Volume Layout

This book begins by giving violent female characters a generic history. The essays in part one, "Genre Films," turn to film cycles in which violent women have routinely appeared: martial arts films, film noir/erotic thrillers, cop movies, and prison movies. Wendy Arons begins with Hong Kong martial arts movies, and shows how the popular cycles treat Asian women as sexual and violent at the same time, featuring characters who take for granted women's fighting skills, even as those women must perform their heroism amidst a gallery of less flattering archetypes: venal Dragon Ladies, dimwitted girlfriends, psychotic les bians. The Hong Kong action genre has welcomed women as skilled fighters, while Hollywood has kept them mostly on the sidelines.

In "If Looks Could Kill: Power, Revenge, and Stripper Movies," Jeffrey A. Brown analyzes women's violence in erotic thrillers and finds women in positions recognizable from the martial arts movies: bisexual victims of stalkers, women who kill menacing johns and stand up for themselves—even as they operate in a genre often dismissed by feminists as oppressive for its objectification of perfected female bodies. These heroes puncture male fantasies of control over attractive women, as strippers slash and burn those who would subjugate them.

In "The Gun and the Badge: Hollywood and the Female Lawman," Carol M. Dole contributes to the extensive literature on female cop heroes a chronology of methods by which Hollywood filmmakers have tried to build the perfect woman with a gun. Cop movies have tolerated little violence from women (compared to the damage that their men do), preferring women as lovers and victims for men to protect. She argues that female cops do violence in the context of imagery of physical weakness, maternal instincts, the castration of men, and the sexuality of women. Female cops stand out from the much larger crowd of male cops as less violent, more rational, and more conflicted about treading male turf.

In "Caged Heat," Suzanna Danuta Walters reviews the women-in-prison genre, which features some of Pam Grier's earliest performances. Walters argues that this exploitative genre presents some of the campiest, gutsiest, and most brutal women anywhere, many of whom are African American. The revenge of tortured inmates does not always depend on their innocence (as in, say, The Shawshank Redemption), though it does depend on the vision of men as heartless scum who deserve to die in entertaining ways. Some of these marginal movie cycles run free of typical Hollywood constraints and so can offer the toughest women in the direst straits, finding some sisterhood in their rebellion against the Man.

Finally, in "Sharon Stone's (An)Aesthetic," Susan Knobloch examines the "feminist fatales" in what amounts to a sort of minigenre of Sharon Stone movies. The actor's restrained persona engages audience expectations of performative sincerity but then twists them in subversive ways as she gears up for murder. Knobloch finds that critics admire Stone's acting and find her more "real" when she plays a victim, whereas Stone's performances as violent and female-bonding heroes draw scorn from the arbiters of popular taste.

In all of these genres, loosely defined, women struggle with constraints on the use of lethal force. They prove to be tough indeed—far tougher than most of the men around them. The essays in the second section of the book, "New Bonds and New Communities," analyze movies singly or in pairs and survey uses of violent women in the larger feminist enterprise. For instance, how does women's brutality foster solidarity amongst the characters or their audiences?

Laura Grindstaff begins with a focus on the family through an analysis of Dolores Claiborne. Though rooted in gothic women's stories and melodramas, the movie turns away from the martyred mothers of classic Hollywood and builds a threatening family violence into its architecture, resulting in a sisterhood of purposeful bitches who respond murderously to male perfidy and aggression. These women do not connect easily: they exploit and mistrust each other across lines of class and age; but they find solidarity in the violence with which they defend themselves against misery and abuse.

Kimberly Springer examines the relation between vandalism, armed robbery, and rebellion against race-, class-, and sex-based constraints in Waiting to Exhale and Set It Off. Springer suggests that these movies depict black women's violence as coming both from a reasonable anger at a racist situation and from a devilish "Sapphire" within. The movies celebrate black sisterhood even as they pose uppity women as harpies and make sure that poor black women who dream of escape from dead-end lives die before the credits roll. Springer confronts the painful choices that we fans must make as we try to enjoy the few black female heroes in Hollywood movies while rebuking the film industry for recycling racist stereotypes.

In "The Gun-in-the-Handbag, a Critical Controversy, and a Primal Scene," Barbara L. Miller presents a film cycle in which meek white housewives come across handguns and make use of them, becoming figures of violent disorder to the shock of their families and friends. Miller reviews a decade of reaction to Thelma and Louise, showing that the movie remains a touchstone for women's belligerence. She employs psychoanalytic and postmodern theory to illuminate the formal elements of this small group of films, showing how the outlaw scripts subvert classical Hollywood characterization and form postmodern characters whose primal scenes involve more violence than sex, and whose stories lead them toward solidarity with women, but not men.

In "Action Heroines and Female Viewers: What Women Have to Say," Tiina Vares shows how women's political affiliations shape their reactions to Thelma and Louise. She argues that, depending on those ties and beliefs, female viewers use different definitions of "violence," find various ways to integrate subversive images into their daily lives, and hold distinct ideals about which actions are really rebellious.

Finally, in "Imagined Violence/Queer Violence" Judith Halberstam considers the politics of female rage and the uses of terrorist culture, arguing that women's screen violence fits a larger trend toward aggression against straight white men by those they oppress: gays, blacks, women. From gangster rap to AIDS documentaries, these assaultive media intend to frighten. They can bond those who wield them in righteous solidarity and perhaps scare those who prey upon others into some second thoughts. Halberstam recommends that we not cede symbolic violence to the straight white men who have proved so willing to assault others for real, but rather adopt it to feminist, antiracist, and queer uses.

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