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A guy’s weakness for strong women

Times Staff Writer

At the risk of stereotyping, it’s fair to say many of the young men who provide the crucial core audience for science fiction and fantasy films feel a certain conflict about beautiful women -- a mix of admiration and terror that won’t surprise anyone who ever attended a “Star Trek” convention or waited in line to see a “Star Wars” prequel.

It’s also well established that while young boys enjoy ogling girls, watching cinematic sex or romance can be, well, kind of gross.

That could be why movies released over the extended summer season -- essentially from now till Labor Day -- are seldom over-thought. Instead, they’re designed to attract undiscriminating young males by offering action, and a bit more action, as a way to generate “boffo” opening weekends. Yet this summer, the Armani-clad studio executives have refined their formula -- adopting a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup approach that combines two tastes into a more enticing confection.

Those elements would be action (a polite way of saying “violence”) and stunning screen goddesses (or “sex,” in a beer commercial sort of way) -- the thought being that teenage and young adult males will be especially apt to fork over video-game money to see women adept in the art of butt-kicking. As long as you’re going to put attractive women on screen, under this theory, at least let them do something -- from shooting up the place to unleashing bolts of lightning.

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As a grown-up male, I can vouch for the efficacy of this marketing-driven logic, though it’s hardly new.

On television, melding action with curvaceous protagonists dates back to Diana Rigg in “The Avengers,” while more recent babes clad in leather (or less) who could fight like the boys include the women of “Xena, Warrior Princess,” “Alias,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Dark Angel” and the short-lived “Birds of Prey.”

In science fiction, women long have had a place beyond that of damsel in distress. Princess Leia fought alongside the men and critters in the “Star Wars” trilogy, and it would be hard to surpass the bravery of Sigourney Weaver’s character in “Aliens” (before the franchise degenerated into its misguided second and third sequels, anyway), charging as she did into a room full of face-hugging monstrosities.

Part of this came from a pursuit of greater equality -- the key to Weaver’s role having been a bit of gender-blind casting when producers of the original 1979 movie let a woman be the last human standing. Eventually, the “Star Trek” franchise offered up a female captain (Kate Mulgrew’s Kathryn Janeway) in the mid-1990s with its fourth series “Voyager” -- a departure from Captain Kirk romancing comely life-forms across the galaxy.

The transition from those characters to today’s, if subtle, appears to be ratcheting up the sex appeal quotient among these newer heroines, after a legacy where beautiful women were there mostly to be rescued, seduced or -- if they were really interesting -- creatively done in by the likes of James Bond.

Indeed, the last few Bond films have showcased females who could be sexy and handle an automatic weapon (Michelle Yeoh in “Tomorrow Never Dies,” Halle Berry in “Die Another Day”), which provides a pretty good road map to this summer, where the lineup of heroic women looks to be near record levels. There’s no better symbol than the concept of placing an indestructible female cyborg (played by Kristanna Loken) at the center of “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.”

Women play a prominent role in other summer sequels, from “The Matrix Reloaded” (which adds Jada Pinkett Smith and “Malena” star Monica Bellucci to the festivities, along with holdover Carrie-Anne Moss) to “X2: X-Men United,” bringing back Berry, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, former Bond girl Famke Jannsen and Anna Paquin, plus Kelly Hu, the former Miss Teen USA last seen in “The Scorpion King.”

Other wide-screen displays of hair and makeup artistry are to be found in “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” -- its predecessor having blended martial-arts gimmickry with Revlon commercials -- and “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life,” which, by its very existence, gives meaning to the phrase “review-proof.”

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Those behind the “X-Men” franchise, in particular, had their choice of comic book heroines and deftly provided an array of female characters, giving them a bit more emotional material to chew on in “X2.”

This is a small but noteworthy improvement over its predecessor, where fans couldn’t help but notice that Berry -- in pre-Academy Award mode as Storm, the white-haired mutant weather-witch -- spent what little screen time she had getting the bejesus knocked out of her.

The awkwardness boys and young men often feel around girls was etched in my mind by a comic-book store owner back in the 1970s. He said many of his customers were outraged or depressed when Spider-Man’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy died -- the hero’s rescue attempt in issue No. 121, unlike a scene in the blockbuster movie, having failed to save her. For most of the young men who frequented the shop, he quipped, that was as close to an actual girlfriend as they would ever get. (Just to establish my own geek credentials, I didn’t need to look up the number of that issue.)

Small wonder, then, that the women in these action films have soared to Amazonian heights -- outwardly beautiful, but as deadly as any of the men and, in some instances, with no hint of a social life.

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Whether this influx of super-heroic females actually represents cultural progress is open to debate (my guess is that Martha Burk, still awaiting an invitation to join the Augusta National Golf Club, wouldn’t think so), but I’ll wager agents and managers couldn’t be happier: sequel money for “X-Men” or “The Matrix,” after all, promises to be considerably better than a character-driven entry at the Sundance Film Festival.

That said, anyone who equates these films with female empowerment is giving studios too much credit. Yes, many of these films depict strong, self-sufficient women, but that has less to do with making a statement than attempting to broaden the appeal among teenage girls -- a less reliable audience for action fare who can nevertheless be brought along for the ride.

Most of the women in these films, in fact, tend to fall on the ditsy side when personal relationships do arise. The protagonists of “Charlie’s Angels” came across as goofily boy crazy -- balancing their unique occupation with making it to a big date -- while “X2" offers an intriguing permutation in Paquin’s character, who risks draining the life from a boy if she breaks down and kisses him. Talk about unsafe sex.

Ultimately, however, such discussion couldn’t be further from the point. Because while movies convey messages intended and unintended through the images they depict, these decisions spring from the minds of salesmen, not sociologists.

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And despite the demonstrable “girl power” that made “Titanic” such a hit -- mixing gee-whiz effects with the best of Harlequin romance -- the focus for most of these films is squarely on males, the demographic responsible for making Vin Diesel and wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson the talk of last year’s box-office derby.

So if boys will be boys, odds are, loud music, explosions and bodacious babes will get their attention. Squeeze that into a TV spot during “American Idol” or “Smallville,” create a $50-million-plus opening that will garner all sorts of free exposure on “Entertainment Tonight” and its ilk and, theoretically, more boys -- and maybe even a few of their parents -- will be inspired to get in line.

Such is the prevailing formula in a media culture where youth is a state of mind, mindlessness is the order of the day, and the expression “boys of summer” pretty much says it all about what to expect at the multiplex -- except, of course, when the girls are lining up first.


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