Actresses Are Beginning to Get a Bigger Cut of the Action


A devil-may-care fortune hunter fends off some thugs with a few deft punches and kicks to save this adventurer’s assistant. And on the mean streets of some unnamed metropolis, a mysterious do-gooder wearing cowl and costume and driving a super-powered car arrives with guns blazing to save a citizen in distress.

On the face of it, there’s not much surprising about such derring-do. It’s all in an hour’s work for the heroes in television action shows. These days, however, it seems the only ones with enough grit to save our skins happen to be women. And the ones needing the rescuing are the men.

Not that long ago, the rules for battling TV evil were pretty simple: Men did all the fighting and shooting, women all the screaming and nail-chipping. Lately, television tough guys have undergone a sex change.


“This is the payoff for 100 years of feminism,” says Lucy Lawless, star of “Xena: Warrior Princess,” the godmother of all the current women heroes. “Women have equality on the air, and the buying power to get the shows on the air.”

Female action heroes will soon be all the rage in movie theaters now that the film version of “Charlie’s Angels” is a $100-million hit. Yet they are already all over the television dial. The networks have series from the WB’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and Fox’s “Dark Angel.” TNT will soon launch “Witchblade,” while the Sci-Fi Channel has “Lexx,” “Farscape” and the upcoming “Black Scorpion.” “Tomb Raider” has long been a favorite computer game. The Cartoon Network even starts them young, with “The Powerpuff Girls.”

Still, it’s in syndication where women are most strongly exerting their authority. In addition to “Xena,” there’s “Cleopatra 2525,” “V.I.P.,” “Relic Hunter,” “Queen of Swords” and “Sheena.”

“Gone are the days when the girl twists her ankle and Tarzan has to come and carry her off to safety,” says Charles Eglee, co-creator and executive producer of “Dark Angel,” the futuristic tale of a scientifically enhanced warrior who saves the world while trying to discover her past. “Traditionally, the kind of Grail quests like the one our character is on are done from the male point of view, but we’ve seen that for 1,000 years. That’s ‘Beowulf.’ ”

Adds Russ Krasnoff, executive vice president of programming at Columbia TriStar Television, which produces the Pamela Anderson-as-private eye vehicle “V.I.P.” as well as the new “Sheena” series: “I went to a network recently to talk about some of our projects, and they told me they wanted to hear about what they called ‘female empowerment’ shows. It is now OK to be entertained by that sort of program. Women don’t have to just be the wife or the girlfriend anymore.”

Certainly television has had its share of estrogen-enhanced heroines in the past, most notably Emma Peel from “The Avengers” and both “Cagney & Lacey.”


Back then, the vast majority of action heroines seemed to be either sexed-up cartoons like Wonder Woman (the show’s theme song summed it all up with the line “In her satin tights, fighting for her rights”) to “The Bionic Woman,” who came into being thanks to male counterparts. Even the venerable Angels went to work every day for Charlie.

That all seems to have changed. Certainly a healthy percentage of the aforementioned new shows play up their heroines’ sex appeal, but every one of the women is the central character and none seems to be particularly beholden to any male when it comes to crime-fighting. It’s a trend that only became financially viable in the mid-1990s, when “Xena” entered the syndication market.

When the show was launched, it seemed like anything but a feminist standard-bearer. It was essentially a spinoff of a male action hour, “Hercules,” and its title heroine spent a great deal of time running around in a body-hugging outfit that would make Barbarella blush, accompanied by a young female sidekick who was Robin to her Batman.

“It wasn’t until between episodes 6 and 8 that the media started picking up on the fact that we had a strong female role model,” says Lawless. “That came as a shock to us, frankly. We were just trying to do a good job, and I hadn’t really thought about it in those terms.”

Nonetheless, she knew that the core concept of “Xena” was something unique. “From the get-go, this was a show about a woman who decides to go it alone, except for the help of another young woman, and they walk the Earth with no visible sign of male support.”

