Monday, January 28, 2013

Women, Body Image and Game of Thrones

In Columbiana, Zoe Saldana was an assassin who went on a solo killing spree, massacring hundreds of crime lords in Latin America.  In Tomb Raider, Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft raided crypts using her ninja abilities and two blazing guns.  Carrie Ann Moss in The Matrix helped Neo overcome the robot apocalypse both in reality and the virtual world.  Michelle Pfeiffer, Halle Berry and Anne Hathaway all played the anti-hero/villain Catwoman (one better than the others, but that is a conversation for later), traipsing about on screen in skin tight clothing.  Scarlet Johansson as Black Widow, Jennifer Garner as Elektra, Emily Browning as Babydoll in Suckerpunch.  All of these women were strong, brave women who used there mental and physical strength of overcome adversities.

Also, all the above women overcame these adversities while looking amazing.

Halle Barry doing her best with a terrible movie.
Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft listens...and waits.

Carrie Anne Moss as Trinity, either missing a punch or with a wicked follow through.
Despite all being extremely attractive, these women have nearly impossible body shapes, especially considering the impossible physical tasks they undertake.  Compare any of the gymnastic women in these films to the actual gymnasts that compete in the Olympics, and the difference are startling.

Shawn Johnson and some thighs that could kick ass.  
Furthermore, let's compare these women in real-time.  First, this clip from one of the Tomb Raider movies in which Lara Croft fights a robot:  

Compare that to the above pictured Shawn Johnson performing some routines at various gymnastic events (meets?  games?  I don't really know much about gymnastics):

Unlike Hathaway in the Batman movie or Moss in the Matrix trilogy, Jolie at least wears industrial work boots, which are more apropos for fighting robots.  That aside, it is hard to believe that she could perform the string of back flips and other aerial maneuvers with her body.  Johnson is all tightly packed muscle and needs to be in order to do what she does.  And she is not an anomaly.  Look at any woman athlete, such as female boxers, soccer players, and so on.  The evidence is there: physical activity requires a certain body shape.  One which female action heroes simple don't have.  

Men, in the same role, are never shown to be anything but rippling sacks of muscle.  Just look at Tom Hardy portraying Bane:
It looks like he's smuggled grapefruits in his shoulders.
Bane was strong, stronger even than Batman.  So, Tom Hardy, who got beefed up for the MMA movie, Warrior, was the obvious choice seeing as he was built like a Mac Truck with a head.  Robert Downey Jr. in Iron-Man and The Avengers bulked up.  Chris Evans did the same for Captain America.  Chris Hemsworth was already massive when he was cast as Thor.  Matt Damon put on muscle for The Bourne movies.  The same for Daniel Craig in the Bond films.  And the list goes on and on.

This is a hot topic among gender studies scholars, and I want it to be clear that I am not one of those people.  There could be a lot said here about the objectification of both women and men, who these ideal bodies are hardly realistic, and what this phenomenon does to the minds and esteems of men and women, boys and girls everywhere.  I'm sure someone more familiar with the scholarship could make far more cogent answers to the above queries.

Instead of that prickly conversation, I want to look at Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones (note: I have only read, or rather am reading, Book 1 of the massive set, so what I am pulling from is the TV show; though, in my experience, the TV show draws most of it's characterizations from the book, so I imagine there will be a lot of parallel).  Compared to the women above, I find her extremely interesting.  Watch this clip below where she beats the Knight of the Flowers in a head-to-head melee: 

Played by Gwendoline Christie, who stands at 6'3" and was at one time a gymnast, Brienne is portrayed in the show always in full armor and as a physical presence.  She is impressive as a warrior, both technically proficient and strong as an ox.  Throughout the two seasons currently on air, she beats the best knights out there, kills dozens of guards, and lands a job that would honor any knight.  She is physical power embodied.  She would need to be in order to pick up Loras Tyrell and slam him to the ground or, as she does later, to be the only guard watching over Jamie Lannister , the famed and feared knight who is called Kingslayer, as the two make their way to King's Landing.

There have been others like Brienne on TV, such as Xena the Warrior Princess, though women like this are few and far between.  What is different about Game of Thrones is that Brienne is not the only woman who challenges the concept of femininity.  Several of the other characters equally shun the roles society has defined for them.  Arya, the Stark's youngest daughter takes up sword fighting in the Braavosi style and refuses to give into the role that highborn life has forced on her (in a really interesting turn, Arya is often confused for a boy, and constantly is fighting for people to see her both as a young warrior and a young woman).  Daenerys proves, more than her hot headed and petulant brother, to be the last dragon in the world, and when he marriage to Drogo (a massive man in his own right) fails to procure her a crown, she takes on the charge all her own.  

How these portrayal alters the discussion above regarding depictions of femininity and idealization are for better gender scholars than myself.  For me, it's refreshing to see strong female characters that are also built like strong women.

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