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.
A few years after enjoying the edgiest, most memorable high school Intro to Psychology course in the state of Oregon, I experienced International Baccalaureate Psychology, a class so dull it warrants no description beyond the obligatory kudos to Jesus for equipping me with the company of my friends Nyssa and Michael for vital commiseration. The entertaining pre-IB course was taught by the iconic Cliff Shaw, a man who sported a bald head, red goatee, gauges, and square glasses long before pop culture revived them, who figured effective curriculum entailed reenacting Milgram’s obedience and authority experiment with two voluntary students (to serve as “teacher” and “learner”) and a “shock machine.” While the whole thing turned out to be a ruse that only Shaw and the “learner” were in on, the shocked student’s acting was so Oscar-worthy we thought we were witnessing a lawsuit in the making, and ultimately proved as an entire class that authority overrules morality… or that everyone just wanted to see the class clown get shocked some more. With such a hard act to follow, it’d be a chore for any successive psychology course to garner favor, but IB didn’t even try. Taught by a recent college graduate who seemed to have no interest in either teaching or psychology, IB Psych was an experience that makes it difficult to decide whether my college psychology course, in which I learned nothing new beyond the rate at which your social life declines when assigned two quick-turn-around essays every week for three months, was really all that bad.
One interesting takeaway I can attribute to IB, however, occurred when a classmate discussed treatment of her obsessive-compulsive disorder which, if my memory serves me correctly, involved some sort of stick with multicolored stripes that she was instructed to methodically match with her hands. This oration hearkened back to the Intro course, in which a girl discussed her fixation with touching a certain spot on the wall prior to leaving her room each day, flipping light switches twice, and making sure her shoe laces maintained equal lengths on each side. If these things, among others, weren’t tended to on a regular basis, she would fall prey to panic.
Personally, I have never been formally tested for obsessive-compulsive disorder. My family is averse to doctors and abides by the “wait it out until it becomes dire” creed, demonstrated clearly the time I had pneumonia and desperately needed a prescription for an inhaler three months earlier. Despite the fact that I don’t have a distinctive chicken-scratch signature to officiate it, obsessive-compulsive disorder drives me with the same obviousness that plastic surgery drives Jocelyn “Cat Woman” Wildenstein.
Although Cat Woman’s obsessions clearly trump my own and she may be in dire need of a striped stick, listening to my psychology peers divulge their diagnosed OCD ticks provided an interesting comparison to my own symptoms, which were recurrent, daily necessities even without the professional signature of validity. For example, while living in the animal menagerie that comprised my mom’s old house, my nerves required that I check every single plate, bowl, cup, and utensil for pet hair before eating from it, and if someone served me up a dish without the mandatory inspection, I would literally become sick to my stomach and stare at the meal dismally, wondering how on earth I’d go about eating it without gagging on my neurotic suppositions. When I would write (which was constant habit both pre-IB Essay Onslaught and post), I would be impelled by some force of necessity to scratch things regardless of a nonexistent itch, resulting in scarification that made makeup application an exciting challenge. The contents of my room had to stay immaculately clean, everything had to occupy a permanent spot that it was always returned to, I always needed to push back my cuticles when I was nervous, and work always needed to be completed before I partook in anything else, including eating. If I didn’t perform these and numerous other compulsions with immediacy, they gnawed at my mind until I finally amended the hitch.
My symptoms have actually dissipated quite a bit with age, in part to a personal campaign I enacted a couple years ago, working to relieve myself of the more inhibitory compulsions and miraculously pulling it off. While time and sheer determination have worked wonders, there are some routines I still can’t shake. Everything in my life has to maintain a specific order, and while I no longer color-code my closet, making sure every garment faces the same direction, I still abide by a figurative grid. All my belongings have to be consistently organized in a relative pattern to one another, and if something becomes askew, it has to be fixed. Ovens and stove tops have to be checked twice before leaving the house, I have to sit in the exact same, silent spot to complete any written material, dishes have to be washed immediately after cooking and right before eating, and work has to be completed prior to leisure and meals, unless my willpower can sneak a banana past the obsessive-compulsive beast.
Recently, while enduring an internet crisis over the past couple days, something happened that almost deemed my Beat the Urge campaign moot. My boyfriend introduced me to a compulsion that’s entirely new to me: the drive to beat a game. While this unexpected competitive spirit would generally be ascribed to a spike in testosterone, I fear my fervor may be morphing into fixation before my LED-illuminated eyes. And the game of all things? Candy Crush, an iPhone app I had to commandeer my boyfriend’s iPad to play, and play I have been.
I was never one for dwindling away the hours in front of a game console or plodding away on a cell phone to navigate a centipede through a labyrinth. My dad bought us an X-Box back in middle school and we played Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Jet Set Radio for a couple months before basilisks and gun-wielding cops on the hunt for pesky rollerskating taggers gave me too many heart palpitations and retired the X-Box to DVD duty. Video games further deterred me upon returning home from my first quarter of college to discover my current boyfriend had been inducted into the Call of Duty fetish, morphing him from a peaceful musician into a Gollum-eyed drone, controller permanently at hand to shoot the enemy and attention fixated on the screen no matter how many times you walked naked in front of it.
