Recent developments in cinema show that we are in the midst of a shift to a digital future. The advances in computer generated imagery (CGI) have provided filmmakers with the potential to explore new and exciting worlds, characters, and narrative trajectories. Distribution formats and patterns are altering our engagement with cinema. The success of James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) has resulted in a resurgence of interest in 3D technology as filmmakers attempt to create a more immersive viewing experience. However, despite these innovations and possibilities, the creative teams that make content are still rooted in a cultural world that has specific ideological limits. For example, while digital technology provides the capacity to manipulate gender identities, contemporary digital representations of women often seem to belong to an analogue world, as a discussion of the warrior woman will demonstrate.

The warrior woman can be understood as a representational figure who exemplifies and embodies a range of contested meanings about femininity, especially physically capable and resourceful women. Although the notion of a warrior-like woman has been around in our cultural imaginaries for some time, she has until recently been more an anomaly than an archetype. (1) Over the last decade the warrior woman has been visible in many places and across several genres. (2) Understandably, the warrior woman has become the focus of increasing academic attention. The concept of a heroic female figure is permeating our cultural imagination, as Hilary Neroni states, she has become ‘an established presence in the universe of contemporary media’. (3) There is even a compendium that highlights 187 different warrior women, with the authors proclaiming her ‘a multifaceted symbol of ‘womanhood.” (4) Moreover, the warrior woman is not confined to western popular culture. Anne Billson argues us that this kind of female figure can also be seen in Chinese action cinema, with action heroines who are “more than mere side kicks, girlfriends or sisters; they [are] heroines with a purpose, using their martial-arts skills to combat evil.” (5)

The figure that I have designated as the ‘warrior woman’ has also been called a ‘tough girl’, (6) ‘action girl’, (7) ‘feisty heroine’, (8) ‘violent femme’ (9) and ‘violent woman’. (10) What anchors this figure is her propensity towards violence. The warrior woman can also be recognised by the physical and/or mental strength she displays in the face of adversity. It is this combination of strength and tendency towards violence that makes her a distinct manifestation of ‘womanhood’. Some of the more familiar manifestations of the warrior woman include ‘The Avenging Mother’ of The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), the ‘English Lady-cum-Pirate’ in the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy (2003, 2006, 2007), the ‘Avenging Bride’ of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films (2003/2004), the ‘Rogue Spy’ of Salt (2010), or the CGI alien Neytiri, the ‘Heroic Lover’ from Avatar.

The continuing emergence of new warrior women indicates that debates about representation within feminist film and media studies remain relevant. As Hilary Neroni comments, “it is rarer to see a woman who can’t fight for herself, or help out in a fight, than one who can”. (11) For example, the advertising tag line for Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) reads “Woman Warrior Queen.” Below this text is an image of Elizabeth I dressed in armour. This striking image focuses the reader on the notion of a Queen at war. The film’s trailer also depicts Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) in full armour, this time riding a white horse and addressing her army as they prepare for the battlefield. This type of advertising strategy suggests that the notion of women as national warriors is widely understood by a general audience. The figure of a violent, fighting, brave, heroic woman is not only culturally legible, it is familiar. This representation of ‘womanhood’ highlights changing ideas of what it means to be ‘woman’, marking a major shift in the way women can be portrayed in mainstream popular culture, and expanding the realms of what ‘woman’ can represent. (12)

The warrior woman also challenges our understanding of the conventions of gender representation. If, as Judith Halberstam argues, codes of masculinity conjure up “notions of power, legitimacy and privilege,” thereby “naturalising” relations between men and power in our western society, then the warrior woman questions this process. (13) The warrior woman offers a more progressive idea of what it is to be heroic and female to the collective imagination. She is a dynamic representation of a female figure that combines masculine and feminine traits. She is also a site of contention over what can be regarded as ‘acceptably female’. The female heroism of the warrior woman is both masculine and feminine which subverts cultural tendencies to represent gender categories in rigid, binary terms. I want to suggest that she signifies a ‘potent fusion’ (14) between feminine and masculine attributes in a female sexed body. She is recognizably female, even maternal, yet she is also a highly effective ‘soldier’ whose adept use of weaponry and technology or capacity for strategy and leadership is as good as any man’s. Furthermore, her feminine qualities do not inhibit her fighting prowess in any way, while her masculine traits do not diminish her humanity.

