Like many women, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to move through the world. How to walk with confidence but not too much swing. How to stand with my shoulders back without sticking out my chest. How to smile, like a nice girl. How to cross my legs, like a lady. How to speak up, within reason. How to take up space but not too much. Yet I love watching women who take up space, who swagger and sometimes wildly crash.
When I caught up with “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” in February, I grooved on an entire world populated by women taking up space with grins and seriously bad attitude. The movie had opened a few weeks earlier but had done soft business, and I saw it at a second-run theater. I didn’t expect much, yet I enjoyed its silliness and unremitting action. I dug how Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn — a Mad Hatter of a heroine — pinwheeled across the screen, slicing and dicing and tossing confetti while having dirty good fun. I’d seen women in action, but the exuberance here felt different.
A few years ago, I realized that I was spending a lot of time on YouTube watching stunt videos, the kind that movie companies produce to give fans behind-the-scenes peeks at how the action was created. Usually, I watch these videos because I’m reviewing the movie and want to see how certain scenes were executed — to see the training, sweat and cinematic sleights of hand in these high-flying tricks and blows. I’ve watched Emily Blunt soar and crash land to play a soldier in “Edge of Tomorrow”; performers transform into Amazons to populate “Wonder Woman”; Melissa McCarthy hang tough in “Spy”; and Charlize Theron kick butt, again and again, in “Atomic Blonde.”
I watch these videos because I greatly enjoy stunts, an appreciation that was kindled by Buster Keaton and nurtured by the wizardry of Jackie Chan. But I really enjoy watching women in action. I’d been a fan of the 1970s TV series “Wonder Woman” and later “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”; in film, I looked to Hong Kong (the great Michelle Yeoh), French nonsense (“La Femme Nikita”) and American exploitation flicks (the indelible Pam Grier), where the punches were in service to braless jiggling. Only recently did I grasp that the behind-the-scenes videos I was looking at were showing women kicking and punching their way to different kinds of female representation.
There’s nothing redeeming or relatable about “Birds of Prey,” which is in its favor. The movie is brand-extending entertainment from DC Films and Warner Bros., and its vision of female empowerment is reductive. You go, girl — kablooey! Even so, its feminism lite is agreeably anarchic. It’s a liberation cartoon about a nutty, dangerous sisterhood that, instructively, had women playing crucial roles behind the camera, among them the director Cathy Yan and the writer Christina Hodson. Robbie was among the producers: She pitched “Birds of Prey” to the studio and helped shepherd it to completion. Robbie also did much of her own action, with help from the stunt performer Renae Moneymaker (back flips) and the roller derby skaters Jocelyn Kay and Michelle Steilen.
I liked the women’s prickly camaraderie, but I really liked how relentlessly physical they were. It is very satisfying, I discovered, to see its petite co-star Rosie Perez land punches, partly because of “Do the Right Thing.” In that film, she wears a flirty boxer outfit but also appears in a sex scene that made her feel so bad she wept while it was being shot. It was similarly gratifying to watch Robbie use her legs — which she’d been directed to open in “The Wolf of Wall Street” for a man’s ogling — to turn herself into a circular saw. Harley’s grinning red mouth and playful lawlessness, her cartwheels of chaos, felt like a sly, unambiguously furious rejoinder to antediluvian ideas about women and the display of their bodies. How you like me now? Boom, splat, ha-ha.
I love watching other women — actors and stunt performers, dancers and gymnasts, trick riders and trapeze artists — move on and off the screen. A woman with a great walk always gets my attention. At least some of my enjoyment probably has to do with my own lack of coordination; I’ve never been sporty and am not at all graceful. There is also just the delight and awe we derive from looking at the human body in glorious motion, whether it’s the gymnast Katelyn Ohashi executing a series of flips or Harley Quinn clobbering a villain with a baseball bat. My brain lit up like the Fourth of July while watching Harley and her sisters.
