The new feminism of ass-kicking babes

The stories we tell shape who we are.

Take a quick look at the movies and TV shows you’ve watched on Netflix, Hulu, or whatever other way you ingest your video, and you’ll have a record of the stories that are shaping your identity and the way you perceive the world. Oh, and if you read, check your bookshelf, too.

Stories have always shaped the way we perceive the world, how it works, and who we are in the midst of it. Homer’s Odyssey shaped the way Greeks thought about what it meant to be male through the character of Odysseus and female through the character of his wife Penelope — the clever adventurer who longs for home and the circumspect wife who protects that home shaped Greek gender roles for centuries.

I find the rising myth of the kick-ass babe as the definition of womanhood in contemporary American culture to be deeply disturbing. Not only does it needlessly perpetuate violence as a defining aspect of maleness, it extends it to women. And it does it in such a way that it makes the reduction of women to hot babe sex objects seem OK.

Where women have always been the safeguard of kindness in a hostile world, we have come to expect in them the kind of ruthlessness that had previously only been expected of violent men.

Joss Whedon is an exceptional writer and director and has been key in the creation of the myth of the kick-ass babe through his Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly TV shows and more recently his Avengers movies. Similarly, J.J. Abrams’ Alias show gave us Jennifer Garner as a secret agent who could beat up dudes one moment and cry the next, while always remaining sexy. The same was true of his Lost character Kate, played by Evangeline Lilly.

What has proved how deeply we’ve now bought into this new mythology of women is the reactions to two of this summer’s early releases: Mad Max: Fury Road and the second Avengers movie. Where Mad Max has been hailed for Charlize Theron’s kick-ass babeness, Whedon’s second go at the Avengers has earned him scorn for Scarlett Johansson-played Black Widow’s lack of ass-kicking, while having her sing a lullaby, retrieve Captain America’s shield, and express regret that she in unable to have children.

Have we so changed our perception of what it means to be a woman that we complain when one of our kick-ass babes sings, cleans up, and longs to bear children? Interestingly, it was in this same Whedon-penned film that a family-filled home, with kids and scattered Legos everywhere, becomes the much-needed sanctuary for the humbled and harassed Avengers team, with a home-making mother as the calming, comforting center of it all. There were no neck-snapping blows or skin-tight clothing for this wife and mother, and yet she remained truly strong and lovely (and more believably so than the ass-kicking babes).

And believability is a real issue here. Are women better served by the rising myth of the ass-kicking babe or not? I think not.

As the father of an intensely competitive volleyball-playing daughter, I am glad for Title 9 and the sporting opportunities it has opened up for girls. But as tall and strong as she is, she knows that she can’t compete as an ass-kicker in a world of men. Sure, there are some who can. I would never enter the ring with Ronda Rousey, because she would kick my butt 20 different ways. But these are the few. And are women better of for being told they should be ruthless ass-kickers? Strong? Yes, by all means. Violent? No, by all means.

And then there’s the babe part. The pseudo-feminism of their kick-assery obscures the fact that these women remain eye candy. And this does nothing to help the plight of women in a world where domestic violence and sex trafficking are horrible realities.

We need a new myth. Or maybe a renewed myth of what it means to be a woman. The stories we’re telling now are letting us down.

Thankfully, the rising myth of the kick-ass babe is showing some cracks in movies like The Avengers: the Age of Ultron. I wonder where future stories will take us.