In Exit Wounds, the martial-arts afficionado and star of macho classics Hard to Kill and Out for Justice employed Hong Kong kung-fu-movie wire tricks made famous in The Matrix and now standard fare in action-chick flicks. But where the wires only added to the grace and agility of lithesome Zhang Zi Yi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, they seemed to strain just to get Seagal off the ground.

Meanwhile, Driven, the latest by Sylvester Stallone, the quintessential beefcake action hero, was dying from neglect. The car-racing movie went almost straight to video, and so far has grossed only $32 million, a far cry from the $47 million Tomb Raider made in its very first weekend. Driven’s returns were actually an improvement over Stallone’s last disaster, Get Carter, which in 2000 earned all of $15 million, barely what his 1981 classic, Nighthawks, grossed back when ticket-prices were a lot cheaper.

And then there’s poor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Last fall, his cloning film, The Sixth Day, disappeared with similar returns—this from a guy behind one of the all-time box-office blowouts, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Schwarzenegger had better luck last year playing the voice of a bug in the animated film, Antz, which pulled in $90 million.

This year, the muscle-bound stars of action-film blockbusters of the ’80s and ’90s have found themselves ungraciously drop-kicked out of the genre by, of all things, a bunch of girls. Girl-power flicks like Charlie’s Angels, Crouching Tiger, and Tomb Raider are topping the $100 million mark once dominated by men like Schwarzenegger. Charlie’s Angels has brought in $125 million; Crouching Tiger is up to $179 million; and Tomb Raider, only open since mid-June, stands at $126 million. Even last year’s cheerleading movie, Bring It On, trumped the traditional male stars, grossing $68 million.

Action chicks are taking over prime time television as well. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena: Warrior Princess and La Femme Nikita—all WB or UPN fodder—are about to be joined on a major network by Alias, a show about Sydney Bristow, a kung-fu-chopping female agent for a top-secret division of the CIA.

The enormous popularity of women as film enforcers has stirred much debate over what these films say about women, feminism, Hollywood, and violence, and whether it’s progress or exploitation. But no one has answered a more interesting question: What does this say about men? After all, none of the big female hits could have achieved its staggering popularity without nabbing a significant male audience, those same guys who were once the primary consumers of Die Hard, First Blood, and Commando. If men once lived vicariously through the escapades of John Rambo and Col. Matrix—in movies where women were mainly crime victims or in need of rescue—what does it mean when they love watching Lara Croft kick some bad-boy ass? It’s a pretty sharp turn from misogyny to masochism.

The cynics say men will watch hot babes do just about anything, whether it’s Jell-O wrestling or kickboxing men, and that the dominatrix has always been part of the male fantasy. Certainly, that must be part of it. But while simple sex appeal might explain why men like Lara Croft, it doesn’t explain why they no longer love Schwarzenegger, to whom they’d been so loyal, suffering through everything from Predator to Junior. Nor does the hot-babe theory explain why no obvious successors have stepped in to replace Jean Claude Van Damme and the other aging beef boys.

More to the point, though, the pat male-fantasy explanation doesn’t answer the question: Why now? Women have been playing action heroes for more than a decade, but they have never achieved Tomb Raiders level of success until just last year. In fact, earlier films where women played the lead roles as strong (and sexy) action heroines dropped like bombs.

Neither Demi Moore’s 1997 G.I. Jane nor The Long Kiss Goodnight in 1996, starring Geena Davis as a highly trained government assassin, spawned any TV spin-offs or plans for sequels. And neither came anywhere near the $100 million box- office benchmark of Charlie’s Angels or Crouching Tiger. The Long Kiss grossed only $33 million; G.I. Jane, despite Moore’s star- power and new breasts, garnered only $48 million.

Part of the appeal of the new action genre, of course, is that the old beefcake films were getting tired and repetitive, and their stars Reagan-era relics. It’s not just that their stars are getting old—most are in their 50s now—but for men on the silver screen these days, being buff just isn’t what it used to be.

