Who Gets to Have Gut Instinct in Big Screen Action Movies?

On the troubling depictions of competence, gender, and leadership in our stories

Wonder Woman cosplayer at the 2018 WonderCon at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, California
Photo by Gage Skidmore

It was my gut, not my mind, that first suggested to me that the films I was consuming represented less a leap for womankind than an interminable box step routine. My feminist hackles had been, for a time, smoothed by the presence of preternatural beauties with STEM degrees in even the silliest movies, like Dr. Jane Foster in Thor, Dr. Grace Augustine in Avatar, and Dr. Carol Marcus in Star Trek: Into Darkness. Indeed, women onscreen are respected for their intelligence and permitted to inhabit leadership roles more than ever. But somehow, I still felt nauseated when I watched these movies because I realized that while women are portrayed as smart and competent onscreen, it is only men who get to have gut instinct. Franchises like James Bond, Indiana Jones, Batman: all revolve around indispensable male leads saving the day—and one is more likely to encounter a franchise based around undead Egyptians (The Mummy) than around actual mothers. Consequently, while Hollywood would like to believe that it is making progress through its representation of smart women, what it is actually doing is presenting a smokescreen that continues to posit the ability and intelligence of men as distinct and superior.

This storytelling trend is particularly apparent in blockbuster films across action and adventure genres, which have grossed over 100 billion dollars between 1995 and 2021. These genres’ broad cross-sectional appeal is largely due to them reflecting commonly held social values back at their audiences—and in turn, effectively helping generate these values—which makes them telling barometers of social beliefs and progress.

Take action spy film Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018). Sixth in the Mission Impossible franchise, it stars Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in yet another installment of Tom Cruise running, Tom Cruise shooting guns, Tom Cruise leaping off buildings, Tom Cruise driving very fast, and Tom Cruise practicing parkour in scenic locations. Some missing plutonium and biological weaponry also feature. Tom Cruise jumps from building to building, from success to success. When asked on multiple occasions how he will achieve the impossible, he answers simply “I’ll figure it out!” to the point that it becomes a catchphrase. And we, the audience, trust that he will.

While women are portrayed as smart and competent onscreen, it is only men who get to have gut instinct.

Herein lies the catch. Tom Cruise’s character is the story’s hero because of his skill, his intelligence, and his intuition. He gets things right and is ultimately the only one who can save the day because of something instinctual and in-built rather than learnt. Granted, there are seemingly powerful female characters in his story. There is British spy love interest Ilsa Faust; CIA Director Erika Sloane; black market arms dealer Alanna Mitsopolis; and the protagonist’s ex-wife Julia Meade, who is a doctor rather than a spy, but who still helps defuse a bomb. Yet for all that these women’s professions and witty repartee do to signal them as being intelligent and self-sufficient, they lack the gut instinct that effectively confers upon the male protagonist the role of real leader and hero. Each woman (barring perhaps the arms dealer) finds herself hoodwinked and in need of help.

Take CIA Director Sloane, played by Angela Bassett: she is shown to be a leader, yes, but a cold and rigid one who is surprisingly easily manipulated. It is as though the moment she was written in as a leader, the film’s creators had her exchange any and all stereotypically feminine qualities—many of these useful in leadership roles—for a tailored jacket and an empathy deficit. The film could have made Sloane’s storyline more complex through subtext interrogating why she behaves as she does. Perhaps her rigid attitude stems from the pressure that follows women in leadership roles; the pressure to embody less flexible and more hard-line, stereotypically masculine traits. Regrettably, however, no such subtext is explored. 

As for the film’s other female characters, Julia the ex-wife (Michelle Monaghan) is lured into a trap, and although Ilsa the British spy (Rebecca Ferguson) is highly competent, she still finds herself tied to a chair while Tom Cruise engages in a gun fight helicopter chase. The movie tells the audience that these women are competent authority figures, yet its story shows them as lacking the intuition to get themselves out of trouble without a man’s help.  

The movie tells the audience that these women are competent authority figures, yet its story shows them as lacking the intuition to get themselves out of trouble without a man’s help.

