Putting the MAN in WoMAN: Female Combatants in Hollywood film since 1990 and ideas of Masculinity in U.S. Culture

The 1980s saw a contradictory period in American perceptions of masculinity that developed as a response to the new wave of feminism beginning in the 1960s. The idea of the “New Man” offered a drastic contrast to traditional perceptions of masculinity that came before it. The New Man was characterised in Hollywood film as a middle class liberal, which took interest in female activities such as cooking and caring for children, and most importantly was sympathetic to the feminist cause.

This model of masculinity is strikingly different to the “hard bodied hero” who emerged soon after the emergence of the New Man. Created in response to this undermining of traditional forms of masculinity, the hard bodied hero went over the top – creating a form of hypermasculinity popularised by film stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Muscular, violent and free of emotion or empathy, these heroes set the standard for 1980s action movies. Popularity for these films however began to dwindle as 1990 approached – to the casual viewer a new form of masculinity appeared to hit the scene, this time roles starring women!

A metamorphosis of masculinity – the New Man, the hard bodied hero and the female combatant.

The female combatant in Hollywood film over the past two decades has to some become an attack on gender roles, particularly traditional ideas of masculinity. The female combatant protagonist is evident in a number of popular films since 1990 – Courage Under Fire, G.I. Jane, Resident Evil and Terminator 2, just to name a few. The abundance of these heroines offers a commentary on the dynamic nature of masculinity, and our understanding of its changing ideas in U.S. culture. The analysis of women in combatant roles reveals a number of things that may not be so obvious upon first glance.

Firstly, violence is viewed as the number one tool for women in these positions. In order to show the audience the distinction between an ordinary woman and a woman in combat, the protagonists are seen enacting scenes of brutality – whether it is executing a zombie in Resident Evil or the protagonist  violently attacking her superior in G.I. Jane, this violence fills the void for the absence of a strong male figure.More importantly however, this violence is often highlighted in a violence-feminine split. Directors go above and beyond to convey to viewers that while women in these roles can act masculine in combat, it does not always make them masculine. Masculinity in these films is simply a characteristic required of the ‘job’.

The violence-feminine split is where we see a contrast between violent actions associated with masculinity and feminine characteristics. In G.I. Jane we see the heroine fighting hand to hand against a male superior, only to see her go home, take off the uniform and settle into a romantic bath with her partner. This split allows female combatants to retain their femininity and avoid being degraded with the insult of “butch” like the protagonist is in Courage Under Fire.

This violent-feminine split reflects the threat to traditional gender roles that female soldiers impose in U.S. culture. Since the dawn of time the military has been a hypermasculine environment, where homosocial bonding between men is encouraged and often a requirement in order to survive in wartime. Female combatants in film though oppose this long-standing tradition and suggest to viewers that they too can show the enemy “who’s boss”. In fulfilling these characteristics required of masculinity however, they compromise their characteristics of femininity – whether it be a shaved head, arms full of muscle or use of working class register like “suck my d*ck”. The compromise of Sarah Connor’s femininity in Terminator 2 saw her almost murder an innocent man – by removing herself from emotion and empathy normally associated with women, she was depicted as a deranged lunatic to audience members and the characters in the film.

Response to the idea of female soldiers has also been met with criticism in society, highlighted with retired Army Chief of Staff General William Westmoreland famously stating, “No man with gumption wants a woman to fight his nation’s battles”. In closing, the future of masculinity remains uncertain. Recent pushes allowing women to serve in combat roles was granted by the U.S. Government in January of this year. Through this study of films however it becomes clear that certain traits of masculinity will remain forever – masculinity’s inherent nature of subordinating women while reducing their actions in battle to simply doing a ‘job’ will serve as a consequence of traditionally prescribed gender roles.


Lind Bird Francke, Ground Zero: The Gender Wars in the Military (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997)

“Women in Combat: US military officially lifts ban on female soldiers”, The Guardian (January, 2013), available from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jan/24/us-military-lifts-ban-women-combat

3 comments on “Putting the MAN in WoMAN: Female Combatants in Hollywood film since 1990 and ideas of Masculinity in U.S. Culture

  1. amywaymq says:

    Very thought provoking study of masculinity and femininity in film. I like your analysis of the violent-feminine split, and the questions it raises about the institution of the military and the ways in which it functions solely on masculinity. Keen to check out these films and have a closer look at how the female characters are constructed as both masculine and feminine, and the consequences you mentioned of being too much one or the other. Also, LOVE your title. Sweet as.

  2. maximillianbarnett says:

    The way we represent characters in film reflects deeply our society and I think you’ve encapsulated that. The most interesting part for me was your discussion of the violence-femininity divide and how a story of a powerful female must either remained tethered to the traditional feminine stereotype or go to the other extreme and become ‘butch.’ I’m not sure I agree with your last statement that masculinity will maintain the goal of female subordination forever, I still think change is possible. Perhaps it is a case of one not being able to exist without the other. Matters of opinion aside, a really insightful piece with a great title. Top job.

  3. Hyper-masculinity is quite an interesting concept in regards to male roles in films. I disagree however that this new role is necessarily free of empathy or emotion from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Stallone they’re always given a humanity card to draw from(such as Schwarzenegger trying to save his daughter in Commando, his family in True Lies) or Stallone(Who is traumatised heavily when he unable to save his friend in Cliffhanger). The concept does not imply that male role models are unable to empathise, but rather they choose not to on their assigned enemies.

    I find it quite interesting though how Western armed forces have yet to apply their women in truly combat assigned roles unlike Israel for example. I can’t wait to rewatch the terminator series with Sarah O’Connor being reanalysed!

    What do you think the depiction of ‘female’ terminators in the third film as well as the spinoff television series implicates? Does their fragile model-like body images project any sense of masculinity?

    Interesting question to ponder.’

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