The warrior woman is, therefore, a heroic female figure that embodies and represents a hybridised gender identity that transcends conventional gender identities and iconography. This suggests that this apparently progressive figure of womanhood from the pre-digital age could provide the basis for extraordinary digital women to emerge. One such figure might have been Neytiri in Avatar, who I will discuss shortly. The director of Avatar, James Cameron, is a notable figure in the screen history of the warrior woman because his previous films included two memorable examples: Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) in The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Aliens (1986). The portrayal of Sarah Connor pushed the limits of what ‘motherhood’ had been portrayed as. Starting out as a terrified waitress in the first film, she becomes a fully fledged warrior woman in the sequel as she tries to protect her son from futuristic robotic assassins. In Terminator 2 her muscular, yet feminine body points to a notion of motherhood that is active and unrestrained by gender conventions. (15) In Aliens Cameron transformed the somewhat compromised female protagonist of Alien (1979) into an explicitly feminist figure. (16) Judith Newton comments on Ripley in Alien that, far from being a feminist hero, she is ‘robbed of radical thrust’ because the narrative attributes to her stereotypical feminine characteristics; ‘impulsive, nurturing, and sexually desirable’. (17) Cameron’s version of Ripley merged masculine aggression with ‘mothering’ instincts to overcome the alien threat but also to protect Newt, a young female survivor. Ripley faces her mirror image – the monstrous alien ‘queen’ – and triumphs. (18)

Given Cameron’s interest in strong female characters, one might have hoped that Neytiri would signify a new phase in the warrior woman’s trajectory. Despite the opportunity for aesthetic innovation, Cameron has created a conventional, even stereotypical, Hollywood leading lady. Neytiri has more in common with Rose from Titanic (1997) than Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley, or Lindsay Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) in The Abyss (1989). An attractive and exotic figure, Neytiri fulfils the role of love interest and indigenous beauty. Although she is presented as a warrior within the context of the narrative, her story arc recalls figures such as Pocahontas in the eponymous Disney film. Neytiri’s concerns are subordinate to those of the protagonist Jake (Sam Worthington); she is depicted as scantily clad with animal-like qualities. As such, she conforms to the racist stereotype of the ‘dusky maiden’.

The role played by digital technology in this process is important. Like many of the characters in Avatar, Neytiri was created through the digital manipulation of the performance of a live actor via motion capture technology. In the case of Neytiri, Zoe Saldana, known for her work in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) and Star Trek (2009) provided the original ‘performance’. Saldana’s voice was subsequently synchronised with the digitally projected body of Neytiri. This combination (arguably) provided the character with an authenticity because she seems grounded in the ‘real’. Of course, all of Neytiri’s physical features, the manner in which her digital body moved through space, and how ‘she’ interacted with her environment and displayed emotional responses was developed through the effort of a large team of CGI artists. The result is a sexual and racial stereotype, but one which has been naturalised by the actor’s corporeal presence. However, digitalisation functions differently within the film’s narrative context because it enables the ‘real’ or ‘human’ Jake to adopt an artificial persona or avatar which provides him with the opportunity to overcome his disability. His story arc is a fantasy of transcendence with erotic fulfillment.

The representation of gender and race in Avatar is hardly surprising because it is, after all, a mainstream Hollywood film. However, its representations remind us that the struggles over representation continue irrespective of the medium, and that rhetoric about the creative freedom remains just that, rhetoric. Such claims always carry an ideological dimension. In this respect, the warrior woman has a vital role to play in the ongoing battle over gender and representation. Her various qualities can be read as a metaphor for the different roles women occupy in contemporary society – mother, worker, breadwinner, family head – or problems they face: discrimination, violence, inequality and so on. The warrior woman also embodies the very notion of struggle through her hands on, action packed, physically demanding existence. She is a reminder, a challenge, and a call to arms, an empowered figure that projects a representation of ‘womanhood’ who is more than capable of being heroic no matter what comes her way.

