WOMEN AND VIOLENCE ON SCREEN
IAXS Research Project #286
By Douglas Eby
Copyright © 1997 held by author
PLAYING THE TOUGH OR BAD GAL (01-03)
THERE IS ONLY THE COLOR RED (04-10)
POWER AND SELF-DEFENSE (11-15)
GETTING IN TOUCH WITH THE DARK SIDE (25-27)
PLAYING THE TOUGH OR BAD GAL
Tracy Scoggins played Amanda Carpenter, a woman of questionable repute,
in Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years.
Ms. Scoggins has been recently signed to play a major role
in the fifth season of Babylon 5
 Before she started her nasty goddess role of Catherine Cat Grant during the first season of the series LOIS AND CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN (1993-1997), actor Tracy Scoggins played tough cop Judith Gray in the film DEMONIC TOYS (1992, Dir. Peter Manoogian), a part she enjoyed: "Judith comes across as very vicious and vengeful, but I think her anger is justified. The love of her life was killed. It was fun for me because, for three years on THE COLBYS [(1985-1987), TV series) and DYNASTY [(1981-1989), TV series] I played such a nice person that it was fun to go around shooting people for a change" (FEMME FATALE MAGAZINE, Winter, 1994, page 9).
 A number of actors have found some of their juiciest and most pleasurable roles in playing the bad guy or tough guy, or someone willing to use a weapon to protect or avenge. In more and more films and TV projects those actors are women: Anjelica Huston (THE GRIFTERS, 1990, Dir. Stephen Frears); Emma Thompson (DEAD AGAIN, 1991, Dir. Kenneth Branagh); Kim Basinger (THE GETAWAY, 1994, Dir. Roger Donaldson); Meryl Streep (THE RIVER WILD, 1994, Dir. Curtis Hanson); Sharon Stone (THE QUICK AND THE DEAD, 1995, Dir. Sam Raimi); Sally Field (EYE FOR AN EYE, 1996, Dir. John Schlesinger); Vanessa Williams (ERASER, 1996, Dir. Chuck Russell); Julia Roberts (I LOVE TROUBLE, 1994, Dir. Charles Shyer), and of course, Lucy Lawless in XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS.
 In one of the key scenes of THELMA AND LOUISE (1991, Dir. Ridley Scott), the Susan Sarandon character, Louise, finds her friend, Thelma, played by Geena Davis, threatened with rape. This triggers an immediate anger and a violent response: Louise shoots the would-be rapist. The scene brought appreciative cheers from audiences. But women may have complex reactions to female characters using guns or otherwise responding violently. Also, the women actors playing these violent roles have their own perspectives on using guns on-screen. The following quotes are all from original interviews by the author, unless otherwise indicated.
THERE IS ONLY THE COLOR RED
Renee O'Connor was Janice "Maddog" Covington
in THE XENA SCROLLS. (#34)
 In the United States, a handgun is manufactured every twenty seconds and a person is shot every two minutes. Gunshots are the leading cause of death by injury among people age 25 to 34. Battering is the leading cause of injury to U.S. women between ages 15 and 44, and more than a million women every year seek treatment at doctors' offices and emergency rooms for bodily harm inflicted by spouses and boyfriends. But this discussion is mostly about the fantasy of film, not the reality of .38 slugs in a stainless steel morgue pan. As noted film director Jean-Luc Godard (1930-) is supposed to have said about the strong violence in one of his films, "There is no blood. There is only the color red."
 Alison Armitage, who acted in the TV series ACAPULCO H.E.A.T. (1993) as a member of a highly trained quasi-military anti-terrorist government agency, at times used guns against bad guys. Many times. Referring to the THELMA AND LOUISE scene, she noted "Personally, I don't think I would have gotten into that situation. I'm far more aware of things like that. As far as myself doing that, no, I don't carry a handgun. I'm not blaming [Louise], I'm not saying that she made that situation happen or let it happen, I'm saying that I would not have put myself in a situation where I could have been in a parking lot alone with a stranger I just met (and was intoxicated to boot!). Some women tend to believe that people are always good; I don't believe that. Humans are humans, and we've proved before we're a very violent race. We like to go to war, for God's sake!"
 Much of the criticism of THELMA AND LOUISE centered around the idea that it was against men in general, rather than some male behavior, and Armitage says "I don't understand how some men can call the movie 'male-bashing'. How can you blame a woman for being that angry? You're violating the most personal thing you possibly could; you couldn't do anything worse to a woman."
 Ginger Lynn Allen (NYPD BLUE [1993-]; BOUND AND GAGGED -- A LOVE STORY [1992, Dir. Daniel B. Appleby] feels that it is important to look at real life and real women when talking about women being shown on screen acting violently: "I don't believe women will ever have the violent tendencies that men do. And I'm not being sexist. Women are different, by nature -- more nurturing and caring and we react to things by trying to make them better, whereas I find in general, and I don't mean to generalize men, but the male psyche is different -- men were raised to believe you took care of women, and that you were strong and powerful.
