Fighting female masculinity: Women warriors and their foreignness in Hong Kong action cinema of the 1980s

Kwai Cheung Lo*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in book/report/conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


Does maleness automatically produce masculinity? Is there a kind of masculinity independent of the biological male? Can the women who kill in action cinema occupy a position that has been historically thought of as exclusively masculine? In her book Female Masculinity, Judith Halberstam argues that there exists a group of lesbians who see themselves as masculine females. Rather than a simple derivative, imitation or impersonation of male masculinity, "female masculinity," she finds, is actually a specific gender with its own cultural history.1 Trying to remove the stigma of female masculinity so it has an empowering image and identity that give the male-identified woman a sense of pride and strength, she contends that the connection between homosexual woman and masculinity is by no means pathological. Halberstam's study is inspiring because her argument urges us to rethink the presumption that there is always an essential relationship between masculinities and men; her work also shows that an analysis of masculinity is not necessarily at the expense of the study of women. The ideological implications of masculinity can be radically re-examined by not simply looking at men exclusively but also mapping and recognizing the culture of a certain female type. Scrutinizing that which is the sexual opposite of man instead of focusing solely on the male may sometimes reveal more of the nature of masculinity. Though challenging the conventional perceptions of masculinity and subversively alienating it from the biological male, Halberstam's analysis continues to regard masculinity as something that is real, substantial, and symbiotically tied to power. Multiplying or pluralizing masculinity in different alternative versions even by inventing "female masculinity" for women, I would say, would never really pose a significant challenge to the established notion that is fundamentally left unquestioned. Indeed, multiplicity or pluralization only helps make the ideology of masculinity stronger and more powerful, turning it into a stable origin or foundation exempted from any radical deconstruction. A gay masculine female, by the standards of the patriarchal norm, is far less intimidating and repulsive than a straight feminized male because the former differs little from the mainstream notion of masculinity.2 Although Halberstam nicely dissociates maleness from masculinity, with reference to Judith Butler's concepts of gender performativity and constructivism, to my surprise she fails to examine - As well evinced in many popular-cultural products, especially action movies - That masculinity in a male may not be a given. Rather it is something that a man has to strive hard to gain to prove he is a "real man." It is a rite in action-adventure films that the hero, or sometimes the heroine, demonstrate that masculinity does not necessarily correspond with the sexed being but instead is the kernel of his/her unique identity that must be strived for. Hence, masculinity and men can sometimes be unconnected because it is never something that naturally belongs to the biological male (male characters, including "weak" ones, in action movies would otherwise have it too easy) but is that which comes from beyond to justify and legitimize the principles of inter- And intra-sexual hierarchy and subordination, and to assert the sexual division of labor under the patriarchal order. A man with so-called masculinity is always more respectable and admired than a biological male without or with relatively little masculinity, that is to say, a sissy. However, having or not having "it" can by no means be consistently and objectively grasped or gauged. Representations of masculinity have already been reduced to a site of contest. To an extent, masculinity is an elusive entity that gives plenitude to the lives of men (and some women in the action genre) and sorts out sexual identification. Perhaps masculinity, as if the "Woman" in Lacan's notorious statement "there is no such thing as Woman,"3 is an imaginary thing that does not exist in itself but is insisted upon as forms of ideology or fantasy that patriarchal society invents and develops to make sense of human lives for both men and women.4 Ideas about what men or women should be are built around the hegemonic notion of masculinity that symbolically articulates the sexual differences and provides an anchor for social relations. In a way masculinity may function more or less like the phallus. It refers to an imaginary object men desire because it represents power; it also serves as a signifier with regard to the symbolic difference between the sexes. Modernity might have had a devastating effect on hegemonic masculinity and relentlessly subverted the traditional gender boundary and definition. But the liberal logic of the capitalist system advocating the value of sexual equality never really erases so-called traditional masculine qualities. Actually the new mechanism of capitalism further provokes the human desire to be "more equal."5 The ideology of masculinity, though in unprecedented crisis, remains at stake for sexual politics and the struggle for power because it can convey symbolic values. It is merely turned into a contested domain within which different ideological groups repeatedly re-define its meanings for their own interests. Those who have "it" are those privileged and qualified to rule over those who don't. Therefore, though masculinity may become a signifier without its secured and steady signified, its appearance still has to be maintained. Even though that for which masculinity stands these days might be illusory or false (radically speaking, it has been false from the beginning), the human world could not do without such a measure of proper symbolic articulation for sexual difference. If we did away with the fake representation of masculinity, directly approaching so-called sexual reality, we would be in danger of losing reality itself because reality is supported by representation. We could not afford to lose the anchor for the symbolic expression of sexual and social differences. To use terminology from Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus, that the deterritorializating forces of capitalism can persist depends on a fictitious ideological agency, that is a reterritorialization mechanism, which is to balance and stabilize its border-breaking operating system.6 In other words the arrival of modernity, shaking up the traditional notion of masculinity, is also the very system rescuing it from destruction and helping it adapt to new social demands.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMasculinities and Hong Kong Cinema
PublisherHong Kong University Press
Number of pages18
ISBN (Print)9789622097377
Publication statusPublished - 2005

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)
  • Social Sciences(all)


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