This pattern is evident across a wide range of action films. The classic starting point for American disaster films, for example, is that of a male protagonist in a strained relationship with a typically ex-partner (female) who experiences a call to action as a cataclysmic event threatens human life and the world. Throughout the film, he will lead his family through various near-death experiences, clutching a blonde primary-schooler to his chest and sprinting towards conveniently abandoned off-road vehicles. When disaster strikes, he knows what to do—making evident that he is not merely the dysfunctional, disenchanted suburban dad presented at the film’s start (and reflected unflatteringly in his estranged female counterpart’s eyes). Rather, the film’s events make clear that he is instinctively and inherently heroic, and that he always had it in him to be a hero, if only given the chance.

The above paragraph broadly describes the emotional plotlines of Greenland (2020), Extinction (2018), San Andreas (2015), 2012 (2009), War of the Worlds (2005 – hello again, Tom!), and The Day After Tomorrow (2004), among others.

The narrowness of this pattern is striking, as is the message it subliminally reinforces. Of course there is value in creating escapist fantasies that help celebrate the protective dad qualities and buoy the egos of the straight, typically white men who might identify with the male protagonists of these films. However, the straightness, whiteness, and maleness of these lead characters shows either a lack of imagination in storytelling or an unwillingness in Hollywood to create much-needed variety in action films. 

Moreover, the near-identical man-woman relationships central to these films illuminate significant biases underpinning portrayals of gender, gut instinct, and heroism onscreen. Take 2012, where John Cusack plays Jackson Curtis (henceforth Hero Dad), a struggling writer living in a gloomy bachelor pad littered with Herman Melville novels. His former wife, Kate Curtis (Amanda Peet), is polished and put together and operates as the primary child carer. Hero Dad is a mess by comparison, and his ex appears concerned about his parenting skills and general capacity to be a responsible, functioning adult.

The film’s plot makes Hero Dad integral to his family’s survival. He is even rewarded by the film’s end with (spoiler) the rekindling of his romantic relationship with his ex-wife, whose sweet-natured boyfriend is auspiciously crushed to death by heavy machinery at the film’s ¾ mark. The implication is that although his ex-wife appears to be the family lynchpin at the film’s start – to the extent that she could be read as “mean” or “nagging” in her concerns about his abilities, “making” him look bad by comparison – she is ultimately a less valuable parent than he is, particularly during crises. The film also implies through the couple’s romantic renewal that she either failed to see Hero Dad’s true qualities or made a mistake in ever daring to replace him with a new beau. 

The irony here is that of all individuals likely to survive an apocalypse, the highly organized, “household manager”-type mother would surely be a strong candidate. Were I in an end-of-the-world scenario, I would be inclined to follow the person who keeps a running list of essential items in her head as opposed to the Hero Dad who can admittedly break road rules with panache, but who fails to notice when food in the fridge has expired. Then again, perhaps that is simply my supposed lack of gut instinct talking. 

If you’re a woman, you’ll still be tied to a chair while the man is flying the helicopter.

Whether the action movie protagonist is Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible, the Hero Dad of one’s choice, or various other male leads, heroism and leadership are attributed in large part based on gut instinct—a quality these male characters almost always possess. In a field of highly competent female supporting characters, the hero of Mission Impossible is marked out as such because of his intuition. “I’ll figure it out,” he says, and he inevitably does. He does not have a plan; plans are for second-rate heroes and leaders – like women! Because no matter how much you work or train, or repeatedly prove your intelligence, or climb the ranks of the CIA as a Black woman, or go through rigorous training to become a British spy … if you’re a woman, you’ll still be tied to a chair while the man is flying the helicopter. I – a woman, unsurprisingly – do not make the rules. 

The association of gut instinct and raw talent with leadership, heroism, and men is yet another sexist barrier repeatedly raised in film and television, as well as in real life. Consider the framing of competence, skill, and intelligence in some of our most famous and prolific film franchises. James Bond can fail physical, medical, and psychological examinations in Skyfall (2012) and still be the only agent who can save the day. Indiana Jones is elevated from “intelligent academic” to “hero” through his devil-may-care attitude and the fact that he is not just some bookish wonk: he is out there learning in the field and exploring (and exploiting) the world! Luke Skywalker spends far less time learning fighting skills than Princess Leia, but for all her training as a warrior and a diplomat, it is she—and not brash, impulsive, preternaturally skilled Luke—who is chained half-naked to Jabba the Hutt. 

