Any given weekend, movies about violent women are playing at the theaters, whether it’s the recent hits Underworld: Awakening and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or the upcoming and hotly anticipated Hunger Games and Twilight: Breaking Dawn.
A new course at LMU, called “Women and Violence in Film,” examines this growing trend and explores the relationship between gender, sexuality and violence as presented in cinema.
“I marketed this course as sexy, tough and subversive, and I think students go into it thinking that they’re going to watch Kill Bill and see hot girls doing this stuff,” said Vanessa Newell, associate professor in the School of Film and Television. “I hope they come out of it realizing how films are being marketed to them, and that what’s being said is either challenging or reinforcing the dominant ideology” of gender roles in movies.
The course surveys films beginning with Double Indemnity (1944) and Gun Crazy (1950) and ending with Girlfight (2000) and, yes, Kill Bill (2003). It explores movies’ characterizations of violent women, such as the femme fatale, feminine masquerade, action heroines, rape revenge and aggressive sexuality.
Newell said that the stark contrast between how masculine and feminine violence is portrayed in films is evident. Violence is understood as “a given” for men, she said, noting the original Godfather movie never showed how the character rose to power. “Violent women in films always have to have an elaborate story to justify their use of violence and how that pushed them to take this action.”
Newell is ambivalent about whether the portrayal of violent women is necessarily a good or a bad thing. She said there hasn’t been a movie yet that has been able to reconcile all of the ideologies and patterns, although some movies, such as 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight, have come close.