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Reel Knockouts

Martha McCaughey
Neal King
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    Reel Knockouts
    Book Description:

    When Thelma and Louise outfought the men who had tormented them, women across America discovered what male fans of action movies have long known-the empowering rush of movie violence. Yet the duo's escapades also provoked censure across a wide range of viewers, from conservatives who felt threatened by the up-ending of women's traditional roles to feminists who saw the pair's use of male-style violence as yet another instance of women's co-option by the patriarchy.

    In the first book-length study of violent women in movies, Reel Knockouts makes feminist sense of violent women in films from Hollywood to Hong Kong, from top-grossing to direct-to-video, and from cop-action movies to X-rated skin flicks. Contributors from a variety of disciplines analyze violent women's respective places in the history of cinema, in the lives of viewers, and in the feminist response to male violence against women. The essays in part one, "Genre Films," turn to film cycles in which violent women have routinely appeared. The essays in part two, "New Bonds and New Communities," analyze movies singly or in pairs to determine how women's movie brutality fosters solidarity amongst the characters or their audiences. All of the contributions look at films not simply in terms of whether they properly represent women or feminist principles, but also as texts with social contexts and possible uses in the re-construction of masculinity and femininity.

    eISBN: 978-0-292-79885-4
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. What’s a Mean Woman like You Doing in a Movie like This?
    (pp. 1-24)
    Neal King and Martha McCaughey

    Violent women draw strong responses, on-screen and off, whether they’re agents of the law likeFatal Beauty’s Rizolli, novice bank robbers like the heroes ofSet It Off, or mass murderers like Mallory ofNatural Born Killers. Violent women appear in a variety of genres, from classic horror and film noir to 1970s blaxploitation and 1990s road movies. Our contributors wrestle with the meanings of women’s violence in films from Hollywood to Hong Kong, top-grossing to straight-to-video, cop-action movies to porn flicks.

    Sometimes violent female characters are malicious villains; other times they save the world from destruction or just uphold...

  6. Part I: Genre Films

    • “If Her Stunning Beauty Doesn’t Bring You to Your Knees, Her Deadly Drop Kick Will”: Violent Women in the Hong Kong Kung Fu Film
      (pp. 27-51)
      Wendy Arons

      The quote in the title of this chapter appears in the promotional blurb for the videotape ofWing Chun(1994), which stars one of Hong Kong’s most popular actresses, Michelle Yeoh.¹ Like virtually all recent kung fu films featuring female martial artists,Wing Chunpresents its audience with a satisfying image of a powerful woman. The eponymous heroine is a skilled, aggressive, and effective fighter, who dispatches crowds of thugs with grace, style, and humor, and defends not only herself but also her female friends from the advances of lecherous men. But like many of these recent films,Wing Chun...

    • If Looks Could Kill: Power, Revenge, and Stripper Movies
      (pp. 52-77)
      Jeffrey A. Brown

      There is an ancient legend of the infamous “Dance of Desire” performed by Ishtar, the Sumerian goddess of love, sex, and war. As a reward for successful battles and generous patronage at her temples (where sacred cult prostitution was practiced), Ishtar would, on exceptionally great occasions, take human form as the most beautiful young woman in all the lands. In this guise she would perform her dance of desire for a select audience of sacred kings and the most powerful warriors. Accompanied by music only ever heard before by the gods, Ishtar would twirl and float with such grace that...

    • The Gun and the Badge: Hollywood and the Female Lawman
      (pp. 78-105)
      Carol M. Dole

      The last decade has seen the emergence of a new breed of powerful women in film. Unlike the femmes fatales who used their sexuality to manipulate men in film noir, or the mother figures who attained moral power in maternal melodrama, these late-twentieth-century women appropriate male power in the forms of weaponry and physical prowess. Movies such asBarb Wire(1996),The Quick and the Dead(1994), andThe River Wild(1994) feature female leads as sharpshooters, bounty hunters, and white-water daredevils, wielding guns for profit or self-defense. At the safe remove offered by science fiction, female fantasy heroes who...

    • Caged Heat: The (R)evolution of Women-in-Prison Films
      (pp. 106-123)
      Suzanna Danuta Walters

      The genre of women-in-prison movies, typically relegated to late-night sleazefest cable and offbeat guides to B favorites, can offer feminist cultural critics juicy fare for deconstructive antics. While presenting glimpses into the murky realm of “B” film making and exploitation schlock, these films also provide us with intimations of the unspoken, entrée into forbidden realms, insight into film’s location as contradictory arbiter of changing social relations.

