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.
Picture it: a dimly lit hall illuminated by a line of rustic, brass chandeliers emitting a faint yellow light onto the slice of Cahuenga Boulevard just visible through the open door. A boar’s head hangs high on the wall, serving as a taxidermic spectator to the affairs below, too enshrouded in shadow to be suspect of cheap facsimile or costly verisimilitude. Yards down, an oxyn-colored bar stretches the length of the room, reflecting a mural of light: yellow from the glowing lanterns and variegated from the polychromatic bottles arranged seductively in a backlit cabinet. Opposite this extravagant display stand eight circular tables, their gloaming mien a perfect respite for the patrons of a more private disposition than the raucous guests steadily occupying stools at the bar.
Three bartenders dart amongst this throng, their hands ever moving to fulfill increasingly slurred behests. One, a tow-colored Englishman in a satin vest and ensemble intended to match the brooding palette of the furnishings, might own the place–or at least have some influence on the Anglian pub décor. The second is a sharply dressed Hispanic man making his debut in this particular tavern but clearly no novice mixologist as he swiftly produces Blackberry Sidecars, London Eyes, Basset Hounds, Strawberry Fields, Cranky Butlers, and crassly titled Abortions. The final barman speaks through a pierced lip as he recognizes a girl who shamefacedly attempts to avoid his gaze, certain that she unintentionally called him a jackass in a drunken stupor during her last weekend soirée. Little does the mortified customer realize that the bartender, with his penchant for remembering her face, has no memory of the accusatory slight, and instead plots a transgression of his own by inviting her to partake in free shots despite the boyfriend she visibly fawns over.
The din ebbs and flows to the rhythm of an electronic bass, spiking with each bout of high pitched laughter that peals from intoxicated women, raising the hopes of their interlocutors. Men play Ring the Bull with no knowledge of the game’s title and little luck at its objective, groups of women in towering heels and tight dresses throw back tumblers of transparent liquid with pinched expressions and successive giggles, couples inch gradually closer to one another with obvious intent, a large party convenes in the upstairs loft to celebrate the birthday of a beloved east coast screenwriter, and a typical Friday night in Hollywood unfolds to a cacophonous collage of diverse people with the shared goal to unravel.
In short, business at The Blue Boar booms.
In my youth, I was what one might call a prolific writer: a kid whose bespectacled eyes were permanently glued to the hulking cube of a PC under the stairs, fingers zipping across the keyboard for hours in an improper, self-taught typing technique. I was such a literary zealot that not only can those bespectacled eyes be blamed on my incessant proximity to a glowing LED monitor, but I had a fan-fiction that spanned 200,000 words in 58 chapters, and had garnered a fan base of 320 similarly bespectacled adolescent computer-mongers. The only problem with this Homerian epic and the six original books I succumbed to myopia for, was that chapter 58 was the preclude to the last chapter, and the last chapter never came…
So what was it that overtook the celebrated child author who many writing forum patrons knew under the immature moniker of Munkymuppet? How did such a promising wordsmith’s skills encounter the second coming of the Cretaceous period and peter out with the same expiry flair as the dinosaurs?
It was junior year of high school that witnessed the last rapidly typed production of anything other than academic essays, dissertations, and artist statements; and the culprit? International Baccalaureate.
At the time, fan-fictions were a thing of the hormonal, middle school acolyte past and I was onto my next kick: a gruesome thriller fueled by a love for high-octane action stories that would gradually dissipate as I increasingly aged into my cringe-prone mother. I was on chapter 21, the mystery was unraveling, the villains were amassing, and the action was building toward a climax with nerve-wracking rapidity, when suddenly International Baccalaureate–the global and more taxing version of high school honors–amped up the stress levels to 300% and succeeded in expunging any and every drive for creative writing. Although the IB gods mercifully spared my penchant for visual arts (allowing me to attend a widely reputed art school and inhume myself in asphyxiating debt for the next seventy years), any sense of personal motivation to put pen to pad has been wiped clean ever since.
To this day, the creative writing skills that hoards of teachers once praised as “years ahead in maturation” are nothing more than a desert whose cacti might proffer up one or two pages of liquid inspiration every six months, resulting in 27 one to two page stories that are still sitting on a digital shelf, gathering pixelated dust while they wait to be revisited. But with this history teeming with burgeoning novels, short stories, contemplated screenplays, a heavily trafficked Xanga and three consistently updated Blogspots, writing is clearly a part of my genetic code and can assume substantial responsibility for producing the verbose, imaginative adult I am today. Thus, I think it’s time to really put some effort into climbing back into that ballpoint pen-laden saddle, no matter how nervous that mercurial horse might make me.
So with WordPress as my accomplice and a temperamental internet connection as my medium, here it goes: Operation Invoke the Hibernating Author Within. All I have to do is employ the wonderfully freeing purpose of a blog and talk about any subject that comes to mind–from the qualms of being a new inductee into the second biggest city in the country, to the artwork of people who inspire my creative spirit, to all those paranormal TV shows I continue to freak myself out with late at night like some sort of Stockholm syndrome enthusiast. Just make sure to WRITE. And perhaps, Allah willing, what might first feel like a daily chore may gradually resuscitate the dormant intrinsic nature that’s just waiting to be rediscovered.