as the drug dealer in Chungking Express (1994), the killer dispatcher in Fallen Angels (1995), the swordswoman in Ashes of Time (1994), and the kung fu master in The Grandmaster (2013). Wong's films have been mush discussed in academia, but the gender images therein are quite ignored. With high intertextuality, these characters are used to question mainstream action films and redefine women's roles in male's cinematic space. In addition, via the writing of these women, Wong constructs an open and ambivalent post-colonial Hong Kong identity. This paper contextualises the figures of sword-wielding and gun-shooting women and examines how Wong Kar-wai deploys these images to articulate the cultural identity of a post-colonial city.


Responding to the increased visibility of populist demagogues in the critical and cultural discourses of contemporary Western society, recent activity within the academy has sought to clarify, develop and (re)define populism as a phenomenon. Via analyses of Aliens (Cameron, 1986), The Running Man (Glaser, 1987) and Robocop (Verhoeven, 1987), this chapter draws upon these conceptualisations to revisit a sample of action heroes from the eighties action cinema. Exploring the intersection of these gendered identities with the aesthetics of ideational populism, the chapter demonstrates how such texts have helped shape the nature of the action cinema genre from the outset. In doing so, the chapter considers (1) how these narratives construct a duality of homogenous antagonistic groups, organised around a virtuous people and corrupt self-serving elite, thereby mirroring the fundamental conditions of populism, (2) how the super-objectives guiding the principles and actions of characters operate as gendered and thin-centred ideologies which fail to offer meaningful solutions to the wider socio-political issues encountered, and (3) how Richards, Ripley and Robocop are positioned as self-appointed demagogues, who pursue personal, rather than common, solutions and often operate without conventional societal constraints.


The iconic vigilante Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) returned to cinema screens via Death Wish 2 (Michael Winner) in 1982 and vigilantism would remain a key theme in American urban action films throughout the 1980s. Susan Jeffords subsequently argued that Hollywood's ‘hard bodied’ male action heroes of the period were reflective of the social and political thematics that distinguished Ronald Reagan's tenure as America's President (1994, p. 22). But while Jeffords' arguments are convincing, they overlook contemporaneous films featuring female and ‘soft’ bodied urban action heroes.

The Angel trilogy (Angel, 1984; Avenging Angel, 1985; and Angel III: The Final Chapter, 1988) features three such understudied examples. Indeed, the films' diverse and atypical range of action heroes demand that they are interrogated in terms of their protagonists' gender, sexual orientation, lifestyle choices and age. Featuring narratives about the prostitutes and street folk who frequent Los Angeles' Hollywood Boulevard, the films' key characters are a teenage prostitute and her guardians: a transvestite prostitute, a lesbian hotelier and an elderly cowboy. All three films feature narratives that revolve around acts of vengeance and vigilantism.

This chapter will critically discuss the striking ways in which the films' ‘soft’ bodied and atypical protagonists are presented as convincing action heroes who subvert contemporaneous ‘hard’ bodied norms. It will also consider to what extent their subversive rewriting of typical urban action film narratives and character relations might be understood to critique and deconstruct the themes and concerns that usually characterized such films during the Reagan era.

Part 4 Gender and Action Stars


Action in the 1980s to a large extent belonged to the hard, hyper-masculine physiques of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, who seemed to embody the aggressive, go-getting, testosterone-fuelled spirit of the age. Except, as this chapter argues, it would be a mistake to take these representations of masculinity at face value.

Susan Jeffords has noted the evolution of Schwarzenegger's Terminator character from hard-bodied killer to nurturing father figure, linking this to the change in perceptions of masculinity between the Reagan and Bush eras. Indeed, as Schwarzenegger moved into the 90s his films increasingly played with notions of ‘the feminine’ – from the nurturing Schwarzenegger of Kindergarten Cop (1990) to the ‘maternal’ Schwarzenegger of Junior (1994).

This chapter focuses on Schwarzenegger's Commando (1985), the first film in which he plays a contemporary, ‘normal’ (though still unusually muscular) man: a widowed ex-special forces commando and now full-time father, named John Matrix. The act of naming this supposed he-man ‘Womb’ is only the beginning of the film's surprising and subversive disquisitions on gender. In between (and sometimes during) the expertly staged fist fights, gun battles and explosions, homoeroticism, the male gaze and gender stereotyping all bubble away under the surface. Schwarzenegger's body is presented for scrutiny in a way previously reserved for female Hollywood stars, and the film's antagonist, an embittered former colleague who is obsessed with Matrix in a way that verges on the erotic, transcends butch and enters the realms of macho camp. The film questions and subverts presumptions about the masculine and the feminine, while still delivering an ostensibly macho, quintessentially 1980s action film.


Although there are a number of hybrid tropes and cross-over conventions that relate to contemporary action cinema, broken down to its most rudimentary components, the genre places its cinematic hero in scenes of ritualised violence or conflict, with the intent of showcasing both athletic mastery and aesthetically pleasing physiques for interested and invested audiences. In as much as it is difficult to define the contemporary genre, the role of the action hero is clear in all permutations. Indeed, there is little question or query about who or what makes for a popular and long-standing action star. After all, names such as Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Statham have become inextricably linked to the genre in question. While there is much to consider here in relation to the muscles and power of these hard-bodied heroes in sweaty vests or form fitting t-shirts, there is another iteration of masculinity, a different and more agile physique, a more refined sartorial code, that has quietly overtaken these macho figures as the site of contemporary action, and that figure is Keanu Reeves. With this in mind, this chapter will examine the ways in which popular media reviewers foreground star image, acting, movement, the body and performance in order to position Reeves as an action star removed from the physical excesses of bulkier, slower and less agile men who continue to perform in the genre around him.


The world of the Action Film is a complex one. Whilst explosions may go off around the hero or heroine, skyscrapers crash into rubble, cars smash into one another, or the villain lives to fight on in another sequel, one thing is certain: the action film, loved and loathed in equal measures, remains a staple genre in cinema.

Sylvester Stallone's first appearance as John Rambo in First Blood was in 1982. It seems only logical, then, that this first edited collection in a three-volume publication is dedicated to the first 20 years in which action cinema began in earnest and grew to what it is today. By focusing on the 1980s to 2000, it becomes apparent that the action film is not simply gung-ho heroics played out to an expectant audience. Rather, it is a complex one, and one that demands further investigation.

This cutting-edge collection focuses on such areas of study include new, exciting and bold work on gender linked to vehicles, an LGBTQ+ case study of the Angel trilogy, star studies of Keanu Reeves and Arnold Schwarzenegger, sword and sorcery films, buddy-buddy cop movies, international examinations of action in both the films of Wong Kar-Wei and Colombian national cinema, and much more. Each chapter is housed within an academic framework and in-depth analysis is throughout.

This is the first volume in Emerald Publishing's bold examination of gender in action cinema. The following volumes will look at post-2000 work, focusing on Stars, Warriors, Bombshells and Atomic Blondes, and Transformations in action cinema. Much work has been written on action cinema, but in this collection you will time travel back to two decades in which one of the most spectacular genres erupted onto cinema screens. Whilst the action movie may still have its detractors, this book has been written for you to explore the complexities of gender portrayals in this genre. Above all else, it has been written for you to enjoy.

Cover of Gender and Action Films 1980-2000
Publication date
Book series
Emerald Studies in Popular Culture and Gender
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Emerald Publishing Limited