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Tough girls are everywhere these days. Whether it is Ripley battling a swarm of monsters in the Aliens trilogy or Captain Janeway piloting the starship Voyager through space in the continuing Star Trek saga, women strong in both body and mind have become increasingly popular in the films, television series, advertisements, and comic books of recent decades.
In Tough Girls, Sherrie A. Inness explores the changing representations of women in all forms of popular media and what ...
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Tough girls are everywhere these days. Whether it is Ripley battling a swarm of monsters in the Aliens trilogy or Captain Janeway piloting the starship Voyager through space in the continuing Star Trek saga, women strong in both body and mind have become increasingly popular in the films, television series, advertisements, and comic books of recent decades.
In Tough Girls, Sherrie A. Inness explores the changing representations of women in all forms of popular media and what those representations suggest about shifting social mores. She begins her examination of tough women in American popular culture with three popular television shows of the 1960s and '70s—The Avengers, Charlie's Angels, and The Bionic Woman—and continues through such contemporary pieces as a recent ad for Calvin Klein jeans and current television series such as The X-files and Xena: Warrior Princess. Although all these portrayals show women who can take care of themselves in ways that have historically been seen as uniquely male, they also variously undercut women's toughness. She argues that even some of the strongest depictions of women have perpetuated women's subordinate status, using toughness in complicated ways to break or bend gender stereotypes while simultaneously affirming them.
Also of interest—
Madcaps, Screwballs, and Con Women: The Female Trickster in American Culture
|1||Beyond Muscles: What Does It Mean to Be Tough?||11|
|2||Semi-Tough: Emma Peel, Charlie's Angels, the Bionic Woman, and Other Wanna-Bes||31|
|3||Pretty Tough: The Cult of Femininity in Women's Magazines||50|
|4||Lady Killers: Tough Enough?||66|
|5||A Tough Girl as One of the Boys: Jodie Foster, Gillian Anderson, and the Threat of Masculinity||85|
|6||Tough Women in Outer Space: The Final Frontier||102|
|7||Post-Apocalyptic Tough Girls: Has the Road Warrior Met His Match?||121|
|8||Tough Girls in Comic Books: Beyond Wonder Woman||138|
|9||A Tough Girl for a New Century: Xena, Warrior Princess||160|
What Does It Mean to Be Tough?
Without even pausing for reflection, we find it easy to identify many men as either tough or not tough. Reagan was; Bush was not (although he wanted to be). Batman was; Robin was not. The Fonz was; Richie Cunningham was not. Oscar Madison was; Felix Unger was not. Although toughness is not always easy to spot, we have some common ideas about what toughness entails. Think about James Dean, the cool, aloof rebel. Actor Sean Connery as James Bond, Agent 007, was also cool and aloof, but he was far more polished and debonair than Dean. Consider the Six Million Dollar Man, tough enough to overcome any bad guys who confronted him and capable of running sixty miles an hour. Then remember Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry films. Wearing a sneer pasted permanently on his face and lugging a huge gun, he was the quintessential tough guy who would blow away armies of drug dealers, murderers, pimps, and rapists. All four of these men have similarities but notable differences, too, showing how difficult it is to come up with a narrow definition of what toughness entails.
When women are added to the picture, even more variations exist. In movie after movie, Ripley in the Aliens films is the only person tough enough to destroy the deadly creatures threatening humanity. With a rock-hard body, Martha Washington of comic-book fame is tough enough to endure the physical hardships of a soldier's life. In Sue Grafton's detective novels, Kinsey Milhone is a private detective who tackles cases that have been shunned by even the police. Although she is shot at, beaten up, and intimidated, she does not back down from a case before she solves it. Obviously, if we are to arrive at a definition of "tough" that allows for all these very different men and women, it will need to be malleable, flexible enough to define the broad range of characteristics and behaviors that are considered tough. This chapter examines the many nuances of toughness, exploring why toughness is associated primarily with men and why tough women still make mainstream society uneasy.
A Tough Definition
Being tough is not a matter of merely having a muscular physique, a fact brought home to me while I was watching the Miss Fitness America contest on television. The contestants, who appeared as if they spent the majority of their lives in the gym, were not as pumped up as Rambo, but they were extremely muscular, far more so than contestants for the Miss America pageant. If being tough were a matter of muscle alone, these women would be considered tough by anyone's standards. However, as I watched the contestants strut through their routines--which invariably included a few back tips, lots of flexing, and a number of contortionist activities that my body cringed at the thought of attempting--I recognized that I did not think of them as tough, because, despite their bulging muscles and buns of steel, they looked stereotypically feminine in all other respects. All had long hair, usually permed, and all were wearing skimpy outfits that barely covered bosom and bottom. All had broad smiles plastered on their faces throughout their gymnastic dance performances. No doubt these women were outstanding athletes, but they did not strike me as tough because of their apparent acceptance of dominant norms of femininity in a culture where toughness is perceived as the antithesis of femininity. A super-fit physique is a common attribute of toughness, but there is much more involved, including self-presentation, attire, setting, and attitude. All these attributes go into making someone "tough." Toughness, in many ways, is a performance of a certain demeanor and image, an act that might be more or less successful according to how many tough signifiers are adopted and how convincingly they are presented as "real."