 "I don't want to believe women will ever come to the point where we feel the need to be violent. If you react to violence with violence, we're going to become barbarians. I hate to see society go that way. On the other hand, we can't just sit back and go 'Oh poor me, I'm a woman, I can't do anything about it.' I think learning to protect yourself is important. But I hope I never see a day when society comes to the point where women lose the soft, feminine nurturing side of them. I hope we can find a balance where men become a little more feminine and women become a little more dominant."
 As another actor who has used weapons onscreen, Lee Anne Beaman (IMPROPER CONDUCT, 1994, Dir. Jag Mundhra; SINS OF THE NIGHT, 1993, Dir. Alexander Gregory Hippolyte) agrees: "We women need to set an example of how it could be. It's good if a role is not a carbon copy of a Rambo, with gratuitous violence from machismo reasons, and ego-building. The real hero is the one who can reason, who can talk somebody out of a fight, who can outsmart them and make them look like an idiot for being a bonehead violent person. Women can do that. If violence is needed to get the bad guy off the street in the role, that's one thing, but she can still do it with a minimum of violence without looking like a wuss; looking like an intelligent person who has outsmarted the idiot with the machine gun. We set a new standard. We're not trying to one-up men. We want to create a u-turn in the thing so that they look idiotic, and that the real heroes are the thinkers. It would be against nature for the women to think we're going to outdo the men in their own game. We're the life-givers. It goes totally against a life-givers nature to take life."
 Armitage, however, points out that some women "have violent tendencies, just like men. Mass murderers are women, too. Women beat on their kids just like men do. The numbers are not nearly as great, but there are women out there who are just as violent. Some women are put in a position where they feel they don't have any other choice except to use violence, and they will. It's a matter of your perspective on the situation, and how you find you can best solve it. I know a girl who's been stalked, and the law is not built around protecting her until he does something very harmful to her. What is she supposed to do? Nobody wants to go to prison for using a gun, but nobody sure as hell wants to have somebody stalking you that could potentially hurt you. You're stuck between a rock and a hard place."
POWER AND SELF-DEFENSE
Famke Janseen *is* Xenia Onatopp.
 Many women are taking self-defense classes and learning to shoot firearms as a way to grow beyond feeling so overwhelmingly victimized in a society and at a time in history when there is so much threat. Paxton Quigley, who runs a personal protection course, has pointed out that women fear guns, and that it's a cultural thing to do so, but that when a woman learns to shoot a gun and to control such a lethal force, it changes her psychologically.
 Famke Janssen confirms that it helped her as an actor for her role of Xenia Onatopp, in the latest James Bond adventure GOLDENEYE (1995, Dir. Martin Campbell), to be trained in weapons: "I took a fake AK-47 home with me, and practiced loading it and all that kind of stuff, so I was really familiar with it." But as to real life, Janssen says, "I don't like guns. I think they're extremely dangerous. I don't think they should be around, because something can go wrong so easily. I wonder sometimes, if you get too familiar with them, if that's not even more dangerous."
 Actor Melanie Shatner says she is not comfortable with the idea of shooting ranges, or of women using guns in real life, but likes self defense training: "My boyfriend has a gun in our house and I hate it, it's a source of argument. But I know there is value in learning how and being able to defend yourself. My sister has been going to a defense class called Impact and it's amazing. I really want to do it. She says it changes your life. I think it's very important on a lot of levels. It was started by a woman with a black belt in Karate, who was still attacked and raped, and she realized even though she had the technique, she was terrified to have the contact.
 "After finishing the class, my sister got into a confrontation with a neighbor, and she handled it far more aggressively and more knowing this man couldn't hurt her, though he was very angry. My sister had a real definitive issue that she wanted to discuss; a month ago she would have backed down, and now it was very easy for her to be heard. I think it's great. A film role can also help a woman in that way; it helps maintain that women don't have to be afraid to assert themselves and don't have to be afraid to say that something isn't right, that someone may not like them, and that someone may think they're manly. It's not 'manly' to say 'No', it's human."
 Shatner values the authenticity of her role in OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN (1983, Dir. George P. Cosmatos), a second-in-command officer on a 21st century underwater mining base, one of the few women in the story: "My character was feeling insecure in her position with a crew of men, but she was honest with how she felt, and even though she was intimidated, when the situation became dangerous she had no problem saying 'I'll take the gun.'"
Alison Armitage of Acapulco H.E.A.T. fame.
 One of the keys for an actor to portray using a gun in a believable way is to get at least some training. Armitage says "I own two handguns and I go shoot them. I'm not about to play a part like in ACAPULCO H.E.A.T. if I know nothing about weapons. If I hadn't learned already to use guns, I would have learned. The same doing a martial arts film; if I got a part, don't think I wouldn't run out and try and learn as much about it as possible so I could depict it in the most real sense."
 She points out that many films and videos showing women using a gun "are based on male fantasies and don't picture it in a realistic sense. The girl is still wearing the sexy dress, low-cut, long fingernails -- I mean, please. Personally, I look deeper into a character and choose not to do those particular kinds of roles. They are not right or wrong, good or bad. There's a market for it or they wouldn't make them, but I'm not in the market to only take care of the male fantasy. I have fantasies, too, and they may include carrying a handgun, you never know."
