Almost every woman I know that has seen Fury Road has walked away with positive opinions of the film, especially when it comes to the character Furiosa. She really struck a chord as a positive, strong, and completely bad ass hero that just happened to be a woman.
This got people thinking about other women heroes in action films, since Furiousa is obviously not the first. Examples were brought up like The Bride from Kill Bill, Ripley from the Alien films, and Sarah Connor from Terminator 2. Bringing up these examples makes it obvious that strong woman action heroes are so few and far apart.
In these discussions of strong women action heroes I wondered why nobody brought up Rita Vrataski from Edge of Tomorrow (aka Live Die Repeat) (aside from the fact it was far less popular than the previous examples). Here was a movie that had a powerful woman warrior that was considered a savior and best hope for humanity and yet she wasn’t used as an example in the pantheon of tough woman action heroes. So I decided to analyze both characters and figure out why this might be.
Now let’s get some things out of the way. This isn’t a debate about the merits of Mad Max Fury Road or Edge of Tomorrow as films. I enjoy both. This a think piece on the differences between the female leads. I also want to say that while a discussion such as this deals heavily with feminism, I’m not a woman and I’m not a feminist author, so I can’t claim to have any kind of extra insight into the feminist view of these characters and films. I am just thinking about them from a critical perspective and hopefully highlighting some differences in the approaches they take with their leading women characters.
In Mad Max Fury Road we have Furiosa played by Charlize Theoron, a woman that has an extremely important position in a male dominated organization. The most prominent roles for other women in Immortan Joe’s control are used for breeding or producing milk. The only other women shown in his empire are the super poor bastards at the bottom of the mountain who have to hope that he’s going to be generous enough to occasionally pour some water on them. Obviously, Furiosa is something special if she can have such a high position in this guy’s military. Furiousa is tough, independent, and will pretty much do whatever it takes to complete her mission.
In Edge of Tomorrow there’s Rita Vrataski, played by Emily Blunt. Most of what we know about Vrataski is that she’s an incredible bad ass from a previous battle and she’s used in propaganda, because she helped lead the only victory that the human race has had in its war against an alien invader. She hangs out in a crew that sports really cool armor and other soldiers view her as kind of a god, so obviously she’s the cream of the crop. In this world women have combat roles, though they are still a minority in the armed forces. Her actions in battle show her to be ruthless and driven as exampled by her taking the spare ammo off of the hero as he lays dying or her willingness to casually murder him in order to reset time.
Both characters are written as tough as nails. They are independent actors working to accomplish their goals any way they can. We’re off to a great start!
In the one corner you have Furiosa who is played by an actress that can be incredibly attractive, however she’s not portrayed as sexy in Fury Road. While you could argue (and I would) that Furiosa is sexy because she is strong and powerful, she’s not traditionally sexy. Her buzzcut and costume plays down her femininity. Her warpaint does so even more. And you can’t ignore the fact that Furiosa is missing an arm. Now, I’m not saying someone who is physically disabled can’t be sexy, again it’s not traditionally “Hollywood” sexy and it’s not made to be sexy. Compare Furiosa’s arm to Cherry Darling’s leg in Planet Terror to see the difference on a sexy view of the disabled.
In the other corner we have Emily Blunt’s, Rita Vrataski. While the filmmakers never got gratuitous, Vrataski is arguably more traditionally sexy than Furiousa. Her long hair doesn’t seem like it would do her any favors in a suit that has lots of complex moving parts (even if it’s pinned up), but it’s more expected of a feminine hero. And the scenes where she’s doing her yoga type pose are more eye candy seeming than any long shot of Furiosa.
If you’re looking for not making the star a sexual object, Fury Road edges out Edge of Tomorrow, though Edge does a fairly great job.
Their Interactions with Other Women
One of the more interesting notions involving strong female characters is the Bechdel test. In order to pass this test a film has to have at least two named female characters and they have to have a discussion with each other that isn’t about a male character. While this test certainly has its flaws, it’s interesting to see how many movies don’t pass this test (or thought experiment). Fury Road passes in spades, while Edge of Tomorrow doesn’t, for what that is worth.
In Edge of Tomorrow there’s two women soldiers that have any lines and one secretary. The other woman soldier has a hillbilly accent and we don’t see her doing anything of significance. Her and Vrataski never speak to each other. Hell, she doesn’t even make it to the final battle.
