Homepage > Joss Whedon’s Tv Series > Buffy The Vampire Slayer > Reviews > From buff to ’Buffy’ : Girls with guns and goofy geeks are (...)
Buffy The Vampire SlayerFrom buff to ’Buffy’ : Girls with guns and goofy geeks are teaming up to redefine the action hero
Sunday 27 January 2008, by Webmaster
Sylvester Stallone returns to the multiplex this weekend with “Rambo,” reprising a character absent from the big screen since 1988. The shirtless soldier isn’t likely to receive the same pop-cultural welcome he got during the waning days of the Reagan era: The film wasn’t screened for critics locally, suggesting that its studio anticipates bad reviews that could hurt ticket sales.
But John Rambo and other cinematic action icons like him face a far larger problem than scornful critics: They’re being swept into irrelevance by a tide of new American heroes, like the retail drone turned reluctant spy of NBC’s “Chuck,” admired more for their technical skills and a general lack of testosterone. And two new television series based on popular properties—“Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” and “Bionic Woman”—are spearheading a resurrection of the strong, hard-hitting and sexy action heroine—action figures who are tougher, less cartoonish, more relatable and just more believable than their beefed-up male counterparts.
So how is it that these two phenomena are occurring at the same time, and what does their confluence say about our current culture?
“In the end, I think they’re both two sides of the same coin, two sides of cultural responses to American life in the aftermath of the success of feminism,” says Ted Friedman, an associate professor of communication at Georgia State University.
“The term in critical theory that’s used to describe this is post-feminism,” he continues. “We live in an era defined by the successes that women have had. All those changes are going to be reflected in our media images. And if one side is images of powerful women, then you also have a rethinking of what it means to be male.”
In an era when a woman may very well be the next president, “it makes sense that we reexamine action heroes,” he says. “Action heroes are often a reflection of American identity. John Wayne and Sylvester Stallone became icons of American-ness. And it’s interesting that a woman could step into those shoes.” “The women are allowed to kick serious ass, but clearly what makes it go down easy for American audiences is that they’re wearing these skimpy outfits.”—Ted Friedman, associate professor of communications at GSU CHANGING OF THE GUARD
Those shoes wouldn’t be available for heroines to step into if the public wasn’t palpably hungry for something different from the action-movie formula that’s held sway for decades. Big-budget, explosion-filled spectacles—a great number of them produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (“Bad Boys,” “The Rock”)—have become the norm, and the general public regards them as little more than junk food. The sudden reappearance of Indiana Jones, John Rambo and “Die Hard” cop John McClane isn’t a coincidence: Studios are increasingly turning to bygone franchises to attract more viewers to a creatively teetering form.
This recent revival of aged action heroes suggests that the icon itself is becoming an anachronism. From “Napoleon Dynamite” and “The 40 Year Old Virgin” to the arrested adolescent males of “Knocked Up” and the actual adolescents of “Superbad,” the aggressive macho-man stereotype is being supplanted by a kinder, gentler—and dorkier—kind of protagonist: the geek. Michael Cera (“Juno,” “Superbad,” “Arrested Development”) is the new geek sex symbol: moon-faced, skinny-legged, sweet and socially awkward.
Last year’s “Live Free or Die Hard” served as a kind of passing-of-the-torch ceremony for these two archetypes, with Bruce Willis’ surly McClane grudgingly sharing the stage with Justin Long’s young, wisecracking hacker (call them the alpha male and the beta male). It was a textbook lesson in the changing of the guard: McClane solved problems with his gun and his fists; Long’s Matt Farrell solved his by text-messaging with a shadowy figure named “Warlock,” who turned out to be Kevin Smith, operating from his mom’s basement.
“The argument I’ve heard the most, which seems pretty persuasive, is that it [the rise of the geek] has to do with the rising influence of technology and the rise of hackers,” Friedman says. “When I was in high school, to be a nerd or a geek was just shameful and not valued.” Whereas today, “the sensibility of these kids is more appreciated and respected.”
This social shift isn’t lost on Hollywood, which has responded not only by paying more attention to the growing geek base—soliciting them at comic-book conventions, churning out ever more comic book- and video game-based properties—but also by placing geeks front and center in movies and on TV. The 2007 fall season alone introduced “Chuck” and “Reaper,” both featuring somewhat geek-like protagonists, as well as the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” featuring two über-brainy nerd stereotypes. And then there’s the geek-as-action hero, a line stretching from Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man to Masi Oka’s Hiro on NBC’s “Heroes.”
“The embrace of some of these [programs] shows that at least there’s room for more cultural characters than the old geek-nerd cliché—four-eyed weaklings being pushed around by big guys at the beach,” says Friedman. “I doubt that’s gone away, but it allows for a wide range of representatives onscreen. You could say it’s an extension of gays, African-Americans and other groups seeing themselves onscreen more: a diversification of the cultural landscape.”