This pervasive notion that women get to be smart but not natural, instinctual heroes, is perhaps most clearly visible in cultural products such as action films, where heroism and leadership tend to be macho. Women may be present; however, they are usually leather-clad, gun-toting, highly sexualized team members: competent, but not enough to dominate the storyline. Nevertheless, this trope – the downplaying of women’s intelligence and leadership – exists across other genres as well. Think of how in the Harry Potter series, it is second-fiddle Hermione who is book smart, whereas Harry, the hero, gets to have gut instinct. Dig a little, and it becomes clear that the association of leadership with gut instinct and maleness is entrenched across myriad stories. 

Indeed, women in stories are allowed to be book smart. They are allowed to be competent and bold: training hard, besting the male protagonist in a duel, then whipping off their helmet to reveal a mane of hair so lustrous it could make a Pantene commercial cry. They are allowed to be indispensable to the hero’s success. But rarely, very rarely, are they seriously considered for the hero or leadership role themselves. They are always a touch off center screen, voicing the narrative prompt “What will we do?” 

Women, men, and leadership operate similarly in stories as to how they do in reality. In real life, women with straight A’s earn less than men with a C average, and men apply for a job or promotion when they meet only 60% of the qualifications while women apply only if they meet 100% of them. And in stories, women are hitting the books and jumping through training hoops while the male hero, confident in his own exceptionality, simply walks around obstacles with a narrative free pass. We are told these women are the brightest witches of their age or the sharpest spies in MI6 – but direction will inevitably be granted ultimately to the action man hero and his trusty gut instinct. 

At this point, one might ask: but what about the women depicted as intelligent, competent leaders? Wasn’t James Bond’s boss played by Judi Dench? 

At this point, one might ask: but what about the women depicted as intelligent, competent leaders?

It is true that the representation and presence of women in leadership roles has indeed improved over the past decade in particular. If I want to watch female love interests successfully pilot submarines, for example, I can sacrifice my last brain cell to either Aquaman or The Meg. We feminists love choice. Nevertheless, I would argue filmmakers are often still limited in how they conceptualize female intelligence and leadership. Intelligent female leaders and heroes are too often portrayed as cold women (Judi Dench as James Bond’s superior; Kate Winslet in the Divergent films), highly sexualized women (Lara Croft in Tomb Raider; Irene Adler in Sherlock Holmes adaptations), or both (Milady in The Three Musketeers; Elizabeth Debicki in The Man From U.N.C.L.E). Either one is a femme fatale – written not least as a sexual object for the straight male gaze – or a cold #bossbitch archetype; namely, a woman leader who is so powerful and competent that she can only be a rigid, emotionally stunted control freak. 

It is interesting to note how real-life prejudices against women leaders are replicated onscreen. Rarely are women allowed to be perceived as both competent, effective leaders and emotionally intelligent humans not blinkered by their lack of traditional feminine virtues, such as empathy and people skills. It is almost like such stories are suggesting female leaders are inherently non-maternal and unnatural, and can only retain power by being horrible bitches! Crazy!  

When a story shows a woman as being either cold and powerful, powerful but titillating, or emotionally intelligent and a second fiddle, it reinforces real-life sexist double standards. Even in fantastical scenarios invented for the big screen, we cannot seem to imagine women leaders who are not fundamentally lacking or deficient in some way. Even in storytelling, women are not allowed to have it all. As in real life, the perception in stories that women leaders are fundamentally flawed leads to an erosion of trust. Women leaders cannot be relied upon to save the day. They tick all the professional boxes but there is still something missing. Tom Cruise is chosen to star in an action spy film, again

As in real life, the perception in stories that women leaders are fundamentally flawed leads to an erosion of trust.

It is rare to see competent, intelligent, center-screen women in film and television. It is rarer still for them to reach the story’s end without being repeatedly sexualized for the male gaze; made hyperbolic and two-dimensional in their cold intelligence; or belittled by being sidelined during an action sequence. Onscreen depictions of women leaders in particular risk typifying a sort of faux feminism: these women are competent, but inflexibly so – a rigidity that often leads to their downfall.

