Shattering Stereotypes: The Rise of Women in Action Cinema

Women led Action Movies Collage

In action movies, women were long pigeonholed as the damsel that the heroic man must save. However, women have steadily been gaining more attention as action heroes. Especially in the 2010s. 

Today we will look briefly at the history of modern action heroines. We’ll also look at the importance of this development and its impact on gender representation within the industry more broadly.

Here Come The Girls

The 2010s saw a growth of interest in women-led action films after the release of titles like Alice in Wonderland (2010) and The Hunger Games. These films were hugely successful, had heroines leading the action and showed them rebelling against the established order. Showing that audiences wanted to see lead actresses challenging the blockbuster status quo.

From there women-led YA action films became box office regulars. Films like Mad Max: Fury Road and the new Star Wars trilogy also shifted their franchises to focus more on the strong ladies in their worlds, with Furiosa and Rey providing good examples of capable and emotionally complex women action leads. During this time pressure also mounted for successful franchises like the MCU and DCEU to make films for their iconic superheroines. This later bore fruit with the success of Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel.

And the hunger for genre heroines is still present, with films like Everything Everywhere All At Once, The Woman King, and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever carving out more space for woman actors of colour in leading action roles.

Viola Davis leads a group of women warriors in The Woman King // Credit: Sony
Viola Davis leads a group of women warriors in The Woman King // Credit: Sony

Heroic Recruitment

Because strong and complex action heroines are now more prominent women viewers are able to feel less marginalised by popular action films. These films also help to shift hegemonic ideas about womanhood. Showing that more opportunities are available to women than simply supporting a man’s story. Additionally, sources have shown that greater representation leads to better self-esteem by allowing underseen groups to feel more valued and it also helps to promote understanding between groups through humanisation. 

This uptake could positively affect the film industry as well. Research has found that having role models in the media can help women become more ambitious and assertive. Meaning that the more the industry showcases strong and complex leading ladies the more encouraged women will be to pursue their dream careers. Like making and starring in films.

Women in Film

The number of action heroine leads rose from 3% in 2016 to 10% in 2022. Meaning there is now a greater chance for woman actors to have leading roles and be seen by big audiences. Thanks to the many successes of the past few years, we have also seen a rise in women directors and writers. Particularly since 2017 (writers rose from 11% in 2017 to 19% in 2022 and directors rose from 11% to 18%) when Wonder Woman (at the time the highest-grossing film ever directed by a woman) was released. While correlation doesn’t equal causation it’s certainly conceivable that a successful woman-driven film in one of the most popular genres opened producers to the power that women-led and fronted productions can have. Thereby opening the industry to more women creatives. 

But the fight for representation is not over. In 2022 only 10% of the top-grossing action films had a solo woman as the protagonist. While men accounted for 30%. Additionally, women of colour, LGBTQ and disabled women are still underrepresented in these stories. As they account for 51% of UK cinemagoers it’s only right that women should see themselves reflected and headlining popular genres. The past few years have brought great progress. But if audiences and artists continue fighting even better possibilities will follow.

Also Read: Class Rules: The Representation of UK’s Social Class in Film

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Posted by
Josh Greally

Writer and filmmaker. I have a masters in directing film and television and have written film reviews for several smaller sites in the past. Films are my life, but I also enjoy writing, reading, listening to music and debating.