But that was before the Candy Crush craze. Presented in the whimsical colors of a four-year-old’s wardrobe, Candy Crush is a sugary sweet game with aesthetics not unlike Sugar Rush of Wreck It Ralph fame–sans any large-headed, speed-demon children. In a vein akin to Tetris, Candy Crush is all about aligning like candies in groups of three to complete various tasks, such as clearing away a horde of whipped cream-cover jellies and earning yourself 40,000 points in 60 seconds to save Lemonade Lake from drying up. With so many challenging puzzles and the allure of 440 levels featuring hotspots like the aforementioned yellow puddle, it’s no wonder the game is addictive. Between sketching featured images for the blog and completing a retouching project on my end and covering a script on his, my boyfriend and I spent almost 24 hours a piece trying to beat the onerous level 23, and when I finally did I almost shrieked as loud as thirteen-year-old Emily when she received the movie Holes for her birthday.
Where Candy Crush gets vicious, however, is in it’s ability to lure you in with a guise of varicolored innocence and then capitalize off your obsessive-compulsiveness by making the latter levels all about sheer luck. I felt sure I’d finally weened myself off of it when level 33 produced the revelation that a game was causing me frustration rather than quintessential enjoyment, but the next morning I found my fingers seeking out the iPad they’d previously tossed aside as if acting on their own volition. Perhaps I’ll get lucky, compulsiveness tells me, but logic asserts that it’s time to reenact Operation Quell the Hankering and crush this competitive aggression (that my racquetball coaches always wished I’d display) into a million candy-coated shards.
Growing up, I always gravitated toward male friends, assimilating into dude-dominated cliques that might have hosted one other girl, if that. For some strange adolescent reason that may have burgeoned into existence after watching one too many football games with my dad, I always felt I could relate more to men: I abhorred drama, my favorite hobby was laughing raucously at trivialities for hours on end, I could withstand a shopping mall for maybe an hour before my head started to swim, and I preferred, in male patois, to just “chill.”
I wasn’t a tomboy by any stretch of the imagination though. Sure, a Ukrainian woman with an indiscernible accent completely ignored my reference image and cut my hair so short it barely met my ears, producing a masculine visage that one of my fifth grade peers mistook for the ragged coiffure of a bully. And yes, there was that identical incident freshman year of high school when a Laotian hairstylist repeatedly asked me, “Dis sha?” until I succumbed to her brandished scissors, only to discover seconds later when fourteen inches of my hair lay in a frizzy heap on the floor that she’d been repeating, “This short?” But traumatic haircuts aside, my femininity always burst from the regrettably low-cut V-necks I naïvely wore throughout middle school; my brief but ferocious stint as a fashionista who persistently strutted the halls of Sunset High School in six-inch heels with no concern for the future stiletto-repellence I was steadily instigating; and my tendency to hyper-obsess over male celebrities (specifically the cast of Lord of the Rings and one particularly deified actor from the mediocrely received Holes), a once ceaseless pastime that only just recently dissipated with a college girl crush on Tom Hardy.
Proof of femininity aside, the great rapport I always felt with my male peers didn’t mean I was ostracized from female companionship. In fact, my whole middle school table–which had conveniently gone unnamed when we decided to create a map of all the cafeteria cliques (preps, jocks, Martha Stewarts, and so forth), despite the fact that it quite frankly seated of a bunch of band kids and the token choir chick (me)–consisted of ten girls and half as many guys, one of whom kept being recycled in the bizarre phenomenon of middle school dating.
In fact, my best friend of of the past, present, and forecasted future is a kid called Willy Jazz, or Beans, or any number of monikers older sisters can’t help but ascribe to their closest DNA double helix. And close, she is. In a family of two sisters spaced two years apart, it’s as if she was developed in vivo to be my twin, complete with the added benefit of (in her opinion) not actually being my twin. In a similar vein, my former life partner à la Spongebob and Patrick and my lone female counterpart in one of those male-driven coteries was a girl who shared my embarrassing fervor for celebrity worship and helped me maintain the concrete abs of my youth just by falling prey to hysteria every time we were in the same vicinity (including that eighth grade English class where a boy named Casey Griswald turned around and snapped, “Will you two stop laughing for Christ’s sake!?“).
Beyond that, I had great times with my girlfriends forming one-hit-wonder cover bands complete with promotional materials and costumed music videos; exchanging inappropriately unpolitical delegate notes during Model United Nations conferences where we were supposed to be discussing the fate of Luxembourg’s debt sustainability; terrorizing the IMDB message boards with the fictitious “Legface,” before we knew what the verb “to troll” even meant; spending hours in front of a mirror primping for a night of lychee cocktails 15 floors above the Portland cityscape at Departure; and even achieving the coveted Sex and the City foursome all girls dream of during one magical year of college.
But in my experience, little things always seem to come between gal pals, be it the petty life mistakes that one party refuses to forget or simply 2,844 miles of United States soil and disparate schedules that handicap the relationship. However, in a gigantic city like Los Angeles where the list of entertainment, events, boutiques, clubs, bars, drag shows, and tans just waiting to be garnered at our many beaches is endless and the handful of people I’ve met thus far pardonably need to devote the majority of their time to their burgeoning careers, I can’t help but reminisce about all the benefits of having girlfriends in your life. All the fashion ogling, all the amateur restaurant critiquing, all the club hopping in dresses we’ll consider passé shortly after breaking them in, all the exotic flavors Bartini has to offer, all the inevitable man talk that spans the gamut from congratulations to commiseration, and all the laughter that can’t resist emission in one another’s presence.
Thus, even with all its endless distractions, L.A. has yet to distract me from the one glaring thing it’s missing: all my amazing girls.