Friday, March 11, 2005

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The secret formula for superheroines

Christina Larson has a droll essay in Washington Monthly about how Hollywood has screwed up the female superheroine genre, despite the initial promise from Charlie's Angels or Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV show and not the film). The key part:

But the good news for Hollywood—and audiences—is that there is an enduring formula that works. Superheroines since the 1970s—from Wonder Woman to Princess Leia, Charlie's Angels to Lara Croft, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to "Alias's" Sydney Bristow—have all followed a few simple rules to find success on the big and little screen. And every would-be action babe who has flopped has broken at least one of them. So what's the secret?

1. Do fight demons. Don't fight only inner demons.
2. Do play well with others. Don't shun human society.
3. Do exhibit self-control. Don't exhibit mental disorders.
4. Do wear trendy clothes. Don't wear fetish clothes.
5. Do embrace girl power. Don't cling to man hatred.
6. Do help hapless men. Don't try to kill your boyfriend.
7. Do toss off witty remarks. Don't look perpetually sullen.

I would point out that one of Buffy's best seasons was when she had to try to kill her boyfriend -- but that's nitipicking. Read the whole thing.

posted by Dan on 03.11.05 at 02:12 PM


Did you see the SWIII trailer last night?

posted by: Ugh on 03.11.05 at 02:12 PM [permalink]

She forgot
-- do weak skimpy clothes
and in recent years
-- do kiss or pretend to kiss at least one other woman in the movie (Okay, Elektra flopped despite that).

Seriously, though what about Kill Bill and Uma Thurman's character (Black Mamba), who was moderately successful.
-- She did shun human society (till the very end).
-- She did kill her boyfriemd
-- She didn't embrace girl power, since she killed off a bunch of girls.

posted by: erg on 03.11.05 at 02:12 PM [permalink]

Click the link in my "posted by" line for a downloadable version, erg.

Sweet mother of God, I can't help but FREAK OUT for this movie.

posted by: Jim Dandy on 03.11.05 at 02:12 PM [permalink]

Actually, if you read the article, the idea is to distinguish between what made a successful superheroine (e.g., Buffy) as opposed to an unsuccessful superheroine (e.g., Elektra). The article is actually pretty much spot-on.

posted by: Don Hosek on 03.11.05 at 02:12 PM [permalink]

I don't think Kill Bill applies because Uma Thurman's character in the movie did not have super powers. It might seem trivial whether a heroine's powers are natural or supernatural, but I think it makes all the difference. Most superheroes are supposed to be ordinary people who have been given superpowers and have to learn to use them responsibly. The audience needs to be able to identify with the superheroes, because they're supposed to be just like us. Uma's character, however, is far from an ordinary person, so she didn't need to be identifiable to be interesting.

posted by: Hei Lun Chan on 03.11.05 at 02:12 PM [permalink]

The Buffy seasons all depended on the villan:
the mayor (season 3) was their best villan followed by "the original evil" (season 7). Weakest season hands down was the 6th when - Buffy fought inner demons most of the season & was sullen most of the time or even in a mental ward.

And it is nitpicking since Angel promptly came back to life in the very next season!

posted by: tarylcabot on 03.11.05 at 02:12 PM [permalink]

Buffy the movie was terrible, but there's Hilary Swank as one of Buffy's ditzy friends and Ben Affleck in a very short cameo as an opposing basketball player.

posted by: Jeff on 03.11.05 at 02:12 PM [permalink]

This is true to a large degree with male-centered movies as well, but super-heroine movies succeed when they feed off of an existing audience. Charlie's Angels fed off of the old show, but the second one bombed. The first Laura Croft fed of the game and the fact that Angelina Jolie is hot, but the second one bombed. Although Jolie and Cameron Diaz are both hot, they are also both (Jolie more than Diaz) personally bizarre individuals (although Diaz thought rape was going to be legalized if women didn't vote in the last election).

There is a socio-biology aspect to this. Anthropologically, men and women in all societies identify leadership with men. One may like or dislike this fact, but it is a fact nonetheless. There is has yet to be a character with a feminist-bent to maintain an following over time.

posted by: Kirk H. Sowell on 03.11.05 at 02:12 PM [permalink]

I think Larson's wrong about the appeal of Buffy. What made the show so popular across such a broad spectrum of audiences was (1) extremely cool and cynical villains who were surprisingly fleshed out, often even (sort of) switching sides-- Spike-- or so unbelievably creepy that they stuck in your head for weeks (the Gentleman-- don't tell me you weren't more than a bit chilled by that episode); and (2) very clever and novel takes on old monster legends, and the fact that Gellar played Buffy straight even in the midst of what would otherwise be ridiculous story constructs. The villains in the shows were truly a riot. They weren't one-dimensional; for the most part they had personalities and their own "issues" to deal with, and their interactions with Buffy and the Scooby team were scary but often absolutely hilarious as well.

Also, with regard to Larson's Rule #6, if anything BTVS exhibited the *opposite tendency*. Buffy was obviously the most kick-ass member of the group, but on quite a few occasions she needed to be rescued by Xander, Giles, Spike, Angel, and especially Riley for whatever reason (e.g. against Adam and in the Gentleman episode, up in the tower). This if anything added to the show's appeal, in contradiction to what Larson seems to think, since it showed Buffy to be brave and incredibly tough but also not invulnerable and often in need of a helping hand, with-- of all people-- a seeming dweeb like Xander saving her on occasion from an otherwordly adversary. Thus in this sense, the superheroine genre isn't too different from other classic heroes genres: We want them to kick ass but also be truly threatened with real danger for which they need to call in help, otherwise it's uninteresting. The relative lack of this may be one of the reasons that e.g. the Charlie's Angels and Tomb Raider sequels had such lackluster performances.

posted by: Wes on 03.11.05 at 02:12 PM [permalink]

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