Puberty unleashes the killer instinct. Katniss Everdeen’s the newest pledge in an exclusive and mostly female society of teen avengers and assassins. After decades of testosterone cinema, females are now allowed a Hollywood fantasy fight. Are these underage antiheroes showing girl power? Has Hollywood reached an equal-opportunity turning point in reflecting female societal gains? Or in Lucy van Pelt mode, can girls just get away with murder? Tread carefully through film’s most dangerous teens.
Katniss Everdeen, “The Hunger Games” (2012)
An archer in postapocalyptic America who steps in for her sister to fight on a teen killing field. “The Hunger Games” film was fueled as much by marketplace epiphanies as by the compellingly lurid plot. With moviegoing in freefall, girls may be pop culture’s salvation, what with their book-buying habits and box-office loyalty. Female viewership for “Twilight,” notes Forbes, matched or exceeded male attendance at superhero films. Katniss isn’t the only savior.
Violet & Daisy, “Violet & Daisy” (2011)
Shades of “Pulp Fiction” meets “Mean Girls.” Oscar-winning “Precious” scriptwriter Geoffrey Fletcher concedes that his directorial debut’s a “pretty strange” departure from the suffering of his African American protagonist. The action-comedy, screened at the Toronto Film Festival in 2011 and snapped up for international distribution, pairs Saoirse Ronan and Alexis Bledel. Their girlish materialism highlights the Lucy Van Pelt rule, per Charles Schulz: It’s funnier when a girl pulls away the football or pumps the shotgun.
Hanna Heller, “Hanna” (2011)
Trained in the Finnish wilderness by her CIA papa (Eric Bana), the lethal innocent (Saoirse Ronan) knows the world only through Dad and books. Her nemesis, a brittle CIA agent (Cate Blanchett), reflects the rise of real-life female ops. Body count aside, “Hanna” (2011) unfolds like a cozy coming-of-assassin movie with an economic subtext. Suggests GSU film lecturer Drew Ayers, the men’s inability to protect her is akin to “the loss of working class ‘masculine’ jobs.” Tough times.
Mindy “Hit-Girl” Macready, “Kick-Ass” (2010)
Another paternally-trained killer out for maternal vengeance, the 11 year old (Chloë Moretz) favors blades, grenades, and hand-to-hand combat in “Kick-Ass” (2010). And that potty mouth. Said Moretz of Hit-Girl, “This time it’s a girl taking charge and she’s going and doing this and getting it done the right way.” Food for thought: Notice how her urchin size compared to muscle-bound superheroes resembles the difference between (underfed) female and male gymnasts?
Eli/Abby, “Let The Right One In” (2008)
The 2008 Swedish horror film (“Let the Right One In“) inspired a 2010 American remake (“Let Me In“) and a killer line: “Thirteen-year-old Chloë Grace Moretz has killed more people onscreen this year than most adult male action stars.” Eli/Abby, 12 going on 200, descends from a line of bad girls (“The Bad Seed,” “The Exorcist,” “Carrie”), but this vampire vigilante defends a bullied boy. And unlike other vamps, Eli/Abby’s youth makes her motives purer, even if she’s driven by bloodlust.
Buffy Summers, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1992)
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1992) was camp, but the cheerleader-by-day/slayer-by-night proved a transitional figure. Her feats landed on TV alongside Xena and Power Puff Girls, but she ran counterpoint to horror-genre scream queens. “Female Action Heroes” author Gladys L. Knight notes the premillennium wave of female go-getters boasts “lean bodies and/or petite frames. They are neither excessively hard-bodied nor voluptuous.” In 20 years, the heroines were bound to get younger.
Knives Chau, “Scott Pilgrim Vs the World” (2010)
Michael Cera-fatigue and mismarketing made many miss out on “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010), an amusing teen comedy with an outrageous video-game aesthetic and rock-’em/sock-’em moves. A romantic triangle — actually, more a nonagonal intersecting with a triangle in a Venn diagram — centers on Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) but the self-makeover of needy, heartbroken 17-year-old Chau (Ellen Wong), complete with daggers, puts “Grease’s” Sandra Dee Dumbrowski to shame.
Zen, “Chocolate” (2009)
The autistic daughter of star-crossed gangsters is a Thai twist to that hoary tradition of Asian fighting females that goes all the way back to the silent era. “Chocolate” (2009) mixes up several kung fu motifs: the defenseless defending themselves and avenging Mom, although in this case Zen’s tough mama is alive but stricken with cancer. The weirdly exhilarating film shows Zen learning to fight by watching Bruce Lee, the ultimate deadly underdog.
Hua Mulan, “Mulan” (2008)
Disney thought this legendary Chinese folk hero, who went undercover as a soldier to replace her ailing father, was worth a cartoon (2008). She offset the usual princess and fairy lineup, and prepped kids for spunkier heroines like an updated Rapunzel and upcoming archer Merida (“Brave“). Mulan’s drive is more “romanticized,” notes “Hard Bodies” author Susan Jeffords. Unlike other heroines, that grit makes her less a victim of circumstance than someone who controls her own destiny.
GoGo Yubari, “Kill Bill” (2003)
The Bride (Uma Thurman) battled many in”Kill Bill” (2003), including this Japanese schoolgirl (Chiaki Kuriyama, who also starred in “Battle Royale,” the 2000 cult classic in which the government forces ninth-graders to battle to the death). Japanese schoolgirls for years had symbolized the geek’s It Girl — a trendsetter in tech, cutesiness, and anime girl power. GoGo emerged at the tail end of their reign, but right when older Japanese women were forging their social independence.
Mathilda Lando, “The Professional” (1994)
Before her ballerina days, Natalie Portman was a 12-year-old assassin-apprentice in “The Professional” (1994). Out to avenge her brother’s murder (abusive parents, not so much), she appeals to loner neighbor Leon (Jean Reno) to help her take on a corrupt DEA agent (Gary Oldman). The traditional male avenger, says Jeffords, is good in a fight, but can’t reintegrate. “Society is saying ‘we’re kind of happy that you’re here, but you can’t fit in.’ Girls though can be socialized.”
Nikita, “La Femme Nikita” (1991):
A drug addict drafted to be a government hitwoman, the original girl assassin started off French, turned American, Australian, then grew up to be Asian-American (Maggie Q), downsized for television. “La Femme Nikita” (1991) came out the same time as “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Sleeping with the Enemy” — all movies with ladies conflicted in their mission, be it killing targets, hunting killers, or escaping abusive husbands. Nikita may have wanted out of the game, but she’s a pioneer.