Sex Roles

, Volume 62, Issue 11–12, pp 734–746 | Cite as

Violent Female Action Characters in Contemporary American Cinema

  • Katy GilpatricEmail author
Original Article


This research is a content analysis of violent female action characters (“VFAC”) shown in American action films from 1991 through 2005. The analysis focused on three aspects of VFACs: (1) gender stereotypes, (2) demographics, and (3) quantity and type of violence. Findings showed that 58.6% of VFACs were portrayed in a submissive role to the male hero in the film, and 42% were romantically linked to him. The average VFAC was young, white, highly educated, and unmarried. VFACs engaged in masculine types of violence yet retained feminine stereotypes due to their submissive role and romantic involvement with a dominant male hero character. The findings suggest continued gender stereotypes set within a violent framework of contemporary American cinema.


Film Violence Gender Stereotypes Content Analysis 


  1. Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  2. Blumer, H., & Hauser, P. (1933). Movies, delinquency, and crime. New York: MacMillan.Google Scholar
  3. Brown, J. (1996). Gender and the action heroine: Hardbodies and the “Point of No Return”. Cinema Journal, 35(3), 52–71.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Brown, J. (2005). Gender, sexuality, and toughness: The bad girls of action film and comic books. In S. Inness (Ed.), Action chicks (pp. 47–74). New York: Palgrave MacMillan.Google Scholar
  5. Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  6. Butler, J. (1999). Gender is burning. In S. Thornham (Ed.), Feminist film theory (pp. 336–349). New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Calvert, S. L., Kondla, T. A., Ertel, K. A., & Meisel, D. S. (2001). Young adults’ perception and memories of a televised woman hero. Sex Roles, 45, 31–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Children Now. (2004). Prime time diversity report. Retrieved from
  9. Clover, C. J. (1992). Men, women, and chain saws: Gender in the modern horror film. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Crosby, S. (2005). Female heroes snapped into sacrificial heroines. In S. Inness (Ed.), Action chicks (pp. 153–178). New York: Palgrave MacMillan.Google Scholar
  11. Dietz, T. L. (1998). An examination of violence and gender role portrayals in video games: Implications for gender socialization and aggressive behavior. Sex Roles, 38, 425–442.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Dill, K. E., & Thill, K. P. (2007). Video game characters and the socialization of gender roles: Young people’s perceptions mirror sexist media depictions. Sex Roles, 57, 851–864.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Dyer, R. (2002). The matter of images: Essays on representation. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  14. Elasmer, M., Hasegawa, K., & Brain, M. (1999). The portrayal of women in U.S. prime time television. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 44, 20–34.Google Scholar
  15. Eschholz, S., & Bufkin, J. (2001). Crime in the movies: Investigating the efficacy of measures of both sex and gender for predicting victimization and offending in film. Sociological Forum, 16, 655–676.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Eschholz, S., Bufkin, J., & Long, J. (2002). Symbolic reality bites: Women and racial/ethnic minorities in modern film. Sociological Spectrum, 22, 299–334.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Gerbner, G. (1970). Cultural indicators: The case of violence in television drama. The Annuls of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 388, 69–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Gerbner, G. (1994). Making a killing. Psychology Today, 27(4), 18.Google Scholar
  19. Gerbner, G. (1998). Cultivation analysis: An overview. Mass Communication & Society, 1(3/4), 175–194.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Glascock, J. (2001). Gender, roles on prime-time network television: Demographics and behaviors. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 45, 656–669.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Glascock, J. (2003). Gender, race, and aggression in newer TV networks’ primetime programming. Communication Quarterly, 51, 90–100.Google Scholar
  22. Greenberg, H. R., Clover, C. J., Johnson, A., Chumo, P. N., Henderson, B., Williams, L., et al. (1991). The many faces of “Thelma & Louise”. Film Quarterly, 4(2), 20–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Hall, S. (Ed.). (1997). Representation: Cultural representations and signifying practices. Thousand Oaks: Sage.Google Scholar
  24. Haskell, M. (1974). From reverence to rape: The treatment of women in the movies. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston.Google Scholar
  25. Hills, E. (1999). From figurative males to action heroines: Further thoughts on active women in cinema. Screen, 40(1), 38–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Hooks, B. (1996). Reel to real: Race, sex, and class at the movies. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  27. Huesmann, L. R. (1999). The effects of childhood aggression and exposure to media violence on adult behaviors, attitudes and mood: Evidence from a 15-year cross-national longitudinal study. Aggressive Behavior, 25, 18–29.Google Scholar
  28. Inness, S. (Ed.). (2004). Action chicks: New images of tough women in popular culture. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.Google Scholar
  29. Internet Movie Data Base (“IMDB”). (2008). Retrieved from
  30. Jansz, J., & Martis, R. G. (2007). The Lara phenomenon: Powerful female characters in video games. Sex Roles, 56, 141–148.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. King, G. (2002). New Hollywood cinema, an introduction. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  32. King, N. (2008). Generic womanhood: Gendered depictions in cop action cinema. Gender & Society, 22, 238–260.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Krippendorff, K. (2004a). Reliability in content analysis: Some common misconceptions and recommendations. Human Communications Research, 30, 411–433.Google Scholar
