It seems like a symbol which has to be touted out in the attempt to get more women to buy movie tickets. A trailer for a film showcasing the lead actress rocking a full set of shining plate mail, with perfectly tousled hair flowing in the wind as she raises her longsword above her head and gives a mighty yell as she and the host at her back charge into battle almost seems like a big sign splashed across the screen saying "SEE OUR MOVIE, LADIES, IT HAS A STRONG FEMALE PROTAGONIST."
Not that there's anything wrong with that. Not at all. By all means, let the lady wreck the bad guys with a sword and carve them up like a lumberjack. Let her go all Red Sonja on them. But only if that makes sense.
Here's my problem: Rarely do the women in these movies have the justification to not only hurl themselves into the thick of battle, but to even wear the armor in the first place.
I'm going to show you some pictures. Tell me if you can spot a problem.
Alice, "Alice in Wonderland"
Briene, The Maid of Tarth, "A Song of Ice and Fire" / "Game of Thrones"
One of these things is not like the other.
Which one of these women looks more like they belong in armor? Alice from the Tim Burton embarrassment of "Alice In Wonderland," is a normal girl who just throws on a suit of armor at the end of the film and battles the Jabberwock. Because, you know, she's fought in battles before. Or not.
Briene of Tarth from "A Song of Ice and Fire" (now "Game of Thrones" on HBO) has been training as a knight since she was a little girl. She's a towering hulk of a tomboy to the point of almost preferring to be identified as a male, and is so brutish strong that she is one of the most formidable fighters in a series containing dozens and dozens of powerful warriors. (And she's my second favorite character in the story.)
Briene gets to wear armor, because that makes sense. She's a warrior. She knows how to fight. Alice has no business being on a battlefield besides the story saying that she's the one who will defeat the bad guy. But what sense does that make when Alice hasn't ever picked up a sword to fight in her life? They didn't even have her taking fencing lessons, which I actually would have given the movie a lot of credit for had they done that. Alice is just a pretty face in armor. Briene is not pretty, true, but she belongs in it.
Perhaps that's too harsh of a contrast. I'll do you one a bit less extreme, which perhaps makes my point better.
Marian, "Robin Hood"
Eowyn, "The Lord of The Rings"
In Ridley Scott's "Robin Hood," the Marian character, all 95 lbs of her, charges into battle alongside Robin at the climax of the film, standing toe to toe with professional soldiers and winning, despite us never seeing her fight beforehand or even hearing it mentioned if she even knows which end of the sword to hold. It's just something that happens, and it's very nonsensical. She's just a pretty face in armor.
What that does is highlight the fact that up to that point in the film, Marian was pretty much a subjugated servant who really didn't do much of anything besides do what her father and Russell Crowe tell her to do. That fact that she was snarky to him is I guess is supposed to make it all OK. The sudden donning of armor to do battle out of the blue is a splash of cold water on the face that makes it clear that the writers had nothing for this character besides that role, but they wanted to put butts in seats, so suit up, Marian, you're going in.
On the other hand, "Lord of The Rings" has Eowyn, daughter of King Theoden. She charges into battle too, but although she is not a professional soldier either, we see her training with a sword. We hear her mention that the women of her lands are taught to weld weapons at a young age. It makes sense when she charges into battle with the men. She's a pretty face in armor, too, but she's not just a face.
Eowyn also took a much more active role in the story. She was out doing things and pursuing her goals, and even if she was in a similar situation as Marion in the sense that she was second-banana of sorts, she still had a will of her own, and acted on what she felt was right instead of just bitching about having to go along with plans.
Marian does not get to wear armor. Eowyn does.
When we have the former example, it seems like a rather lazy method to superficially make a female character a more proactive force, even when as a character, they really aren't that special. I'd also guess that the makers of these movies probably know that, at least on some subconscious level, and this is their way of getting around that sticky wicket.
The portrayal of a strong women (in the physical sense) needs to be earned through action and their active involvement in moving the plot forward. Having them take a more active part in the story is a far more effective method than dumping them in plate mail to do battle at the climax of the film, all in an effort to show the main actress looking hot in armor. Otherwise it's just as sexist as if the movie had them good for nothing other than cleaning the castle.