Heroine Abuse: Feminism, Femininity and the Female Action Hero

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Steven Cohan


Action Cinema, Blaxploitation, Female Hero, Film Theory, Popular Feminism, Postfeminism

Subject Categories

English Language and Literature


This dissertation argues that female power has become a pervasive but meaningless concept and charts the depoliticization of popular feminism through an analysis of female action cinema. Reading the female action hero within both a historical and generic context, I analyze two complex relationships: the one between the female action hero and U.S. feminism and the one between the female action hero and the U.S. action film. Analyzing developments in female action cinema and feminist history alongside female action films from the 1970s to today, I argue that the female action hero is symptomatic in large of the historical trajectory of feminism from second wave to postfeminism. I use female action films to illustrate the depoliticizing of both female action cinema and popular feminism. Methodologically, this dissertation engages in the shift in film studies away from the psychoanalytic criticism of the 1970s and toward a 1990s cultural studies perspective that foregrounds the active participation of both the viewer and the historical moment in determining a film's meaning. Paying close attention to the sociopolitical context in which different iterations of the female action hero were created and received in, I read female action films against popular feminist texts (magazines, newspapers, message boards, mass market non-fiction). Each chapter approaches the female action hero as a cultural text and provides new readings of key female action films, including: Cleopatra Jones (1973), Foxy Brown (1974), Aliens (1986), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Gone in 60 Seconds (2000), Charlie's Angels (2000), Miss Congeniality (2000) and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001). Much of the critical attention paid to the female action hero in contemporary criticism isolates the hero by reading her in a historical and generic vacuum. This dissertation intervenes in current criticism by both analyzing the hero within her historical moment and by interrogating the generic repetitions and differences in female action cinema in order to avoid collapsing the ways that, in her different manifestations, she has alternately presented a challenge to traditional gender roles and reasserted them. I conclude that the female action star - once such a flashpoint for popular and academic debate - now sells traditional femininity and conventional heterosexuality in female dis-empowerment action cinema.

This document is currently not available here.