A few weeks ago, I was walking through the movie theater with a friend when we passed by the poster for the new 300 sequel. The movie looked kind of dumb regardless, but I found myself rolling my eyes at the picture of the carefully posed actress, hand wrapped around a bow in a way that managed to be seductive and scary at once.
"What's with all the Archer Action Girls?" I said to my friend. "I mean, it's better than damsels in distress, I guess, but it's kind of one-note."
She shrugged at me. "Katniss Everdeen syndrome?"
"Yeah, I guess," I said, and we moved on.
Like I said to my friend, the trend is definitely an improvement over action movies where the token lady character doesn't do anything beyond flopping around in distress or getting tied to railroad tracks. We're thankfully inching toward mainstream entertainment that thoughtfully includes at least one substantive female part, even if it's almost always occupied by someone white, straight, able and skinny. But doesn't it seem, these days, like movies and television geared toward tweens-and-teens always signifies that a young female character is "tough" by putting a bow in her hand?
I was reminded of this recently with the announcement that Nerf is making weapons geared toward girls, particularly -- you guessed it -- bows and arrows, inspired in large part by Katniss and "Brave"'s Merida.
Though the weapons in question aren't all archery-themed, it's interesting to me how even spreads like the one in The New York Times focus on girls posing with bows cocked, ready to fire missiles at a faraway foe. They're usually in what I've come to think of as Action Girl Katniss Pose -- face up, chest out, posture impeccable. Yes, it's the necessary stance for archery, but it also conveniently showcases action heroines' bodies in ways that are as aesthetically pleasing as possible.
Maybe I'm being a little oversensitive here. But I don't think it's entirely a coincidence that the weapon most often assigned to action heroines these days also allows them to be the hottest they can be. Archery takes skill, strength and a hell of a lot of practice; I'm not discounting that. Taken by itself, it is decidedly badass. In the midst of intense filmed battle scenes, though, it also allows the person wielding a bow to stand outside the scrapping and look (to the average audience) improbably graceful.
Essentially, when it comes to visual media, archery lets Action Girls come across as ass-kicking while staying pretty -- which, like it or not, is still an apparent requirement for modern action heroines.
There's also the fact that -- again, especially in TV and movies geared toward younger people -- archery allows the protagonist in question to be physically removed from actual brutality. Guns, though not necessarily a short-range weapon, are cultural signifiers of serious injury. People shoot at targets for fun, but gun violence is also an inescapable, terrifying part of our daily narrative, whether on the news or in our media. By contrast, archery, particularly of the non-crossbow variety, seems to more often suggest precision and skill rather than real-life danger. If I saw a dude with a gun on the subway, I'd get the hell out of Dodge; if I saw a dude with a bow and arrow, I'd be on my guard but probably not outright panicked.
Even swords, while less obviously dangerous, require those wielding them to get up close and personal with their opponents. When they're used in films, that often means audiences are a direct witness to the injuries they yield and the hand that held them. Weapons like these, in other words, hold their wielders directly accountable for violence.
Meanwhile, there's still a widespread cultural reluctance, I think, to see a young woman inflicting the same kind of violence on others that she herself often faces from the world. Think about the level of shock Kick-Ass drew when it came out; the sight of a preteen girl reverting to blood-under-the-fingernails survival instinct provoked a kind of hilarious shock from moviegoers.
So when we give our heroine of choice a bow, we can watch her let an arrow fly without ever seeing it hit its target -- meaning we can preserve the image of her as innocent and removed from the blood-and-guts melees that male heroes so often slosh around in. We can effectively trick ourselves into thinking she's never done any permanent damage. Even Katniss's fight scenes in The Hunger Games tend to be relatively sterile, involving more conniving and sniping than hand-to-hand combat.
The archers aren't always women, of course. There are certainly cases where the gender roles are flip-flopped but the tropes endure. In the 2012 Avengers movie, for example, Jeremy Renner plays Hawkeye, the group's archer (and also one of the decidedly less superhuman members). Hawkeye is a hero, no doubt about it, but he spends a lot of time during the film's pitched fight scenes either (spoiler?) possessed or shooting from almost offscreen. We rarely see him actually draw blood from an opponent, and when he does, it's because he gets close to them in a way we seldom witness from female archers.
He's also, funnily enough, the character who inspired the Hawkeye Initiative, a Tumblr dedicated to the deliberate sexualization of male characters for a pointedly humorous effect. This is possibly because the aforementioned Archer Stance in the official Avengers promotional materials makes him look more like he's casually preparing to model for a life-drawing class than bracing to save the world from aliens. (It also might be aided by the Jeremy Renner Booty Effect -- you can't see it in those photos, but you know it's there.)
So obviously these tropes aren't just limited to female action stars. It's their preponderance, though, that is starting to annoy me. As thrilled as I am that young women are getting onscreen ass-kicking role models, I don't want to always see those heroines delicately sweeping their side-braid out of the way as they pull another arrow from their quiver. Give me Action Girls bloody-knuckled and hunched in a boxing stance, muscular shoulders up around their necks; give me Action Girls coming at bad guys with a switchblade; give me Action Girls in practical uniforms; give me Action Girls who don't require us to be told that they're badasses.
At the risk of sounding repetitive here, give me Action Girls that have the same variety of roles and obstacles that Action Guys have. Otherwise, after a while, it's just going to be another version of Girl Tied to a Train Track.
Kate doesn't look pretty when she punches things: @katchatters.