James Cameron famously removed a dream sequence from Terminator 2 (1992) in which Kyle Reese visits an institutionalised Saran Connor, convincing her to escape. The scene is restored to the 'director's cut' version of the film, but my understanding is that it was removed because it diminished Connor's autonomy: she only does what she does when prompted by a man. Cameron wanted her to act on maternal instincts, to be a strong character in her own right, and this scene didn't show that. I wouldn't go so far as to call Cameron a feminist, but he's pushing in the right direction with characters like Connor, his version of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley and to a lesser extent Zoe Saldana's Neytiri from Avatar. Strong, self-motivated and, importantly, not sexualised or compromised.
Why is this significant? Consider the vast majority of action cinema. The main characters are predominantly male: men drive the narrative; men kill the bad guy; men protect the innocent; men have the autonomy; men hold together the fabric of society (I'm going somewhere with this, honest). Consider Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) as probably the best example of modern action cinema. The only real female character in that film is Holly McClaine (Bonnie Bedelia), who, while forging a successful career, has allowed her marriage to suffer. The film punishes her for this (it can be read as a reactionary tale about reclaiming 'traditional' values, Nakatomi Plaza a microcosm for America) and she is only redeemed by her returning husband, who eliminates all of those pesky foreigners and finally reclaims his wife (and surname) with the symbolic removal of Ellis' Rolex watch from his wife's left arm. While Bedelia does wonders with this thankless task, her arc drives home a simple mantra: it's a man's world.
Fast forward almost 30 years and we're not really much further forward. We've seen Trinity from The Matrix bend physics but even she ultimately left all the heroic stuff to Keanu Reeves, even legitimising his status as 'The One' by inexplicably falling in love with him. We've seen Sandra Bullock get to drive the bus for a while before turning into rescue fodder and girlfriend for Keanu Reeves (really, ladies?). A woman seemingly can't feature in an action film without being sexualised or existing only in relation to a man.
So what exactly is the function of a female character in any of these films? Certainly not as hero and barely as protagonist, female characters often serve as at least one, sometimes all of the following: a source of information, a love interest, sex appeal (for the audience), a reminder that the male character is not gay, a magnet for peril, an anchor to traditional values (i.e. the home and the family) or a narrative goal (see Lethal Weapon 2 for proof of all of this). Is this really fair? Does this really represent 21st century popular culture? Does this really represent over 50% of the population? No, of course it doesn't. But fortunately things are changing, albeit ever so slowly.
The Hunger Games series has been hugely successful recently and features a more positive female character. Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen is brave, strong, able, has a defined character arc, is not sexualised (the films play on this in the ridiculousness of her pageant dresses) and crucially, not defined by her relationship with a man. In fact, the two male characters are such wet blankets at times that you feel the unfortunate love triangle is missing two points. What Katniss does to start the story off is done by her own decision, not influenced by a man. So there's some progress in the Young Adult market.
What really impressed me recently, however, was the representation of female characters in George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road. This is impressive because given the title and history of the franchise, the sheer weight of expectation, you would not have seen it coming. One would expect a post-apocalyptic road movie in which a stoic hero fights for his own survival, perhaps saving a few locals on the way. Cars will be crashed, stuff will explode, and things will have weird names.
Well all of this is present and correct, but what Miller has brilliantly done is taken his own franchise and turned it into a story about a woman striking back against a hideously mutated patriarchal world. 'Mad' Max Rockatansky is a bit part player in his own film, has little story arc to speak of, barely gets to drive the War Rig, and is at no point superior to Charlize Theron's wonderful Furiosa. The fact that her name is echoed in the film's sobriquet Fury Road is telling. This is her film and that Miller has snuck a female-led story into a $150m franchise reboot (sadly) is daring but ultimately contemporary and necessary.
Let's look at the evidence. From the moment we see her, Furiosa is in control. A trusted lieutenant of the hideous tyrant Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), she is driving the prestigious War Rig vehicle on a mission to 'Gas Town' but quickly moves to see out her own plans. Yes, this is a female character in a major action movie with narrative purpose, goals and the means to achieve them without a man's help. Her goal? The rescue of Immortan's breeding partners, the Five Wives. Fitted with bladed chastity belts and ironically dressed in virginal white, sexual slavery is implied. One is pregnant with his child. That they are largely played by models and show a fair amount of flesh never feels gratuitous or exploitative (despite the franchise's roots). It feels like Miller knows exactly what he's doing, playing with expectation and imagery: while they are displayed as attractive we are also aware that they are rape victims, making us sympathetic to Furiosa's cause. We as an audience are never encouraged to see them as objects of desire. And Furiosa's motivation for doing this is all her own. The best explanation we get form her is “redemption”. For what, we don't get to find out but it's a fair bet that she's making up for being part of Immortan Joe's immoral world. It's also significant that she's the main driver of the War Rig, and a much better shot than Max; how often does that happen in an action film?
The design of Furiosa's character is important, too: female characters are typically sexualised or domesticated, and the rejection of this is reflected in how Furiosa looks. In short, she looks absolutely bad-ass! Close-cropped hair, face covered in engine grease make-up/war paint, and missing an arm, she is far from an objectified and sexualised character. She is cunning and driven and gets the better of her male counterparts on more than one occasion. Has her innate femininity been compromised to achieve this? Yes, to an extent. But more importantly her gender is less important than what the character does and how she is motivated
Looking at the gender balance of the whole film, men do not come off well. Aside from Max whose sole motivation is survival until necessity and conscience lead him to help Furiosa, only Nux (Nicholas Hoult) has anything other than an instinct for destruction. As the pregnant fifth of the Five Wives, The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) asks of Nux, “Who killed the world?” She's asking rhetorically, meaning all men. One of many nice touches of weirdness in the film is that Joe's army is called the War Boys, but this is also pertinent. Men, in the world of Fury Road are nothing but a destructive force, childishly clinging to the Norse (ironically, since the film is set in a desert) mythology used by Joe to keep his troops in line. Women, on the other hand, seek the mythic Green Place, one of the tribe they meet carries seeds and tries to grow plants, and they overall represent life, togetherness and hope.
My arguments here may be trumped by the film arguably reverting to type at the end, where Furiosa's life is saved by Max. This could be seen as satisfying that patriarchal urge that drives Hollywood to keep men on top (steady...). I disagree with this, though. Yes, Max battles the 'end of level boss' giant Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones, making Bane look like Ghandi) and it's Nux's act of sacrifice that saves them all, but I would argue that these are dramatic beats rather than an ideological about face; after all, Furiosa gets to kill Immortan Joe. Max saves Furiosa by giving her a blood transfusion, giving part of him to her (steady...) via an umbilical connection rather than using his strength or saving her from a fall. This is a loving, almost motherly act from Max and the film steadfastly refuses to cop out with a romantic concession. Furiosa gets to a Green Place, saves the Five Wives and wins, and she probably would have managed it had she not bumped into Max anyway. Max gets nothing. He keeps wandering.
Fury Road is not alone. Marvel's latest, Jessica Jones is female-led and works well because of it; their next few properties include female heroes in Ant Man and The Wasp as well as Captain Marvel while DC are finally taking Wonder Woman seriously. Alongside this year's The Force Awakens, which gave us our first female Jedi (background characters aside) standing up to a powerful male opponent, Fury Road has tried to put an accepted pattern of gender roles in reverse. It isn't perfect and there is some way to go to redress a decades-long imbalance in film as a whole. But Miller has done something very important in hiding a feminine-led if not wholly feminist story inside a film where most viewers are probably just enjoying watching cars explode. Go men!