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Fall action figures have strings attached

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LOS ANGELES -- One is a double agent for the CIA. Another is a professional thief forced to work for the police after being arrested during a failed heist. Another yet is an undercover agent who loves the feel of an automatic weapon firing red-hot in her hands.

They are the new, kung-fu kicking, young women of prime time, coming to a television screen near you this fall. Taken together with Max (Jessica Alba), of Fox's Dark Angel, and Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), of UPN's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, network television is going to be populated by young, leather-clad, female action adventure heroes like never before.

To find the prototype, see the 1991 feature film La Femme Nikita, with a few new wrinkles from the 1999 German-made Run, Lola, Run. Or go back to the days of Charlie's Angels, the ABC TV series of the 1970s, and you are within deadly range of the mother of all keister-kicking heroines, Emma Peel of the 1960s series The Avengers. This summer's big-screen version is Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, with Angelina Jolie; last fall, it was Charlie's Angels, the movie.

"My take on this phenomenon is that it's a little bit of empowerment mixed in with lots of savvy marketing to an increasingly fragmented television audience," said Dr. Suzanna Walters, chair of the Women's Studies Department at Georgetown University.

"Throw in a dash of illicit, soft-core 'cat fights,' and you've got yourself a pop-culture trend. I think the interesting question to ask is to what extent these female action heroes are aided and abetted by all-knowing male, Pygmalion types," she added.

Indeed, all of the new prime-time warriors not only work for or report to men, but are also created by men.

Confused, but tough

In ABC's Alias, Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) appears to be controlled by so many men it is hard to keep track of all of them in the wildly illogical but absolutely dazzling pilot. The show is from J.J. Abrams, who created Felicity for the WB, wrote the feature film Forever Young, and produced The Pallbearer.

Sydney is a graduate student who also works full time as an agent for SD-6, a top-secret division of what she thinks is the CIA. She was recruited as an alienated undergraduate "who fit the profile." When we meet her, she is about to marry a young doctor. Her mother's dead, and she's estranged from her father, who she thinks is in the airplane parts business.

Before the two-hour pilot ends, her fiance will be butchered in her bathtub for learning of her secret life, while she takes on an Asian terrorist group in an overseas embassy. And, oh yeah, she's on the run from the very branch of the CIA for which she thought she was working.

The men pulling all the strings in her life include: Sloan (Ron Rifkin), head of SD-6, who orders the hit on her boyfriend and then on her; her father (Victor Garber), who looks to be a double agent himself rather than a parts dealer; and Vaughn (Michael Vartan), the operations officer at the CIA to whom she reports.

Onscreen, who and what she's fighting for can get a little confusing, but, yikes, can she fight. I'm no fan of violence, but I have to admit being mesmerized by an underground garage scene in which she's fighting for her life against a couple of goonball hit men. It ends with her kicking a guy about three times her size in the face and driving his head through the passenger-door window of a parked car. The camera shoots the scene from inside the car. Here, let me help you with that door, little lady.

Again with the door

The kicked-in car window is also used in the pilot for ABC's Thieves, starring Melissa George and John Stamos as master thieves forced to work for the U.S. government recovering (as in stealing back) national treasures and artifacts. She's Rita, he's Johnny.

As the press kit describes her: "Rita is high-tech brass and nerve; she's all about sophisticated gadgets, explosives and shoot-from-the-hip first, ask questions later."

Her car-window scene comes when Johnny locks the keys inside the getaway car and starts arguing with her about it as he fumbles with the lock. She ends the argument with a flying, 180-degree kick.

With her blond hair pulled back into a chignon, George looks a bit like a young Grace Kelly. But even in a film like 1954's Rear Window, with her boyfriend in a wheelchair, it was still the male who provided the ultimate rescue for the Kelly heroine.

This is Grace Kelly for the new millennium -- all high-teched and leathered-up -- in need of no rescue by Johnny, though still under the control of her male handlers in the FBI.

Agent of change

Alex Cross, the federal undercover agent on NBC's UC: Undercover, also reports to a male group leader. Vera Farmiga, the actress who plays her, said she still finds it an empowering role.

"It's my turn to play Donnie Brasco instead of Donnie Brasco's wife," Farmiga said, referring to the 1997 mob film. "It's a chance for me as a woman to play the undercover agent."

Alex, Sydney and Max -- the names are often gender-neutral as these women take on traditional male roles in the hero quest. On that journey is where the deeper meaning and appeal of such characters are found, according to James Cameron, who created one of the hottest new characters of last season in Dark Angel's Max, "a genetically engineered human prototype with attitude to spare," in the words of the Fox promotional material.

Explaining the genesis of the futuristic, post-apocalyptic Dark Angel series last week, Cameron said, "We wanted to create a situation in which we could explore the idea of people finding the right path and a sort of personal moral code of conduct in a time when heroes were needed, and somebody needed to protect the weak and do good.

"And how I think it works is that Max's character kind of becomes a symbol in a way of every teen-ager or young adult that becomes a certain age and has to find their own moral compass. And that's really what Max's journey was the first season.

"It's not just about whether she's going to run up against somebody whose butt she can't kick. I mean, we externalize that through physical conflict, and it's fun to see Max in action. But there is a whole other set of conflicts going on in connection with the journey," said the writer-director of Titanic.

Explaining the creation of his heroine in Alias, Abrams said, "Look, I'd be an idiot if I were to say I was not affected by La Femme Nikita. I mean, I love La Femme Nikita. I don't know the TV version [on cable channel USA] very well, but the movie was just incredible.

"So La Femme Nikita and Run, Lola, Run are obviously influences on this show. I think the thing that makes this story so powerful is that there's this woman who, in any genre, I believe, you'd follow her journey. You'd want to see what happens to her."

The hero quest is one of our most fundamental narratives. The fact that our popular culture now includes so many female characters in the starring role is significant. But, as Walters cautioned, it is important to remember that men still control the narrative.

"To what extent are these self-determined fighters? To what extent do they have powerful and interesting female co-heroes?" Walters asked.

"That's why I like Buffy the Vampire Slayer [the UPN series about a vampire-fighting college student]; it really does seem to mix up gender stuff to the point where it can be actually empowering in a camp and kitschy way.

"Of course, there's always the larger worry that all these images of tough girls making the world safe for democracy can contribute to a kind of cultural amnesia about the persistence of real inequality and real violence against women."

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