Summer 2013 was a very good summer.

It wasn’t a perfect summer. We didn’t have an epic action adventure film featuring Gina Torres as Wonder Woman, for example.

But we had The Heat. And Henry Cavill running around all hairy and shirtless and being outwitted by Amy Adam’s Lois Lane.

And between Pacific Rim and Kick Ass 2 we had a couple of very attractive white guys gladly taking the back seat in their own films so we could watch the trials and tribulations of fleshed out female character and get a taste of a cinematic world where the heroes of huge epic action films are women.

These manly men heroes don’t just lure in audiences, but studios. Distributors. The gatekeepers of Hollywood are loathe to let women take the lead in an action film so writers like Travis Beacham give them a handsome young white guy. Ostensibly he’s the narrative lead. He does the voiceover and the film starts with his tragedy.

But things shift with the introduction of a dame.


In Pacific Rim Mako Mori walks gracefully onto screen and politely takes over the story. She notable not because she’s big and brash like the fellas, but through her silence, her calm demeanor, and her sheer confidence in every scene. Rinko Kikuchi brings a very Japanese brand of feminism to the role. In America we tend to brand a female character as “strong” by using masculine gender qualifiers. “Can she fight?” “Does she take shit from people?” “Does she speak her mind willfully?” But Japanese feminism, influenced heavily by a language that genders nearly every sentence does not seek to qualify a woman through masculine norms. Equality isn’t framed by the masculine, but by respect. And Mako Mori, beloved and respected by the male leads of the film, is thus a “strong female character.”

But it’s during the first “drift” that the nature of the narrative really reveals itself. In Pacific Rim “drifting” is when two pilots merge consciousness and share the “neural load” to control the jaeger (the badass giant robots humans use to punch monsters in the face) and when Mako first drifts with Raleigh everything changes.

Because rather than have her witness and be horrified by the loss Raleigh had experienced, he finds himself thrust into her mind and witnessing her formative loss. He’s a big previously brash guy who immediately empathizes with and understands a woman, and afterwards he doesn’t make it about his pain or his problems. In fact, perhaps owing to the whole “drift” concept they sort of merge. She becomes, not the side kick or the romantic interest, but the deuteragonist. Sharing the narrative load much like the neural one. The major moment of “revenge” that films like this hinge on? That one moment where a beleaguered hero is allowed to make peace with their significant losses to the kaiju? Mako gets that moment. Not Raleigh.

While Raleigh’s on heroic journey is certainly compelling he isn’t the one losing a mentor or carrying a chip on his shoulder because of loss. Mako is the one with the traditional narrative. She’s the one walking the path of Joseph Campbell’s hero.

Something similar happens in Kick Ass 2. Dave Lizewski’s arc is identical to his arc in the first film. He gets the idea to be a superhero. He realizes that is a terrible idea. Things spiral out of control. He beats up a bad guy and decides to stop being a superhero.

The difference is this time around Mindy Macready isn’t just an adorable and foul-mouthed sidekick there to brighten up dour scenes. She’s a protagonist. In many ways she’s the protagonist. She’s the one wrestling with teen hormone fueled sexual urges, she’s the one sneaking out at night, she’s the one struggling to understand her place in the world. In short, she’s the one with the arc.

The same thing happens to Gong Er in the US cut of The Grandmaster. While the film is sold as the tale of Ip Man as played by Tony Leung it is Zhang Ziyi’s Gong Er who has to carry the major narrative beats. She’s the character fighting to protect her father’s reputation. She’s the one who later battles Japanese sympathizers during World War 2 in revenge for her father’s death, and it is with her final days that the film slowly ends. Ip Man becomes little more than the narrator of her tale.

Like Mako and Mindy she’s the character with a storyline audiences can find familiar, and like Mako and Mindy she has to stand just behind the attractive man in all the promotional material. PR sells these men as the heroes, but it’s the women telling the actual stories.

When Orange is the New Black exploded with buzz this summer creator Jenji Kohan was very open about her show’s neurotic, upper middle class white protagonist.

“In a lot of ways Piper was my Trojan Horse. You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories. But it’s a hard sell to just go in and try to sell those stories initially. The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point, and it’s relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. It’s useful.”

These men do for women at large what Piper Chapman was fashioned to do for women of color. They’re Trojan Horse Heroes, luring us in with promise of bland and average narratives and then surprising us with the kind of nuanced portrayals of women that are all too rare.

And these Trojan Horse Heroes are everywhere. On Suits and The Big Bang Theory the praise for the show is usually reserved for the women of the cast while the men are the ones dominating the PR, people now watch Mad Men hoping Don will jump off a building so Peggy and Joan can take the reigns of the story, and American Horror Story‘s third season has killed or ripped the tongue out of every male character who’s shown up. Meanwhile Person of Interest is a show sold as being about two white men using an AI to save people, but its cast has expanded and now features three women (two who are women of color!) and two of the last three episodes have even focused almost exclusively on those women!

Here two of those aforementioned ladies geek out...over guns.

Here two of those aforementioned ladies geek out…over guns.

In the promotional material for Sleepy Hollow much was made of it being a show about Ichabod Crane waking up in 2013 and doing battle with the headless horseman. Yet the show actually on air is about Nicole Beharie’s Abbie Mills as she navigates crazy 18th century Armageddon monsters and her ruined relationship with her sister. Tom Mison’s Ichabod essentially stuck his foot in the door and is now holding it open for a wonderful story about two black women who aren’t entirely sure how they can forgive one another.

These sisters are so good. They let their adorable puppy sit at the table.

These sisters are so good. They let their adorable puppy sit at the table.

As trends in television and film goes this may be one of the least detrimental–even if it is tremendously depressing that the only way studios will tell these stories is if they’re first legitimized by someone male, white, and most often both.

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