A lot of women characters in action movies get killed off. Their death serves to push the hero onward in varying degrees. Warrior Woman in The Road Warrior. Dizzy in Starship Troopers. Officer Lewis in Robocop 3. Carolyn Fry in Pitch Black. Trinity in Matrix Revolutions. Rachael in The Dark Knight. Many women in James Bond.
Another factor to consider with women dying in action films is that if the character is a more “butch” woman her days are numbered like Vasquez in Aliens, in fact a trope is named after her. Whether or not this applies to Fury Road is debatable, since only one or two of the older women Mothers makes it out alive, yet Furiosa is the most “butch” character in the film.
With a precedent set of strong female characters dying off it wouldn’t have been completely unexpected if Furiosa died in Fury Road. And she comes very close. Only due to Max’s assistance through a blood transfusion can she live. At no point in Fury Road does Furiosa offer herself up to further the goals of Max. They work as an equal partnership to try to defeat Immortan Joe.
In Edge of Tomorrow, Vrataski decides to sacrifice herself by distracting the mini-boss so Cage can deliver the bomb to the main baddie. Through her death our hero can complete his goal. It’s commendable on her part for sure. However, this act was in service to the main hero’s plot. He was conveniently written to have a leg injury, so he couldn’t have possibly done the much needed distraction work where she could. The big moment at the end was his, he’s the savior of the human race. And what’s even better is that time reset so now he can hit on her (but good luck on that, they don’t have any shared experiences at this point in the film).
The Love Story
It seems like more often than not a woman protagonist falls for the male hero in action films. In the world of Mad Max there isn’t a whole lot of love left in the world in general and sparks don’t fly between Furiosa and Max. In fact, Max has never had a romance with any of the ladies in his films with the exception of his wife in the first one.
In Edge of Tomorrow, of course Vrataski is going to fall for the male protagonist Cage, portrayed by Tom Cruise. It’s a Tom Cruise movie and you can’t have the lead woman not fall in love with the star of that caliber. However, it does make complete sense that Vrataski and Cage would have affections for each other. They’re both warriors and they get as close as anyone can get by saving each other’s lives. You could argue that Cage would be more likely to fall for Vrataski quicker and harder, since he is the one spending countless days with her and having to witness her death so many times. She doesn’t remember any of that. She just knows him from one day when he shows up and tells her what’s been going on and they come up with a plan to get a device, then fly to Paris while he’s spent probably years worth of time spending almost every living moment with her. While she could develop some feelings for the guy in the short time they spend together, he logically should have fallen much harder for her. However, it is Vrataski that kisses Cage at the end, not the other way around. She has given him “hand” in that relationship.
The most important difference between the two characters is in their goals and how they related to the male protagonist. Furiosa’s goal is to get the Wives the hell away from Immortan Joe. She doesn’t give a damn if Max lives or dies, especially at the beginning, though that probably changes by the end of the film. Still, while she appreciates his help and guidance, he’s another ally. If he were to die, it would be a loss, but it would be just another loss in a long series of them in the wasteland.
As far as Max goes, he’s along for the ride, which actually is a theme of all the Mad Max movies with the exception of the first one. Max only plays a part in the stories of others. The movies aren’t really about Max.
Vrataski’s goal in Edge of Tomorrow is to defeat the alien invaders to save the planet. She’s already failed, but has been working with a scientist, so presumably she hopes she can make it through enough battles so she can kill the big baddie controlling everything. When she meets Cage she realizes that he has the power to reset time like she used to have, so she figures that she has a better shot at winning the war by using his powers. Vrataski’s new plan is to use Cage as a tool to get her to the head baddie so she can kick its ass, because Cage is absolutely useless in a fight. Which is awesome. The male hero of the movie is only escorting the more skilled woman to the target so she can save the day. He’s serving her story and seemingly this is kind of like the set up of a Mad Max film. However, this completely changes when Cage realizes they can’t get off the beach, so he comes up with a a new plan to become a super awesome combat hero. Suddenly, the role shifts to Cage being the most important character and Vrataski being the one along for the ride.
While Vrataski in Edge of Tomorrow is arguably a strong female character, she still suffers from some tropes and cliches that bring her down a bit below a character like Furiosa. It would have been great if Tom Cruise would have been a conduit for Vrataski to complete her mission much like Max would have served had it been a Mad Max film. However, it doesn’t work that way. She turns into a supporting alley that helps Cage, since it is his story and not hers.
On the other hand, Furiosa doesn’t fit in with a lot of women characters in action movies. She is much more in line with powerful female heroes like Ripley from Aliens who don’t serve to move the male hero’s story along. It’s easy to see why so many women adore Furiosa.