There’s never been a better time to be part a minority in the film industry. Or so reports say. And in a sense it’s true, as the conversation about #OscarsSoWhite or about #womeninfilm has really been present on social media and has impacted “the real world”: J.J. Abrams took measures to have more diverse employees and storylines at his production company, and films like The Hunger Games have decidedly shown that women can/should lead their own films. (And it’s still strange to keep talking about women as a minority but that’s another topic altogether.)
That series of films was also often mentioned in the conversation about “strong female characters”, which is now the go-to catchphrase that’s used whenever people talk about including more women in films or TV or, in a broader, more contemporary term: in the “content”. I don’t know about you, but “strong female character” doesn’t sound like much more than a catchphrase to me. People usually mean well, (hopefully) when they use it. But it does irk me. There are a few reasons why.
1) They mean well, but…
Why would we need strong female characters? It’s because the women we’ve had on our screens have mostly been assigned
traditional stereotypical female roles: mothers of a man, wives/girlfriends of a man, lovers longing for a man, etc… And so in a sense, it is indeed necessary to revert those images and provide people watching films or TV with different role models, and as opposed to traditionally fragile, sensitive, emotional characters, yes we do need strong female characters.
2) Holding one’s own
But we’ve had women in film for a long time? Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall, Katharine Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe… fair enough. Yet many were there as objects of desire for men. They were sensational, and became even more so when they held their own to men. How did they hold their own to men, you ask? Illustration:
Answer is: sex. What has passed for strength for a long time, and the most memorable female characters we’ve seen on screen have usually been extremely sexualised, a phenomenon that was then epitomised under the mantle of “femme fatale”. (It’s in French so you know it’s either about food or sex.)
Not that femme fatales can’t be interesting characters, obviously. Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct was (1) yes, extremely sexualised and (2) interesting enough on top of being extremely sexual that we were still hooked. Yet sex/sexiness was inevitable for a female character for a long, long time.
3) Strong female, you say?
Strength is a necessary feature if we want to go in the opposite directions of the stereotypes (and punch them in the face along the way). But here’s the problem with strength as a character description: it’s boring.
Strength is traditionally a male feature -expressed through power, money, resilience, character. Fitting women in men’s clothing is absolutely fine if that suits the woman wearing the clothes, but let’s not make it another stereotype. A strong female character is still about valuing and praising strength and implicitly valuing traditional manliness as the gold standard. You can try to fit women in men’s boxes, and the other way around (I, for one, liked seeing Deadpool pleasuring himself while playing with a unicorn doll). But perhaps we’d all be better off without the boxes and going beyond the essentialist stereotypes?
4) Twenty-first century heroines
The 2000’s were marked by a world phenomenon called Harry Potter. In the books and the movies, Hermione (Emma Watson) is the incarnation of the idea that when you take muscles out of the equation, i.e. judge individuals through their wit, resourcefulness, resilience and innate skills, that is to say, character, then you get a heroine who is infinitely badass and a perfect role model.
In film, Rey of Star Wars was one of the most talked about characters in recent months. Not just because she was refused a place in the Star Wars Monopoly game, but also because the biggest film of the year was headed by a young woman who was smart, resourceful, and pointedly independent – so independent, in fact much so that it felt like the writers were making a point with the subtlety of an assault tank. That was unheard of, especially in a franchise whose fandom is reputedly mostly male. And the main thing that was talked about was: why hasn’t there been such a role model before?
5) Female stories?
In order to go beyond the stereotypes and the still-too-rare role models, perhaps we need to go beyond just the “strong female character” talk and just think of featuring female characters in, quite simply, good stories. Geena Davis, who founded the Geena Davis Institute On Gender and Media, recently advised that for better representation, screenwriters should just change the character’s gender to female instead of male. Chances are, that you’ve written an interesting character as a male, who could equally be female.
When I went to see Deadpool, there were three trailers before the movie (and two or three times that of advertising): all ready-to-consume blockbusters that displayed insanely top-notch craft in the middle of loudness and visual bombasticness. I got so bored and annoyed I almost walked out of the cinema before I remembered there was actually a movie afterwards. The point is: strength is boring. It’s flawless. It’s one dimensional. Yes Erin Brockovich is strong and badass but she has moments of weaknesses that make her more human and relatable.
What makes a character interesting is that they want something, and that they have flaws that make the road to their objective more complicated. It’s not that they’re strong or weak, male or female. That’s up to the writers: give me a complex character who can’t get out of my head.
PS: Helen McCrory agrees.