By way of the media-sharing, social networking, and stalker-encouraging faculties of a little web sensation known as Facebook, my attention was recently directed to an article written by author Sophia McDougall for NewStatesman entitled “I Hate Strong Female Characters.” Initially perceived as an odd subject for a woman in full advocacy of female heroism, the article reveals an author’s vexation with the fact that the few female characters Hollywood’s male-dominated industry engenders these days are whittled down to mere “strong” women.
As if to pacify the contemporary consumer’s deterrence from the antiquated “damsel in distress,” screenplays today produce a myriad of women who not only serve as the male protagonist’s necessary love interest, but who also pack a punch. To illustrate the media’s attempt to reverse the princess hype of bygone eras, McDougall cites kung-fu-savvy Fiona from Shrek, trigger-happy Peggy Carter from Captain America, Buffy of vampire slaying fame, and Black Widow from The Avengers (am I sensing an anti-Joss Whedon trend here?), all of whom resort to violence to establish their auras of sexually intriguing power. While there’s no denying these kick-ass women have right hooks and roundhouse kicks in heels down to a T, McDougall’s article surmises that this modern cinematic woman may be nothing more than a convenient rouse to keep the idolatrous masses at bay–to paraphrase Walter Benjamin. In today’s big Hollywood blockbuster, women have to be purveyed as strong in order to receive the respect their male counterparts garner, even though a man can be prone to addictive neuroses à la Sherlock Holmes, and still be considered a hero. Ultimately, McDougall asks for equality between male and female characters. Instead of one gal and five guys in a super hero posse, why not level the gender playing field? And instead of emphasizing nothing beyond that one female character’s strength and sexual magnetism, why not add the dimensions of reality afforded to male protagonists like Spider Man, Hamlet, and Daniel Craig’s James Bond?
After reading this opinionated plea for equality (akin to the egalitarianism my inner, scale-toting Libra is always intent on), I got to thinking. On the one hand, I could rabble-rouse this cinematic platitude as reverse discrimination: a Hollywood ploy so keen on eradicating the helplessness of damsels past that it’s catapulted the blockbuster heroine into a predictable facade of strength, as if to suggest that while men are expected to be strong and therefore require ulterior characteristics to be captivating, women are expected to be weak, and therefore easily transition into compelling characters when caustic gun-wielding comes naturally. But is The Avengers’ Black Widow, with her monotonous, expository lines and repetitive harnessed flips, actually a compelling character?
On the other hand, I realized as I pondered this crux, that I myself am at fault for the fact that the sheer number of male protagonists–be it in The Avengers, Inception, or even The Smurfs–tend to exceed the number of female characters. I haven’t written recreational fiction in years and have honestly evolved well beyond the anti-feminist, male idolizing yahooligan of my youth, but back when I was able to document the adventures of my imagination on a daily basis, I was undeniably responsible for the adolescent egocentrism that results in one primary female character and a horde of dudes. Yes, there was the Holes fan-fiction from middle school that introduced a cast of female equivalents for each of the male Green Lake inhabitants, and yes, the three women featured in my story “Pampa” outnumbered the two men, but generally, my writing enveloped a sole heroine based off some constituent of myself and a host of male characters based off of other personal facets. Blame it on latent, inapparent tomboy-ism, but as a girl who found herself easily relating to a male mindset, it just felt more natural to translate my sardonic voice through a male medium and reserve my sense of teenage trepidation about body image, boys, and school for my female characters.
But just because the men outnumbered the women in my writing, didn’t mean my female characters ascribed to classic Hollywood’s helpless maidens or today’s revamped sword-brandishing pseudo-mutes. My characters may have been uncertain about a lot of the things life presented them with, but some of them certainly emanated natural strength, a couple of them had pulled through harrowing circumstances hardened but notably wiser, many of them could riposte circles around their male companions, and all of them had individual perspectives, experiences, and a distinctive voice of their own. None of them used kung-fu to merit respect (in fact, one character hid her penchant for violence as a hired gun in order to assimilate into the new identity she’d devised), and while a couple of them (my sister’s analog in the Holes fan-fic) had the men drooling, most of them deviated from the stereotypical sex symbol that makes a female character profitable in the eyes of Hollywood.
In fact, as I pondered the subject further, I realized that even though hero movies (generally inspired by comics made by men and produced by men for men) have created the Disney princess foil via their violent, “strong” female archetype, women have come a long way in the media. Just look at Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, idolized for their hilarious goofiness and witty intelligence without having to step into a leather catsuit or be raised by a pulley to conduct Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-esque combat. And even in the realm of tough cookies, Arya Stark combines the honest vulnerability of youth with an adult desire to aid her family and fight because it’s inevitable, not because it’s sexy. While these multidimensional women offer hope to irritated consumers like McDougall, I won’t deny that they’re a long ways off from representing the schema perpetuated by our summer blockbusters–that of the disposable, hyper-sexualized Bond girl or the infamous “strong female character.”
I suppose that when you reside in a country where female politicians still don on pantsuits to be taken seriously, it’s no wonder Hollywood imbues strength in its female characters to elicit respect. While rugged gals can punch a chauvinist into silence or shoot their loved ones with fifty arrows out of unverified jealousy, you know our blockbuster screenplays have a few reality checks in order when the closest fictional woman I can relate to for her perseverance is Liz Lemon (that, or I just really like ham).
I’m a proud proponent of the fact that Hollywood has come a long way since Snow White lay in entombed waiting after a gullible run-in with an apple, but I can also recognize the validity in McDougall’s sentiments. Hollywood seems to be opposed to the notion of a female hero chartering her own film (and headlining a movie poster rather than standing behind Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Hemsworth) because, quite frankly, they haven’t figured out how to make her compelling enough yet. Personally, I don’t want them to make that movie until they learn to do it right–two hours worth of Scarlett Johansson’s blank expression while she pulverizes villains with the powers of… karate would make for a sure-fire box office flop. Perhaps the secret lies in employing female writers, girls who, like my adolescent self, dreamt up women who equalled men in battle but possessed senses of humor and honest queries about life to boot. Maybe Hollywood just needs to hand over the reigns to the female script writers and guys in tune with their feminine sides, thereby enabling those underused artists to revel in a little geeking out of their own.