Now, I have not yet seen Kick Ass (I have an infant son, who is keeping me from theaters) but I will, and at the risk of having to come back and re-write this entire post once I have, I'm going to soldier on and tell you why I am a little surprised that Hit Girl comes as a shock to many, and why it shocks me that they are shocked.
Hit Girl is a character that I have never seen on screen before. She is an 11 year old girl assassin. This girl played amazingly by Chloe Grace Moretz is a walking destruction machine. She shoots, she stabs, she bayonets. She does things on screen that literally left my mouth agape. FYI- no studio would touch this movie. They loved it but said you gotta take out Hit Girl. No one would finance a film with an 11 year old girl killer. Those movies are just not made in Hollywood.
The thing about Hit Girl is not just that she is a brutal and ruthless killer. She enjoys it. Way. Too. Much.
The core of the shock comes from seeing a school-aged girl- a preteen, tween, 9-12 year old female- who is acting violently and with ninja-style competence in an action setting, versus a "school girl" -a stereotype of innocent femininity often sexualized and usually two-dimensional in narrative exploration.
When I was a teenager, I loved Anime and Manga and those genres are full of violent, ass-kicking preteen girls. From the fairly girly Sailor Moon to the more complex characters in Nausicaä or Magic Knight Rayearth, adolescent girls have been brutally violent in these genres for decades. One can also look to live action movies like Battle Royale show literal preteen characters killing one another in really stomach churning ways. Similar to western comic books, violence as a whole is more common in these stories than
Also, school girls, adolescent and often-uniformed, are a common theme in hentai (animated pornography). Clearly, Japan has a different relationship to school girls, their sexualization and their capacity for violence than us here in the west, right...
... okay not entirely.
Western school girl characters are rarely explicitly violent in film or television, instead are insidiously manipulative and highly sexualized, like those in Cruel Intentions and Gossip Girl.
What is different between the portrayals of East and West is that the Eastern Schoolgirl has many more varied narrative iterations, from entirely sexualized to inertly non-sexual, whereas wearing a school uniform on film in America connotes a primarily sexual meaning, regardless of age, and this association re-enforces the stereotype by only allowing women of legal age to portray many of these characters.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn't mention Gogo,
In Kill Bill vol. 1, the American viewing public was introduced to a school girl assassin. Now, while Gogo exemplifies everything about the violent school girl stereotype we've seen thus far, she's a girl who appears of legal age dressing in the garb of a school girl, and her violence is underscored by a number of cute (kawaii) affectations.
Much more controversially, Kill Bill vol. 1 also included O-Ren Ishii's fist kill (NSFW) was shown in an animated segment as a tween who kills and relishes the violence she undertakes. So Tarantino gives a new layer to the film portrayal of the schoolgirl stereotype, one of anti-heroic revenge seeker.
Tarantino's choice to portray young O-Ren as a killer is controversial, visceral and powerful, as the established conception of tween girl in the West is one that does not allow for outward aggression or that kind of complex competence.
What O-Ren and Hit Girl both show is that aggression and violence are not absent from the mind of an adolescent girl. I think Melissa Silverstein sums up perfectly why these portrayals are groundbreaking.
We would never be having this whole conversation about Hit Girl if the character would have been Hit Boy. No one would care in the same if a 11-year-old boy said the c-word. I'd probably just dismiss it as another sexist movie and character and move on.So, Hit Girl is in our consciousness, and she and her father (who trains her to be an assassin) have a good relationship rather than the deeply traumatizing events that led O-Ren Ishii to the career of assassin. The conversation about the violent tendencies of young girls is not a new one, though it is more often than not seen sublimated from direct physical violence into psychological torture- as is suggested in the case of Phoebie Price' tormentors now on trial for her murder, and suggested by studies about correlations between competitive sports and more clear self-images among young girls.
Young boys are not penalized for wanting to emulate Batman or Darth Vader, despite the extremes to which those emulations can be taken. My gut tells me that even if Hit Girl is an imperfect heroine, the more strong girls one sees onscreen, the more girls will feel empowered to be the heroes of their own adventures. Hit Girl is kicking down the door for more competent, powerful female heroines and anti-heroines in the future.