"Toughness" becomes even trickier to define when one is considering women, who are more difficult to identify as tough than are men. Discussing this issue with friends, I began to recognize what little agreement existed about what constitutes the tough woman. Some people identified Katharine Hepburn as tough, others disagreed. Some categorized Jodie Foster as tough; others were just as adamant that she was no such thing. Iditarod champion Susan Butcher, Hillary Clinton, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jane Fonda, k. d. lang, Bette Midler, Sinead O'Connor, and even Barbara Bush were mentioned as being tough but not everyone agreed about any one of these women. Obviously, toughness is difficult to define.
In her essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," Adrienne Rich discusses a one-to-ten scale for lesbianism, on which women are ranked to define how strongly they identify and are identified by others with lesbianism. One can imagine a similar one-to-ten scale for rating women's toughness, with very tough women being rated a seven or nine and women who are less tough being accorded only a two or three. Thinking about toughness in such a fashion allows the flexibility necessary for acknowledging that toughness is not always constituted in the same manner or to the same degree in different individuals. Still, there are key aspects of toughness that are shared by many.
To gain a better understanding of what was apparently a slippery and elusive term, I turned to the Oxford English Dictionary (1989), which provided nearly two densely packed pages of definitions of "tough." Some of them were useful. One was "Capable of great physical endurance; strongly resisting force, injury, fatigue, etc.; not easily overcome, tired, or impaired; hardy, stout, sturdy" (302). Another definition read, "Having great intellectual or moral endurance; difficult to influence, affect, or impress; steadfast, firm, persistent; also stubborn, obstinate, hardened" (302). Both definitions point out some of the important features of being tough that I will discuss. Often, these women possess great powers of physical endurance, sometimes even superhuman powers, as is the case with the female heroes depicted in comic books. Tough women have the stamina to endure when physically weaker women might fail. As Rupert Wilkinson comments, "The tough guy can take it. He can cope with many kinds of stress. In physically demanding conditions his equipment includes willpower as well as muscle tone. Indeed, in some romantic versions, the will takes over from physique, driving a sick or exhausted body to the limits of endurance" (7). These words apply to the tough girl, too. She can endure tremendous physical and emotional suffering and still emerge the victor. She has the tight emotional and physical control that has been traditionally associated with men, not women.
The OED also offers negative connotations of tough, such as a "person given to rough or violent behaviour" (303) or a "person of uncompromising or aggressive views" (303). This darker side of toughness is constantly lurking, always ready to spring to the fore, and complicates our society's uneasy relationship with toughness. We idolize it in movie stars such as Bruce Lee or John Wayne. We respect it in military leaders, politicians, and athletes. We admire men and women who run ultra-marathons or participate in such ultimately tough sports as the Ironman or the Iditarod. We find tough women (and men) sexy and "hot." But many people are also dismayed and disturbed by toughness and its implicit or explicit connection to violence. Rambo and the Terminator seem barbaric, their use of brute force unnecessary. Often individuals are uneasy about the excessive forms that toughness takes, whether in the media or real life. Toughness always carries the threat of chaos, the breakdown of "civilized" society into a dog-eat-dog world where only the tough can survive.
Whatever our reservations about toughness may be, we worship it because of its association with success and strength. As long as men are the primary people associated with toughness, they will continue to be the ones associated with success and power. This is why it is necessary to study how toughness is constituted in our culture and analyze what the changing representation of tough women in recent years suggests. As we shall discover, depicting women as not tough or as "pseudo-tough" is one of the ways that the media perpetuate the myth that women are less capable and competent than men. Even more insidious are the books, films, television shows, and magazines that depict women as tough, but simultaneously show that a woman's toughness is still not the equal of a man's.
Although the depiction of male toughness offers real social power to men, we also need to recognize the essentially mythical nature of toughness. The toughness we find in films, television shows, or books is frequently exaggerated. Whether we are watching Batman slug out two dozen bad guys or John Wayne shooting and defeating ten tribes of Indians, we are viewing a mythic enactment of toughness. No real person can perform the feats of Batman or John Wayne. No real person is a Rocky Balboa. Toughness is mythologized in the media, creating heroes with far greater abilities than those of mere mortals. Yet these mythic heroes help support the notion that only men are tough and heroic.
