Kiva Reardon On What Makes Female Action Heroes Beyond Badass

Judging from the amount of media attention that the topic of representation of women has been getting this past year, you’d think that we would be able to achieve the goal of gender equity on the silver screen within the next year or so. Sadly, equity is not yet within reach. 

The stats regarding representation of women in film in front of the camera and behind it are bewildering. Studies on the topic report that out of all major studio films released in 2014, women directed only 4.6%. Across the 100 top films of 2014, only five of the 107 directors were black, and only one was a black female. On camera, women represented only 12% of identifiable protagonists and only 30% of all speaking characters in 2014. Women of colour, of course, were woefully underrepresented, as they comprised of only 26% of all female characters on screen. Moviegoers last year were almost as likely to see an alien woman as they were to see a Latina or Asian female character. 

Is the current state of women in film insurmountable? Not with the hard work of women like Kiva Reardon and the team at the Toronto International Film Festival it’s not. Reardon curated TIFF’s new Beyond Badass: Female Action Heroes series that will run at the TIFF Lightbox from the beginning of October until December 3. The series mixes iconic 70s gems such as Foxy Brown starring screen idol Pam Grier with more modern films such as Haywire and unexpected feminist blockbuster Mad Max: Fury Road. I sat down with Reardon this week to discuss the series, its goals, and the construction of the Female Action Star.

Mad-Max-Charlize-Theron

Dork Shelf: Kiva, what made you want to create the Beyond Badass series?

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Kiva Reardon: I’ve always loved action films and gravitated towards female heroes on screen, particularly characters like Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. I started thinking about it more seriously though around the time Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire came out. There’s something that really resonated in that film, especially with Gina Carano doing her own stunts. I see Haywire as being a film about this functional, incredibly powerful female body. When that film was released I wrote a piece that really got me thinking about female action heroes, and then TIFF contacted me to host and program the series. 

I think the timing is really excellent, especially now that we’re having a lot of discussions around women’s representation on screen, which I think are trickling down on the industry side and into genre conversations as well. People are starting to ask, “Why don’t we have a Black Widow film instead of another Avengers”? Then Mad Max came out, which is probably one of my favourite films of 2015 and a perfect way to cap off our series, especially when we’re looking at the evolution of Female Action Stars.

DS: Definitely good timing, particularly considering the fact that news broke a few weeks ago that Taylor Hale, the screenwriter of Emily Blunt’s new action thriller Sicario, was offered more money from investors if he switched the gender of the main character from female to male. 

Now the next question I wanted to ask is how you picked these films. As you mention in your programmer essay, some of them test the limits of feminism. People might argue, for example, that Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is over-sexualized as a main character.

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KR: I think for me “Beyond Badass” is a high-concept title—it’s what I was going for! I wasn’t just looking at films that were either overtly or subtly feminist or made with a feminist intention. I think if I just limited myself to that I don’t even know what I would show—maybe just Mad Max! But really for me what’s more interesting is looking at these films and the representation of women on screen and having a larger conversation about them. These women are often solely judged on their looks and it informs how we perceive them on screen and anywhere really. So what I think is interesting about them is recognizing, okay these are all gorgeous women, but what’s beyond that? 

If you take the Lara Croft example, that film came at a very interesting moment in Angelina Jolie’s career. She was coming off an Oscar and this propelled her into the international scene, and since then she’s transitioned into directing. So looking at the impact of these characters on the actresses and on the film industry is one aspect of the conversation. Another is also pointing out what we have problems with. Something like Kill Bill is well made, but is Quentin Tarantino the best person to tell that woman’s story? Maybe not. What does it mean when your protagonist is called “The Bride” and her main motivation is her maternal instinct and a wedding-based revenge story? Is this post-feminist? 

That’s also why I wanted Charlie’s Angels in there. The early 2000s was this interesting time for feminism coming out of the 1990s “girl power” movement that was really starting to strip away any kind of political motivation behind feminism. I think around that time we started seeing the beginning of marketing of the “strong female character” to a mass audience, and this strategy was really embodied in Charlie’s Angels

haywire

DS: I think you’re so right in pointing out that there’s a lot of value in examining even problematic characters and films. Because there are so few female protagonists on screen, we want them to be everything; we want them to be perfect, so much so that we almost want all of them to be “strong”. But are “strong” characters that are only defined by their strength and little else really better than more flawed, humane characters? I’m not so sure. 

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Do you think the international market is more accepting of Female Action Stars?