 Jennifer MacDonald played a cyborg in TERMINAL FORCE (1990, Dir. Fred Olen Ray): "I was the only woman in the movie, and very proficient in a number of weapons, and basically killed everyone in sight." She agrees there are many low budget productions "with a woman fighting back, but still in high heels and sexy lingerie. If they're firing a gun they have to be in see-through chiffon, something from Victoria's Secret -- which I just find so funny and silly. Most B movie scripts are about a woman who's been scorned and who comes back to rectify the situation with any of three things: violence, sex or drugs or something."
 MacDonald liked TERMINATOR (1984, Dir. James Cameron), partly because "this women was not running around in high heels" and thought THELMA AND LOUISE was an excellent film, a positive image of women taking charge." She thinks a number of films do a "very good, soulful job of portraying a woman who has decided not to take any abuse, any discrimination." But she also feels strongly that "some films do a really lousy job -- those are the ones where the woman is shaking like a leaf when she takes up a gun, and she happens to be wearing high heels and a corset or a garter belt. I think that is just another form of men getting their rocks off by watching a woman shoot a gun.
 "A lot of women don't know how to use weapons, and no one teaches them on the set, so it ends up looking really stupid." MacDonald points out that some of the strongest roles were in films of an earlier era, for women such as Lauren Bacall and Bette Davis: "She was really evil in some of her films, but didn't have to take out a dagger and slice somebody's head off."
 Referring to the video of her erotic thriller UNDERCOVER HEAT (1995, Dir. Alexander Gregory Hippolyte), actor Athena Massey points out she has more than a casual familiarity with handguns: "The .38 Special you see me holding on the box cover is my personal gun. I do go to target practice; I have a certificate from a gun safety course. I've shot .22, 9 mm, .357 magnum, .38 Special, .45 - I've even shot a Desert Eagle, the Israeli Military weapon you have to hold with both hands; fire comes out the end, and it sounds like a cannon. It's the largest handgun, and I wanted to shoot it just for the experience.
 "I definitely agree that knowledge about guns is very important. There are so many times when there's a billboard, or advertising for a movie or even box art on a video cover, and I see this person, usually a woman, has not been taught how to hold a gun right, and I think why wasn't she taught on the set? For example in the UNDERCOVER flyer, there's a shot of me holding a gun, and you see my finger is not on the trigger. Never put your finger on the trigger until you're ready to pull it, that's safety number one that you're taught. After the photo session, they realized they needed a shot of me in a police uniform, so they just dressed another girl up in it, and superimposed my face on her body -- but she's holding the gun wrong, and her finger is on the trigger. I was upset with this, because it was portraying me as a typical woman who doesn't even know how to hold a gun."
 Beaman gained her experience with weapons early: "As a kid I played with BB guns with my brothers, shooting old 45 records in the forest, pretending we were hunting. They used to shoot me quite often with their BB guns, so I had them teach me how to aim and shoot so I could shoot them back. Now I can look real with a gun." She agrees there is some real value for women in films that show women fighting back: "I think it's great, whether it's taking charge using a weapon or using your body as a weapon, any way you cut it I think that's a real good thing, it changes the way people view women.
 "And maybe it will bleed over into reality a little bit and people will watch us before tangling with women, thinking they're just defenseless, meek little things that are going to cry and scream and do nothing. Something that gives a woman a greater sense of power, like going to a shooting range, will leak over into the way they walk and carry themselves; it will make them less victim-like, and maybe exude a different kind of energy that could cause them to maybe not be hit on."
GETTING IN TOUCH WITH THE DARK SIDE
Xena doesn't get much darker than she does
in THE PRICE (#44).
 Shatner thinks that roles for women that explore attitudes and behavior that are not socially acceptable, or are otherwise difficult, are valuable: "Getting in touch with the darker, shadow sides of my personality is amazing and exactly where I want to go with my acting - I think it's the most fun and the most gratifying to do. The hardest and the most gratifying. You can find the most creative parts of yourself when you're willing to work with the stuff that terrifies you."
 For her role as Xena, a character she has described as "a woman as strong as any man or woman has ever been, who lives by her wits, but is also a fighter" ( MCA TV website ), Lucy Lawless has found some inspiration from her own life: "By being a working mother and going through a divorce [from Garth Lawless, a bar manager]. You feel you're losing your kid and you can't defend yourself. You can't speak ill of the father. You can be persecuted, but you can't persecute. Your kid thinks that you don't care. There have been moments when I've had to fight every natural urge to strike back. Xena does the same thing, fights urges." (from "Lucy Lawless, The Woman Behind the Warrior", by David Rensin, TV GUIDE May 3 - 9, 1997).
 In a 1996 America Online chat, Lawless summed up what a number of these dynamic actresses feel about using weapons as part of their acting roles: "I, personally, do not derive any great joy from violence inflicted upon other human beings, but the show sure is fun, isn't it?"