If you don’t believe that studs on steroids have lost their Hollywood appeal, all you have to do is watch Copland, the 1997 indie film in which Stallone tried to revive his flagging career by going against character and starring as a fat guy. He wasn’t bad either, playing Freddy Hefflin, the sensitive, half-deaf New Jersey sheriff who adores Sibelius violin concertos. Still, there was only so much the Italian Stallion could do; Schwarzenegger had already exhausted the cutesy roles for inarticulate lugs (remember Kindergarten Cop?).

The meathead movie really flourished at a time when men were desperately clinging to their traditional male roles in the world even as those roles were quickly disappearing. The action heroes like John Rambo or Commando’s Col. Matrix represented an ideal, and also nostalgia for a time when men built bridges, defended helpless broads, and were worshipped for their physical conquests—sexual and otherwise. They thrived during the ’80s, when military might made a comeback and Bruce Springsteen dedicated albums to steelworkers.

Technology and the sexual revolution, though, have combined to make the muscleman—and his movie—obsolete. Wires have allowed Lucy Liu and Cameron Diaz to high- kick, jump, and fly better than Seagal ever could, and the girls didn’t have to become body-builders in the process. The lithe titanium bodies of Angelina Jolie and Crouching Tiger’s Zhang Zi Yi make men like Schwarzenegger look like lumps of heavy, slow-moving steel. Their kind of over-tanned, sweat-sheened, macho muscularity has all but disappeared from the screen. Who sweats in action films these days?

Even the backdrop for the action film has changed dramatically over the past decade. While today’s drama is more likely to unfold in a parking garage or at the beach, the final scenes of the classic ’80s and early ’90s formula action film invariably ended up in some sort of industrial-age setting where various forms of menacing, manly machinery lurked behind the fistfights.

Terminator 2 ended with Arnold lowering himself down into a vat of molten steel to terminate himself. Little did Arnold know then that T2 really was the new prototype for the modern action movie. In that 1991 film, the new terminator, the T2, was played by Robert Patrick, better known today as Agent Dogget on The X-Files. Compared to the T1 (Schwarzenegger), Patrick was smaller, faster, and smarter—everything you want in your new laptop, and all the things that women so naturally bring to the screen.

T2 also foreshadowed the emergence of the action babe, with tank-top-clad Linda Hamilton opening the film doing very manly chin-ups. It took a while before Hollywood got the formula right—G.I. Jane and The Long Kiss Goodnight were fledgling efforts to bring a woman to the center of the action, but those films were fatally flawed in terms of the mass-marketing success formula for an action film.

The key to any good action film is an inverse relationship between the amount of special effects and the amount of dialogue. Talk too much and the heroine loses her mystique and starts to remind men of their ex-wives. Tomb Raider certainly scores on that front. Angelina Jolie couldn’t have more than five lines—all snappy ones, of course, which is also a prerequisite for a good action flick.

The other critical requirement for a successful action movie is for the audience to be able to suspend disbelief enough to enjoy the fantasy. Even with a minimum of dialogue, it’s unlikely that male movie audiences 20 years ago would have been willing to accept the preposterous idea of Angelina Jolie engaged in hand-to-hand combat with a man—and winning. With the women’s movement beginning to make men uncomfortable men probably weren’t eager to see women back up their political threat (or even divorce threats) with good roundhouse kicks to the head.

Today, women everywhere seem to be kicking ass, and men don’t seem to mind, within reason. You only have to look to the tennis court to see the change. Women’s tennis has never been more powerful—or popular. Venus and Serena Williams are smashing 100-mile-an-hour serves that John McEnroe would have had a hard time returning in his heyday. Lindsey Davenport could eat Lara Croft for lunch.

Oddly enough, while women’s sports have paved the way for Lara Croft to gross $100 million at the box office, they have also made Rambo and his expression of male physical power the more laughable movie scenario. Rambo’s reliance on brute force, jungle warfare, and big pipes seems so pass, especially when dorks like Bill Gates run the world. Muscles on men have become somewhat irrelevant unless the men happen to be mopping the floors at Microsoft. (Perhaps one of the slyest commentaries on the state of the modern American male came a few years back in the film American Beauty, when Kevin Spacey decides to try getting in shape and has to ask the neighborhood gay guys for workout advice.)

