The Deadly History of Female Assassins in Film

From the Zoe Saldana in "Colombiana" to Angelina Jolie in "Salt," female assassins proved they wouldn't let men get away with seizing their power and leaving them feeling both violated and vulnerable.

|
Nov 15 2016, 8:45pm

Illustration by Katherine Killeffer

Sitting upright with her atrophied legs outstretched in the backseat of the mustard-yellow Pussy Wagon, all Beatrix Kiddo could think about were the members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad who left her in her current deteriorated state.

"As I lay in the back of Buck's truck, trying to will my limbs out of entropy, I could see the faces of the cunts that did this to me and the dicks responsible," her voice floats over as an inner monologue. "When fortune smiles on something as violent and ugly as revenge, it seems proof like no other, that not only does god exist, you're doing his will."

Kiddo had just emerged from a four-year coma, inflicted on her wedding day at the hands of her treacherous would-be husband. Kiddo had killed him that day—after he attempted to kill her by shooting her in the head. The injury caused her to lose the child she was carrying. It was a bad day, one that made the Kill Bill protagonist decide there was only one option left: make those "cunts" pay.

Read more: The History of Erasing Women's History

Kiddo, played by Uma Thurman, represents a type of protagonist that has become increasingly popular in cinema around the world since the late 1960s: the female assassin. And while this semi-stereotyped character sometimes embarks on a killing spree that isn't ostensibly justifiable, she's usually driven by revenge—whether that revenge is for a killed lover, a rape, or a ruined life.

The female assassin reclaims her power through adopting violent, traditionally heteronormative, male behavior, and looks sexy holding a lethal weapon. And while she as a feminist character has her flaws, she is timelessly alluring. Tonight, MTV will premiere Sweet/Vicious, a new series that follows two college-aged women, Jules and Ophelia, who live double lives. In one they are students who worry about sorority life, love interests, and friends; in the other they are vigilantes, pursuing justice against the men who rape and sexually assault women on their campus. In 2016, the revenge-seeking woman is as appealing as ever.

While it's difficult to identify the first influential female assassin in film—as the character type has penetrated different countries' cinemas at different points throughout history—the protagonistic female assassin can be traced back to the Bible. In the biblical Book of Judges, Yael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, famously kills the enemy general Sisera who was leading his troops against Israel. There's also Judith, who appears in the Book of Judith in the Septuagint, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Christian Old Testament of the Bible. Judith ends a war with the Assyrians by infiltrating the enemy's camp and beheading their sleeping general.

And in the second half of the 20th century, filmmakers around the world started placing the lethal woman as protagonist in their films. French director François Truffaut released the book-inspired The Bride Wore Black, a film about a widow who works her way through killing all of her husband's potential murderers, in 1968. (Opinionated people on the Internet love to say that film was inspiration for Kill Bill, though director Quentin Tarantino denies the relation.) In 1973, the Swedish film director Bo Arne Vibenius, under the pseudonym Alex Fridolinksi, put out A Cruel Picture, which tells the story of a sexually-assaulted mute woman who sets out to kill the men who forced her into prostitution. And once the 90s rolled around, it was all about the charming-but-deadly "girl power."

"[The] 1990s witnessed an onslaught of super-confident, sexy, and hard-fighting female action heroes, many of whom exhibited traits that came to be known as girl power," Gladys L. Knight writes in Female Action Heroes: A Guide to Women in Comics, Video Games, Film, and Television. From the orphaned Zoe Saldana in Colombiana to the handful of assassins Angelina Jolie played in Salt, Wanted, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, sexy women proved they wouldn't let men get away with seizing their power and leaving them feeling both violated and vulnerable.

Neal King, a sociology professor at Virginia Tech who has focused much of his research on film, gender, and violence in film, acknowledges the nuanced portrayal of the female assassin. However, the question of whether or not she is overly objectified and sexualized—especially since the majority of the genre has been directed by men—remains an open one.

"Female assassins, like female cop and action heroes, are more likely to be young, in their teens, twenties, mostly," he tells Broadly over email, trying to avoid absolutes, but adding that most films start with the woman being in a very vulnerable state. "A very few actors play assassins in thirties: Angelina Jolie, Gina Davis, Sharon Stone ... youth and beauty seem to be the most important elements."

The avenging-women are strong female lead characters who actively disobey the patriarchal culture of disarmament, in an apparently feminist display of empowerment

While the revenge-seeking woman's motivation stems from different events, it's usually aimed at achieving a similar goal: the reassertion of her power and finding justice for either her or her loved ones' emotionally- and/or physically-harmed past. In the 2013 analysis, The Rhetorical Construction of Female Empowerment: The Avenging-Woman Narrative in Popular Television and Film, author Lara Stache places female assassins within their respective patriarchal societies and discusses what they represent.

"The avenging-women are strong female lead characters who actively disobey the patriarchal culture of disarmament, in an apparently feminist display of empowerment," she writes. "The avenging-woman actively rejects the idea that collective agency or awareness is the best path to reclaim her power, breaking from the ideology of the second wave, which emphasized the necessity of collective action."

However, Stache also taps into the characters' failures as realistic change-makers, especially given the prominence of a female-assassin subgenre: the rape-revenge film. From I Spit On Your Grave to Ms. 45 to A Cruel Picture, these movies feature a woman who was raped who then decides to reclaim her power through killing her rapist and those associated.

While a "pleasurable tale of justice and revenge," the rape-revenge narratives forgets to do one thing, Stache writes: actually address the problem of rape. While killing your rapist certainly qualifies as justice porn, it doesn't "support political changes within a patriarchal system." There's also the question of resolution, and whether or not killing people gives them the justice they're seeking. In Kill Bill, for example, mother and daughter are reunited, ending the film on a note of happiness; but, others likes Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Colombiana, and Nikita leave the women in emotional limbo.

But whether or not women see the female assassin as a truly feminist character, King, the professor at Virginia Tech, makes a point with which most women can agree: it's nice to "enjoy the little moments where sexy female characters assumed to be powerless kill the men who drool over them."

This article was paid for by MTV and was created independently from Broadly's editorial staff. Watch all new episodes of Sweet/Vicious Tuesdays at 10/9c on MTV.