SO MANY FEMALE VICTIMS, BUT WHY SO FEW HEROINES?

IT’S A STRANGE QUESTION to ponder while standing in front of a movie theater on a Friday night: If a movie shows violence against a woman, is it good violence?

“Good,” of course, isn’t quite the right word. Neither is “necessary,” or “justifiable.”

The question comes up because one of the movies I had wanted to see this summer was “The Cell.” The story involves child therapist Jennifer Lopez and FBI detective Vince Vaughn entering the mind of Vincent D’Onofrio, a serial killer who preys on females.

I’ll probably go, knowing that it’s a masochistic trade-off. To get a heroine fix, I’ll need to watch other nameless female bodies get chopped up.

I do have a low tolerance for distressed damsels and imperiled dames standard fare on the Lifetime channel. I’ve especially avoided the offerings of this genre when torture or rape scenes are involved. The aversion to watching a rape derives from a bone-deep, instinctive revulsion. Some people would argue that simulated rape should never be shown or implied, no matter how integral it is to the story line, even if the scene is intended to shock people into realizing its horror.

If it’s possible to consider it from the viewpoint of spectatorship, showing violence against women, especially rape, often turns out to be a cheap, shabby and tedious contrivance. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, when Hollywood was turning to sex and violence as competitive edges over television, it often combined the two, with repulsive effect. Rape was the dramatic catalyst in movies like “Death Wish” and “Tightrope.” The men, usually Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood, specialized in rape vengeance and redemption. Once in a while, a Pam Grier would be the knight with the plunging neckline to fight the Man. More often than not, the female victims committed suicide, were brutally killed or retreated into a vegetative state.

Verging on porn

A few flicks, such as “I Spit on Your Grave,” centered around a woman not only fighting back, but slaying her multiple attackers one by one. Despite the aura of unleashed female power, however, those vehicles served as a gratuitous excuse to show the attack in a prolonged sequence verging on pornography (the camerawork sometimes eerily parallels skin flicks, frame by frame).

Now, having read more than my share of serial killer accounts (don’t ask), I would be the last person to ask for whitewashed, beribboned depictions of women going through life without a scratch. It’s the preponderance of victims vs. heroines that I mind.

You see, I don’t object to watching women brawling. Maybe the best example I can give is what I watched growing up. At the risk of mixing my cultural metaphors, going to a double feature of Hong Kong movies sometimes was a game of Russian roulette. A comedy might be paired with a gangster shoot-’em-up or horror flick, where women underwent grotesque brutalization.

Hong Kong women ruled

Fortunately, more often I saw action movies featuring female fighters who had to defend not their honor but their family, or a lost dynasty (usually Ming, since the Chinese didn’t care for those nasty Manchus). Watching this let me partake in the fantasy machine, and not just feel like so much flesh fodder.

We’ve come away a bit from rape-vengeance movies in American cinema, but emancipation hasn’t fully arrived. The 1991 “Thelma & Louise” was supposed to mark a milestone with the pair of buddy outlaws who literally end up in soaring defiance. The dramatic catalyst, though, once again was near-rape, and while the woman fights back, the only difference is that she pushes herself outside the mainstream instead of having society doing it for her a hollow victory.

That same year, “The Silence of the Lambs” depicted grisly violence. While the victims were mostly women, though, Jodie Foster arguably balanced the scales. She was involved not out of personal motives, but because it was her job and because she wanted to be; she was an integral part of a social order dedicated to resolving crimes against humanity.

Nowadays, it’s a mixed picture. “Mulan’s” heroine is considered a natural for a cartoon, while Mel Gibson’s macho goes epic with “Braveheart” and “The Patriot.” Lopez and Carrie-Anne Moss are coolly efficient in “Out of Sight” and “The Matrix.” Ashley Judd gets stuck in women-in-peril scenarios, but demonstrates the grit of Harrison Ford’s “Fugitive.”

Oddly, the fantasy realm still lags. In “X-Men,” the XX-Women are getting their sculpted rears kicked by a toad man. Halle Berry as Storm has to get smashed repeatedly before summoning up one measly lightning bolt.

There’s already so much to ask for and so much to do in the real world. In the cinematic world of fantasy, all I want for women is a fighting chance.

Vera H-C Chan is the Contra Costa Times events editor. She’s fearfully awaiting the movie version of “The Bionic Woman.”

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