It’s no secret that Hollywood is a boys’ club. Women tend to earn less, get offered fewer roles, and exercise less clout than men. That disadvantage can be felt in every nook and cranny of Tinseltown, but rarely is it felt more than in the world of action cinema.
As long as we deem it unfit for girls to pursue “masculine” activities, this double standard will never go away. But you’d think that in the 21st century we’d be more open to seeing women kick butt on screen. Try to remember an action/adventure blockbuster headlined by a lady, and less an handful come to mind (close to zero when it comes to superhero movies). Oh, you’ll see one or two here and there, but the token action gal is now the new token black guy. Women are the true “expendables” of action films in Hollywood.
There was, however, an oasis for women seeking to be part of the action genre, and it was Hong Kong. From the ’70s to the ’00s, women from around the world came to this little corner of Southeast Asia to be part of the mecca of martial arts films. They came from Malaysia (Michelle Yeoh), Japan (Michiko Nishiwaki and Yukari Oshima, aka “Cynthia Luster”), England (Sophia Crawford), and the US (Karen Shepherd and Cynthia Rothrock). Some entered the industry purely by chance, while others were pursuing their dreams. Due to groundbreaking feats of local stars like Jacky Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao, they inspired legions of boys and girls to become the next kung fu stars of the Far East.
I recently interviewed Cynthia Rothrock, martial arts champion and veteran of more than fifty action films. I asked her what it was like to enter what one would imagine to be a boys’ club, wondering if there was any animosity or resistance to her as a woman.
“Not that I recall. You have to understand this was my first time being a part of making a movie. I thought this is how it’s done! And I think they respected me because I did whatever they wanted me to do and didn’t cry when I got hurt. I think they were expecting something different with me being a foreigner, that I would whine or complain. But generally there was a respect with everyone.”
We like to think that the West is more progressive than the East, that Asians are conservative in nature and are less likely be flexible to “liberal” norms. But Hong Kong cinema has always been lightyears ahead of the movie world when it comes to treating women as partners in the action genre. What’s the last buddy cop movie or show you can recall involving women? Hong Kong has had a ton of those, with ladies delivering blows and performing stunts that would make Arnold Schwarzenegger give pause. Why is Hong Kong more open to this kind of female participation?
“It’s because of the literature,” says Malaysian filmmaker Edmund Yeo. “Many wuxia (Chinese fiction involving martial arts) movies are based on longstanding Chinese stories and novels, which feature pretty badass heroines.” Film critic and video essayist Kevin B. Lee informed me that the Xia Nu (female knight) is a well known figure from Chinese martial arts novels going back as early as the 1920s. Film scholar David Bordwell notes:
“Women play a heroic role in these sagas to an extent without parallel in European or Anglo-American adventure yarns. From the swordswomen of silent Shanghai films through Xu Feng of the King Hu films and Angela Mao to Michele Yeoh in Yes, Madam! (1985) and Anita Mui in Saviour of the Soul (1991), Hong Kong action cinema has celebrated women warriors.”
– p.123, Planet Hong Kong
Though I would like to say that all ladies interested in an action film career should head to Hong Kong, I’m sad to say that that adventurous trend seems to be at an end. With rising film costs inhibiting risk taking, the rise of the Chinese market (favouring American blockbusters and local broad comedies), varying regional audience trends (e.g. Taiwan and the rest of Southeast Asia), Hong Kong action films with women getting top billing is no longer the sure bet it used to be.
It would be a shame to see the martial arts heroines of days past lost to the movie world’s dustbin. Has there ever been a time and place where this window of female glory, more prominent anywhere else? Will the moviegoing world remember Rothrock the way it glorifies Jackie Chan?
I asked Rothrock to recall the time Sylvester Stallone wanted to star in a movie with her entitled The Executioner, when she was seemingly on the edge of stardom:
“I got a call in the middle of a movie shoot and it was from William Friedkin. I thought somebody was pulling a prank on me. But it was him and he told me that Stallone wanted to star in a movie with me where I would be the straight and cool partner while Stallone would be the unpredictable wildcard. I couldn’t believe it. But he told me to fly in to L.A. to discuss the part.
“When I met with William, he told me it was going to happen. Joel Silver was supposed to produce it. Everything was set. But the next time I met with him, he had a copy of the script in his hand and slammed it on the table. He shouted, ‘It’s terrible! I’m not going to do it!’
“I asked him, ‘Whoa. Are you saying there is a chance that this might not go?’ He told me, ‘Cynthia, if you get another offer, take it.’ And that was the end of it. I mean I still got paid for it, but I would have liked to have something to show for it.”
This was actually her second chance at stardom, the first being a shot at a TV show called Irresistible Force, which was a victim of politics over TV violence at the time. HBO was a much tamer place in those days. I remind Rothrock of a quote she gave Entertainment Weekly in 1991: “I think US audiences are ready to accept a woman in the role of action hero.” Hindsight is 20/20, but I ask her if she feels any disappointment.
“Of course I feel disappointed. Because you know, I have a following. And I think we’d like to see more of us on screen. There was this film by Gina Carano [Haywire] that I thought was really good and wanted it to do well, but it didn’t. So yeah, it’s disappointing.”
I mention the Expendables franchise, and how she’s probably done ten times more stunt work than all of the men in those films combined.
“I know! Y’know, when I heard about The Expendables being made, I thought, ‘I should be in that!’ I tried and I tried by my agent could never get in a meeting with Stallone. Anyway, I like to think that things happen for a reason.”
Even after almost 40 years of being black and blue from martial arts, Rothrock is still doing action films. Mostly not anywhere near Hollywood’s radar, but her schedule is still as busy as ever. I marvel at her fitness.
“I think I’m busier now than that period before I had my daughter! In the past two years, I’ve done six films (going on seven). I attribute that to my lifestyle now. I think I’m actually more fit than when I was younger, because now I do much more physical training than when I used to. I just came back from a trip where I did Everest. And I do training seminars all over the world. It’s all about just keeping yourself healthy and being active.
“The last film I did was The Martial Arts Kid. It was the first one we did from funding through the Internet. I have comic book [Cyn] which has been in the works for ten years, it seems.
“Actually, one day I’d like to set up a school, when things settle down. But I keep on getting offers and still love doing what I do. Things are really good.”
I ask her how long she sees herself doing this.
“As long as people still want me to do it.”
So regardless of how many critics think The Expendables franchise is a joke way past its due, it is still at the very least a celebration of the joys that action films of the past have given now-grown boys around the world. How I wish that joy could have been extended to all the girls who enjoyed those movies just as much. The franchise has had three films, and only one woman (and not a nostalgic favorite) was chosen to actually participate in the action. Mr. Stallone, you can do better than that.
There is nothing I wish more than for Cynthia Rothrock, and all notable women of action and martial arts, to finally get their due. Few are more deserving.