Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and getting female action heroes so very right.

In yesterday’s post I was a little whiny about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but I didn’t want anyone to think that it wasn’t still a great movie. In fact, it’s a remarkably great movie– it’s a great action movie that nevertheless has great women in it!

Most movies tend to do one or the other– Lara Croft’s movies are great action movies, but she’s not a great female character; movies like Mamma Mia are great on women, but are not action movies. It’s fantastic to see a movie with multiple, well-developed female characters in a movie that isn’t about omg shoez. Because I love action movies– especially sci fi action movies– but I also don’t love misogyny, and too many of the former are ruined by the latter.

Common tropes of action movie women: There’s only one. She’s super-awesome at everything but not awesome enough to actually do anything plot-important. She doesn’t fight men. She doesn’t fight the Big Bad. We don’t pay any attention to her life goals, only her cleavage. (She has some pretty impressive cleavage, and her hair and makeup are always perfect, even after big fights.) She’s handed off to some guy as a prize at the end of the movie.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon includes a stunning NONE of those traits! Let’s go through them one at a time:

1. There’s only one. Bzzt! So very fail! We have three action heroes with XX chromosomes this time around, and they even talk to each other!

2. She’s super-awesome at everything but not awesome enough to actually do anything plot-important. Okay, so they’re all awesome– walking-on-water awesome– but not in the Mary-Sue-ish “supermodel who also happens to be a top scientist with a knack for marksmanship” way that actually makes women weaker characters (check out the link), but in a “trained my whole life at this particular skill” way that is central to their motivations. And boy do they ever affect the plot! The whole movie revolves around Jiao’ ability to keep running and keep defeating excellent fighters, and Yu and Jade Fox both accomplish some vital goals with their skills. In other words, they’re awesome because they’re action heroes, not because they’re fanboy fantasies.

3. She doesn’t fight men. Hahaha! Haha. Ha. Oh, my. This movie is full of mixed-gender fights! I think most movies avoid these pairings because culturally, it’s not fun to watch a woman get beaten up, and, I guess, it’s too embarrassing for the Action Hero to get beaten up by a GURL. This movie neatly sidesteps these issues by making the women into action heroes too, and making them more than strong enough to hold their own, so even when a man is winning, it doesn’t feel like he’s beating up on those poor women; he’s just winning. And even then, only Li is able to hold his own– Jiao had the most fantastic action sequence in which she cleared a restaurant of burly men. She just wiped the floors with them! Or, I should say, destroyed the floors…the restaurant didn’t fare too well in the fight either.

4. She doesn’t fight the Big Bad. Usually the problem here is that the Big Bad is male, and, of course, women can’t fight men. This movie doesn’t quite have a Big Bad– from Li’s point of view, it’s Jade Fox, who is indeed fought by a man, but from Yu’s point of view it could very well be Jiao, and Yu has a great fight with Jiao. Yu even won, except that she didn’t follow through by killing Jiao, and so the girl escaped. And Jade Fox isn’t really a villain to anybody but Li…even if, technically, the big fight scene wasn’t Female Hero vs. Villain, I’m going to give it the point, since it was a sufficiently complex movie to avoid stuffing anybody into a Villain box, and that’s cool in it’s own right.

5. We don’t pay any attention to her life goals, only her cleavage. Oh ho ho. This is another one that just sounds ridiculous when you try to apply it to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. None of these women are subjected to scenes intended to titillate– not even when Jiao’s bathing; instead of sensuous shots of water droplets rolling down her back, we see her splashing water into her exhausted face, and then move on. Moreover, the whole plot is driven by three women’s desires and choices (and one man’s). Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon wins this one, hands down.

6. She has some pretty impressive cleavage, and her hair and makeup are always perfect, even after big fights. Nope! Again, these women are refreshingly un-objectified (although they do look very pretty sometimes, when the situation demands it.) And they get downright messy when they fight– hair falling everywhere, sweat on their faces, even exhaustion if they’ve been stressed for a while– and they don’t restrict themselves to pretty facial expressions, either. The focus is on the fight, not on their beauty. Awesome.

7. She’s handed off to some guy as a prize at the end of the movie. Again, no. I think this movie could have pulled off having one of the female heroes decide to run off with a man of her choice, but instead Yu, Jiao, and Jade Fox are single, dead, and dead, respectively. Jiao even goes to see her loverboy, and then chooses to die instead of settling down.

All in all, amazing, and highly recommended. Why can’t more movies get it this right?

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8 Responses to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and getting female action heroes so very right.

  1. dollyann says:

    Aieee! I love Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Thanks so much for reviewing this movie. I remember seeing it a long time ago and just being mesmerized. I’m actually taking Chinese this year, so we’re watching this film as part of our extracurricular study. From what I can recall, everything you’ve said is spot-on. I remember as a little kid just crying when she jumped off the cliff, but not being sad. Now, I understand why. Liberation for women is so seemingly impossible, that when there is sense that it is achieved… oh man, you better bring me a tissue. 🙂

    Oh, and no way, you weren’t whiny yesterday. But I’m glad you posted a second review, because this one just totally makes your analysis perfect. 🙂

  2. Mary Ann says:

    Try Congo (1995). I watched it for the first time in years yesterday. Laura Linney is ex-CIA, knows how to take out missles, parachute out of planes without a man helping her put on said parachute and never waits for a man to defend her against the killer apes. Best of all she doesn’t wind up with the male lead at the end of the movie. Let me know what you think!

  3. eloriane says:

    Thanks! It’s in my Netflix queue now! Which means it’ll be ages before I see it (I have a really long queue), but I won’t forget.

  4. fremenalex says:

    I love to revisit movies after getting such a different point of view from other (more smarter) people than me. I saw this movie in the theaters on a third date, and my date didn’t like it cuz it wasn’t realistic, with all the fighting in trees and walking on water. After the heart palpitations I got from the fight scenes, I ended the date and we stopped going out. The next weekend I took my mom to go see it. I think I made the right choice. =]
    And now that I think of it, the ending is just like Thelma and Louise!!!!! OMG, gotta go now, have to rewatch it!. Thanks again for the kick-ass review.

  5. eloriane says:

    Seriously, who wants realistic in their fight scenes? It was one of the most breath-takingly AWESOME action movies I’ve ever seen! I was just blown away. I assumed that was a given!

    The new, Daniel Craig Bond movie that came out a while ago also had some impossible, yet awesome, action in its opening sequence…and I’m trying to think what else falls under that category. I love ludicrously impossible fight sequences, especially when they’re creative about it. (I kind of enjoyed it when they nuked the fridge in Indy. It made me laugh.)

    Anybody got more recommendations for my Netflix queue?

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