Hit Like a Girl: Gender in Action Films

Jules Caldeira
November 15, 2023

Since The Great Train Robbery (1903), action films have been an integral part of cinema, luring audiences to the swing of the sword or a hail of gunfire. However, for most of history, nearly all action films have starred men with rare exceptions, such as Torchy Blaine or Linda Stirling in  Zorro’s Black Whip (1944). Then, in 1979, Sigourney Weaver burst onto the screen as Ellen Ripley in Alien, paving the way for leading women in action films.

Photo-Illustration: Katch; Photos: Warner Bros. , Summit Entertainment, Orion Pictures, 20th Century Studios, Sony Pictures Classics, Miramax, Focus Features, Netflix

Today, we’ll be looking at sixteen action films, eight each with men and women as the main protagonist. While this is by no means a definitive analysis of all action films, it’s a respectable sample size to begin a conversation of what differences, if any, are present and if gender plays a role in the type of film produced or the content within.

The films used for this analysis include: Enter the Dragon (1973), Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Escape From New York (1981), Aliens (1986), Die Hard (1988), La Femme Nikita (1990), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), Run Lola Run (1998), The Matrix (1999), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (2003), The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), John Wick (2014), Atomic Blonde (2017), and Tomb Raider (2018).

Looking at the context in which these films are set, 68.75% take place in urban environments, more often occurring in men’s films. Of those starring men, 83.3% are American stories, mostly set in Los Angeles. Conversely, action films starring women were only set in the United States 12.5% of the time, with 37.5% each in Europe and Asia. Most films’ settings are contemporary, with exceptions including Aliens, Atomic Blonde, Return of the King, and Crouching Tiger.

In terms of action, 75% of films employed hand-to-hand combat, while 68.75% had gun-fighting to a dominant degree. Only 50% of films used both, evenly split across both groups. While issues surrounding intellectual themes were present in 75% of all films, 37.5% of women’s films dealt with moral or ethical uncertainty, down from 50% in men’s. However, half of women’s films involved stories of betrayal, double that of the men’s.

An interesting trend showed that while over half of the films starring women also had men in leading roles, only 25% of men’s films did the same. 75% in male leads were true heroes, such as Neo or Aragorn, but only half that were seen in women’s films: Ripley, Lara Croft, and Samantha Caine in The Long Kiss Goodnight. 50% of women’s films starred flawed heroes, up from 25% of men, and only men’s films had a villain in a leading role, as in Enter the Dragon, Die Hard, and John Wick.

75% of men were cast as sympathetic characters, contrasted to 62.5% of women. While more films starring men, 37.5%, had family-dedicated leads, only one was a dynamic between a parent and child: The Connors in Terminator 2. Compare this to the 25% in films starring women, where The Long Kiss Goodnight followed Samantha Caine’s journey as a mother and Tomb Raider explored Lara and her father’s relationship. The Bride also endured the loss of her child in Kill Bill Vol. 1, but no films have a father balancing being a hero with his duties to his children.

Despite this disparity, 50% of leading women were portrayed as brilliant or exceptionally skilled in their field, which only occurred in 12.5% of men’s films. 25% followed the story of a romantic couple, either actively together as in Nikita and Run Lola Run, or strained like the McClanes in Die Hard. All films starring men were fights for survival, compared to 37.5% of women’s films. 37.5% of women’s films explored family problems, as in Run Lola Run and Crouching Tiger, in contrast to half that amount in men’s. In many of the women’s films, the hero often encountered foes solo, with little to no backup. Compare this with 50% of men that were part of a squad on a mission who also had stories regarding male friendships, while women did not experience such connections. Films starring women focused on psychological and cultural issues at double the rate of those of men, such as with La Femme Nikita, Crouching Tiger, and Atomic Blonde.

Women also endured stories of loss and recovery two-thirds more often than men. Half of the men's films, including The Matrix and Return of the King, involved the discovery of The Chosen One; however, this did not take place for any of our female heroes. Over half of all films followed the “(Wo)Man in a Hole” story arc. That is, a hero must fall or fail before they ultimately succeed in the end. In terms of storytelling and narrative structure, films starring women tended to be more imaginative and creative at 62.5%, such as Kill Bill or Run Lola Run. Women’s films used more plot twists and surprise endings, as in Long Kiss Goodnight and Atomic Blonde, but men’s films more often had happy endings, at 62.5% compared to 50%.

Nearly all films elicited iconic performances, and half were also virtuosic performances, including Sigourney Weaver, Uma Thurman, and Alan Rickman. Where these titles differ, however, is that half of women’s films had leads that could be considered sexy, either by the audience or other characters within the film, but this occurred in only 37.5% of men’s films. Also, in the films starring women, each of these sexualized leads were exclusively women, but in men’s films this could include both men and women.

A viewer’s experience can be determined, at least in part, by the mood of a title. Regardless of the protagonist’s gender, all titles followed a fairly consistent trend. 43.75% of all films had a dark and gloomy feel, and over 68% exhibited an active and energetic mood. Those that weren’t defined by a dark mood, such as Die Hard, Return of the King, and Tomb Raider, had light or humorous moments that were balanced by dark or weighty scenes. Less than a quarter seethed with feelings of anger and rage, with all films demonstrating tension throughout and a third also exuding a spirit of surprise.

Given the number of heavy-hitting directors involved in these films, it’s no surprise that a majority come with the trademarks of such visionaries. From Aliens to Nikita, The Matrix to John Wick, these would be completely different films in the hands of another director. A big commonality across most films, a hefty 75%, was the impact of music. Whether it’s the driving techno score of Run Lola Run, the hand-selected soundtrack of Kill Bill, or the iconic synth of John Carpenter, time and again music resonates from these pictures.

In addition to being action films, half of the men's films also qualify as action-adventures, such as Return of the King and Enter the Dragon, doubling the amount of women’s films in the same genre, including Crouching Tiger and Tomb Raider. While men dominated the sci-fi genres, namely Terminator 2, The Matrix, and Escape from New York, women’s films had more crime and spy thrillers, such as Long Kiss Goodnight, Lola, and Atomic Blonde.

Noting the frequency of sophistication in the production of films starring women, it makes sense that these titles offered an aesthetically rich experience at double the rate of the men’s, while some films starring men such as The Matrix and Terminator 2 provided a bleaker experience. 62.5% of all films showcased harsh violence, particularly in the brutality of Kill Bill, John Wick, and Atomic Blonde.

There are certain notable differences between portrayals of men and women, particularly a more frequent depiction of parent-child relationships among women, including the surrogate role filled by Ripley caring for Newt in Aliens, as well as a lack of friendships that contrasted with the closeness of men in their own films. The equal treatment of men and women in terms of violence and vulgarity was an interesting discovery, as it very well could have gone the way of treating women with “kid gloves,” and thankfully that wasn’t the case. However, while women were sexualized more than men, the fact that both men and women were depicted as sexy in films starring men but not women’s films is peculiar. That’s not to say that the films would have benefited from additional characters being sexy, as an action film can still be engaging without sexualizing any characters.

Outside of those variances, many of the films were no different than a collection of horror films or romantic dramas, regardless of the leads’ genders. These similarities can be viewed positively in the sense of some gender equality among heroes, but there are still strides to be made in terms of plot, sexualization, and representation for all genders within the genre.

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