New screen queens dress to kill rather than thrill
Katniss Everdeen doesn't dress to impress. The heroine of The Hunger Games movies is occasionally forced to don a pretty gown, but generally speaking Jennifer Lawrence's character doesn't make sartorial statements – she makes physical ones. She runs and hunts and shoots down planes with arrows, and in her earth-toned cargo pants and jackets, the feats are the focus.
That's not often the case with female action heroes, who are somehow supposed to take down bad guys while oozing sex appeal. Katniss wasn't the first femme-fighter to buck the trend, but when she first graced the big screen in 2012, she was the first in quite some time. And others seem to be following suit: In Lucy, Divergent and its imminent sequel, Insurgent, and the coming Jupiter Ascending, starring Mila Kunis as a toilet cleaner who might be destined to rule the universe, the focus has shifted from the protagonist's skin to her skill.
How did we get here? Take a look at the (by no means exhaustive) evolution of the female action hero over the past 40 years.
Heroine: Foxy Brown
Pam Grier played this vigilante a year after starring in another of Jack Hill's similarly plotted blaxploitation films, Coffy. Foxy wasn't afraid to get her hands dirty – she even separated one villainous man from his most precious parts. But let's face it: her name was Foxy. Even when beating up baddies, she was expected to look good in her skintight bell-bottoms.
Heroine: Wonder Woman (The Lynda Carter era)
You don't have to have superpowers to know that chasing evildoers in a strapless swimsuit is more effort than it's worth. No woman in her right mind would be sprinting, spinning and lassoing the way Carter did on this televised incarnation of the comic without the use of a sports bra. Of course, her appearance was as important as her abilities. She was expected to look just as perfectly coiffed as Foxy, although her work wasn't nearly as brutal.
Heroines: Charlie's Angels (The originals)
Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett (later replaced by Cheryl Ladd) and Jaclyn Smith weren't as vengeful as Foxy or as powerful as Wonder Woman. They were just a trio of really nice ladies with trend-setting hairdos and the latest in Melrose Avenue boutique wear who did whatever a disembodied voice told them to.
Heroine: Princess Leia
About the same time, Princess Leia was essentially an Angel of interplanetary travel, forced to go bra-less under that white gown ("There's no underwear in space," George Lucas maintained). She had a harder edge than Bosley's teammates and a decent aim, but when she tried strategising she ended up enslaved in a metal bikini.
Heroine: Ellen Ripley
Years: 1979-who knows?
Sigourney Weaver's star turn in the Alien movies is often hailed as the first female action hero. That may not be precisely true, but she was probably the first really gritty one. Warrant Officer Ripley couldn't be bothered with perfect hair or sexy clothes. She shows up in her underwear at one point, which is a little gratuitous, but she's clearly not expecting any of that kind of action. (Two words: white cotton.) In sequels, Ripley's hair gets shorter and shorter until she finally shaves it entirely. She's also allowed to be sweaty, bloody and dirty.
Heroine: Sarah Connor (in Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day)
Year: 1984 and 1991
Linda Hamilton got increasingly Ripley-esque, from the first Terminator to the sequel, showing off her stronger side. We'll let her guns speak for themselves, and we're not talking about firearms: James Cameron's ex kicked off the toned-tricep revolution that reverberates to this day among rich ladies who favour sleeveless shifts.
Year: 1990 and 1993
Luc Besson has a history of creating memorable female action heroes. And long before Lucy, there was La Femme Nikita, starring Anne Parillaud as a convict turned assassin, who looked like a butt kicking Holly Golightly in her little black dress and formidable handgun. The movie spawned a television show and was also remade into The Point of No Return, featuring Bridget Fonda, who also looked a little small to be wielding a rifle that large.
Heroine: Xena Warrior Princess
Unlike Nikita, the protagonist of this television series stood out because she looked like she could actually overpower people. Lucy Lawless had played an Amazon before taking on this role of a warlord turned vigilante. But as the heroine got more muscly, her outfits got smaller: She, like Leia, also sported a metal bikini at times.
Heroine: Lara Croft and her sisters in black
Lara Croft has been called the first sex symbol of video games, and Angelina Jolie brought all of her come-hither vibes to the action movies Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and the follow-up, The Cradle of Life. Costumes ranged from a skintight wetsuit to barely detectable shorts. Yet you couldn't deny her incredible fighting skills and death-defying deeds. That portrayal seemed to usher in a period of heroines in tight, dark clothing, including Kate Beckinsale in the Underworld franchise and Milla Jovovich in the Resident Evil movies.
Heroine: The Bride
Years: 2003 and 2004
Uma Thurman in Kill Bill is a homicidal factotum who can murder with whatever happens to be at her disposal: samurai swords, guns, her bare hands. Given this is Quentin Tarantino, things get kind of gross (you can't erase the image of the Bride biting down on one guy's tongue) and, like Ripley before her, the Bride tends to get beaten and bloodied. And that grubby yellow track suit is raffishly cool, but not particularly sexy.
Heroines: Agent Sydney Bristow and her sisters in leather
As a postgraduate/double agent with a knack for going undercover as a French maid or dominatrix, Jennifer Garner never looked anything less than adorable in TV's Alias. But the short-lived genre of crime-fighting gamines-in-leather that followed was embarrassingly uncool; not even Halle Berry (inCatwoman) and Garner (in Elektra) outfitted in shrink wrap could save the movies from bombing.
Heroine: Katniss Everdeen
The Hunger Games movie adaptations gave us a heroine who not only looked like she could fend for herself but actually served as the traditional knight in shining armour, coming to the aid of Peeta – one of her two love interests. But just because Katniss is part of a romantic triangle doesn't mean she's outfitted in skimpy get-ups. Instead, she wears what you'd expect from a hunter. As the series goes on, the clothes get tighter, but they look more like expensive apres-yoga gear than Wonder Woman's bustier.
The surprise hit was another of Besson's creations. Scarlett Johansson plays a woman who can use more of her brain power than the average person. She's also a killing machine. And while she does use her feminine wiles – and some revealing clothes – to her advantage, she does a lot of fighting in jeans and a T-shirt. How practical!
Shailene Woodley had been up for the part of Katniss, and while she didn't get it, she got a do-over of sorts with Divergent, another young-adult action franchise set in a dystopian world. Tris is a 16-year-old knife-throwing martial artist and, fittingly, she dresses like she's headed to Cross Fit.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 is in cinemas now. Jupiter Ascending is out February 19. Insurgent – the second film in the Divergent series is released on March 19. Sarah Connor is due to return (played by Emilia Clarke) in Terminator: Genisys on July 1.
- The Washington Post