It used to be the heroine's job to get in trouble and the hero's job to get her out of it. How many films ended with the good guy and the bad guy battling it out while the sweet young thing shivered to one side, never thinking to pick up a plank and help out?
You've come a long way, baby. Flick on the TV, and see women-young women, almost always-kicking and thinking and winking at both the old notion of femininity and the aging precepts of feminism. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, now in her fifth season, saves her classmates from Evil, when she's not cracking a book or a joke. The Cartoon Network's Powerpuff Girls, "the most élite kindergarten crime-fighting force ever assembled," protect Townsville with their magical powers. Max, the bionic babe in James Cameron's sci-fi series Dark Angel, occasionally lets a mere man help her save the world, after which she suavely extracts herself from his adoration. "What's the plan?" asks her enraptured swain of the moment, who doesn't deserve to be in her car pool, let alone her gene pool. Max's blunt reply: "I'm the plan."
Fact is, TV has long been a woman's medium. Movies are guy space. So consider the releases in the coming months of Josie and the Pussycats, a live-action version of the comic book and '70s TV cartoon series, and Tomb Raider, with Angelina Jolie as supervixen Lara Croft. Consider, and savor, the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the all-time top-grossing foreign-language film that has hit the $100 million mark at the North American box office. Ang Lee's martial arts fantasy features two strong women, a 30ish warrior (Michelle Yeoh) and a willful teen (Zhang Ziyi) just discovering to what uses, good or ill, she may put her powers of physical levitation and female cunning.
"It's a mythic epic narrative which has as its center a female consciousness," says James Schamus, one of the film's writers and producers. "In all the great epics, from the Iliad on, the protagonists have been masculine, their destinies a masculine destiny. Now a real shift is taking place, in which some collective identities-those created for the whole culture regardless of gender-are female."
The women of the Charlie's Angels movie, which has earned over $125 million since its November debut, might not seem to have kinship with Crouching Tiger's stately stunners. This colorful jape propels Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu through its empty-calorie plot with the force of a hurricane blow-dryer. The stars giggle, wear swank togs, toss their coiffures in luxurious slo-mo. Diaz shakes her booty a lot. And skeptics may laugh their booty off when told that the Angels are icons of empowerment.
Yet they do fly through the air, giving the bad guys foot-facials (Charlie's stunt maven, Yuen Cheung-yan, is the brother of Yuen Wo-ping, who choreographed Tiger). And to Barrymore, who produced it, Charlie's is a tribute to today's woman: able, independent and cute-not so much femi-nist as femi-nice. "We wanted the Angels to be strong, but not masculine," says scriptwriter John August. "They aren't afraid of their sexuality, but they don't use it as power. Drew and I agreed they should be recognizable 'girls.' And she doesn't mind the word girls."
Didn't "girls" used to be a dirty word? To today's in-charge Hollywood woman, it's le mot du jour. "We're very girlie," says Nancy Juvenon, Barrymore's partner in Flower Films, which will produce a remake of the Jane Fonda sex sci-fi spoof Barbarella, with Barrymore in the title role. (Flower has three projects in the works; that makes Barrymore, 26, a baby mogul, or mo-girl.) Now the un-chic phrase, the F word, is feminism, because it connotes a starchy righteousness. "A bad thing about old-style feminism," says Amy Pascal, the Columbia Pictures chairman who greenlighted Charlie's, "was that you could be a brain surgeon but you couldn't be a sexy brain surgeon. Finally some woman said, 'I want to be both.' Men get to be sexy and successful. Feminism should include sexuality."
It surely does for Max (played by Jessica Alba, a kind of Angelina Jolie Jr.); she sizes up a man by scanning him from head to crotch. Other Max attributes were once the prerogative of heroic males: a gravity, a radiating inner ache; a past and a quest. She's lonely on top, flirting with potential mates but searching for a mother. In this sense she is a big sullen sister to Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup, the Powerpuff Girls. They too are the spawn of a biological experiment. (They also levitate, like the Tiger women.) And though the show is perky, and its pace frenetic, the Girls carry the burden of others' expectation. When things go wrong, the Townsville adults chant, "Your fault! Your fault!" There is a poignancy to the Girls' perfection.
"I wanted the heroes to be strong, tough and cool," says Craig McCracken, the show's creator. "The juxtaposition of their being really cute and really strong seemed more interesting than if they had been muscley guys. People are starting to accept that girls are cool, and girlie things are cool." Schamus, who has daughters ages 4 and 8, thinks the Powerpuff Girls offer positive action role models: "My daughters are provided with more tools to gain confidence in the mastery of their own lives."
We will let others decide if this new trend is progressive or helpful to female viewers-let alone to unenlightened males, who have long appreciated the spectacle of women fighting (it used to be called mud wrestling). But the action woman is certainly a corrective to a zillion idiot action films. Women of any age hardly get a break in pop culture. So you go, girlie.
-Reported by Jeanne McDowell/Los Angeles