In February 2016, I wrote an article about the absence of lesbian action heroines on the big screen, assessing at the time that as steps on the way to getting one, Hollywood needed to first have more lesbian main characters in general, and second, more lesbians in the action genre. Little did I know that Hollywood had not only already beaten me to the punch, but that two movies with female action heroines were in the works: one with a same-sex romantic storyline, and one that would end up being largely critically and financially successful, hopefully inspiring more films with female and lesbian/bi action heroines in the future.
Charlize Theron developed “Atomic Blonde” for five years before it premiered this July. The movie is based on Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City, but it was screenwriter Kurt Johnstad who suggested that Theron’s character Lorraine Broughton should have a sexual dalliance with French spy Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella). Theron not only agreed, but threw all her weight behind the creative decision. As she told “Variety,”
“I just loved it for so many reasons: My frustration of how that community is represented in cinema, or lack thereof. And also, it made perfect sense. It just suited her. It just felt there was a way through that relationship and the fact that it was a same-sex relationship to show a woman not having to fall in love, which is one of those female tropes. ‘It’s a woman; she better fall in love — otherwise, she’s a whore!’”
For anyone who ever wanted a female James Bond, Broughton is literally it: same British foreign intelligence service, (spoiler alert) same trope of sleeping with a woman just to have her die later in the movie by the hand of the villain, and same propensity towards guns and violence (but rather than a shaken martini, Broughton sips a Stoli vodka on the rocks). Perhaps because “Atomic Blonde” is such a mirror image of the iconic Bond tropes, Broughton’s casual same-sex attraction isn’t a big deal at all, which is exactly what those involved with the project wanted.
Theron was dead on in her assessment of the cinematic landscape (both gay and not) and how to carve a place for “Atomic Blonde” within that landscape, leading the movie to moderate financial success. It was the 34th highest grossing US movie of 2017 so far, and there has been talk of a sequel or franchise like Bond or Jason Bourne. For the lesbian and bi communities, “Atomic Blonde” is exactly what we needed: a fast-paced action thriller where the protagonist’s sexual orientation (which isn’t specified in the film) is a secondary characteristic of her character, not a defining characteristic. The only question is: would Broughton have a male love interest in the sequel to balance the scales, or would we see yet another doomed female lover in another city?
Meanwhile, a very different approach to sexual orientation was taken in June’s “Wonder Woman.” On the one hand, it’s fair to label that approach “invisible, you heterosexist bastards,” on the other, at least we got—in subtext, if nothing more—the fierce, fantastic Antiope (Robin Wright), general of the Amazons. Antiope secretly trained Diana (aka Wonder Woman) despite her sister Queen Hippolyte’s wishes, and when it came to punching Germans in the face, Antiope led the pack. In fact, of all the fight scenes in “Wonder Woman,” the Amazons, led by Antiope, fighting on the beach stands as the most memorable.
Exhibit A: Punching Germans in the face
Although Antiope is not explicitly identified as a lesbian in the movie, many viewers have subtextually interpreted that Menalippe (Lisa Loven Kongsli), her lieutenant, is more than a friend. When (spoiler alert!) Antiope is killed, Menalippe cries out and runs to her, a wink wink nudge nudge to gay viewers. Canonically within the “Wonder Woman” comics, Menalippe has relationships with other women. As far back as 1989, Wonder Woman Vol. 2 depicted Menalippe as being in a romantic relationship with an Amazonian oracle named Penelope, so it makes sense that she and Antiope would be a couple.
Menalippe is on the right, BTW.
Although it’s not really expressed in the “Wonder Woman” movie (aside from an evidently ad-libbed comment by Wonder Woman that men are unnecessary for sexual pleasure on Themyscira), the Wonder Woman comics are gay as heck and Themyscira is basically a lesbian paradise.
In September 2016, Greg Rucka, writer of DC’s Wonder Woman: Year One and Wonder Woman: Rebirth, answered affirmatively to the question of whether Wonder Woman experiences “romantic and/or sexual interest toward persons of the same gender.” He also categorically stated that Diana had been in love with and had relationships with other women (in Rebirth, she has many female lovers on Themyscira), and that obviously the Amazons on Themyscira must have same-sex relationships.
In 2016’s Wonder Woman: Earth One, writer Grant Morrison included an off-the-page girlfriend for Diana, and Queen Hippolyta had a girlfriend in the 2015 Wonder Woman Annual. In point of fact, themes of Diana’s bisexuality have existed in the comic since its inception; co-creator William Marston’s wife was bisexual and they shared a female partner, so Marston deliberately included lesbian subtext. So basically, “The L Word: Themyscira” is a thing.
Even though “Wonder Woman” had nothing explicitly gay in it, the movie nevertheless represents a massive step forward for female protagonists in action films. So far this year it is the #2 highest grossing film (behind Emma Watson-headlined “Beauty and the Beast”–take that, people who say women’s can’t headline blockbuster films), and according to a Fandango poll taken before its release, 92% of respondents said that they were looking forward to seeing a film with a stand-alone female superhero, with 87% wishing Hollywood would make more female-led superhero films. “Wonder Woman” is also the first live-action film with a female lead that has led the summer box office since receipts were regularly tracked in the 1970s. All of which is another way of saying that it blew all expectations out of the water and proved a market exists for this kind of movie.
The point is, there’s a huge opportunity for follow-on appearances by Wonder Woman and the Amazons in the DC universe. Some of that will be found in the “Justice League” movie, out in mid-November, which apparently will include the Amazons fighting an alien army that likely hails from Apokolips (a flashback to the past?) and/or Hippolyta, Antiope and her guards bracing for the arrival of Steppenwolf, a general who operates under the villain Darkseid. However, that movie is unlikely to have any lesbian content, so there’s still a gap to be filled there…a gap that could totally be filled by an all-Amazon movie, complete with same-sex relationships.
Lez be real here: Hollywood isn’t super excited about the next bat symbol just being a picture of Ellen DeGeneres’ face, so it’s not like “Atomic Blonde” represents a seismic shift in the usual trend of casting heterosexual action heroes.
However, if the success of “Atomic Blonde” and “Wonder Woman” is indicative of anything, it’s that women can headline action movies, and that having a lead character who isn’t straight isn’t a deterrent to viewers. So while Harley Quinn in the planned upcoming Joker/Harley Quinn “criminal love story” movie probably won’t show any of the same-sex predilections she does in the comics, the point is that if she did, viewers would still watch it in the same numbers. What we need now is the commitment of more producers—like Theron—to telling stories with lesbian and bi female protagonists.