Some female archetypes in film

6 Aug

Last Sunday’s NYTimes published a listing of male character archetypes in film: the big baby; the brave boy; the bachelor; the husband; the hero; the wimp.

This index got me to thinking about female character archetypes in film….what are they?

1) The femme fatale:

Infamously coming into her own in the genre of film noir, the femme fatale archetype produced some of the more explosively memorableĀ  roles for actresses in the 1930’s and 40’s. Granted, given the dominance of the melodrama and the weepie, “women’s films” provided a rollicking array of roles for actresses of all ages; however, the femme fatale remained a figure lurking through the shadows of other genres. Powerful, sexy, voracious, and devious, she rarely won, but seemed to control the stakes anyway.

2) The prostitute:

A role found throughout film genres, the prostitute serves as a reservoir for male desires of all types: vulnerable, sexy, damaged, slutty, possibly possessing a heart of gold. Initial contact prohibits a kiss on the lips, but that just makes the prize all the more worth fighting for.

3) The girlfriend:






As demonstrated by the famous words of devotion spoken in Jerry Macguire, “You complete me.” Not completing or representing or discovering herself, the girlfriend works as assistant to her boyfriend and his narrative trajectory–be it towards self-discovery or self-immolation. Sometimes sequeing into the role of wife, but rarely transforming into a full-blown complicated, contradictory, struggling character like the man to which she remains fully devoted.

4) The action heroine:

Though the muscular achievements of Lara Croft and Salt might suggest otherwise, the action heroine archetype spans a diversity of genres–from horror to sci-fi to revenge thriller to domestic drama.

I like to think that it all started with the “final girl,” that wonderful young female central character in the traditional horror films of the 70’s. Narratively destined to dance to the end with the stalker/murderer/monster, she runs, fights with any available weapons (coat-hangers, scissors, teeth), screams, hides, and nearly always vanquishes.

The “final girl” shows up in slasher movies, rape revenge flicks, domestic thrillers, to million-dollar science-fiction flicks like the Alien trilogy. Recently, Sigourney Weaver stated that she believes every woman has an action heroine lodged inside her, sometimes wedged so far inside that it remains unknown even to herself. Weaver suggests that, once a loved one is threatened, the beast within awakes.

This assertion (and all the cinematic examples it describes), leaves me wondering…can the archetypal female action heroine fight just to fight, or is it always to protect the ones she loves? Can she be more than a mama bear or an avenging angel? Can she beat the shit out of someone because she is just downright feeling aggressive, or does it have to be because she’s been assaulted, her name’s been slandered, or the alien wants her surrogate child?


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