From Title IX to TV heros
Some in Hollywood see a link between the 1972 law that leveled the playing field for women athletes and today's kickboxing actresses.
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"Charlie's Angels" underscores their point. In the 1970s TV version, the leads were sexy, but rarely taxed much physically beyond picking up a telephone. The Angels in the recent feature remake are still babes. But their physical prowess is evident, too, as they leap free of an exploding helicopter and kick male captors into submission while tied to a chair, no less.Skip to next paragraph
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"The physicality of the girls is a metaphor for the power and individuality that [women] have finally been able to claim," says Ms. Kalogridis, the writer.
It's a physical prowess that has evolved gradually and along parallel lines in the competitive world of sports and the make- believe world of TV, notes Donna Lopiano of the Women's Sports Foundation in East Meadow, N.Y.
Right after Title IX passed, the first sports that drew women competitors were more "ladylike" such as aerobics and dance, says Ms. Lopiano, executive director of the foundation, started by Billie Jean King.
Not long after, actress Jane Fonda blurred the lines between Hollywood and hardwood, spearheading a multimillion-dollar video-exercise business, selling women on the idea that, like men, they could "go for the burn."
In the '80s, as female athletes began to sting tennis balls (think Chris Evert), TV's first serious female police detectives, Cagney and Lacey, talked tough and fired guns. And in the '90s, as women propelled themselves to new heights in sports such as rock climbing, added weightlifting to the women's Olympiad, and bloodied noses in the boxing ring, the movies brought us "Fight Girl," the story of a female boxer.
The final stage of pure physicality, says Lopiano, is throwing oneself through space. That women like Buffy, the sword-wielding detective in "WitchBlade," and the CIA martial-arts expert in "Alias" have taken up such acrobatics in popular entertainment, shows progress.
That they must still do it with lots of cleavage is a less positive sign. Lopiano says the surest way to trivialize women's strength is to oversexualize it.
She warns that the next step, women exercising their power without the restraints of high heels and tight clothes, may be the most difficult. It also is certain to intensify the kind of cultural backlash that signals references to progress in any social movement, Lopiano warns, pointing to the intense misogyny and physical abuse in certain rap and rock songs as an example.
Social change, from her experience, evokes four stages of response: anger, retribution, acceptance, and celebration. "I'd say for a lot of insecure men, we're stuck somewhere between anger and retribution right now."
Indeed, even the protection of Title IX is not a sure thing. The law has withstood eight constitutional challenges over the years and faces yet another filed this past May. "This has been a male-dominated society," says Susan Leitao, assistant director of programs for the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Boston's Northeastern University. "The way they see it, the more women get, the more is being taken away from men."
Certainly not all men see it that way. Director James Cameron, whose name has been synonymous with high-testosterone guy films, began developing his interest in powerful, independent women with the physically buff Linda Hamilton character in 1991's "Terminator 2: Judgment Day."