The average straight American male today is the doughy white guy who sits in a suburban office park most of the day before driving his SUV home to the wife and kids and online stock reports. Shooting hoop and bench-pressing in the garage just don’t figure into the equation. And why should they, when women are more interested in the size of men’s portfolios than the size of their pecs anyway?

It’s easy to see how Stallone and company have lost their male audience. What’s harder to understand is why men aren’t more threatened by the arrival of powerful heroines. Of course, a closer viewing of these films suggests that, for all their killer moves and rippling muscles, the action babes still aren’t really creating a new world order. If they were, moviemakers wouldn’t have needed to create a curious new role for men: The Chad.

For those of you who haven’t seen Charlie’s Angels, The Chad is Drew Barrymore’s erstwhile boyfriend, a scrawny boat owner who gets up early and cheerfully makes her pancakes for breakfast, only to have her dash away to meet up with the other angels for some daring mission. The Chad dotes on Barrymore, “my little starfish,” only to watch helplessly as she plunges off the side of his boat in scuba gear to wage an amphibious assault on the bad guys.

The Chad, a descendant of Nancy Drew’s Ned, the faithful boyfriend who dutifully arrives with the car at just the right moment, appears in other films as well. Usually, though, The Chad comes in the role of technogeek who worships the heroine (who will never in a million years have sex with him) and often needs to be rescued—or is, at least, of little help when the action heats up.

In Tomb Raider, The Chad is a fellow named Bryce who lives on Croft’s estate and builds robots and other gadgets for her. When the evil warriors launch their attack on the Croft mansion, Bryce somehow gets locked in his RV and can only watch helplessly on the TV monitors as Croft vanquishes the black-hooded intruders.

Chad-like characters and their goddess-worship also regularly populate television, particularly episodes of The X-Files, where computer geeks frequently encounter Lara- Croft-type characters and are abused by them. Emasculated, these quivering high-tech weenies heighten the physical prowess and fearlessness of the heroines. Surrounded by submissive men, the women become powerful—but only in the geeks’ realm. The weak men are necessary props for the audience to buy into the heroine’s triumphs. But The Chad also reassures the regular guy that Drew Barrymore couldn’t kick his ass.

And when the action babe does meet her male match, the fighting becomes more like foreplay than a duel to the death, as with Zhang Zi Yi and Chang Chen, wrestling across the sand dunes over a stolen comb in Crouching Tiger. More than just a good martial-arts scene, the fight is fraught with the excitement of sexual conquest that has all but disappeared with the sexual revolution.

No doubt our action heroines have come a long way since Wonder Woman, but the feminist critics are right: Women are still only allowed to be violent within certain parameters largely proscribed by what men are willing to tolerate. To be sure, what men will tolerate has certainly changed a good deal. But in the old action films, at the end, the male hero always walks away from a burning building looking dirty, bleeding sweaty yet vindicated (Remember Bruce Willis’ bloody feet after walking through broken glass barefoot in Die Hard?).

None of today’s action chicks come near that level of messiness. The violence is sterilized—it is, after all, PG-13, aimed mostly at 12-year-olds. They rarely mess up their hair, nor do they really fight—or perhaps gun down—significant bad guys like, say, Rutger Hauer or Wesley Snipes, which would seriously upset the balance of power. Often they end up sparring with other women. Their motives are always pure and they never use unnecessary violence the way Arnold and the boys get to. The body count in Commando topped 100; Charlie’s Angels couldn’t have had a single real corpse.

Women playing real action figures who menace real men still don’t sell, as Geena Davis discovered in Long Kiss Goodnight. In the opening scene, Davis does something unbelievably unladylike: She kills Bambi, snapping a deer’s neck with her bare hands. That scene alone probably sank her movie. Men may have accepted women as action figures, but only when those action figures are a cross between Gidget and Bruce Lee. To achieve box-office success, the new action babes have to celebrate women’s power without being so threatening that men would be afraid to sleep with the leading lady.

Stephanie Mencimer is an editor of The Washington Monthly.

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Stephanie Mencimer is a senior reporter at Mother Jones and a Washington Monthly contributing editor.