October 13th, 2005 | "He's good in every way," Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor recently said of her proposed successor, Judge John Roberts, "but he's not a woman." She intended no insult, of course. Justice O'Connor was simply adding her voice to the chorus lamenting that President Bush did not pick a female jurist for her replacement. A woman on the court, the argument goes, would have encouraged diversity of opinion and brought a different style of judicial oversight to the bench. This notion—that women's essential differences from men translate into distinct (but not inferior) capabilities—has become known as "difference" feminism. Though it gained popularity among second-wave feminists in the 1980s, the underlying idea was always a feature of the cultural landscape.

Whatever the merits of difference feminism in contemporary political discourse, in another arena it has all but disappeared: the . Here the classic trope of female vulnerability and male strength has been upended and replaced with the childish and somewhat delusional notion that women can surpass men in every area of competition.

One of this summer's biggest , "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," about a married couple who don't realize that they are both paid assassins, stars Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt and received a lot of buzz for the supposedly heated off-screen romance between the two actors. Less remarked upon, however, was the violence their characters inflict on each other onscreen and the eventual quasi-emasculation of Mr. Smith. During the course of the movie, Ms. Jolie's character tries to run over Mr. Pitt's with her car, plants a bomb on him during a sultry tango, and knifes him in the leg. As the two struggle to kill each other within the confines of their suburban home, Mrs. Smith repeatedly shoots at Mr. Smith while tormenting him with remarks about his inferiority. But Mr. Smith is equally prepared for physical combat with a woman: He punches Mrs. Smith several times in the face and torso, shoots at her, throws her across the room and, in the most disturbing scene, kicks her several times when she is on the floor.

Nevertheless the ' dialogue and supporting characters relentlessly promote the view that it is women who can be expected to be tougher and more ruthless than men. Mrs. Smith's fellow female assassins are pitiless in their view of the opposite sex. "You don't love him," one reminds her as they plot Mr. Smith's demise.

When Mr. and Mrs. Smith face off across the chasm of separate high-rise buildings and exchange insults, he uses an uncreative word for coward. She responds by calling him a crude euphemism for a part of the female anatomy. When one of Mr. Smith's male friends hears the story of his wife's attempts to annihilate him, he says matter-of-factly: "At least Jane was a man about it."

Although Ms. Jolie is one of the more popular cinematic icons of buxom brutality--she also played Lara Croft in the two "Tomb Raider" —she is not the only actress meting out and enduring extreme physical punishment onscreen these days. The female character Sue Storm in "Fantastic Four," played by Jessica Alba, for example, is the physical equal of her male superhero companions and gets kicked around accordingly. In 2002's "Enough," Jennifer Lopez's character flees her abusive husband and learns a form
of "contact combat" employed by the Israeli Defense Forces. The ' penultimate scene features a buffed J. Lo playing rope-a-dope with her ex.

In the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill, Vol. 1," Uma Thurman, playing the pregnant Bride, is nearly beaten to death on her wedding day. For the rest of the movie and its sequel she seeks out the perpetrators, intermittently wielding a samurai sword, butcher knives and even a frying pan—with predictably gory results. "The Bride is the new Arnold," Stacy Sher, president of Double Feature Films, told the New York Times. With an aging Mr. Schwarzenegger safely ensconced in Sacramento, women, evidently, are the new action heroes.

This is a very different atmosphere from a few decades ago. In the 1980s, the entertainment industry served up plenty of physically aggressive women exacting retribution for violence inflicted upon them by men, but rarely were they men's physical equals. "The Burning Bed," for instance, gave us Farrah Fawcett as a wife who douses her abusive husband with gasoline and burns him to death. In the 1990s, "do-me feminists" added lipstick and libido to the mix, celebrating women's sexual freedom and occasionally placing women in the role of predators (Demi Moore in "Disclosure") or avengers (Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in "Thelma and Louise")

Today "do-me feminism" has morphed into "pummel-me feminism," and it is not a surprise given our collective cultural insistence, despite the evidence, that women have equal physical potential—whether on the basketball court or in the bedroom. In her book "The Frailty Myth" (2000), for example, Colette Dowling described the "final stage of women's liberation." She argued that "by making themselves physically equal, women can at last make themselves free. The cover of her book featured the vein-bulging bicep of Ms. Dowling's mythical creature: the woman who had finally "closed the strength gap" with men and embraced "physical self-esteem.

Ms. Dowling was keen to spot a conspiracy on the part of the patriarchy to keep women physically weak. Alas, her strongwoman never emerged, largely because her book rested on the premise that women are as physically successful as men only if you adjust for weight and height (a way of explaining away the stark fact that female athletes who face their male counterparts in athletic competition almost always lose).

So why has the rather outlandish image of physically aggressive women—so wildly at odds with the messages we claim we want to send about appropriate behavior by and toward women—taken hold in contemporary cinema? Perhaps it is simply a form of wishful thinking. After all, the idea that women are as physically strong as men satisfies our desire for genuine equality between the sexes. That such a claim is impossible to sustain appears not to bother Hollywood in the least. Worse, haudiences are expected to accept unflinchingly images of women being beaten to a pulp.

But these new girl-fight are unsatisfactory on another level—they are less entertaining. In old , women often outmaneuvered men, of course, but by outsmarting them, not out-boxing them. When Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant sparred in a screwball comedy, or Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire danced around each other in a musical, it was brain, not brawn, that led to feminine triumph. Today women are expected literally to beat men at their own game, becoming as physically aggressive and cavalier about violence as men are assumed to be. If this is empowerment, I'll take "Bringing Up Baby" over "Million Dollar Baby" any day.

Ms. Rosen is a fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center in Washington.

This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal on August 5, 2005. Reprinted with permission.




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