The connection between men and toughness assures that men, not women, will be the only "real" heroes in a culture where toughness is frequently associated with power and typically only men are allowed to display it. The ability of such heroes as Hercules, John Wayne, Rocky, and Rambo to endure great physical challenges suggests their tough and heroic character. Being able to overcome great hardships is one of the defining features of a hero. For example, in On Deadly Ground (1994), the movie's hero (played by Steven Seagal) confronts both hired mercenaries and the FBI but still manages to blow up a huge oil refinery by himself. In the movie Bloodsport (1987), the hero, played by Jean-Claude Van Damme, enters a contest in Hong Kong against the world's greatest fighters. He emerges as the winner, even after he has been temporarily blinded by the champion he fights. Their physical stamina and other tough characteristics make it possible for Seagal and Van Damme to rise to the level of heroes. We must remember, however, that the success of such characters is often dependent on their ability to subdue opponents of other races, demonstrating the superiority of white masculinity. It is important to recognize that the creation of tough white heroes simultaneously implies the nonheroic qualities of men from other races. Similarly, the tough white female hero helps affirm the superiority of white women.
The kind of heroic toughness associated with the characters played by Seagal and Van Damme is ascribed more commonly to men than to women. It is also more typically associated with masculinity (whether in men or women) than femininity (in men or women). Femininity and masculinity are defined as opposites in our culture. Because they adopt some characteristics that are coded as masculine in our culture, tough women challenge this division, which is central to how members of society think about gender and the differences, whether real or imaginary, between men and women. The association of toughness, men, and masculinity is so much a part of our society's ideological framework that we accept it as the status quo. When we watch Clint Eastwood make his day by gunning down a particularly odious gangster or we see Mel Gibson overcome an army of evil desert mutants, we regard it as entirely "normal." Their masculinity and maleness make it "natural" for them to be adopting these tough roles. However, a group of people watching a feminine woman--say, Vanna White--gun down a drug dealer would likely become uneasy, or even angry, having assumed that masculinity is a necessary ingredient of toughness.
The relationship between gender, sex, and toughness is so complex that more time needs to be spent exploring how toughness is connected to both men and women and why toughness is typically linked to masculinity. This is an important concern because the connection between masculinity and toughness helps to support the stereotypical idea that men are the only truly capable leaders. As writer Bruce Curtis comments in his essay on the association between toughness and political leadership, "Concern about the toughness and masculinity of our leaders remain[s] at the center of American politics" (50). This is a concern that is central far beyond the realms of politics.
As I have mentioned, society rarely questions the belief that toughness is primarily an attribute of men, causing the tough male to be an omnipresent image in our culture. Toughness is associated with a whole school of "tough guy" writers, including James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, and Norman Mailer. Tough men and boys fill literature, both popular and canonical. For example Rudyard Kipling's Captains Courageous: A Story of the Grand Banks (1897) features Disko Troop, captain of the fishing boat We're Here. The epitome of the gruff seafaring captain, Troop is tough enough to keep his crew in line and to make a man out of the spoiled rich boy, Harvey, who falls under the captain's care. With his great physical strength, athletic prowess, and intelligence, Tarzan in Edgar Burroughs's Tarzan of the Apes (1914) is tough enough to survive living in an African jungle, where few men or beasts dare challenge his rule. In Burroughs's novel The Gods of Mars (1912) and the other volumes of the Mars chronicles, John Carter is a "straight, clean-limbed fighting-man of thirty" who dispatches his enemies, including great white apes, hideous plant men, evil bantha, and black pirates, with ease (viii).
Owen Wister's novel The Virginian (1902) features a man who moves "with the undulations of a tiger, smooth and easy, as if his muscles flowed beneath his skin" (2). The Virginian, a man no one wishes to tangle with, is an early precursor to the countless tough cowboys who have filled the twentieth-century media. Another novel featuring a tough hero is Rex E. Beach's The Spoilers (1906), which explores the lives of hard-bitten gold prospectors in the Alaskan Klondike. Toughest of the Alaskan men is Glenister, with his "heavy shoulders and ease of bearing, an ease and looseness begotten of perfect muscular control" (10). Like Tarzan, part of Glenister's toughness lies in his muscular strength, but there is far more to the two men. Both are lords of their respective jungles; Tarzan controls the animals inhabiting his domain while Glenister controls the minds of lesser men.
Captain James T. Kirk, Dick Tracy, Dirty Harry, Doc Savage, Popeye, Rocky, Shaft, Superman, Batman, Mike Hammer--tough men appear everywhere in the popular media. It is difficult to escape the influence of tough guy actors, including Humphrey Bogart, Marion Brando, James Cagney, Clint Eastwood, Edward G. Robinson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Seagal, Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and John Wayne. In the past three decades, it has been nearly impossible to turn on the television without finding a tough guy character squinting from the screen: Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs on Miami Vice; Mr. T on The A-Team; detectives Dave Starsky and Ken Hutchinson on Starsky and Hutch; detective Tony Baretta on Baretta; Lieutenant Theo Kojak on Kojak; Joe Friday on Dragnet; Duncan MacLeod on Highlander; Hercules on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys; John Lawless on Lawless; and Walker on Walker, Texas Ranger, among others. Whether in television shows, films, comic books, magazines, or a variety of other forms, the media are inundated with tough guys.
