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Heroine chic

By PETER KEOUGH  |  April 12, 2010

1004_juno_home
FEMME FATALE FLAW: Juno (above), Precious, and Twilight’s leading ladies flirted with female empowerment, but ultimately fell back on feminine stereotypes.

From pussies to power girls
Such potency has been percolating on movie screens for a while, tantalizing audiences with a taste of rebellion, only to cop out in the end. That’s the case in Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s Juno (2007), where Ellen Page’s nonconformist teenager talks a good fight, but ultimately submits to the traditional female role of motherhood. Similarly, in Drew Barrymore’s Whip It, Page plays a misfit teenager who must choose between appearing in a beauty contest to satisfy her mother’s wishes and competing in a championship roller-derby match to fulfill her own desire. Who wants to bet that everyone ends up happy?

And in Lee Daniels’s Precious, which presents the most extreme nightmare scenario of female-adolescent victimization and marginalization, the protagonist responds to her plight with fantasies in which she wears pretty clothes and becomes famous — a bauble for male delectation. In her grim real life, though, she resists her oppressors by learning to read and, like Juno, embracing the role of teenage motherhood. No Girlz n the Hood here.

The female protagonists in the Twilight series and in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lovely Bones edge closer to taking action. But in Twilight, it’s a tease — the heroine remains virginal not just for moral reasons, but because if she succumbs to her vampire lover she, too, will become invincible and immortal. That’s not the proper role for young girls, at least as far as conventional Hollywood moviemaking sees it. She’d also be undead, not unlike the murder victim in The Lovely Bones, who is equally powerless, seeking justice feebly from beyond the grave.

Meanwhile, the girls in foreign films have been way ahead of us. Asian cinema has a long tradition of female martial-arts heroes, and before Kick-Ass splattered the screen, the pint-sized (and autistic) kung-fu prodigy in Thai director Prachya Pinkaew’s Chocolate (2008) was whaling the tar out of mobsters. And then there are also the abovementioned, soon-to-be-remade Swedish films Let the Right One In and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (the first film in a trilogy based on the best-selling books by Stieg Larsson).

But American pop culture has its own tough-girl tradition to draw on. The so-called Girl Power movement of the ’90s spawned musical groups like the Spice Girls, TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and movies like Luc Besson’s 1994 The Professional (starring Natalie Portman as a proto Hit-Girl) and Disney’s Mulan (1998), with its animated warrior princess a precursor to the heroine in Prince of Persia.

That was the decade that also saw the rise of video games featuring potent (and buxom) heroines, such as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider (later a movie series starring Angelina Jolie). Nubile and resourceful babes held their own in ’90s horror parodies, too, such as the Scream series (a recent example of this genre is Zombieland, in which Abigail Breslin shakes off the Little Miss Sunshine image to dismember and decapitate the walking dead). The women and girls in those films got to act just like guys (as long as they weren’t taken seriously) and offer some cheesecake for the leering male fan base.

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