The proliferation of the warrior woman can also be regarded as an index of feminist contestations of popular culture and gender identity. Following post-feminism, it is perhaps fashionable to believe that myth that empowerment for women has been achieved, and that feminism is defunct. In her exploration of feminism’s position in the so-called post-feminist period, Angela McRobbie argues that while elements of feminism have been incorporated into political and institutional life, this has been only a nominal form of empowerment that seeks to appease women rather than remove serious inequalities faced by them. (19) As Joanne Hollows suggests, ‘This ‘progress’ can never be assumed but is still a site of struggle, and rights which have been won are not guaranteed’. (20) Diane Negra argues similarly that ‘post-feminism continually hypes empowerment, but a closer examination of popular culture reveals a sense of stern disapproval and judgment for any manifestations of ‘off-script’ femininity’. (21) She asserts that post-feminism in popular culture is marked by an idealisation of traditional femininities that promote ‘homemaker chic’, and warns that ‘post-feminism offers the pleasure and comfort of (re)claiming an identity uncomplicated by gender politics, postmodernism, or institutional critique. (22)

Tina Chanter claims that feminists need to “take a lead in forging a new politics and ethics, new ways of relating to one another, both among women and between men and women”. (23) If McRobbie and Negra are correct in their assessments that feminism in contemporary popular culture is in some ways outmoded, then this points to the need for innovative and effective action so that ‘progress’ does not unravel, and the gains of previous struggles are maintained. The warrior woman can play a dynamic role in this process. While the warrior woman’s progressiveness is constrained by her combination of binary gender characteristics, she has the capacity to reveal the hierarchical dimensions of gender in contemporary society and culture. The hybridity, fluidity and frequent changes and manifestations associated with this figure all gesture towards the artifice of gender positions and the possibilities of change.

Chanter reminds us that merely reversing the existing power dynamics of masculine and feminine roles is not an adequate project for feminism; becoming militant and ‘calling all the shots’ is not the answer. (24) However, calling some of the shoots might be a good place to start in the era of digital cinema. Despite all of the collaborative work that went into Avatar, it is worth remembering that not only is it the vision of one man, but that, if anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, James Cameron was responsible for much of the minutiae of the film. There is little doubt that he played Pygmalion to Saldana’s Neytiri. One wonders, for example, what Neytiri (or, indeed, the film as a whole) might have been like if it had been directed by, say, Cameron’s ex-wife and Oscar rival, Kathryn Bigelow. While Bigelow has denied being a feminist, her films have often displayed an interest in reworking the conventions of gender and genre – Blue Steel (1989), Point Break (1991) and Strange Days (1995) for example.

If we are going to surpass the limits of analogue representation in digital technology, then we will need to do more than manipulate pixels. We need to put thought itself into flux. At a time when many women, especially young women, do not see the need for a feminist politics, the warrior woman can function as a means to stimulate debates around the representation of gender from a feminist perspective. However, she is only a figure or a tool, one strategy for creating and sustaining engagement. Digital technology is increasingly affordable: camera equipment and special effects packages are now reasonably accessible, and animation software may become so in the near future. It is foreseeable that we can move beyond the creative hierarchies that structure the production of blockbusters towards the democratisation of the moving image.

In this respect it is worth exploring Lara Croft’s potential as a digital woman because she indicates how the figure of the warrior woman can operate as a site of complex negotiations. Croft is an unusual, hybrid creature who first appeared in the 1990s as a computer generated character created by a British computer game designer. Lara is an adventurer and pursues traditionally masculine goals of finding hidden artefacts and buried treasure – she is a re-imagining of the male adventurer figure like Indiana Jones. Lara is physically strong, an excellent fighter, and a great markswoman. She can drive cars, ride motorcycles and handle all manner of vehicles. Her exceptional gymnastic abilities enable her to climb and negotiate terrain that is normally impassable. Since her first manifestation Lara Croft has become an iconic figure spanning video games, comic books and films. While the casting and performance of Angelina Jolie as Lara in the two Tomb Raider films (2001, 2003) have provided a recognisable cinematic version of Croft, Lara remains a popular and fluid cultural figure.

Maja Mikula claims that Lara Croft’s appeal for her fans lies precisely in the open or flexible quality of the character: “She is drag queen and female automaton, dominatrix and queer babe, at the same time, in different ways, for different audiences”. (25) Like Lara Croft, all warrior women are sites of negotiated meanings; their social and cultural meanings are difficult to fix. We can draw parallels between the ability to manipulate digital imagery and the pliable, even slippery qualities of the warrior woman. Mikula contends that this makes Lara Croft an empty sign. (26)