This long list of examples provides evidence of the overwhelming presence of the tough guy in our culture and reveals how much we accept his presence and his gender without question. It is difficult to go to a mainstream movie theater without encountering a feature film starring Clint Eastwood, Chuck Norris, Bruce Lee, or other action-adventure stars; similarly, one cannot visit a comic-book store without seeing the scores of cover illustrations featuring Superman, Batman, Thor, Captain Marvel, Daredevil, and other tough male superheroes. The majority of Westerns have a hard-bitten male hero, and imagine flipping through a popular magazine and not coming across the lean, mysterious man who peers out of many advertisements, such as those for Marlboro cigarettes. The tough male figure is so engrained in our culture that we hardly notice him. Yet the tough guy and the fact that he is a male makes a difference in our society.
The connection we make between maleness and toughness works effectively to ensure male privilege and authority. By this, I mean that because being tough is understood as a requirement for all sorts of roles in our culture--including football coach, CEO of a major corporation, and president of the United States--the association between men and toughness, which the media help to perpetuate, serves to keep women second-class citizens. It is too often assumed that women are not "tough enough" for many leadership roles. One area in which this gendered equation about toughness affects women today is the workplace. Toughness is closely associated with certain professions and not others. "Tough jobs" include being a cowboy, athlete (especially a boxer, football player, or wrestler), truck driver, coal miner, oil well driller, soldier, sports coach, police officer, firefighter, big-game hunter, or deep-sea diver. "Non-tough jobs" include being a beautician, home economist, cake decorator, waitress, florist, clothing designer, secretary, dancer, interior decorator, hair stylist, teacher, accountant, or insurance salesperson. What is evident from these two lists is how many of the "tough" jobs are those that have long been considered men's and how many of the "non-tough" jobs are ones assumed to be women's. It comes as little surprise that the tough jobs are typically granted more prestige than the non-tough jobs. It is regarded as more desirable to be a deep-sea diver than a cake decorator. Similarly, it is considered more challenging to be a firefighter than a teacher. The strong association we make between toughness and many male-dominated fields is one way that men's work is privileged and esteemed over women's.
Because the association between men and "tough" jobs--and toughness in general--brings them social power, it is important to study toughness, analyzing how women's relationship to toughness is created, at least partially, through how women are represented in the popular media. We need to understand how representing women as not tough--whether this occurs in something as fleeting as a television commercial or in something as long as a feature film--is a way of keeping them away from the mechanisms of power. Thus, the idea that women are not tough, so much a part of the culture's ideology, is an effective way of controlling women.
We have been told a lie. The media have supported the myth that men are tough heroes--or predators--and women are frail victims--or prey. Despite what the media might suggest, women have always been tough, both in literature and in real life. Some fictional women are tough because of the economic hardships they endure. In Rebecca Harding Davis's novella Life in the Iron Mills (1861), Deborah endures atrocious living conditions. A worker in a nineteenth-century cotton mill, she lives a life of "incessant labor, sleeping in kennel-like rooms, eating rank pork and molasses" (15). A similar character is the heroine of Anzia Yezierska's story "Soap and Water" (1920). The working-class woman toils for years in a laundry to afford an education and bursts into irate speech when the dean of the college berates the student for her slovenly appearance: "I felt the suppressed wrath of all the unwashed of the earth break loose within me. My eyes blazed fire. I didn't care for myself, nor the dean, nor the whole laundered world" (72). Despite the tremendous obstacles that stand in her way, she fights to better herself and gain an education. In Edith Summers Kelley's novel, Weeds (1923), Judith endures the hardships of being the wife of a poor tobacco farmer in rural Appalachia. She must strip tobacco and raise a family with little money. Similar to Judith is Marie, a character in Agnes Smedley's semi-autobiographical novel Daughter of Earth (1929). Marie grows up poverty-stricken in a log cabin, learning the hard way that women and girls have few rights and receive little respect from most men. She is so destitute that all she can depend on are "poverty and uncertainty" (41). To survive, Marie must learn how to be tough; she recalls: "I took my place as one of the leaders of the `toughest kids beyond the tracks.' In school I let nothing hurt me--no reprimand of my teacher, no look or word. ... I fought boys and girls alike in the alleys beyond the tracks" (83). These women area few examples of the long tradition of the tough working-class woman in fiction?
