K Magazine - Dans les coulisses du Artemis Women in Action film festival

And…action!

The first Artemis Women in Action film festival

Don’t let the success of The Hunger Games franchise fool you: women are still ignored in action films. Yet world history is full of ass-kicking heroines, as Melanie Wise of the Artemis Women in Action Film Festival explained to K magazine.

We know that women have always had to fight: for education, the vote, equal pay, to become politicians and athletes. To do all the things men can do, and that’s before we get on to the thorny subject of human rights like justice in cases of sexual assault.

K Magazine - Dans les coulisses du Artemis Women in Action film festival

There is no shortage of epic stories of women overcoming adversity: Queen Boudicca razed Britain’s main cities to the ground after her daughters were violated by the Romans. Joan of Arc dressed as a man to avoid rape and led an oppressed France to victory against the English. Pocahontas brokered peace between the Native Americans and the English invaders. And the suffragettes endured assaults by the police, prison sentences and force-feeding while on hunger strike.

As Melanie Wise, co-founder of the Artemis Women in Action Film Festival says: “You can go back in time as far as you want to: there are all kinds of stories about women warriors and tribes of women fighters. You threaten any mother’s kid and you’re going to watch that woman turn into a bear very quickly.”

But despite such powerful examples, this is rarely reflected in the media. The Geena Davis Institute of Women in Media has published a study showing that between 2010 and 2013 the ten richest nations in the world produced films where only 23% had a female protagonist. Action films are the worst offenders, with less than a quarter of their characters assigned to women in speaking roles, and female leads in action films often don’t fare well.

Avenging wrongs

Sociologist Kathryn Gilpatric found that in action movies released between 1991 and 2005, 58% of female leads are submissive to men, while 30% die by the end of the movie. A case in point is Million Dollar Baby, starring Hillary Swank as a girl who achieves her dream of becoming a professional boxer only to end up a paraplegic.

You can go back in time as far as you want to: there are all kinds of stories about women warriors and tribes of women fighters.

“That film really pissed me off,” says Wise, “because you’re watching this movie and you see this woman conquer amazing odds and then she breaks her neck, so the last half of the movie is her dying. Why would you elevate a woman to this position just to tell this story?”

Joss Whedon, writer of the Avengers films, recently spoke out against Hollywood’s misogyny. He said film executives use female-led action films that have failed commercially - particularly if they don’t sell enough toy merchandise - as an excuse to not cast women in leading roles. Melanie Wise explains that “When a film with a woman in the lead does well it’s seen as a fluke in the box office world. When men in action fail they go “Ah!” and just go on and make another one. They’ve never really given women that opportunity to have a failure. When Charlize Theron did Aeon Flux they said women in action was box office poison, and it’s not; that movie sadly just didn’t stand up.”

Sucker Punch, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Resident Evil, and the Lara Croft, Kill Bill and The Hunger Games movies all star women and all made the studios huge profits. The top ten highest grossing films this year so far include Avengers: Age of Ultron, Furious 7 and Insurgent.

K Magazine - Dans les coulisses du Artemis Women in Action film festival

The statistics speak for themselves, yet they’re not enough. “In the last few years women have outsold men at the box office,” says Wise. “Whenever Tom Cruise releases a movie that’s usually the biggest seller of the year, but last year women outsold him. You can go all the way back to Terminator 2 and Alien – we have data [showing] that it's a sellable, marketable, profitable genre, but we still keep getting excuses.”

Menacing

Wise set up Artemis because “if you line together a collection of films that centre around women in physically powerful roles it becomes harder to ignore them.” Its first edition in April this year honoured Linda Hamilton, who shot to fame for her game-changing turn in Terminator 2. The festival screened movies as varied as the action-horror Awaken starring Daryl Hannah and the Iranian-animated short Junk Girl, inspired by a Tim Burton poem.

Women who kick ass are actually closer to the truth than women being the weaker sex.

There were panel discussions with stunt women and documentaries about women in martial arts, boxing and skateboarding, which demonstrates the huge scope of the action genre and big things for the future of Artemis.

“The idea of a powerful woman is threatening a lot of people,” says Wise. But why? “I come from a very long background in fitness and strength conditioning, and one of the things that always floored me is that pound for pound women are usually stronger than men,” she explains. “They have more endurance and they have much higher thresholds for pain. Women who kick ass are actually closer to the truth than women being the weaker sex.”

In Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Uma Thurman’s protagonist wakes from a coma, kills her two rapists while paralysed from the waist down, patiently teaches herself to walk again over the course of 13 hours and punches her way out of a coffin after being buried alive. She does all this to seek revenge from the gang of assassins who attempted to kill her and her unborn child. This is Tarantino’s and Thurman’s version of the battles women have fought throughout history. The weaker sex?