However, while the warrior woman is a shape-shifter, Croft’s multiple presences demonstrate, the warrior woman can circulate within culture as a discursive conversation about what can potentially be portrayed and identified as female. Lara Croft is a representation of femininity that is flexible and adaptable for audiences a site of contested negotiations that gives her subversive potential. Mikula acknowledges that different gamers view Lara Croft in a variety of ways. Some women express how great it is to ‘be’ Lara – adventurous, strong and independent – whilst male gamers talk of controlling Lara. (27) Some feminist activists, Mikula notes, have even used her image in performances as a political sign of gender bending. (28) Croft is therefore a playful figure that can, to some degree, interact with her fans. It does not matter that as a filmic image she has been attached to a certain star body, she remains malleable according to the wants, needs and/or desires of her fans, as well as where and in what way she appears. This flexibility also acts as a metaphor for a feminist politics of digital representation. The digital (warrior) woman does not float freely above or beyond gender: each of her appearances is a performance of gender identity and representation that can be traced and analysed, especially in terms of the cinematic and televisual warrior women who have preceded her.

This article has been peer reviewed


  1. Hilary Neroni traces her back to early cinema in The Violent Woman: Femininity, Narrative, and Violence in Contemporary American Cinema (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005).
  2. ibid.
  3. ibid, p.36.
  4. Dominique Mainon and James Ursini, The Modern Amazons: Warrior Women On-Screen (New Jersey: Limelight Editions, 2006), p.1. Although this book was published in 2006, there is already a need for a revised version.
  5. Anne Billson, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (London: BFI Publishing, 2005), p. 12.
  6. Sherrie A. Inness, Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999).
  7. Bill Osgerby and Anna Gough-Yates, Action TV: Tough-Guys, Smooth Operators and Foxy Chicks (London and New York: Routledge, 2001).
  8. Yvonne Tasker, Working Girls: Gender and Sexuality in Popular Cinema (London and New York: Routledge, 1998).
  9. Stephanie Mencimer, Washington Monthly, (September, 2001).
  10. Hilary Neroni, The Violent Woman: Femininity, Narrative, and Violence in Contemporary American Cinema (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005).
  11. ibid. p. 38.
  12. However, not all examples of the warrior woman are clearly feminist, as the recent reworking of the television program Nikita demonstrates. See http://www.wired.com/underwire/2010/09/nikita/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+wired%2Findex+%28Wired%3A+Index+3+%28Top+Stories+2%29%29
  13. Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998), p. 2.
  14. Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,’ in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York & London: Routledge, 1991), p. 154
  15. Yvonne Tasker, Spectacular Bodies: Gender Genre and the Action Cinema (London & New York: Routledge, 1993). The continuing cultural interest in the figure of Sarah Connor was demonstrated by the production of the television series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-2009).
  16. For example, Judith Newton argues that in Alien Ripley is “robbed of radical thrust” because of her stereotypical feminine traits, while Sherrie Inness suggests that the ending of Alien resexualises Ripley because she is seen undressing as she prepares for hibernation. See Judith Newton, ‘Feminism and Anxiety, in Alien’, Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema, A. Kuhn (ed.), (London: Verso, 1990), p. 87, and Sherrie Inness, Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture, (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), p. 107.
  17. Judith Newton, ‘Feminism and Anxiety in Alien’, Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema, A. Kuhn (ed.), (London: Verso, 1990), p. 87.
  18. For feminist critics this representation is not without it’s issues and numerous work has been written on Ripley, most notably Barbra Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanaylsis (London & New York: Routledge, 1993), p 16-30. However, for these purposes I have kept my discussion brief.
  19. Angela McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change (Los Angeles & London: Sage, 2009).
  20. Joanne Hollows, and Stacy Gillis, (eds.), Feminism, Domesticity and Popular Culture, New York: Routledge, 2009.
  21. Diane Negra, What A Girl Wants: Fantasizing the Reclamation of Self in Postfeminism, (London & New York: 2009), p. 152.
  22. ibid. p. 2.
  23. Tina Chanter, Gender: Key Concepts in Philosophy (London: Continuum, 2009), p. 127.
  24. ibid.
  25. Maja Mikula, ‘Gender and Videogames: the political valency of Lara Croft’, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, (Vol. 17, Number 1, pp. 79-87(9), 2003), p. 84-85.
  26. ibid. p. 84.
  27. ibid. p. 81.
  28. ibid. p.85.

About The Author

Lee-Jane Bennion-Nixon is lecturer in the Film Program, Victoria University of Wellington and a filmmaker. Her PhD project explored the figure of the warrior woman in contemporary film and media and its use as a pedagogical tool. Her films include To the End and Back Again.

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