Other fictional women are considered tough because they adopt roles and behaviors associated with men. A few such women appear in nineteenth-century dime novels, particularly those describing life in the Wild West, although male desperadoes, sheriffs, and highwaymen are always far more prevalent. Calamity Jane, for example, in "Deadwood Dick on Deck; or Calamity Jane, the Heroine of Whoop-Up" (1885) is depicted as "wear[ing] the breeches herself" (Wheeler 2). She explains her unusual attire at one point: "I don't allow ye ken beat men's togs much for handy locomotion an' so forth, an' then, ye see, I'm as big a gun among the men as any of 'em" (24). She drinks whiskey, shoots guns, and plays cards. Even killing a huge, ornery bear does not slow down "the noted young female dare-devil" (12). A similar character appears in Charles Portis's novel True Grit (1968), fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross, who leaves home to "avenge her father's blood" (13). Following in the footsteps of other Western heroines like Annie Oakley, Mattie faces great odds as she tracks her father's killer and extracts her revenge. Another woman who adopts tough attributes is Idgie Threadgoode in Fannie Flagg's novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1987). As a young girl, Idgie is different from other girls. She hunts, fishes, and shoots "as good as any of the boys" (34). As an adult, she plays a championship game of poker, keeps a gun by her bedside, and is described by one admirer as being "tough as pig iron" (330). Another such character is Aunt Raylene in Dorothy Allison's novel Bastard Out of Carolina (1992). Aunt Raylene is a tough, ornery woman who lives alone "with her dogs and fishing lines" (178). At one time, she cut her hair short and dressed in pants to work as a man at a local carnival. She laughs loudly, spits, and makes "the second-best home brew" in the state (180). Calamity Jane, Mattie Ross, Idgie Threadgoode, and Aunt Raylene are all tough characters because they adopt characteristics stereotypically associated with men. By doing so, they place themselves as outsiders in relation to a culture that assumes that women should strive to act and appear feminine.
Fiction is not the only place to find tough women. There are countless women alive today or from earlier epochs who could be described as tough. In her essay on cowgirls in the West, historian Shelley Armitage describes women who are tough according to any standards. Lizzie Williams drove her own herd up the Chisholm Trail in the late 1800s. Mrs. William Mannix drove a stage for fifteen years in order to support her family (169). Sally Skull was a horse trader and sharpshooter (170). Annie McDoulet, known as "Cattle Annie," rode with a bunch of rustlers at the turn of the century (170). Williams, Mannix, Skull, and McDoulet were a few of the many tough women who had to fight to survive the rough conditions of frontier life. Such women, of course, were not limited to the nineteenth century.
Today, tough women exist in all professions. Women who are often identified as tough are those who join the largely male bastions of politics or business. For instance, writer Richette Haywood refers to former U.S. Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary as "bright, charming, [and] tough" (94). In another article, Senator Dianne Feinstein is described as "tough enough to win the West" (McGrath 12). In a similar fashion, an article by Fred Bruning about Hillary Clinton is titled "Tough, Smart and a Presidential Bedmate" (9), while journalist Lewis Grizzard refers to Hillary Clinton as "first tough cookie" (C1). Along with women in politics, successful professional women are apt to be categorized as tough. In an article about Robin Burns, the president and CEO of Estee Lauder who earns one of the highest salaries of any woman executive in the United States, she is called "an inspired leader and a tough negotiator" and labeled "very tough indeed" (Martha Duffy 70). Dr. Frances Krauskopf Conley, one of the few female neurosurgeons in the United States and the first woman resident in neurosurgery at Stanford University, has also been referred to as tough. In one article, a writer describes her as "a woman who has a kernel of toughness a la Hepburn" (Constigan 68).
Yet toughness still must be carefully negotiated for many career women. The husband of Ann Dore McLaughlin, former Secretary of Labor, is quick to declare that his wife is not too tough: "She's almost a paradoxical combination of femininity and toughness in her professional life. ... She's every inch the executive, but she has not lost her femininity" (qtd. in Polsgrove 34). This curious description makes it clear that for many people toughness and femininity are antithetical. Our society is uneasy about tough women. Whether it is O'Leary, Clinton, Burns, or McLaughlin, tough women are forced to walk a tightrope because they are impinging on male spheres of power. They must be perceived as neither too tough nor too weak and achieve what is an impossible balance: "If gentle, they are womanish; if tough, they are not womanly. By tradition a female cannot be a courageous, charismatic, wise, effective leader as a woman" (Curtis 50). Women's toughness disturbs society, perhaps reinforcing the stereotypical assumption that men are the only ones who are "naturally" tough. For instance, both men and women feel uneasy with Hillary Clinton. Because she is intelligent, powerful, and does not feel obligated to bake cookies, she is clearly not a traditional feminine woman. Her often tough image results in numerous jokes about Hillary as the real power behind the throne, casting aspersions on both her femininity and her husband's masculinity. The reactions to the First Lady are indicative of a culture that still assumes that toughness is for men; thus, our society exerts subtle and not so subtle pressure on women not to be tough. Yet, at the same time, society admires women (like Hillary) who are tough.
