“If this is real love, it doesn’t matter it
is a she or a he” (Valerie Chow, “Freaky Story”)
The Act of Viewing
Film theory invokes the related concepts of
identification and desire as mechanisms whereby film viewing can be imbued
with potential ideological significance. Feminist film theory, in
particular, has argued that the very forms and narratives of classical
Hollywood – and, by extension, narrative cinema world wide – have tended
to support prevailing patriarchal norms. This is achieved not only
via the textual construction as discussed above, but also in the act of
viewing. It is hypothesized that the audience (of either gender)
is invited to identify with the principal protagonist or hero (customarily
male in genre films) by the fact of their agency within the narrative.
Since most action genre films primarily foreground male figures engaging
in masculine-coded actions, the presumed audience address is inherently
male and patriarchal. According to this view, the intended male audience
can easily read the gender-coded conduct of the protagonist, and is invited
to identify with this male figure. The evidence (Note
1) suggests that action genres are, indeed,
predominantly preferred by men.
To the extent that women feature at all in low-genre
action films, their role is usually ancillary to the principal narrative
axis since they are acted upon, or act in response to, the principal male
characters who drive the narrative. Narrative closure is frequently
achieved by the male achieving formation of a relationship. By identifying
with such male roles, male viewers may implicitly adopt and endorse the
dominant patriarchal norms that are represented in this type of text.
To the extent that female viewers may identify with traditionally depicted
female roles, they may be inclined toward adoption and endorsement of an
implicitly submissive spectatorial position. Although obviously varying
widely across film titles, these dominant roles and identificatory patterns
can be considered to support broadly patriarchal assumptions – rendering
action genres relatively conservative in typical ideological perspective.
When taken to extremes in low-genre films, film theory refers to an active
“sadistic” gaze versus “masochistic” identification.
The possibilities for desire also seem strongly
coded by role. Desire associated with the valued icon of the “star”
often seems predicated on carefully cultivated aspects of gender role.
Female bodies are frequently filmed and presented in fragmented and highly
stylized ways (Note 2),
emphasizing appearance and display over action and skill. The traditional
male figure in film can be described as the active possessor of gaze and
initiator of approach, while the female figure is “to be looked at” and
While numerous HK and other Asian genre films
certainly conform to these general patterns, GWG films superficially do
not. Instead, they privilege female action, agency and skill (and
sometimes an active gaze) while occasionally de-emphasizing appearance
and attire. The possibility of male sado-masochistic identification
is acknowledged in analysis of pornography (Note
3), raising the possibility that GWG films
might also invite a distinctly different pattern of identification and
desire from the male spectator than the traditional action genre.
It could be argued that sufficient male-coded behavioral conventions are
typically present in GWG films to permit relatively effortless male identification
with the nominally female protagonist who would then correspond to the
ambiguous “Final Girl” figure. An intriguing cultural observation
involves the apparent difference in this regard between Hong Kong and Japanese
GWG films. Unlike HK norms, most Japanese GWG films retain conspicuously
stereotypic gendering of their protagonists who are clearly not “Final
Girls” but follow traditional display codes (perhaps one reason why the
Japanese martial artists cited in this essay sought work abroad).
A related possibility is that some GWG films may
offer masochistic identificatory opportunities in the form of submission
to the female protagonist’s power. Some notable GWG performers such
as Yukari Oshima arguably embodied both conspicuous gender role ambiguity
and opportunities for masochistic identification (and desire) in screen
roles that are too numerous to be coincidental. Examples include
conspicuously dangled or groin level phallic weapon symbolism (“Vengeance
Is Mine,” 1997) while sitting – legs akimbo – with another woman kneeling
at her side, dressing in men’s clothing (“The Direct Line”), appearing
as a man (“The Story of Ricky”), or even playing a sadistic torturer (“Angel,”
“The Story of Ricky,” “Kickboxer’s Tears”). In “Kickboxer’s Tears”
(1992) Oshima’s reaction to Moon Lee’s kick to her groin is so unusual
and prominent that it invites possible gender associations by viewers.
Oshima’s younger compatriot Miho Nomoto has played a homicidal hermaphrodite
(“Fudoh: The New Generation”) or leather-clad lesbian killer (“Awful
Crime” aka “Wild Criminal”) – the latter title from 1999 representing a
rare exception to Japanese GWG conventions. Such roles as these arguably
conflate sadomasochistic identificatory possibilities with both heterosexual
and homoerotic desires. Concentration of such viewer reactions onto
a single screen character – rather than more traditional distribution of
such reactions across the roles of several male and female co-stars – may
help explain the intense sub-cultural appeal of these films. Essentially,
they excite within the realm of the transgressive.
The potential address to female audiences of GWG
films may be as problematic as other genres of excess (Note
4) that de-emphasize relationships.
Although the primary figure may be female, much of her behavior appears
coded male according to action genre conventions. While this should
present few problems for males – or, for that matter, lesbian audiences
who reportedly favor potent female figures in muscle dramas (Note
5) – these films seem to offer few identificatory
possibilities for the traditionally aligned or liberal feminist viewer.
Questions of desire can also be potentially subversive.
Who is the viewer of either gender presumed to desire in these films?
The heterosexual male viewer of action film is implicitly confronted with
the potential homoerotic implications of the Final Girl
6), while the female viewer who is drawn to
the role might also thereby encounter the potential for homoerotic desire
7). Based on studies that report preferences
for strong action roles with female performers, lesbian audiences could
discover a potential goldmine among HK (but not Japanese) GWG genre films.
It is surprising that such reading possibilities have not been more widely
Many titles, however, present few difficulties
for theorizing identification or desire. The female protagonists
are often presented as spectacle. Their roles are coded for display,
while the male figures either permit a measure of masochistic identification
(e.g., Simon Yam’s impotent detective in “Naked Killer”) or are sufficiently
distanced by their own shortcomings to not invite identification at all.
Notes: Identification and Desire
1. Barbara Creed, “Film and psychoanalysis.”
In, Hill & Gibson (Eds.), op. cit., p. 81.
2. Patricia White, “Feminism and film.”
In, Hill & Gibson (Eds.), op. cit., p. 117.
3. See Laura Kipnis, “Pornography.”
In, Hill & Gibson (Eds.), op. cit., pp. 151 – 155. See also Brown,
4. Williams, op. cit.
5. Anneke Smelik, “Gay and lesbian criticism.”
In, Hill & Gibson (Eds.), op. cit., p. 140.
6. Clover, op. cit.
7. See Arons, op. cit. and Hollinger, op.
cit. for a fuller discussion of possible identification and desire associated
with female viewership of female action films.