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Goodbye to Strong Female Characters

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by Melissa Silverstein and Inkoo Kang
December 30, 2013 4:35 PM
7 Comments
  • |
sexism is over
http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=311

We are so over Strong Female Characters.

Strong Female Characters were useful a few years ago when there was a dearth of women on film and most were so rubber-limbed, glass-ankled, or prone to fainting spells they literally needed to be carried out of danger by a man. Sure, there were always a smattering of tough-as-nails women at the movies: Silkwood, Thelma and Louise, A League of Their Own, Swing Shift, A Cry in the Dark, Yentl, Terms of Endearment, Fried Green Tomatoes, Silence of the Lambs, The Piano, Aliens. But most of the great female protagonists in these movies were the exceptions that proved the rule. Films with strong female characters were anomalies, not the pattern. 

But today, Hollywood has taken our love of strong female characters and converted it into something dully literal. Strong female characters have become Strong Female Characters, a mutant sub-genus that has less to do with actual women than T-Rexes: physically intimidating, but mentally nonthreatening. But muscle strength isn't all that interesting on its own -- otherwise, Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme would be where George Clooney and Brad Pitt are on the Hollywood A-list. As Sophia McDougall argued this summer in the pop culture feminist critique of the year, strength is too often a substitute for personality where female characters are concerned. 

The Mary Sue points out in yet an interview with Neil Gaiman about -- you guessed it, "Strong Female Characters," because he and Joss Whedon are apparently the world's only authorities on writing interesting women -- that "strong female characters don't necessarily have to have Hulk strength, they need to be strongly written." Well, sure, we all want female characters to be strongly written, but the problem is no one knows exactly what that means anymore.

So let us propose another idea towards solving the crisis of lame female characters: create women and girls with agency

If a director or screenwriter is interested in meeting the bare minimum of feminist standards, a female character should have the wits and a big enough part in the story to propel and shape the plot significantly on her own accord. We all enjoy seeing women kicking ass, but we'd enjoy even more watching a woman whose decisions are important and taken seriously by the characters around her. Female protagonists and main characters villainesses would automatically fit the bill, but many sidekicks and love interests would not. And it would not count if, say, a female character's kidnapping triggered the plot because, obviously, that wouldn't be something she made happen, just something that happened to her. 

Like the Bechdel test, the "female characters with agency" solution is an imperfect one. But we humans really enjoy our one-stop solutions and easy fixes, and plot-driving female characters is the one we need right now. Because the problem with the representation of women on screen isn't just that there are almost five times as many male characters as there are female ones, but also that the relatively few women characters who do appear are constantly reduced to roles of passivity and, thus, inconsequentiality. 

Female characters don't always have to win, but we'd like to at least see them try. The time has passed when we are satisfied with a woman character holding a gun or kicking butt as a cheap, insincere nod toward equality. We're done with strength. Now we want to see the struggles. 

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7 Comments

  • John | January 2, 2014 6:00 PMReply

    Love this idea. Regardless of the importnat moral and societal issues, it would make for better movies that I would want to see.

    As you mentioned Bechdel, I wondered what you thought of the post that asserts that movies that pass the Bechdel test perform better than those that don't? Personally, I think their methodology is flawed and makes it easy for opponents to discredit the thesis and would be interested if you were aware of more rigorous analysis either done in the studios or independently?

  • Tav-El | January 1, 2014 6:33 PMReply

    It isn't difficult to write a strong female character. All you do is write a strong character, and say that it's a female. The femininity and everything that separates her from a male counterpart just comes out naturally. At least that's how it happens in my work.

  • Janice | December 31, 2013 8:33 PMReply

    Yes, but... why can't we have both? 1) "strong female characters" tend to have agency. 2) "strong male characters" tend to do well at the box office (and also tend to have agency). If we're really going to devote ourselves to saying that we actually want equality, then why must it be a bad thing that they're creating vacuous action-hero women in the mold of decades of vacuous, action-hero men? Not every movie needs to be August: Osage County or Philomena. There's plenty of opportunity for both. We need MORE female characters across the board, and, yes, we need them with agency, but that doesn't need to mean eliminating access to a genre that has often been the sole bastion of male characters. We deserve access to that, too.

  • Jess | December 31, 2013 7:05 PMReply

    I think it also must be said that we need weak women characters as well. Not weak because they're there to service the plot or be saved or be a love interest, but women who are beautifully written to be flawed, dark, broken-down, cruel--- all the things that real people actually are. I think the problem with the "strong women" issue is that it not only turned into shorthand for "physically ass-kicking" but also "one-dimensional heroes." Women can be great villains, they can be great side characters, they can be deeply flawed anti-heroes as well as protagonists with agency. Where is the female Tony Soprano? The female Walter White?
    Point is, we just need female characters that are like actual humans in all their good and bad forms, not just some kind of an agenda with boobs and a name.

  • OliverHollenbach | December 31, 2013 4:07 AMReply

    I am saying Good bye to strong female characters.
    http://pages.rediff.com/trigx2musclebooster/1978154

  • SAVANAH MORGAN | December 30, 2013 8:16 PMReply

    Super Cool Article.... THANKS

  • Ranadicus | December 30, 2013 5:41 PMReply

    What we need is for female Jedi Knights to figure prominently in the upcoming Star Wars movies.

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