The women I just described are notably different from the women I study in this book. They are often tough only in order to protect their children and families, a form of toughness that our society assumes is "natural" for women; thus, their toughness does not call into question gender roles. Also, many of the women I described from fiction adopt tough roles entirely because of necessity; when a man appears to rescue her, the tough woman often returns to a more feminine prototype. Although I recognize the significant role such women played in helping to change, question, and subvert notions about what it means to be a woman, the tough women I am chiefly concerned with are those who openly challenge the dominance of the male tough hero. The women who are the focus of this book question and undermine gender stereotypes by adopting behaviors that are considered to be characteristic of men. The tough women I study shoot guns, become police officers, or act in other ways that, even today, are still strongly coded as male in our society. Many of these tough women openly show that they are more than capable of taking over men's roles, even the toughest of them.
Another feature that sets apart the women I study is that most (although not all) adopt physical characteristics or attitudes that are considered masculine in our society. A number of the women are very muscular and aggressive, both attributes associated with masculinity. As I shall argue throughout the book, her association with masculinity is one reason the tough woman is disturbing to society, because, as I have already stated, she challenges the notion that there is a "natural" connection between women and femininity and between masculinity and men. As theorist Susan Bordo comments:
"Masculinity" and "femininity," at least since the nineteenth century and arguably before, have been constructed through a process of mutual exclusion. One cannot simply add the historically feminine virtues to the historically masculine ones to yield a New Woman, a New Man, a new ethics, or a new culture. Even on the screen or on television, embodied in created characters like the Aliens heroine, the result is a parody. (174)
In other words, American culture has become so accustomed to the notion of male/masculinity and female/femininity, that anything else looks like a travesty, something that fails to conform to cultural notions about what is "normal." The more a woman adopts signifiers of masculinity, the more she disturbs mainstream society. Our culture likes its girls to be girls and its boys to be boys, except in the choreographed routine of a drag show or other carefully staged performances.
One reason the tough woman who adopts a persona that is strongly coded as masculine is disturbing to many is that she reveals the artificiality of femininity as the "normal" state of women. The masculine tough woman reveals that femininity is a carefully crafted social construct that requires effort to maintain and perpetuate. As Myra Macdonald writes in her study Representing Women: Myths of Femininity in the Popular Media (1995): "The body's traditional centrality to feminine identity can be sub-divided into a variety of codes of appearance. ... It is not the body, but the codifying of the body into structures of appearance, that culturally shapes and molds what it means to be `feminine'" (193-94). The body needs to be carefully regulated and controlled to achieve the appearance of femininity, and the pursuit of femininity is never-ending: "Through the pursuit of an ever-changing, homogenizing, elusive ideal of femininity ... female bodies become docile bodies--bodies whose forces and energies are habituated to external regulation, subjection, transformation, `improvement'" (Bordo 166). One reason that a tough woman like comic-book hero Martha Washington is disturbing is because she adopts a masculine persona and shows no interest in the endless quest for femininity. The tough woman calls into question how women should be women and whether femininity has anything to do with being a woman.
Judith Butler's words about the separation between sex and gender clarify the nonbiological nature of femininity: "When the constructed status of gender is theorized as radically independent of sex, gender itself becomes a free-floating artifice, with the consequence that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one" (6). Toughness thus becomes something attached not to sex but to gender, an association that leaves toughness open to the regulation and control of the social body:
To what extent do regulatory practices of gender formation and division constitute identity, the internal coherence of the subject, indeed, the self-identical status of the person? To what extent is "identity" a normative ideal rather than a descriptive feature of experience? And how do the regulatory practices that govern gender also govern culturally intelligible notions of identity? In other words, the "coherence" and "continuity" of "the person" are not logical or analytic features of personhood, but, rather, socially instituted and maintained norms of intelligibility. (Butler 16-17)
The regulatory practices that govern gender work to govern toughness, ascribing it to certain bodies and not to others. According to Butler, gender becomes a performance that must be endlessly performed in order to exist. Toughness becomes one display of many that is associated with "man" and "masculine"; those words, however, might have little to do with the physical male body. Associating toughness with gender rather than sex is threatening to the social order because it breaks down the essentialist argument that gender and sex are indissolubly linked. Instead, any subject who presents an effective performance of toughness can be tough, despite the body's sex.
Although Butler's words point out the cultural codes and restrictions that lie behind toughness or any act of gender, the larger culture still views toughness as a "natural" attribute of men, making toughness in women disturbing to both men and women. Women are often uneasy about being tough because they have been socialized to believe that they should not be tough but yielding. Feminist philosopher Iris Young writes:
The norms of femininity suppress the body potential of women. We grow up learning that the feminine body is soft, not muscular, passive, incapable, vulnerable. Our parents, teachers and friends suppress our natural urges to run, jump, risk, by cries that we should not act so boldly and move so daringly. ... Developing a sense of our bodies as beautiful objects to be gazed at and decorated requires suppressing a sense of our bodies as strong, active subjects moving out to meet the world's risks and confront the resistances of matter and motion. (qtd. in Bartky 35)
Women are led to believe that physical (and emotional) toughness belongs to men. The connection between toughness and male / masculinity is so strong in out society even today that many women are uneasy about appearing too tough. Driving a motorcycle, getting a buzz cut, or wearing men's clothing--these are examples of acts that are problematic for women to perform; women fear that such behavior might make them appear too tough--too masculine.