In the films I saw growing up in the 1970s, including those from the classical era, women didn’t register as especially physical unless they were swimming, riding a horse or dancing, like Eleanor Powell and Ginger Rogers, whose athleticism was bound up with the feminine ideals of their era. Women in movies — the stars, at any rate, the desirable and desiring ones — were elegant, small, tidy and contained, even at their curviest. And then there was Shelley Winters, whose heroic swim in the 1972 disaster flick “The Poseidon Adventure” destroyed me. Her matronly Belle, a former competitive swimmer, takes the plunge to save the leading man. She succeeds but dies.
Winters put on 40 pounds for “The Poseidon Adventure.” She was 51 and did the stunt herself. Her character wasn’t an exemplary feminist figure, but given the often dire cinematic landscape for women of the time, she looked pretty good. There are many reasons that we fall for performers: their talent and beauty, the way they inhabit a role so thoroughly that it seems like magic or possession. They way they move matters, too — how they enter a room and navigate it, taking up space with simply their demeanor; how they draw the eye with a smile, a sneer, a shrug. There’s a potent feminist critique that women have long been made to be looked at for male pleasure in movies and elsewhere. But women also look, and the female gaze always complicates that dynamic. Winters’s big, powerful, fish-pale thighs complicated it for me.
The story of women in cinematic action mirrors the story of women in the movie industry. It grows convoluted as it winds through the male-dominated 20th century, even when men put women front and center, whether that man was the martial arts maestro King Hu, the exploitation maverick Roger Corman or Hollywood auteurs like Ridley Scott and James Cameron, who both have a thing for strong women. And the story begins at the dawn of cinema, when women helped invent the art, continuing into the teens with serial queens like Helen Holmes, the first star of “The Hazards of Helen” (1914-17), about a railroad telegraph operator with a fantastically exciting life.
Holmes wrote, directed and produced some episodes of the serial, and seems to have done some of her own stunts; her replacement, the even more daring Helen Gibson, has been called the first stunt woman. In the United States, most serials centered on a plucky heroine who lands in hot water and sometimes need to be rescued, but who also saves herself. With thrills and spills, these films offered female viewers bold new visions of themselves. They were, in other words, films for the new woman, a figure who beginning in the late 19th century would upend gender norms partly by venturing into a rapidly changing world of work, shopping, entertainment and derring-do.
Women flew planes, went over Niagara Falls in a barrel and rode broncos in Wild West shows — offscreen spectacles that drove and complemented adventures like Episode 13 of “The Hazards of Helen,” in which two men rob a wad of cash from our heroine’s office. She’s fired, but gets her job back after she finds the thieves, tussles with one atop a moving train and then falls into a river with him, all while in a long skirt. By 1920, the year that the 19th Amendment was ratified, the era of both the free-ranging female adventurer and pioneering female filmmaker was largely over. In the decades that followed, Hollywood kept women tamped down, sidelined and domesticated, even as they continued to take up more and more space in the rest of the world.
Female characters still could be unruly onscreen, deliriously so, a wildness that was often expressed through lacerating dialogue, a loaded gun and expedient death. They also continued to ride horses, fly through the air, fall down staircases and scuffle in cat fights, although often these feats were performed by female and sometimes disguised male stunt doubles. In “The Wizard of Oz,” the stunt woman Betty Danko was suspended by wires many feet off the ground to double for Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch. The stunt went south and Danko landed in the hospital; Hamilton had been injured earlier, having suffered serious burns when the witch was leaving a fiery impression on Munchkinland.
A few Hollywood stars like Barbara Stanwyck and Maureen O’Hara liked doing their own stunts. For O’Hara, that was critical to reshaping and controlling her screen image. In the late 1940s, under a studio contract and tired of being treated as part of the scenery, she decided to muscle her way into the foreground. “I resolved to be such a dominant presence on the screen that I couldn’t be ignored,” she wrote in her memoir. Reader, she became a swashbuckler. O’Hara had ridden horses, fenced and knocked about when she was a child, and she was determined to combine her internal and physical strengths in order to “hold my own onscreen against the men.”
