Themes of the Volume

Kidnapped and raped by rednecks working for the local mobster, the title character of Foxy Brown must fight her way from mortal peril. She slaughters the bad guys with coat hangers to the eyes, a jug of gasoline over their heads, and a match. One of the dripping thugs can smell what's coming: "This is gasoline!"

"You know it, motherfucker!" says Foxy as she lights him up. As the men scream and thrash, Foxy makes her escape, heading off to do more damage, including a memorable castration, to the local men who have abused her.

Some viewers have looked kindly upon violent women in movies. Blaxploitation included the provocative work of such actors as Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson, who starred as civilians and law enforcers battling evil "whitey." Blaxploitation emerged through a window of opportunity opened in the early 1970s for filmmakers to produce and distribute low-budget crime dramas for black audiences. A rarity in a production system unfriendly to black heroes, blaxploitation added an important chapter to the history of violent women in film.

Analysts of the genre have often enjoyed the women's violence within it, though with some important caveats. In his celebration, Darius James writes that Pam Grier "was a genre unto herself. She had no equal ... no Caucasian equivalent. . . . Not only did the revenge motifs of Pam's films quell the racial hostilities of inner-city audiences hungry to see the whyte man get his ass kicked, she also presented the perfect model of the woman beyond male con-

trol."9 True enough, but perhaps Grier had no equal because she was black and saddled with stereotypes of animal aggression and matriarchal pathology. Springer's essay in this volume considers the painful choice between celebrating the presence of tough black women on-screen and criticizing the racist presentation of violence as a black trait.

Mike Phillips argues that images of black female violence "could cut both ways."10 On the one hand, when time came for Foxy Brown to castrate her white male nemesis, "[b]laxploitation fans loved this"; on the other, "the [assertive, black, ghetto] style offered the white world a whole new set of caricatures which validated old prejudices."11 Donald Bogle also observes that actors such as "Dobson and Grier represented Woman as Protector, Nurturer, Communal Mother Surrogate. . . . They were also often perceived as being exotic sex objects . . . yet with a twist ... at times using [men] as playful, comic toys."12 We find no simple reading of women's violence in a complicated world.

Traces of blaxploitation survive today, in the form of homage. Witness the revival of blaxploitation heroes in Original Gangstas, in which single mom Laurie

Pam Grier Exotic
FIGURE 1. Pam Grier, longtime mean woman in movies, relives blaxploitation days as self-defense instructor Laurie in Original Gangstas. With her defensive stance and angry expression she typifies Hollywood's mean women.

(Grier again) and friends tangle with a local gang that has taken over their neighborhood. Laurie teaches a self-defense class and later battles armed hoods. She pummels one in an alley and then grabs a handgun. The young thug asks in condescension: "How do you know that motherfucker ain't going to blow up in your face?"

"Well, let's find out," says Laurie, as she blows him away with crackling gunfire. After a pause, she gloats over the corpse, "Women's intuition." Sexy and lethal, pro-black and marketed to crossover audiences, blaxploitation heroines created dilemmas that have since become familiar in mainstream (white) Hollywood. For instance, what shall we make of a woman who appears both physically empowered and sexually attractive? What shall we make of a black nationalist whose abuse and revenge amuses millions of white viewers?

Many critics understand antiracist work and spectacles made of blacks for whites as mutually exclusive. What shall we make of the black female castratrix— surely a white male fantasy? One could argue that the masochistic sexual fantasies of men make poor choices for symbols of female resistance. Suppose, for instance, that Foxy Brown's castration of her white male adversary fits a masochistic male fantasy. Does this deprive the image of any feminist or antiracist punch? We can easily argue that most images in Western culture are white male fantasies, and that many of those are useful to feminists and others whatever their political pedigrees. The essays in this book grapple with just such complicated framings of and responses to women's on-screen violence.

Certainly violent women in movies draw mixed responses. Cheering audiences compete with scornful critics and disinterested viewers for the final word on women's violence. Academic controversies over mean women tend to focus on matters of co-optation and realism. With the final section of this introduction we turn to the literature on violent women in the movies to review reasons for rejecting them as tools in feminist struggle. Readers unconcerned with academic debates might want to skip this discussion and begin the essays.

Film Making

Film Making

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