KR: Definitely. I wish I could have included something like Heroic Trio in the series but unfortunately we couldn’t grab it in time. It has three huge Asian martial arts stars (Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung, and Anita Mui) that happen to be female and it’s an insane, beautiful, crazy film. I think there’s a very rich history in Hong Kong and mainland Chinese cinema of accepting women at the forefront of their stories. 

DS: Why do you think there’s such a resistance in the North American market?

KS: If I had the answer I feel like we could solve this tomorrow! Unfortunately I think it’s really entrenched in who is making decisions and who has the money. A lot of the time it comes down to white men. I think there’s sometimes a reticence in being able to identify with groups other than yourself and their perspective on the world. So when you have older men making decisions about let’s say a black female film, there’s a difficulty there in understanding how that woman relates to the world, how she would solve problems or interact with people. They don’t seem to understand that that’s what makes cinema interesting—that you can go to the movies and learn something outside of yourself. But it’s strange because, you know, women go to the movies. 

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DS: When you see movies like Mad Max and Hunger Games I would hope that industry big wigs see how much people want to see those kinds of stories. But then when you see Seth Grahame-Smith get the director gig this past week for The Flash feature without any previous feature directorial experience, and you start to be a bit more cynical. It’s frustrating. 

KR: It is. It’s frustrating in any industry. I see women working hard all around me and I see men get favoritism all the time. I think if you extrapolate that into the film industry and into decisions that are being made at the multi-million dollar level, I think a similar logic applies. You reach into your Rolodex and you call who you know. Increasingly there are organizations that challenge this structure and look for new voices and new talent, but it’s often easier to play it “safe”. I don’t want to see a film just because a woman makes it; I want to see a woman’s film if she’s creating new, interesting images. But if women aren’t given the chance to make mistakes, make new films, and take risks, you’re never going to reach a moment where we truly are in a meritocracy. If you think we live in a meritocracy right now, congratulations, because you’ve been living with blinders on. 

DS: With women it almost feels like there’s no room to mess up or experiment, especially in the arts. Desiree Akhavan, director of 2014’s indie hit Appropriate Behaviour, described in an interview with Death, Sex, and Money’s Anna Sale how paralyzed she feels about making her second film because she feels that as a female filmmaker it has to be perfect or else her career in Hollywood is basically over. There seems to be an assumption that certain industries, like filmmaking, have a default “male” setting, and that women just do this as a hobby.

KR: There’s definitely a feeling as a woman that you constantly have to prove yourself and that varies in degrees based on the privilege you have, but what’s not talked about a lot is the level of exhaustion that comes with that. That exhaustion constantly takes away from the level of energy you should be putting into new creative projects. 

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Reardon talking to screen legend Pam Grier
Reardon talking to screen legend Pam Grier

DS: I wanted to shift gears a little bit and ask what it was like hosting and interviewing the legendary cult actress Pam Grier. 

KR: Her films are so incredibly amazing to look at in terms of feminism and also Blaxploitation films that maybe weren’t made for a certain audience or made to be enjoyed by certain groups. She’s had a fascinating career and the fact that she could come to these screenings was huge. She’s such a cinephile and has such a wealth of stories about working on a range of projects from Foxy Brown to The L-Word.  I think what was so incredible for me though is that when I watched her films I was so blown away by her physical presence on screen and how it emanated this crazy confidence that transcended whatever the film itself was attempting to do. And in real life she’s the same way; she has this incredible aura and energy about her. 

DS: What was the best tidbit that you can share with us from the Q&A with her?

KR: Someone asked about the nudity in her films, and she talked about her relationship with the filmmakers and how there was this intense level of trust there. I’m paraphrasing here, but she essentially said that confidence is the antidote to sleaze. And that’s exactly what you see in these films. You see the agency she has and the empowerment that lies in these roles. You can’t look at her and think you’re just ogling and taking advantage of her.  I think that’s why her films have lasted so long, as well—they’re so much more than “tits and ass”. And I think across the board that’s what I hope people get from this series. I think people assume that when a woman is sexy it’s for someone else and not for herself, or that it’s only in place to lead to hetero-normative attention. 

DS: What other hopes do you have for the “Beyond Badass” series?

KR: “Beyond Badass: Even Badder”?? I hope in terms of numbers we have a lot of people show up to prove that these “female” films attract a broad audience and bring in not just women that are excited to see these films, but also men that want to join in on these conversations as well. A lot of people love Alien and you can love that movie for different reasons and in different contexts. I hope people are able to see these films in a new light and that they’re excited about this, and that we can show that films starring women are not niche. 

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