  34. Krippendorff, K. (2004b). Content analysis: An introduction to its methodology. Thousand Oaks: Sage.Google Scholar
  35. Lazarsfeld, P. F., & Merton, R. K. (1948). Mass communication, popular taste, and organized social action. In L. Bryson (Ed.), The communication of ideas (pp. 95–118). New York: Harper & Row.Google Scholar
  36. Linz, D., & Donnerstein, E. (1994). Dialogue: Sex and violence in slasher films: a reinterpretation. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 38, 243–246.Google Scholar
  37. Lorber, J. (1999). Embattled terrain: Gender and sexuality. In M. M. Ferree, J. Lorber, & B. B. Hess (Eds.), Revisioning gender (pp. 416–48). Thousand Oaks: Sage.Google Scholar
  38. Lueptow, L. B., Garovich-Szabo, L., & Lueptow, M. B. (2001). Social change and the persistence of sex typing: 1974–1997. Social Forces, 80, 1–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Magoulick, M. (2006). Frustrating female heroism: Mixed messages in Xena, Nikita, and Buffy. The Journal of Popular Culture, 39, 729–747.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Mastro, D. E., & Greenberg, B. S. (2000). The portrayal of racial minorities on prime time television. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 44, 690–703.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. McCaughey, M., & King, N. (Eds.). (2001). Reel knockouts: Violent women in the movies. Austin: University of Texas Press.Google Scholar
  42. McRobbie, A. (2004). Post-feminism and popular culture. Feminist Media Studies, 4(3), 235–264.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Metz, C. (2006, May). Hollywood reboots. PC Magazine, 62–74.Google Scholar
  44. Modleski, T. (1991). Feminism without women: Culture and criticism in a ‘postfeminist age’. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  45. Motion Picture Association (2005). U.S. entertainment industry: 2005 MPA market statistics. Retrieved from
  46. Motion Picture Association (2007). U.S. movie attendance study. Retrieved from
  47. Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. Screen, 16(3), 6–18.Google Scholar
  48. Pfeil, F. (1995). White guys: Studies in postmodern domination and difference. New York: Verso.Google Scholar
  49. Powers, M. A. (1991). The heroine in western literature. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Ltd.Google Scholar
  50. Rosen, M. (1973). Popcorn Venus: Women, movies, and the American dream. New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan.Google Scholar
  51. Rowe-Karlyn, K. (2003). Scream, popular culture, and feminism’s third wave: “I’m not my mother.” Genders, 38. Retrieved from
  52. Sapolsky, B. S., Molitor, F., & Luque, S. (2003). Sex and violence in slasher films: Re-examining the assumptions. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 80(1), 28–38.Google Scholar
  53. Signorielli, N. (2003). Prime-time violence 1993–2001: Has the picture really changed? Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 47, 36–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Signorielli, N., & Bacue, A. (1999). Recognition and respect: A content analysis of prime-time television characters across three decades. Sex Roles, 41, 527–544.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Signorielli, N., & Kahlenberg, S. (2001). Television’s world of work in the nineties. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 45, 4–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Sklar, R. (1994). Movie-made America. New York: Vintage Books.Google Scholar
  57. Smith, S. L., Wilson, B. J., Kunkel, D., Linz, D., Potter, J., Colvin, C. M., et al. (1998). Violence in television programming overall: University of California, Santa Barbara study. In National television violence study: Vol. 3 (pp. 5–220). Newbury Park: Sage.Google Scholar
  58. Stacey, J. (2000). Desperately seeking difference. In A. E. Kaplan (Ed.), Feminism and film (pp. 456–465). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  59. Steinke, J. (2005). Cultural representations of gender and science. Science Communication, 27, 27–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Tasker, Y. (1993). Spectacular bodies: Gender, genre, and the action cinema. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Tasker, Y. (1998). Working girls: Gender and sexuality in popular cinema. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  62. Tasker, Y., & Negra, D. (Eds.). (2007). Interrogating postfeminism: Gender and the politics of popular culture. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  63. Trinh, T. M. (1991). When the moon waxes red: Representation, gender, and cultural politics. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  64. Twenge, J. (1997). Changes in masculine and feminine traits over time: A meta-analysis. Sex Roles, 36, 305–325.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. (1999). Women offenders. Retrieved from
  66. U.S. Census Bureau. (2006). American community survey. Retrieved from
  67. U.S. Census Bureau. (2007). Educational attainment. Retrieved from
  68. U.S. Census Bureau. (2008). Minority links. Data set 10—resident population by race, Hispanic origin, and single years of age: 2008. Retrieved from
  69. U.S. Department of Justice. (2007). FBI crime report: Expanded homicide data table 3. Retrieved from
  70. U.S. Department of Labor. (2008). Women’s bureau: Quick stats of women workers, 2008. Retrieved from
  71. Williams, L. R. (1991). Film bodies: Gender, genre, and excess. Film Quarterly, 44(4), 2–13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Wootton, B. (1997, April). Gender differences in occupational employment. Monthly Labor Review, 23–33.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Social SciencesKaplan UniversityFort LauderdaleUSA

Personalised recommendations