In this review of a 1990s Roger Corman action-film, Karl Brezdin posits a conflict between the tropes of stereotypical "female exploitation" films and those of action-adventure cinema.
Knowing that Corman took an active interest in creating “feminist exploitation films” -- using female protagonists as both asskickers and objects of lust -- I’m interested to know if viewers feel that Angelfist achieves this odd label. I’m undecided. The ladies here fight and snarl and save the day, but they also stand around awkwardly and navigate detachable shower heads over their nude bodies during inexplicable transition scenes.
Whether anyone believes it or not, I can understand why a female viewer would be experience cognitive dissonance while watching a film like ANGELFIST. Let us suppose that the hypothetical female viewer can fully identify with the basic trope of an action-revenge film like this one, that this viewer can take pleasure in seeing the kickboxing-heroine slam around nasty crooks, mostly if not entirely of the male gender, using the same methods that a male action-hero would. That visual pleasure would probably be disrupted by seeing the heroine fight off those hoods while she's mostly naked.
Now, for WAPster feminists-- both females, and males who validate the dissonance without qualification-- this expression of displeasure is where the argument stops, perhaps with some added Marxist twaddle about the commodification of female secondary sexual characteristics. If such femimsts don't like seeing fictional versions of women put on display, then the practice is bad and should be stopped.
At its most sophisticated, this argument might appeal to American philosophical traditions regarding equality, what Francis Fukuyama termed "isothymia." There is a general tendency in American culture-- certainly not confined to popular culture-- to the effect that all fiction ought to promote the ideal of equal opportunity. Therefore, to expose the breasts of a female character in a fictional narrative, irrespective of her power of agency in that narrative, is deemed to be an instance of giving with one hand and taking away with the other. The ANGELFIST heroine can defeat a gang of thugs, but she also exists to put herself on display as male heroes do not, and therefore she is not being treated equally.
This is only accurate, however, if one regards the word "equal" to mean the same as "neutral."
If equality were the true measure of things here, WAPsters could not very well object to action-heroines displaying the secondary sex characteristics of their upper torsos, simply because many male heroes do the same thing.
Naturally, the response to this assertion would be, in Kelly Thompson's words, "no, it's not equal." And that's true, it isn't. For while there are action-films in which male heroes never disrobe, male heroes who do expose their chests do so for much longer periods of time than their female counterparts.
Ah, but I hear the predictable response. Men's breasts do not stimulate hetero women in the way that women's breasts stimulate hetero men. That's exactly why there is no societal taboo about men displaying their upper torsos in many --though not all-- social venues.
That there is no taboo against male torso display throughout much of the world, I do not dispute. But this does not mean that hetero women are never stimulated by a beefcake chest. It just means that, whatever stimulation exists, society deems the stimulation to be controllable, so that no restrictive taboo is needed.
When Roger Corman did a film like ANGELFIST-- or the film from which it distantly derives, 1974's TNT JACKSON-- there's no question that he knew of the taboo against showing the female breasts, and that he worked in as many boob-shots as he could in order to sell his films. He probably knew well that most female viewers would not care for this display of feminine sec-sex characteristics, but female viewers were not his principal audience. He surely knew that most fans of the various action-genres are male, and, more often than not, hetero male. For that audience, even if they were going to see blood, breasts provided something in the nature of a lagniappe.
Thus far, then, the argument remains stalemated. What gives many hetero men pleasure gives many hetero women displeasure, while the pleasure those hetero women feel from seeing the taboo enforced for their gender is a source of male displeasure. The WAPster goal seems to be to neutralize most such depictions, at least in popular fiction-- and indeed, Kelly Thompson's recent essay takes decided pleasure in listing examples of such neutralization.
Obviously I don't think politically correct neutralization really serves any real-world aspirations toward equal opportunity, though there is a degree of logic in the dissonance feminist viewers feel in the presence of fictional tropes of feminine exposure. In Part 2 I will discuss some reasons as to why this is at most a lesser threat, one that pales in comparison to one that a modern Nietzschean might call "men and women with no chests."