Hollywood Likes Feminists When They’re Imperialists

Female-led movies are repeating the same stale images of power.

By Noah Berlatsky, a freelance writer in Chicago.
Sisanda Henna, Megan Fox, and Brandon Auret in “Rogue.”
Sisanda Henna, Megan Fox, and Brandon Auret in “Rogue.” Lions Gate Entertainment

The big cat-attack action/slasher film Rogue, which was released in the United States in August, is a rote B-movie genre exercise with a large helping of girl-power lion-roaring thrown in. It’s not a subtle or particularly thoughtful narrative, but for just that reason it’s unusually frank about how Hollywood sees feminist empowerment. The actress Megan Fox plays a mercenary badass, who is presented to viewers as a strong female character because she goes overseas and shoots a bunch of Black and brown people, just like a man would. Feminism and colonialism in the action movie are ideologically intertwined. To be the woman protagonist of an action narrative is to be a white savior, a Tarzan-like mighty whitey, or, ideally, both.

Fox is cast as Sam, the leader of a group of mercenaries tasked with rescuing Asilia (Jessica Sutton). Asilia has been kidnapped by a group of human traffickers who hope to use her to exert leverage on her father, who is the governor of the territory. After the plan goes awry in part because Sam decides to rescue two other trafficked girls, the team takes refuge in an abandoned lion farm. Sam has to battle the terrorist traffickers and a rogue female lioness, fending off challenges to her authority all while establishing that “females are the true killers.”

Fox, like many women in Hollywood, has talked in recent years about sexism and misogyny in the industry. As a 15-year-old extra in Bad Boys II, she was told to wear a bikini and six-inch heels. Later, on the set of the Transformers films, director Michael Bay would refuse to give her any acting direction except, “Just be sexy.” Rogue, helmed by a female director, M.J. Bassett, seems intended in part as a response the way male directors have denigrated and objectified Fox in the past. She spends the entire film in full combat gear and has not even the hint of a romantic subplot. In contrast to Bay’s vision, she’s not just some vacuous ornament; she’s competent, cool, self-reliant, and the undisputed hero of the movie.

Sam isn’t just a hero because she’s a taciturn loner, though. She’s also a hero because she rescues white women from dangerous African people who threaten them with torture and with unclear but unmistakable sexual violence.

In short, the movie unsubtly plays into cultural stereotypes about white female innocence and Black and brown male threat. These narratives were infamously used to justify lynching and racist violence against Black people like 14-year-old Emmett Till, falsely accused of whistling at a white woman, or the Central Park Five, falsely convicted of raping a white woman in 1989. Hollywood still uses images of Black and brown male traffickers and rapists to justify hyper-violence, as in Taken (2008) or the execrable recent entry in the Rambo series, Last Blood (2019). In that tradition, much of the run time of Rogue is given over to images of Sam committing extrajudicial murders of men of color who are menacing white girls.

At the movie’s end, other characters compare Sam to a lion protecting her cubs; the final screen is a public service text about the evils of poaching and lion farming. Sam’s bloody triumph over African men has effectively given her a power and a fierceness historically associated with Africa, which the film underlines by presenting its frankly exploitive narrative as an animal rights intervention. Sam even has a scene where she rescues a Black African man and then assures him that he has become a man. She is the arbiter of Black cultural traditions and the savior of African wildlife, which selfish and shortsighted Africans, in this framing, fail to appreciate. Like Tarzan, Allan Quatermain, the Phantom, or other colonial heroes, Sam’s whiteness allows her to channel and embody African power, stewardship, and authenticity more fully and more virtuously than Black Africans themselves.

Sam’s empowerment via imperial appropriation is unusually direct, but it’s not unique. Many critics have pointed out that two recent high-profile woman-led superhero films—Wonder Woman (2017) and Captain Marvel (2019)—also use militarist and imperialist coding in the interest of feminist empowerment. Wonder Woman, clad in red, white, and blue, righteously wins World War I along with her U.S. fighter pilot boyfriend, saving a group of multiracial Europeans. Captain Marvel, formerly a fighter pilot herself, prevents the genocide of the shape-shifting, reptilian Skrulls—who look uncomfortably like anti-Semitic stereotypes—by a fiercely militaristic race. White women in these movies are coded as heroic by associating them with U.S. military intervention. They are strong, independent, cool, and good because they rescue other weaker people over there.

Narratives that use racism and colonialism to pump up some heroic white woman may seem especially stark and crass because we’re not used to seeing women empowered in Hollywood action movies in that way. But they empower their heroines simply by giving them the usual plot of white male heroes.

The James Bond franchise sends its hero to distant locales in film after film so that he can murder glowering often nonwhite men and sleep with exotic often nonwhite women. (Male empowerment in action movies notably involves more sexual profligacy than does female empowerment.) War profiteer Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) in Iron Man (2008) demonstrates his heroic bona fides by flying to Afghanistan, where he uses his super suit to save good Afghans and kill bad ones. He’s effectively a one-man, morally righteous drone strike. And in this year’s Extraction, Chris Hemsworth’s character murders his way through Bangladesh, his superiority underlined, and buoyed, by streetfulls, and screenfulls, of corpses.

There are some films that don’t define female empowerment through racist colonial tropes. Pam Grier’s Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, Ang Lee’s 2000 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road all manage to avoid the Hollywood default by engaging more explicitly with feminism and/or by featuring nonwhite protagonists. Pam Grier’s and Charlize Theron’s characters fighting to overthrow the patriarchal power structures that oppress them and their sisters feels quite different than Sam going into Africa and shooting lots of the people she finds there in the name of protecting the power of a corrupt governor.

But despite some exceptions, the fact remains that Hollywood often has trouble imagining empowerment that does not involve dominion over marginalized or colonized people. The easiest way to show that a (white) hero is strong and deadly and awesome is to put them in some foreign locale and have them start murdering. Just as global geopolitical power comes from expropriating someone else’s resources, so iconographic empowerment comes from establishing life-and-death authority over those same someone elses. Rogue presents itself as a dangerous and exciting departure, but unfortunately it doesn’t go rogue at all. If it’s valuable, it’s as a particularly blunt reiteration of the familiar links between whiteness and the iconography of power, for action heroes of every gender.

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer in Chicago.