In the early '90s–before Goldeneye–I created a silly 'zine called "Judi Dench: Action Hero." In it I presented an alternate universe where Dame Judi Dench was a cheeky action hero in the manner of Bruce Willis or Jason Statham, complete with fake film posters, movie reviews and interviews with the woman herself–fashioned from my vivid imagination and repeat viewings of 84 Charing Cross Road and A Room with a View. Refashioning A Room with a View into A Room with a View to a Kill, Dench starred as Jane, a fashionable aging assassin - with the charm of Auntie Mame and the skills of The Jackal, who reflects on her life as a mother, lover and highly coveted assassin while sitting in a high rise, waiting for her final assignment. I would tell you more, but the film–as I conceived it–has a great trope-a-licious twist.
In 1995 I sat in a darkened theater awaiting the featured attraction, which was either Se7en or Die Hard with a Vengeance. The last preview trailer had a familiar sound–a jaunty little tune–and I sat up. As Pierce Brosnan appeared on the screen, my eyes started to water. As a rabid Bond fan from childhood, who possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the franchise, I had waited nearly a decade for Brosnan to assume the tux and handle of 007.
When I saw Judi Dench's name in the credits, tears spilled down my cheeks. Critics heralded Dench's casting as M, the head of British Intelligence or MI5, as timely and refreshing. Dench's portrayal of M draws its inspiration from real life author and former MI5 Director-General Stella Rimington, the organization's first female DG.
Dench's verbal smackdown of Bond sets the tone for the character: "I think you're a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War, whose boyish charms, though wasted on me, obviously appealed to that young woman I sent out to evaluate you." It was the "Oh snap!" moment feminist Bond fans–yes they do exist and I'm one of them–had been waiting for. Dench's M presents an intriguing portrayal of female power emphasizing wit, gravitas and intelligence, without reliance on unflattering stereotypes often utilized when depicting powerful females. M is deliberate without being ruthless, commanding respect and authority without regard to her diminutive stature. As a pocket-sized individual myself (Dame Judi is actually taller than me!) I appreciate her cinematic shout-out to all the short women who dream of wielding power from a step stool. Recent examples of powerful female characters on par with Dench's M are generally played by tall actresses: Geena Davis (Commander in Chief), Joan Allen (The Contender, Bourne Franchise) and Allison Janney (The West Wing) immediately come to mind. More importantly, the role of M has blazed past its previous bean counting and finger wagging origins, featuring many scenes which take place outside MI5 headquarters! Given the popularity of the character and Dench's sublime performance, why has Hollywood failed to replicate this success with other older actresses?
For starters, Hollywood has short memory when it comes to disastrous, bloated and costly projects starring those at the upper echelons of the kyriarchy. Stallone can deliver countless box office bombs, receive critical scorn, earn disappointing grosses, but more or less continue his cinematic assaults unabated. See: upcoming mildly anticipated August release The Expendables. There is one action film featuring a female lead–Salt, starring the lovely Ms. Angelina Jolie as a CIA spy who just might be a sleeper agent and it is already getting the "Cutthroat Island" sexist treatment, with some wondering if Jolie can actually carry a big, bad action film all by herself. The site Beyond Hollywood was explicit in its concern trolling, "Angelina Jolie tries to open an action movie by her little lonesome. The trailer looks excellent, but can Angelina Jolie actually open a movie? We'll see." We'll see? Were the Tomb Raider franchise, Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Wanted not compelling enough evidence as to Jolie's box office appeal?
Geena Davis' fifteen-year old, double-fisted action film disappointments (Cutthroat Island, The Long Kiss Goodnight) are still served up as cautionary tales to discourage those interested in creating female fronted action films, yet Stallone's critical and box office embarrassing remake of the Michael Caine film Get Carter (2000) barely warrant mention–nor do the nearly half dozen subsequent bombs, including 2008's Rambo IV. I'm not picking on Stallone, whose Rocky saga nursed me through a bout of the flu when I was ten. However, I am questioning the financial wisdom of continuing to invest in his projects when there demonstrated proof his films fail to achieve on a critical or commercial level, since marketability and profit are often touted as the reason filmmakers shy away from action films featuring female leads.
Where's this summer's butt kicking Ripley? Why no big screen version of the iconic '80s cop procedural Cagney & Lacey? Surely a summer movie season with room for The A Team could find space for some Chris Cagney and Mary Beth Lacey action! Cate Blanchett offered promise in May's release of Ridley Scott's Robin Hood, but the only action for Blanchett seemed to involve pinched expressions while getting on and off her horse.
As a feminist with a deep appreciation for the action genre, I often lament the paucity of female characters in pivotal roles not requiring skintight latex, hot pants or bouncy hair. Each summer the selection of films decreases and the roles get far more sexist in nature. I see you, Michael Bay. Forget casting a woman over forty to save the world. I guess that notion tests the limits of believability for Hollywood–an entity which finds no irony in unleashing a veritable antique roadshow in the form of an all star cast of aged action heroes in the aforementioned The Expendables. Don't get me wrong; I want to see well-seasoned male actors jumping out of planes, windows and various other inane plot devices, but I also want women doing their share of crashing Humvees into fruit stands and trash cans in hot pursuit of the villain.
During my stint as a guest blogger here, I want to discuss female roles in the action, suspense and thriller genres, given they are the most heavily promoted summer movies. Femalecentric films are usually released on the margin of the season–Sex and the City 2 in May and Julia Roberts' Eat, Pray, Loathe... er, Love in August–and positioned as "counter programming," which is a nice way of saying, "If Iron Man 2 sold out and you're already at the theater you can watch this instead."
I am a passionate film buff weaned on Dirty Harry, '70s Political Thrillers, tedious "important" films, and action movies. Despite loving my favorite films to pieces, as a feminist I yearn for a wider range of roles, lived experiences and diverse stories in the pop culture I consume. Viewing pop culture through the lens of my lived experiences as a black female, I find myself overly relying on pragmatism as I navigate through the minefield that is pop culture messaging. Going beyond merely isolating problematic elements in the films I choose to view, I am very much concerned with the overall messaging transmitted through the medium and what it has to say regarding lives on the margins. For loyal readers of Bitch, it is not merely enough for me to tick off everything offensive in the content. Critiquing pop culture with the goal of dismantling kyriarchy means constantly reassessing media consumption–since there is no such thing as perfect content–and making thoughtful choices regarding the content we consume. And more importantly, what costs are associated, as feminists, for consumption of imperfect content.
I believe this work–critiquing film imagery–is integral for feminists, specifically if it encourages those of us with a passion for the arts to create content devoid of the problematic elements we so often deconstruct. Through feminist analysis of pop culture consumption I have found my own approach to writing about a variety of topics, even fluffier ones, has become far more nuanced. The approach I use in my own blog actively seeks to be witty, smart and devoid of problematic elements. While I may not always succeed, I believe an active desire to be inclusive, supported by a feminist framework for all my writing–even when it's not necessarily feminist focused content–is my super power. I look forward to bringing my analytical voice to Bitch for the next eight weeks.