“Xena” executive producer Rob Tapert admits he’d always wanted to do a show centered on a female superhero, but it took the success of a male hero named Hercules to get executives to green-light the show. Studio executives were so uncertain of the future of the show that Tapert was under orders to make sure men played a key role in the first several episodes.


Still, the show not only survived but thrived. “We were in the right place at the right time,” Tapert says. “We existed in a world of many single mothers who wanted to have somebody on television who had the power, who didn’t need a man to get something done.”

A ‘Star Trek’ Pioneer

Progress was nevertheless slow. In 1995, Kate Mulgrew was given the helm of the newest “Star Trek” franchise. It seemed like a major breakthrough, a woman hero at the center of one of Hollywood’s biggest moneymaking machines. “Janeway was a woman who had become captain on her own merits,” Mulgrew says of her character. “That’s why she was unprecedented on television.”

“In my world, women have always been heroes,” explains Joss Whedon, creator and executive producer of “Buffy.” “And I just got tired of seeing women be the victims. I’ve always been more interested in Batgirl than in Robin. I needed to see women taking control. The development of a young woman is much more interesting than the development of a young man, and with Buffy, there was this twist. . . . Nobody knew by looking at her that she was a hero.”

At the opposite end of this spectrum are shows such as “V.I.P.” and “Sheena.” Krasnoff insists those series have no particular feminist agenda. In the former, Anderson accidentally becomes the head of a private security firm and is all fluff compared to the steely females who work for her. In the latter, another ex-”Baywatch” star, Gena Lee Nolin, runs around the jungle in very skimpy outfits. And the idea for both is simply to let women be in charge but never make that an issue.

“We’re just reflecting our society,” he says. “Women are now leading major corporations. They are leaders in every role in society. Our audience is responding to that. Pam has a strong teen-girl following, and they enjoy seeing her as a leader of a company, being funny and cute and strong.”

In the Year 2525

It’s that funny and cute part that could be considered a problem. Take “Cleopatra 2525”; the premise of this half-hour show is that a woman awakens after going to her doctor for breast implants and finds herself hundreds of years in the future, fighting intergalactic evil alongside a pair of scantily clad women. Series like this, “V.I.P.” and “Queen of Swords” (a female Zorro knockoff) feature as much female cleavage as courage.


“Many of these current shows do provide young women with positive role models who are more independent than women used to be on television. They’re not just the stereotypical rescued princess,” says Dr. Rhonda Hammer, a research scholar at UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women. “But at the same time, there are problems. The women always seem the same: straight, white and beautiful. The shows seem to just reinforce to women how important beauty is.”

In some cases, it’s almost like a throwback to the days of “Charlie’s Angels” and the so-called “jiggle” shows that used sex to sell their heroines. The producers of many of these series don’t deny that they want their female butt-kickers to be sexy. After all, male crime-fighters get to be sexy, and the reality is that no action show could succeed without luring in males, who make up at least half the audience for these series.

“There is a feminist quality to our shows, but being feminist doesn’t mean being nonsexual,” explains Tapert, who also produces “Cleopatra 2525.” “That’s a battle I’ve had with hard-core ‘Xena’ fans, who say we’ve had her use sex as a weapon. I don’t think that’s contrary to her being a hero.”

For Bonnie Hammer, executive vice president and general manager of the Sci-Fi Channel, it’s about time that women were allowed to be both heroic and sexy.

“It’s just a taste factor,” she says. “Be responsible with your content and don’t exploit women. What these shows are teaching to both boys and girls is that it’s just as easy for a female to create world peace, discover a scientific formula or pilot a space ship. And she can still wear leather pants on the weekends.”

UCLA’s Hammer admits that despite the cheesecake appeal of some new action heroines, “The situation is better than it was. There has been a radical shift in treatment of women in society. Things are not great, but they’re better. These new shows are at least reflecting those changes.”