Of course, such displays of toughness are also closely linked in our society to being a lesbian, an image that many heterosexual women seek to avoid at all cost. Lesbianism is always a "ghost in the closet" when women act or appear tough, and a label that society uses to police such behavior; in order not to appear as lesbians, women are expected to shun tough actions that might make them appear too masculine. Queer studies scholars, most notably Judith Butler, Sue-Ellen Case, and Judith Halberstam, have done a tremendous amount of important work on the connections between masculinity in women and real or imagined lesbianism. Butler, Case, and Halberstam have demonstrated the importance of recognizing that displays of masculinity in women are always haunted by lesbianism and lesbian desire. As we explore the depiction of tough women, we shall find repeatedly that lesbianism is an issue that needs to be negotiated in complex and varied ways because of its taboo nature.
Despite their fears, women are often fascinated by toughness when it is displayed by other women, finding it sexy and alluring. Women cheer when Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis blow up an obnoxious truck driver's rig in Thelma & Louise. When Alex, in the science-fiction film Nemesis 2, overpowers a much larger man who is coercing her to have sex, women applaud. In many ways, the tough woman embodies women's fantasies of empowerment--the dream that the lone woman can take on the massed powers of our collective society. It is clear that toughness in women has a highly ambiguous place in our society. We are fascinated by it, yet we are horrified by it. We admire it, yet we fear it.
This ambivalent relationship to toughness in women is embodied in the character Jael from Joanna Russ's novel The Female Man (1975). Jael is a caricature of absolute toughness; she is reminiscent of a female James Bond, calculating and in control. She represents everything American culture dreads about tough women. She lacks stereotypical feminine emotions and acts out her violent thoughts, such as when she kills a man and remarks, "I always carry firearms" (182). Muscular and aggressive, Jael is all that women traditionally have been told that they should not be. Russ gives her readers a complex image of Jael. Despicable, she is also curiously appealing, because she is so obviously able to take care of herself. There are two sides to Jael and other tough women. The tough woman is disturbing to her audience because she often acts or shows the potential to act on her aggressive emotions. She is also alluring, however, because she embodies women's desire for power, self-sufficiency, and autonomy. Her contradictions are what make her a fascinating character to study in contemporary mainstream media.
What exactly comprises the New Tough Woman, as I call her, referring to the many tough women who have appeared during the past three decades in the popular media--women who, like Ripley or Xena, openly claim men's roles and power as their own? I have pointed out how difficult it is to arrive at a single, narrow definition of toughness, but there are some characteristics that are shared by many New Tough Women--women who seem as capable of presenting a convincing performance of toughness as their male counterparts. These traits can be broken down into four groups: body, attitude, action, and authority. Body refers to how a woman presents a physical body that signifies toughness in our culture. For both men and women, the physical nature of the body is commonly a visible sign of their toughness, a fact that Yvonne Tasker notes in Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema: "Action heroes and heroines are cinematically constructed almost exclusively through their physicality, and the display of the body forms a key part of the visual excess that is offered in the muscular action cinema" (35). Tasker's words also apply to tough girls in genres other than film. As I have mentioned, the tough girl often displays well-defined or even unusually heavy musculature because American society perceives large muscles as one attribute of toughness. One extreme example of such a woman is Alex, the main character in the film Nemesis 2, which will be discussed in greater depth later. Her body bulges with muscles, serving as a visible signal of her ability to overcome even the most overwhelming odds. The muscles are also a sign of the physical and mental discipline that she possesses in order to craft such a physique. As we shall find time after time, muscles are one of the most visible signs of toughness in both women and men.
The body also signifies toughness in other ways. A tough body is typically an athletic, fit body. For example, in Elizabeth A. Lynn's fantasy novel The Northern Girl (1980), Paxe, the leader of the guards, is quite capable of taking care of herself: "She was tall, as broad-shouldered as any of her guards, a stern and striking figure" (10). In the fantasy movie Red Sonja (1985, director Richard Fleischer), the heroic star is a woman who has enormous physical strength, which helps to make her one of the best swordswomen (or men) in the land. Another woman who is exceptionally physically fit is Sharrow in Iain M. Banks's science-fiction novel Against a Dark Background (1993). Sharrow is physically strong enough to punch out a man who dares to slap her. Like well-developed muscles, a high level of physical fitness shows the ability of a tough woman to endure great hardships. Moreover, the physical strength and athletic prowess of the tough woman are often raised to a mythic level--as is true with Xena--one that no real woman could ever hope to achieve. In this fashion, the tough woman becomes a superhuman hero, someone whose supreme physical fitness serves as a physical sign of her heroic nature.
