Gina Carano is changing everything that I believe about a great number of things. I’ve been wanting to write this post since last Tuesday when I first watched her in her Steven Soderbergh-directed debut film, Haywire. However, I’ve was too busy last week. So ironically, I’m started writing it from my local shawarma place while UFC on Fox was playing live from New Jersey.
MMA Fighters- Good; MMA- Bad
In spite of the fact that I studied martial arts for over five years, I have significant reservations about MMA as a professional sport. I sincerely acknowledge the athleticism, dedication and sheer nerve of these contestants. I also recognize that there is a market for this kind of gladiatorial entertainment that offers people who are truly gifted at it an opportunity to to express their abilities. Nevertheless, competitive fighting, especially where the permissiveness of the rules and refereeing encourage significantly harming one another, is simply barbaric to me and fills me with fear for the society that greedily consumes it.
So out of this ethically-dubious sport comes a woman who is the subject of my fascination. Gina was an exemplary athlete in high school and attended university to study psychology. After getting involved in Muay Thai kickboxing, she entered the fledgling world of professional female mixed martial arts. After a satisfying career, she was seen by director Soderbergh and he immediately was so impressed with her that he reached out to her to build a film project around her. You only have to watch her fight to be impressed with her ability.
So what makes her so compelling to me… and Steven Soderbergh… and the 214 thousand (yes, a decent-sized city’s worth of) other people? She’s attractive and photogenic, but one could argue that there are a lot of prettier women out there to look at. She’s a solid fighter, but there are better, more ruthless fighters, including the one that took her title from her. In her debut film, her acting is decent and up to the task that she is offered, working next to heavyweights like Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas, but she’s no Meryl Streep (although she may as well be compared to the likes of say… Megan Fox).
So what is it? What is the Carano-factor? I was discussing the topic with a colleague of mine at work recently (typical water-cooler fare), and he helped me to really narrow down what it is that I like so much about Gina.
Do three things and do them well
There might be sweeter eye candy, harder fighters, and actresses better favoured by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but she’s the best woman I’ve ever seen who has all three things and does them all well. We forget in the day of Ripley, Sarah Connor, and Lara Croft (I’m intentionally leaving out whatshername from Underworld and the entire cast of Suckerpunch), that women were not traditionally considered viable action headliners.
One of the earliest, best examples of a bona fide fighter in action movies was pioneer martial artist Cynthia Rothrock. A five-time world karate champion, she was a master martial artist and brought authenticity and skill to the screen (although for the most part, she wound up in the worst sort of terrible gangster/cyborg/post-apocalypse kind of films known to man in the 80’s and early 90’s). But for all of her skill and sincerity in doing all of her own fighting and stunts, she wasn’t much of an actress and for lack of scripts or direction, was never able to really make an impression on audiences for anything other than her amazing flips, kicks and weapons work. So we have a great fighter, but a fairly lousy actress and in spite of tacky efforts to sexualize her, her looks didn’t exactly light up the screen (again, a testament to the terrible films in which she found herself).
So what about the pretty, decent acting action heroines? Let’s leave Sigourney Weaver out of this, since it’s fairly universally accepted that she is a brilliant woman, a breathtaking beauty and a gifted actress, capable of filling the most unbelievable scenarios with humanity and depth. That leaves us with the likes of Angelina Jolie, Ziyi Zhang, Carrie-Anne Moss, Kristen Kreuk, Uma Thurman, and a handful of others. These women are lovely to look at on the screen, but are they credible in a fight? They might scratch you with their bony elbows, but they all probably weigh-in at a cameragenic 100 – 120lbs, at most. In films, they are seen taking down 6’4″, 250lb adversaries with technical skill and speed, but in reality with that kind of weight differential, it’s incredibly unlikely that a direct confrontation between a combatant (female or male) and someone literally twice his or her size would end well for the underdog. Unless perhaps the underdog was armed with Thor’s hammer. At 5’8″ and a muscular 145lbs, Gina Carano has the stats of a male featherweight to lightweight fighter and if you’ve seen her kick or strike, you can see she has really credible power.
So what about other athletic women who are attractive and can kick serious ass… can they act? This question hardly warrants examination. Compared to other American Gladiator girls even in non-dramatic roles? Compared to say a Pamela Anderson or even very likeable and charming Zoë Bell? Gina is like the Katherine Hepburn of martial arts actresses.
Fighting and feminism
So what do we do with this Wonder Woman in film? How does her entry to the scene change the game, if it does at all? As a violent action-film, Haywire doesn’t pull any punches (so to speak). Carano’s character is the victim of an elaborate double-cross and everyone she meets is intent on savagely taking her down. She’s sucker-punched, attacked from behind full-force, and hunted by armed tac-teams. In just about any conceivable context, this would be considered glorified misogyny.
But the story doesn’t victimize her character for even a moment… the violence that is inflicted upon her (we are expected to conclude) is presented in direct proportion to the apparent threat that she presents as an opponent. I feel that this represents a very different type of female hero modality. Her assailants don’t scoff at her efforts to stand her ground because she is a girl as is often the attitude against action heroines. They do not react to her with brutality because they hate women or want to dominate her in particular – they do it because they fully expect her to respond as an equal opposing force. To Soderbergh’s credit, the violence doesn’t come across as patronizing or humiliating, but rather pragmatic and professional. I suppose that it’s somewhat ridiculous to conclude that it is respectful, since they are all out to kill her. But short of that, there is an acknowledgement that her character is a potential equal and needs to be dealt with accordingly. Carano’s real-life background and her authentic physicality sells the whole package with room to spare. So it looks to me like Carano has opened the door to an absurd sort of women’s equality in an arena traditionally considered the exclusive domain of men.
Does Carano’s character achieve this parity by sacrificing her intate femininity or by simply co-opting the masculine stance, thereby betraying her own feminism? I don’t think that’s quite right either. Carano’s character’s concerns are for her family and retribution for her own treatment and the treatment of those she (very briefly) cares about. Her final battle repudiates her prior mercenary choices that led her into the circumstances of the film and punctuates her otherness from the very masculine, single-minded warrior mentality. But you’ll have to see the film to debate me on that point.
Why I want to see a whole lot more of Gina
Soderbergh is a smart enough producer and director to make something other than a cheap 80’s chixploitation action flick and has made a new kind of action heroine who is as intimidating as a JCVD or Schwarzenegger, but in a much more feminine manner. With her winning look, undeniable physicality and affable disposition, I think Gina makes a great new kind of role model for the action genre that has long treated women a sex-objects or love-interest/hostages. She takes parts of some of the most iconic masculine heros like Indiana Jones, self-reliance, ingenuity, discipline and commitment, and embodies them in a feminine manner. I think that it will be interesting to see her career progress and evolve, hopefully expanding on her potential, rather than pigeon-holing her as a one-trick-pony. Even if it does, I’ll be grateful for the contribution that she’s made to the genre.
ps. i’m such a fanboy.