How the Action Girl trope was spawned (in films) over the course of the 1970s and finally crashed into meta-fiction

Long before World War II, Wilma Deering was a fictitious Action Girl, beloved by (some) early feminists. For many years, however, she was a rare exception to the rule.


Baloo comments:

Also, Annie Oakley, back in the fifties, and, of course Emma Peel🙂

My horizons have been broadened. I had no idea that female martial artists had been so popular.

I think Baloo could contribute to a lengthy preface: “The Lost History of Action Girls Between Wilma Deering and Barbarella.”


1968 – Jane Fonda played Barbarella – a space-faring action heroine who could do just about anything that a male hero could have done. Barbarella originated with an excellent comic book, and the movie was somewhat more crude, but noteworthy. Certainly Jane Fonda portrayed a courageous, risk-taking heroine who used PHYSICAL ACTION, not politics, not emotional wiles, not subtle magical curses. The film did not attain cult status until the 1970s. I don’t recall her killing anyone or anything.

Perhaps most importantly, the movie version of Barbarella was a heroic story, not a big-budget action extravaganza.

1974 – Zardoz features Charlotte Rampling as a defiant, almost masculine feminist Melting Ice Princess who resists Sean Connery’s advances (for a long time, but not for the whole movie). She is definitely strong-willed and direct in her tactics (unlike the much more charming freckled girl, who tries to use traditionally feminine and indirect methods).


1979 – Alien featured Ripley, a seriously no-nonsense survivor. She is not a gung-ho ass-kicker in the first movie, just a survivor, but she survives challenges much more daunting than anything Barbarella ever had to face.

By the time the 1980s dawned, the Action Girl trope was ready to launch into a world of high-budget action movies. Unfortunately, as budgets grew and production values became slicker, story (and character development) was sacrificed.

1981 –

Heavy Metal featured a cartoon swordswoman riding a flying beast.

Mad Max 2
featured several violent women, at least one of whom was supposed to be heroic.

1982 – Blade Runner features Daryl Hannah as a thoroughly impressive Action Girl who was physically superior to Deckard.

(1984 – Molly Millions doesn’t really count, because Neuromancer was never filmed.)

1984 – Japan thrilled to the adventures of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, a very family-friendly Action Girl.

1985 – Terry Gilliam’s Brazil had a blonde truck driver who was capable of doing Action, but was only an Action Girl compared to her depressingly incompetent love interest.

Tina turner chewed some scenery in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, but she wasn’t much of an Action Girl.

1986 – Ripley cranked up the Action Girl to 11 with Aliens – movie that worshiped U. S. Marines, and would have been more impressive if it had not been overshadowed by Full Metal Jacket, which presented a more realistic version of U. S. Marines.

1987 – In Japan, Bubblegum Crisis paid homage to Blade Runner, and perhaps even more homage to Streets of Fire. It delivered a story written by Japanese cynics who were expecting Japan’s financial bubble to pop at any moment (thus the title). The initial versions of the heroines were family-friendly. (They got reworked as darker and edgier in the 1990s, of course.)

1992 – The movie version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was an extremely meta-fictional reworking of Action Girls. From that point onward, the meta-fictional aspects of Action Girls were inescapable.

3 thoughts on “How the Action Girl trope was spawned (in films) over the course of the 1970s and finally crashed into meta-fiction

  1. Wow you left out Wonder Woman and her even cooler later variation She-Ra. Buffy, Xena, Taarna, Leela from Dr. Who, She-Hulk, Supergirl, and T3’s T-X all have a common thread. Fantasy and Science Fiction. When its supernatural, superhero or just alien, its not that bad. Its when its supposed to be a real woman, that it sucks. In real life women can’t fight a man. Rhonda Roussy was all up-in-your-face about how she could beat men in the ring, and then got knocked out by another woman. Calm down Prissy, Fantasy and Reality are not the same.
    BTW, Johnny Mnemonic was filmed with Keanu Reeves. Its bad.


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