The depiction of killer women in Hollywood films oftentimes reduces them to pseudo-tough, sexually liberal, skinny characters that are always somehow inferior or weaker than the men around them.

Sherri Inness' Tough Girls: Women Warriors + Wonder Women in Popular Culture separates “The Killer Woman” into two categories; the sex kitten and the insane harpy. She describes the sex kitten as being an “erotic object” who flaunts her body in “skimpy” clothing as she maintains a level of heterosexual desirability. Inness mentions the arc of the leading ladies from 1985’s Prizzi’s Honor (Irene Walker), 1994’s No Contest (Shannon Tweed), and 1995’s Mortal Combat (Sonya Blade). In Prizzi’s Honor, Irene is the perfect wife who conforms to stereotypical gender norms excluding the fact that she is an assassin. No Contest’s Shannon Tweed is a Playboy Playmate of the Year—an award given to her for sharing her sexuality with a large, predominantly male audience that is not necessarily interested in her wit. Mortal Combat diminishes Sonya Blade’s toughness by reducing the character to a damsel in distress.

In general, the sex kitten is not a muscularly developed woman—she is more of a face for societal standards of beauty; a skinny, white, and tall female who is visibly weaker than her male counterparts. She shall have no “bulging biceps” because visible musculature is perceived as masculine, threatening, and, therefore, undesirable to the straight man. The sex kitten is ultimately defined as a “look, don’t touch” type of character because if she is touched, she will break (literally) because she lacks visible physical strength and her weak-mindedness makes her male-dependent.

The insane harpy deals with the sadistic and hedonistic nature of men and their innate desire to punish women (especially those that are feminist or lesbian). Whilst maintaining their desirability, the harpy is obsessively motivated by vengeance. The femme fatale is an evil, pathological sociopath whose “epistemological” male-centric “trauma” has inflicted so much pain that it spurred an insatiable appetite for murder; the harpy’s behavior is a result of a man’s influence instead of her own. Other than the mentally unbalanced aspect of the insane harpy, there are very few distinctions from the sex kitten; she is still physically and emotionally inferior to men, she is still “glamorously feminine,” and she is still motivated by male-driven characters/events. As Mary Ann Doane mentions, there is a heightened complexity of the harpy because the feminist-fearing filmmakers seek to explain how a woman—someone nurturing, sweet, beautiful, soft, and unthreatening by nature—can become threatening or evil. In my opinion, however, these added developments humanize the harpy instead of degrade her.

As Inness elaborates on 1987’s Black Widow, she mentions an astute quote from Lynda Hart, “Masculinity is as much verified by desire as it is aggression.” That being said, a lesbian female—like Catherine—has more sexual power than a heterosexual female because she rejects her male suitors while chasing after attractive females in a fashion similar to her male heroes—this is pandering to the male viewers.

Based on Inness’ categorizations, I would easily classify Kill Bill Vol. I’s Gogo as an insane harpy. Her only real development is Beatrix’s description, “the young girl in the schoolgirl uniform is O-Ren's personal bodyguard, 17-year-old Gogo Yubari. Gogo may be young, but what she lacks in age, she makes up for in madness.” Gogo is young, takes pleasure in murdering people, and uses her sexuality as a weapon. She puts up a good fight against the bride, but ultimately dies in a girlish display of blood tears.

The blood-spattered bride is a bit more complicated to lock down into one category. Firstly, she is referred to as the blood-spattered bride which immediately strips her of having an identity outside of being a man’s legal subsidiary. This character very conventionally fell in love, got pregnant, and was getting married until a man (Bill) sent his female slaves to massacre all attendees at her wedding. As Bill authoritatively stands over her wounded body, her cries and pleads for mercy are rejected. The Bride survives, but is treated as a sexual object by the cops who inappropriately comment on her beauty and the hospital nurse who prostituted her unconscious body to an innumerable amount of men. She progressively gets angrier and has an obvious vendetta against those who wronged her, but she is not a sociopath because we see her actively attempt to evade empathy. The Bride’s nameless, tight-leather-suit-wearing desirability splits her between being a sex kitten or an insane harpy.

Inness has a very reductive opinion of female action heroes. She is quick to point out that female heroines are portrayed differently from male heroes, but I think they should be. Men and women are not the same; in fact, men are more physically imposing, men do have more callous attitudes towards love & sex, and male standards of beauty are entirely different. Film is a visual medium, so it is always going to cast the most desirable/watchable actors and, according to our society, that means tall, skinny women and tall, buff men. After all, Hollywood is a reflection of our society and it panders to what we want to see.

Inness can share her negative opinions about Sharon Stone’s degradation to a sex symbol with the public, but if she’s still buying tickets for her movies then she is participating in and enabling this objectification. These films will continue to be made for as long as they can make money and, unfortunately, I think there will be a market for discriminatory films forever—my only hope is that said market shrinks over time. Until society explicitly defines what a positive female hero should look like and that they would pay to see that, sexist and reductive films will continue to get made.

Works Cited:

  • Inness, Sherrie. Tough Girls: Women Warriors + Wonder Women in Popular Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999, 66-82.

  • Kill Bill: Volume 1. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. A Band Apart, Miramax Films Corp., 2003. Film.

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