For this reason, it merits highlighting positive examples of women heroes and leaders who take up space onscreen, especially in contexts historically associated with men; who behave effectively; and who are never shamed, beaten, or degraded by their storyline. 2017’s Wonder Woman, for instance, was refreshing in its depiction of a woman in a style reminiscent of classic male hero: protagonist Diana stars in a war narrative, inhabits a highly masculinized hero role wherein she is physically invincible, and is never narratively “put in her place.” Other examples of smart, competent women permitted to unapologetically own their screen time include the eponymous Xena (Xena: Warrior Princess, 1995-2001) and, more recently, the strong-willed Anne Lister of Gentleman Jack (2019). Such characters are noteworthy for being shown as confident and powerful without being punished for it, or at least not in a manner presented as justified – and if they do suffer censure, they always get the final word.

It is also worth noting that these three women characters are all either queer or queer-coded, suggesting greater liberty is permitted to female characters who already canonically exist mostly beyond the male gaze (or at least, beyond the male reach). Given film and television’s increasing acceptance of queer identities, this correlation suggests more effective female heroes and leaders could be coming to our screens. Nevertheless, a limitation of this trend is that these women are potentially “permitted” stereotypically masculine qualities – like heroism, physical strength, and gut-based intuition – in part to uphold heteronormative standards sometimes imposed over queer relationships. Indeed, while these characters’ masculinity offers much-needed positive depictions of masculine women, the emphasis on it simultaneously reinforces butch/femme dichotomies between these characters and their love interests. Such dichotomies can be read as compulsorily heteronormative for implying that in queer relationships in particular, one partner must always embody the stereotypical role of “the woman” and the other of “the man.” I would also argue that storytelling continues to operate within the bell jar of patriarchy if women characters must embody traditionally masculine traits in order to be allowed to lead and succeed in their stories.

That said, although these characters are often recognized for their masculinity, they also exemplify a healthy blend of masculine and feminine qualities – perhaps even providing an alternative template for action films’ hyper-masculine male heroes and leaders. While Diana, Xena, and Anne spend the bulk of their time striding purposely, getting tasks done, and refusing to be belittled or sidelined by other people, their emotional journeys are central to their storylines without detracting from perceptions of them as competent, effective heroes and individuals. They are respected and shown to be both strategically and emotionally intelligent. Barring the fact that two of these women are to varying degrees immortal, and one is a snob: could this be closer to the incarnation and behavior of truly aspirational, human female heroes?

Writing competent female heroes and leaders for the screen should not be mission impossible.

Writing competent female heroes and leaders for the screen should not be mission impossible. If you tell your audience your character is competent and intelligent – perhaps even more competent and intelligent than the brawny two-dimensional action man – then show her leading, being listened to, and getting things right. Have her win the way angsty male, alcoholic test-failing secret agents are regularly allowed to win. Because at the end of the tale, this trend of associating women with book smarts and training smarts – but not instinctual smarts and born-leader smarts – ultimately implies that the place of women really is always one step behind the male hero. Their depiction onscreen suggests their intelligence and skill are learned rather than innate, and therefore quietly lacking and inferior to those of men, and their leadership secret sauce of pure masculine instinct.

Funnily enough, in the months following the emergence of the coronavirus, it was women leaders who were especially praised. What do Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, and Taiwan all have in common? Proactive government responses to the coronavirus; low pandemic-related death rates; and female leaders. Granted, it is simplistic and essentialist to conclude that female leaders are effective by virtue of gendered attributes: after all, these countries also benefit from being developed and relatively egalitarian, which fosters women in power. Yet, at the very least, this pattern suggests women leaders deserve to be up there with the boys—”born-leader” mentality and gut instinct irrelevant. Indeed, it is almost as if the leadership secret sauce that so many male heroes and leaders possess onscreen is really just an excuse to belittle competent women, and to keep them one step behind a mediocre man.  

Women have long shown that they have what it takes to lead, both onscreen and in real life, if only they are respected in their leadership roles as men would be. One does not need the gut instinct of Tom Cruise to recognize it is time we stopped patronizing them.

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