From stepmother to mentor: intergenerational heroism in the female-led action films

Authors: Van Raalte, C.

Conference: Action Heroines in the Twenty-First Century: Sisters in Arms

Dates: 10 June 2022


With a couple of notable exceptions, the female action hero has, until the turn of the century, been a single, exceptional woman amid a cast of men. As such she is weighed down by a burden of representation that does not afflict her male counterparts, and haunted by the spectre of the fetish which, as Claire Johnston argued at the dawn of feminist film theory, does not represent woman at all but a ‘lack’ that functions to define the male. Her very exceptionality, moreover, serve to contain any revolutionary threat she might pose to gendered norms, rendering her ‘the exception that proves the rule’. In the last two decades we have seen the development across action orientated genres, of films featuring a number of female protagonists cutting across this narrative logic. This remains a very youthful cohort, however, despite the parallel rise of the aging (male) action hero. While the older male action hero is often seen mentoring his younger spiritual heir, albeit with a bit of Oedipal sparring along the way, his female counterpart is largely absent from our screens. Indeed where our female action heroes have the benefit of a mentor (and they frequently do) that mentor is invariably male, once again reinforcing a sense that the power wielded by the female action hero is inherently masculine and provisional. Where Hollywood films do explore the relationship between an older woman and the younger woman preparing to replace her, moreover, it is more likely to be represented in terms of jealous rivalry - whether through a variation of the traditional ‘wicked stepmother’ trope, through the effective weaponsing of conflicting feminisms as explored by Cobb (2011) or through a reworking of the scenario epitomised by All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950) – a film recently remade by another male director (Ivo van Hove, 2019). In this papter, I will explore how these traditional patterns are disrupted in three recently released, female-led actions films – three films, incidentally, directed by women: The Old Guard (‎Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2020), Mulan (Niki Caro, 2020) and Charlie’s Angels (‎Elizabeth Banks, 2019). Despite the generic, stylistic and structural differences between them, all three, in their particular ways, challenge the trope of the jealous ‘older woman’ threatened by the usurping ingénue, and replace it with a narrative of mentorship and intergenerational heroism.

Source: Manual