The history of women in movies often involves them trying to hold their own against men. Six years ago, while writing a series of articles about the barriers they face in the industry, I interviewed Gina Prince-Bythewood, who showed up in a Wonder Woman T-shirt. Prince-Bythewood hasn’t always had the film career she has deserved, but this year, she released the action movie “The Old Guard,” which stars Theron as an immortal fighter who swings a mighty ax. As tired as I am of the superhero death grip on movies, I can’t get enough of Theron, Robbie, Perez and other warriors who, with the likes of Prince-Bythewood, are smashing expectations and worlds to smithereens.
What is being demolished are stereotypes about women, a revolution that also includes performers as diverse as McCarthy, Octavia Spencer, Amy Schumer and Mindy Kaling. The first time I watched “Trainwreck,” Schumer’s breakout movie, I couldn’t stop looking at her legs. They were beautiful and muscular, nothing like the fragile-looking stems I was accustomed to seeing fetishized in movies. As you may have guessed, I have a thing about legs, partly because I spent a lifetime being self-conscious about my own. Schumer’s felt radical, liberating. This isn’t only about size, it is also about the emancipation of women’s bodies, their power, roles and moves.
The woman of action is an emblem of this change. The “Alien” and “Terminator” franchises were crucial to the re-emergence of this figure, though few other films were as bold. As gratifying as it could be to see women blast through the ensuing decades, too many movies anxiously reinforced sexist norms (they’re powerful, but hot!) and insisted on useless male love interests. Things have improved because of feminist agitation. Wonder Woman now has a film franchise; Black Widow has her own movie coming out. And then there’s Danai Gurira, who hurls her wig at a guy in “Black Panther” before taking him down. It’s a blissful emancipatory moment and serves as a rejoinder to the practice of “wigging,” when a stuntman doubles for a woman.
One reason Theron has become the reigning woman of cinematic action is that she often seems alone, sovereign, whether her character has a romantic foil or not. She’s given a fittingly disposable one in “Atomic Blonde.” It’s an absurd movie in most respects but she’s an astonishment as a spy, including in the action scenes. She slams and pummels, kicks and grunts. The grunts heighten the realism but they also signal Theron’s intense physicality and her extreme effort. Women in old Hollywood worked punishingly hard, too, and were pushed to their physical limits — Ginger Rogers rehearsed one dance so many times that her shoes filled with blood — but you scarcely ever saw those stars sweat. Women glow, as an old saying goes. Horses sweat.
There’s not much to “Atomic Blonde” except Theron in dynamic action and her character taking down armies of men, battles that have apt metaphoric resonance. (A woman’s work is never done!) The fights are ingeniously choreographed and intensely visceral, with a palpable quality that makes each thud resound. Stunt performers liken fights to dances, and these are to the death. They make the most of Theron’s strengths and her ballet-trained legs, finding a new beauty. A woman’s center of gravity tends to be lower than a man’s, so women in action often kick more than they punch. But Theron uses her fists a lot, too, thwacking foes so hard you stop seeing man, woman, gender — so hard it feels like she is jackhammering a message: How you like me now?
“Atomic Blonde” plays with ideas of masculinity and femininity, partly by blurring them. One of the most brutal fights is set in a kitchen, where Theron’s spy knocks out one guy out by flinging a pot at him and rapidly takes down another by slamming a freezer door in his face. Watching the scene the first time, I flashed on an old family friend who had hit her husband in the head with a cast-iron skillet. He survived; they split up. The incident had shocked me. I was fairly well-behaved, and life had trained me to respect and fear male power, to avoid walking alone at night, avoid giving anyone lip. Talking back could get me in trouble. But I was a mouthy kid and, reader, I became a critic. A critic who loves women who talk back, who fight back, who walk alone — women who own their power and ferociously, unapologetically, own the screen.