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Actresses Are Beginning to Get a Bigger Cut of the Action

Television * 'Xena' helped kick-start the idea of women as heroes, and new series are running with it.

November 20, 2000|CRAIG TOMASHOFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A devil-may-care fortune hunter fends off some thugs with a few deft punches and kicks to save this adventurer's assistant. And on the mean streets of some unnamed metropolis, a mysterious do-gooder wearing cowl and costume and driving a super-powered car arrives with guns blazing to save a citizen in distress.

On the face of it, there's not much surprising about such derring-do. It's all in an hour's work for the heroes in television action shows. These days, however, it seems the only ones with enough grit to save our skins happen to be women. And the ones needing the rescuing are the men.

Not that long ago, the rules for battling TV evil were pretty simple: Men did all the fighting and shooting, women all the screaming and nail-chipping. Lately, television tough guys have undergone a sex change.

"This is the payoff for 100 years of feminism," says Lucy Lawless, star of "Xena: Warrior Princess," the godmother of all the current women heroes. "Women have equality on the air, and the buying power to get the shows on the air."

Female action heroes will soon be all the rage in movie theaters now that the film version of "Charlie's Angels" is a $100-million hit. Yet they are already all over the television dial. The networks have series from the WB's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and Fox's "Dark Angel." TNT will soon launch "Witchblade," while the Sci-Fi Channel has "Lexx," "Farscape" and the upcoming "Black Scorpion." "Tomb Raider" has long been a favorite computer game. The Cartoon Network even starts them young, with "The Powerpuff Girls."

Still, it's in syndication where women are most strongly exerting their authority. In addition to "Xena," there's "Cleopatra 2525," "V.I.P.," "Relic Hunter," "Queen of Swords" and "Sheena."

"Gone are the days when the girl twists her ankle and Tarzan has to come and carry her off to safety," says Charles Eglee, co-creator and executive producer of "Dark Angel," the futuristic tale of a scientifically enhanced warrior who saves the world while trying to discover her past. "Traditionally, the kind of Grail quests like the one our character is on are done from the male point of view, but we've seen that for 1,000 years. That's 'Beowulf.' "

Adds Russ Krasnoff, executive vice president of programming at Columbia TriStar Television, which produces the Pamela Anderson-as-private eye vehicle "V.I.P." as well as the new "Sheena" series: "I went to a network recently to talk about some of our projects, and they told me they wanted to hear about what they called 'female empowerment' shows. It is now OK to be entertained by that sort of program. Women don't have to just be the wife or the girlfriend anymore."

Certainly television has had its share of estrogen-enhanced heroines in the past, most notably Emma Peel from "The Avengers" and both "Cagney & Lacey."

Back then, the vast majority of action heroines seemed to be either sexed-up cartoons like Wonder Woman (the show's theme song summed it all up with the line "In her satin tights, fighting for her rights") to "The Bionic Woman," who came into being thanks to male counterparts. Even the venerable Angels went to work every day for Charlie.

That all seems to have changed. Certainly a healthy percentage of the aforementioned new shows play up their heroines' sex appeal, but every one of the women is the central character and none seems to be particularly beholden to any male when it comes to crime-fighting. It's a trend that only became financially viable in the mid-1990s, when "Xena" entered the syndication market.

When the show was launched, it seemed like anything but a feminist standard-bearer. It was essentially a spinoff of a male action hour, "Hercules," and its title heroine spent a great deal of time running around in a body-hugging outfit that would make Barbarella blush, accompanied by a young female sidekick who was Robin to her Batman.

"It wasn't until between episodes 6 and 8 that the media started picking up on the fact that we had a strong female role model," says Lawless. "That came as a shock to us, frankly. We were just trying to do a good job, and I hadn't really thought about it in those terms."

Nonetheless, she knew that the core concept of "Xena" was something unique. "From the get-go, this was a show about a woman who decides to go it alone, except for the help of another young woman, and they walk the Earth with no visible sign of male support."

"Xena" executive producer Rob Tapert admits he'd always wanted to do a show centered on a female superhero, but it took the success of a male hero named Hercules to get executives to green-light the show. Studio executives were so uncertain of the future of the show that Tapert was under orders to make sure men played a key role in the first several episodes.

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