So much virtual ink has been spilled over the true meaning of the term “strong female character, that the only thing I’m one hundred percent convinced of is that the last thing anyone needs is another guy opining on what it means. Even that the standard bearers of the conversation are inevitably male (if ultimately well-meaning) tells you everything you need to know about the state of representation and why these characters are needed in the first place.
There is something weirdly predatory, though, even in the best representations. Joss Whedon is usually saluted as the pioneer, though JJ Abrams has had a long history of doing the same, from Alias all the way to his Star Wars remix. While these men proudly put women front and center in their action stories, asking gorgeous actresses to carry stories that would have once been anchored by twitching piles of testosterone, beneath the rah-rah girl-power fantasies is something darker. Because these are also two straight guys, and men will gaze.
No matter how many times Sidney Bristow was saving the world, she was doing it in a variety of bizarre wigs and fetish gear, and occasionally the show would stop cold for fanservice. Buffy was far more up front about its feminist agenda (and was justifiably praised for doing so), but at the same token it was difficult to watch and not get the precise dimensions of Joss Whedon’s particular feet-focused peccadilloes. Even as Buffy was proudly informing young women that punching was a solution to their problems just as it was for young men, a persistent undercurrent of the male gaze somewhat muddled the rhetorical waters.
This is often the devil’s bargain at the heart of women-focused action stories. They’re allowed to kick ass, contractually obligated to run like a buzz saw through the largely male opposition, but they’re going to do it while looking fabulous. Oftentimes, though not always, they’re going to be dressed in improbable and skintight outfits, and will be played not just by beautiful actresses, but actresses whose beauty is highly feminine. It’s worth mentioning that of all the female-led action movies (many of which are SF and fantasy as well, and reading too much into that is going to make me sad), only Fury Road did not appear to have any desire to making its lead at all feminine or attractive.
This weird double-edged interest, a holding up of women as warriors while imprisoning them in boxes of the male gaze, gets a disturbing exploration with the spare 2013 action-horror exploitation flick Raze. The heroines of the film are a group of women, shanghaied and imprisoned in a hellish underground dungeon and then forced to fight in bareknuckle brawls to the death. If they don’t, their loved ones will be murdered by the shadowy cabal forcing this fate upon them, and when they inevitably lose, same deal. So every loss is a double tragedy, with not even the sweet release of death holding much promise.
Zoe Bell, the stuntwoman famously leveled up to lead actress by Quentin Tarantino, finds the perfect vehicle for her talents. Bell is a movie star in the making, and it unfortunate she’s still looking for her breakthrough, as this should have been it. While Raze leans hard on her Uma Thurman’s-troubled-sister vibe and her solid action chops, it’s not afraid to give her moments of vulnerability, which she inevitably nails. This is the movie you hope someone like Soderbergh sees when he wants to make a sequel to his criminally underrated Haywire. Bell has come miles from her first nervous role in Death Proof to embrace her destiny as the kind of action heroine we need now, with the grit of the ‘70s married to the technique of the ‘00s.
Professional creep Doug Jones plays Joseph, the man in charge of the whole thing. He wraps up his insanity in a creepy obsession with the power of femininity. He calls the unwilling gladiatrices “maenads,” and drawing on a (likely made up) thousand year history for his organization. Though men like Whedon and Abrams never meant their admiration in this way (and are probably good-hearted guys who really are trying to help representation), it’s tough not to see a bit of them in Joseph’s leering. Joseph is where they could wind up if they’re not careful, a pitfall to which they are almost willfully blind.
Former star of Twin Peaks and woman everyone was in love with in 1990 Sherilyn Fenn plays Joseph’s wife Elizabeth. It’s heavily implied she was a former champion of the arena, driven mad and come out the other side as one of the exploiters. The story of an abused person becoming an abuser is far from a unique tale, but that is what gives it heft. It’s nearly an inevitability in the minds of many, a tragedy all the more awful because it was inevitable.
The film is structured with simple titles telling us who is fighting. Sabrina vs. Jamie, or Brenda vs. Nancy. This leads to the final title promising us the thrilling fight we didn’t even know we wanted since the beginning. It’s a moment of catharsis much larger movies have had trouble duplicating, turning the back half into a gritty bone-crunching action sequence that doubles as a compelling argument for Bell getting numerous other low to mid-budget action vehicles for her formidable skills.
Quieter scenes punctuate the fights, giving them the dramatic heft they need. So that when the women fight, they’re not mere ciphers but real thinking, breathing characters. Friendships forming in the dungeon also heighten the stakes of the inevitable showdowns. There’s no escape because for these women, they’re not just fighting for themselves. They’re fighting for the innocents on the outside. Even the fights are used to reveal character, as some of the women are insane, others gleefully brutal, while still others are fragile survivors. Our heroine is introduced preying on the better nature of the woman she fights, a bold decision in letting us potentially dislike the woman we’re going to be cheering for over the next ninety minutes.
Raze is the perfect exploitation movie: low budget and high concept, with great fight scenes and innovative direction. It should have been a star-making turn for Bell, but she’s still out there, looking for her big breakthrough. Based on this one, it can’t come soon enough.