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Published: Sunday, 3/20/2011

Action heroes: Tough, fearless, and female

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Cote de Pablo plays Ziva David on the CBS show 'NCIS.' Cote de Pablo plays Ziva David on the CBS show 'NCIS.'
CBS Enlarge
As the producer in charge of the long-running CBS hit NCIS, Shane Brennan is also the man responsible for the image of its beautiful tomboy assassin, the former Mossad agent Ziva David. NCIS, now the top-rated drama on television, is known for its comic banter, its constant movie ref-erences, and the smoldering eyes of its star, Mark Harmon. Less remarked on is that while it's a tradi-tional crime procedural in a military setting — with all the violence that implies — and features three strong male characters, the main dispenser of that violence, the agent so lethal with gun, fist, or foot that her part-ners gladly stand aside and let her do the dirty work, is a woman.

Brennan acknowledges the visceral thrill to be had — on whatever level you care to have it — from watching a woman, rather than a man, pound heads or pump bullets. "We try to deliver that, but we try to be credible about it," he said. "You'll never see her leap in the air and do the splits and kick two guys at the same time. Save that for the John Woo movie.

"Shooting two guys at the same time is not a problem, though. Fans of the show recall fondly a short scene in Season 6, in the episode "Dead Reckoning," when Ziva (played by the Chilean-born actress Cote de Pablo) spotted two suspicious men entering the government safe house where she was protecting a witness. Putting down the cell phone on which she was talking to headquarters, she pointed guns at each of the room's two doors. A few seconds later, as the smoke cleared, she picked up the phone: "Under control."

With her credible combination (by prime-time standards) of physical domination and quiet cool, David is one of the most appealing of a growing group of female action heroes who are infiltrating cop shows, spy shows, science-fiction shows, and other genres where men once did the lion's share of the enforcing.

It's not a new role -- the prototypes go back at least 50 years, to Diana Rigg in The Avengers, and include Charlie's Angels, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Alias. What feels different now is the degree to which action women have become an unremarkable part of the television landscape. In some cases they're the stars, on Nikita, Chase, V, and other current shows. But they also appear, often in more interesting, less predictable fashion, as ensemble or supporting characters.

Maggie Q stars in the television series ‘Nikita.’ Maggie Q stars in the television series ‘Nikita.’
ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
These are the women who absorb punishment and provide gee-whiz thrills so that other actors -- usually but not always men -- can be lighter, funnier, and more "relatable," and can focus on family or romance or bromance. In addition to David, they include Yvonne Strahovski's Sarah on Chuck, Archie Panjabi's Kalinda on The Good Wife, Anna Torv's Olivia on Fringe, Gabrielle Anwar's Fiona on Burn Notice, Robin Tunney's Lisbon on The Mentalist, and Candice Accola's Caroline on The Vampire Diaries. (Grace Park's Kono on Hawaii Five-0 is more in the category of conventional eye candy, but both she and Daniel Dae Kim tend to play businesslike and heavy while Alex O'Loughlin and Scott Caan try for laughs as the mismatched Turner and Hooch leads.)

Plenty of reasons could be proposed for the proliferation of these characters, including the overall softening of the action star following the 1980s heyday of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger's cartoonish, ultra-macho film heroes. Craig Silverstein, who developed the new Nikita series for CW, recalled the original 1990 French film La Femme Nikita as a "cult antidote" to those excesses.

This goes along with a desire on the part of many creators to cross up gender and racial stereotypes if it can be done without too much trouble, which can also be seen in the perhaps disproportionate number of television squad rooms and investigative teams led by African-Americans (almost always as secondary characters).

The main impulse, though, is most likely economic: producers' ever-growing realization that they need to appeal to female viewers -- the decision makers when it comes to television viewing -- in every kind of programming.

"I think one of the reasons that it's popular and it works in general is that for a woman warrior there's a juxtaposition of nurturer and destroyer that creates a natural added tension," said Silverstein, who radically changed the Nikita story line, giving the isolated assassin a younger female protege who serves as her mole within the government. "And as far as Hollywood goes, I think that juxtaposition is a good way for an action show to appeal to both the male and female audience."



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