      Women-in-prison films elaborate fully the creation of the marginal subject. Marginalized by gender, stigmatized by sexual preference, victimized by callous bureaucracies, physically isolated and preyed upon—these women are most assuredly the marked other....

    • Sharon Stone’s (An)Aesthetic
      (pp. 124-144)
      Susan Knobloch

      In 1992, Sharon Stone consummated twelve years as a little-known but steadily working Hollywood actress with a role as a bisexual, possibly murderous novelist in Paul Verhoeven’sBasic Instinct.¹ About her performance the next year— inSliver,² the first film built around her—New Yorkmagazine observed:

      Sharon Stone, the current queen of Hollywood (she shares the throne with another non-actress, Demi Moore), has a funny, dazed look on her face, as if she had just gotten off a transatlantic flight and couldn’t find her luggage.³

      Three years later, Stone won a Golden Globe award for her (subsequently Oscar-nominated) work...

  7. Part II: New Bonds and New Communities

    • Sometimes Being a Bitch Is All a Woman Has to Hold On To: Memory, Haunting, and Revenge in Dolores Claiborne
      (pp. 147-171)
      Laura Grindstaff

      “Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold on to.” So says querulous old Vera Donovan to her maid and companion, Dolores, in the 1995 filmDolores Claiborne.¹ Many years later Dolores repeats the phrase to her daughter Salena, who, by the end of the story, adopts it as her own, offering it back to her mother as both a justification for her own “bitchy” behavior and a grudging token of respect for the two older women.

      Adapted from Stephen King’s novel of the same name and directed by Taylor Hackford,Dolores Claibornedoes not fit easily...

    • Waiting to Set It Off: African American Women and the Sapphire Fixation
      (pp. 172-199)
      Kimberly Springer

      Writing about spectatorship and the image of African American¹ women on the Hollywood screen, hooks reports, “Most of the black women I talked with were adamant that they never went to the movies expecting to see compelling representations of black femaleness.”² As evidenced by the excitement and media hype around the film adaptation of Terry McMillan’s 1992 best-selling novelWaiting to Exhale, that expectation is changing.³ African American women attended screenings of the film en masse, even going so far as to rent entire theaters.⁴ The story of four middle- to upper-middle-class professionals, the filmWaiting to Exhale(1995), audiences...

    • The Gun-in-the-Handbag, a Critical Controversy, and a Primal Scene
      (pp. 200-218)
      Barbara L. Miller

      In the opening section ofThelma and Louise(1991), Louise (Susan Sarandon) works hard to serve breakfast in a diner. She takes a quick break to call Thelma (Geena Davis). Thelma, a working-class housewife in the process of cleaning up the morning’s dishes, answers the phone. In a voice that reveals her anticipation, Louise asks Thelma if she is ready to leave for their “girls only” weekend in the mountains. Sheepishly, Thelma admits that she has yet to ask her husband for permission to go. After promising to call her back in a few minutes, Thelma hangs up the phone...

    • Action Heroines and Female Viewers: What Women Have to Say
      (pp. 219-243)
      Tiina Vares

      In the 1990s women have been increasingly represented as violent protagonists. Films, television, magazines, popular books, advertisements, and comic strips have participated in the proliferation of images of gun-toting and physically aggressive women. This construction of women challenges their status as “victims” in both popular and feminist literature. Although there is a lot of “noise” about women as perpetrators of violence in popular culture, there is a relative “silence” in feminist writing on this subject, noticeable particularly in light of the extensive description of women’s experiences as victims of rape, domestic violence, and sexual abuse as children.¹

      Movies have become...

    • Imagined Violence/Queer Violence: Representations of Rage and Resistance
      (pp. 244-266)
      Judith Halberstam

      I thank the editors for deciding to republish this essay which was written as a polemical piece at a particular moment in time. It originally responded to a climate of unacceptable complacency in the wake of the L.A. rebellion following the Rodney King beating, and it attempted to link kamikaze AIDS terrorism to other forms of political rage. In this piece I am trying to ask questions about the different stakes different people might have in rhetorics of retaliation, revenge, and violent response. While mainstream feminism (with the notable exception of Valerie Solanis) has never been too interested in the...

  8. About the Contributors
    (pp. 267-270)
  9. Index
    (pp. 271-280)