Monday, November 10, 2008

Hard women, soft actresses

This is one of my (numerous) pet peeves.

In old movies, tough guys were often played by wimpy actors. It wasn't a serious problem since they were normally fully clothed. When they did, say, take their shirts off, the tough-guy swagger became laughable. Or at least, it's laughable to our modern eye, conditioned as we are to seeing tough guys played by tough-looking actors with very large muscles. I think we owe that to Arnold Schwarzenegger and the first Conan movie. Sean Connery looked tough in the early Bond movies, but compare him to Daniel Craig and he deflates.

Unfortunately, the same thing hasn't happened with female characters and the actresses who play them. Since nowadays there are more female characters who are supposed to be physically tough than there were in old movies, and since they show much more of their bodies than was acceptable long ago, the contrast between what the character is supposed to be and what the actress looks like can really mess up your willing suspension of disbelief.

I think this is even truer on TV than in movies. Battlestar Galactica is a prime example. The difference between the men and the women is striking. A lot of the actors are, if anything, too muscular for the characters they play; you keep wondering when they have time work out so much. The actresses who play fighter pilots swagger and sneer and posture and threaten each other and generally act as macha and fighter-jock(ette) obnoxious as they can. But their outfits let us see just how wimpy and soft they are. If they were lean and hard, their characters would still be obnoxious, but at least the act would be believable. Instead, it's laughable.

Last night, I watched a taped episode of The Sarah Connor Chronicles, a show I'm increasingly hooked on. The episode, "The Tower Is Tall but the Fall Is Short," was a good one -- well written and acted, and it moved the story arc along satisfyingly. It also introduced a new character, Jesse, played by Australian actress Stephanie Jacobsen. Jesse is yet another refugee from the post-apocalyptic future, a tough soldier. Now, Jacobsen has a face that one can stare at for a long time in delight, but her body, which we saw a nice amount of, is that of a wimpy fashion model. She's no lean, hardened survivor from that future guerilla army. For that matter, Lena Headey, who plays Sarah Connor and is supposed to be just as tough and dangerous as Jesse, is only marginally physically better suited to her role.

What's so annoying about such casting is that it's unnecessary. Los Angeles is famously filled with fitness babes, and I saw lots of them in Vancouver the last time I was there. Surely many of them can act adequately. So whether a series is filmed in Hollywood or Hollywood North, there's no reason for the kind of casting I'm complaining about.

Do audiences not care? Are other viewers not struck by the incongruity? Or are they so unfamiliar with the look of female fitness that they don't even see the incongruity?

(Update. Here's another example - Silk Spectre in the Watchmen comic books and the wimp who'll be portraying her in the movie. The absurdity of having her wear high heels seems to come from the comics.)

(Graphic novel: noun, synonym for comic book.)


TGirsch said...

Bottom line: Sex sells, and muscular women aren't widely viewed as "sexy."

I'm surprised you didn't give a shout out to Linda Hamilton from T2, however -- she really did work out and build up a wiry strength for her reprise of the Sarah Connor role.

David said...

Oh, yes, Linda Hamilton looked just right for that movie. That's the way the two actresses in the current TV series should look. Hamilton's look wasn't to my taste. I prefer more muscle and less wiriness, but she looked the way the character should have.

You do sometimes see tough, strong women as members of the background gang surrounding the chief bad guys in action-adventure movies, but they're never in lead roles. Unfortunately, you're right about muscular women not being generally viewed as sexy. I'm obviously in the minority.

TGirsch said...

You do sometimes see tough, strong women as members of the background gang surrounding the chief bad guys in action-adventure movies

Or, among the good guys, like the butch blonde in the grossly-overrated The Matrix.

David said...

Unfortunately, I don't remember her. Is she in enough scenes to justify watching the movie again?

I agree with you aout it being grossly overrated. I saw it on TV, not on the big screen, so maybe that influenced my opinion. I thought it was in effect just another ST:TNG holodeck episode.

TGirsch said...

It was nowhere near as good as the TNG holodeck episodes, and I always hated the holodeck as a lazy writer's crutch.

Her role was fairly minor -- she's one of the ones who gets unceremoniously "unplugged" during the climax.

TGirsch said...

Perhaps this will jump-start your memory.

TGirsch said...

This is interesting, while on the subject of how bad that movie was.

David said...

That picture of her doesn't ring a bell. I think I've blanked most of that movie out. She certainly looks tough.

"A bowl of snot" is a pretty good categorization of the whole movie.

TGirsch said...

I prefer "a festering bowl of dog snot," and bonus points if you get that movie reference.

Adam-Troy Castro said...

There is, of course, a great number of possible different interpretations regarding what "tough" means; I'm referring to movie heroes who are reasonably but not overwhelmingly fit but able to carry a gun, and to the difference between characters who are gymnastics-fit and body-builder fit.

I think the absolute worst case of a female actor playing an action here was Sandra Bernhardt, in a bad sf movie called THE APOCALYPSE; she wasn't just unfit, she was downright clumsy, and he was impossible to imagine her ever winning a fight.

David said...

Adam-Troy! Nice to see you here. (By the way, clicking on your name leads to an error page. The URL for your sff-net page was misspelled.)

Agreed about the different interpretations of "tough". The male Viper pilots in the new Battlestar Galactica are too muscular for their roles. Pilots I've encountered, such as the Apollo astronauts, tend to be much leaner and lighter. I think Daniel Craig hits a good compromise. He's impressively developed but convincingly athletic and active as Bond.

My complaint about actresses is that they rarely fit any reasonable definition of "tough". Now I'll be watching for that Bernhardt movie to show up on cable, out of curiosity and masochism.