The body is also made to appear tough through style, which has a profound effect on whether or not a woman is read as tough. Styles that suggest toughness are almost inevitably ones that suggest masculinity and maleness because femininity is perceived as antithetical to toughness. A pair of khakis has a higher tough quotient than a pink tutu. A plain white t-shirt ranks higher on the scale of toughness than a bright orange angora sweater. A black leather biker's jacket is tougher than a white suede jacket with a decorative fringe. Clothing is an important element in the performance of toughness because it serves as a visual reminder that a woman has distanced herself from femininity. Masculine clothing also suggests a woman's capacity for action and leadership.
Another defining feature of toughness is attitude. No matter how a woman's pecs might bulge or how strongly her clothing might be coded as tough, she will not be considered tough unless she has the right attitude. Generally, she must display little or no fear, even in the most dangerous circumstances; if she does show fear, it must not stop her from acting. For example, Ripley reveals little fear even when confronted by allen monsters that would like nothing better than to have her for breakfast. Red Sonja rarely displays fear, even when being attacked by hordes of sword-wielding soldiers or hideous creatures. Xena also never shows fear. The lack of visible fear shown by Ripley, Sonja, and Xena is something that they share with many tough women. Along with showing little fear, the tough woman must appear competent and in control, even under the most threatening circumstances, when everyone else falls apart. Often her cool nature will be evident in her relative lack of affect; we know that she is feeling a tremendous amount of emotion, but she does not always show it because such a display would interfere with her performance.
The tough woman, however, is not always emotionless. Sometimes she shows her anger, but her rage does not interfere with the performance of her duties. When she must, she acts. Others hesitate. The tough woman acts because she recognizes that people depend on her and that she needs to take a leadership role in times of adversity. When she acts, the tough woman's actions are often excessive. She dispatches not one man who menaces her but six. We recognize that the tough woman acts in a way few (if any) real women could act. Her actions are larger than real life, showing not reality but a myth and a parody at the same time, as do the actions of male action heroes such as Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Just like Hercules performing his twelve heroic labors, the tough woman's actions reveal her ability to endure and triumph where all others would fail.
Along with her stamina and strength, the tough woman's actions reveal her intelligence. Typically, she does not act without carefully thinking through the results of her actions. While others might want to spring into battle, the tough woman hero or anti-hero often pauses for reflection before acting. The comic-book character Elektra, for example, is unsurpassed as an assassin because she waits to attack her victim, carefully calculating the best time for an attack. The tough woman must consider when she should act, and sometimes being a tough hero means that she needs not to act but to wait. When the time comes to act, however, the tough woman is ready.
Even with her physical prowess, her "bad" attitude, and ability to act when necessary, the tough woman must project authority if she is to be heeded. Writer Richard Sennett provides a concise definition of authority: "Assurance, superior judgment, the ability to impose discipline, the capacity to inspire fear: these are the qualities of an authority" (17-18). He writes, "authority is not a thing. It is an interpretative process which seeks for itself the solidity of a thing" (19). In other words, authority is an intangible and elusive trait that has to do with many characteristics, including a person's cool and collected bearing and ability to discipline others when necessary. Certain jobs--particularly ones that demand leadership skills--are apt to imbue one with an aura of authority; a captain of a ship or the CEO of a large corporation would typically have more authority than a dishwasher or a short-order cook. The tough woman must have authority because she often acts as a leader, and a leader with no authority is not capable of leading, especially in times of great stress.
How body, attitude, action, and authority come together to create a tough woman varies a great deal; thus, different tough women have different images and styles. Elektra, a hired killer, is different than Captain Janeway, a starship captain. Xena, a warrior from a mythological past, is different from Martha Washington, a soldier from the distant future. Even though these characters and others have diverse ways of bringing together body, attitude, action, and authority, they are all nontraditional tough women whose depiction challenges the bipolar systems of femininity/masculinity and male/female. The collective appearance of these women and others in popular culture suggests a great deal about how gender roles are being reimagined in the media today.
By exploring and analyzing the changing depiction of the tough woman in the popular media, we shall discover her paradoxical position: she both contests gender norms and reaffirms them. For more than thirty years, the tough woman has become increasingly tougher and (seemingly) more of a challenge to traditional male gender roles. We need to examine whether the tough woman in the popular media has actively undermined stereotypes about men and women and masculinity and femininity or whether she has helped to support such stereotypes. I hope that after exploring tough women in the media we will have a better understanding of how the depiction of women's toughness often helps affirm that men are the only people tough enough to be leaders and heroes.
Our exploration of how the representation of the tough woman has changed begins with some of the first television shows--The Avengers, Charlie's Angels, and The Bionic Woman--to portray pseudo-tough women. Such characters played an important part in allowing women to adopt roles that were tougher than roles formerly played by women on television, such as Beaver's mother. But even these early tough roles, we will discover, ultimately were not as tough as they might have first appeared, and they served in many ways to reassure the audience about what was presumed to be the essential femininity of women. An examination of these pseudo-tough women and others will help show how the ever-changing depiction of the tough girl has offered women an illusion of freedom and power but has, simultaneously, operated to support the gender status quo.