They never talk about strong-willed male characters. It never needs to be spelled out. I’m neither an actor nor a casting director, but I would bet the farm that there has never been a call out for male actors to play a king or a superhero, a pirate or an astronaut or an apocalyptic warrior where the notes supplied say, “this is a strong-willed, strong-minded character, independent, able to stand on his own two feet, who doesn’t need to define himself through his significant other. Or his boobs.”
Yeah, okay, I sorta added that last part myself.
When did writers forget how to write women? I taught Advanced English Literature for ten years. We read about many women. Women who lived in snowy Russia. Women who survived abusive husbands and fathers, fires and tempests. Women who didn’t need saving, but saved others instead. Women who survived death camps. Women who sought life on their own terms.
When did the women in our favorite stories become simply foils for their male partners? Simpering, eyelash batting simpletons who don’t know enough to call the police when they find a boy watching them when they sleep? The mother figure who picks up after her foolish boys? Or the innocent chick the rich playboy convinces that it’s all the rage if he ties her up and slaps her around? Have human beings actually become shallower? Less appreciative of intelligence and strength?
There will always be a place for romance. For thinly plotted tales with the grand story arc of “Oh, I hate him.” “Oh, he’s not so bad.” “Oh, I love him.” Romances have their place. There are expectations going in that the princess will be rescued by the knight, that long gazes and sexual tension will be at the heart of the story, and there’ll be a happily ever after.
Perhaps it was the growth of visual media that made physical appearance more important that character. That created a yearning to watch perfectly formed men and women, and emphasized what we could see rather than what was happening in these characters’ minds. Maybe it was a shift from reading classics – prose and poetry – from learning how to critique and analyze and pull the true depth of meaning from characters and stories that has reduced us all to trying to choose between Magic Mike XXL and Inside Out at the movie theater – a bro movie and a tale about how emotions rule a young girl’s life. And, no, I don’t believe the Magic Mike franchise (I cannot believe I really just typed that) is in any way empowering to women. Turning men into idiots and sex objects in no way makes women stronger, it just makes men weaker. There’s no scale, no immediate gain for women when a man loses character and IQ points.
My favorite on-screen genre is suspense/action/sci fi/fantasy. What, that isn’t all one genre? Okay, fine then. THOSE are my favorites. And, frankly, I’ve looked long and hard to try to come up with a well written female character among them all. Let’s discuss.
Ellen Ripley is towards the top of my list. She is not perfect, not a superwoman, not even clothed in seduction. She is the epitome of a survivor. Of course, in the second movie they had to create a child for her so that she could be a real woman. Le sigh.
Buffy Summers. Teen angst, yes, plus the pesky romance with the bad boy, but at least Buffy had friends, both male and female. She was sarcastic and eye-rolly and kicked serious ass. And saved the world a lot.
Samantha Carter. Beautiful and brilliant and excellent with a gun. Held her own in the man’s military world and with the brainiacs. I loved the early seasons of SG-1 when the four of them were friends, proving that male/female relations was not as important as the team interaction. And then they went and spoiled it all with a – and I sigh again – romance that could never beeeeeeeee.
Sarah Conner. Grows up fast, and by T2 she is a gun toting, shoot first and ask questions never lady. But also kinda crazy. And, really, this is all about her son.
Princess Leia. Love her in A New Hope, or, as I like to call it, Star Wars Original. Tough and a little mean and a better shooter than any stormtrooper. Damsel in distress my aunt fanny. The Han and Leia, unfortunately, takes over her role as the movies progress. Leia needed her own ship. Her own base of operations. Her own military behind her, not just to be an adjunct for the male characters. And don’t get me started on Padma.
Zoe Washburne. Nicely done, Joss Whedon. Zoe is, perhaps, the best written adult female in sci fi. Yes, she’s married, and she sticks up for her husband. Good. But she is also second in command and a warrior in her own right. This is what a strong female character looks like, people. Because, first of all, she is simply a strong CHARACTER.
Black Widow. First Avengers movie Black Widow. She uses what the Red Room turned her into to fight for the good guys. She’s nasty and tough and gives the bad guys enough rope to hang themselves. She gets herself captured to gain intel and rescues herself, thank you very much. She has deep friendships and shows fear and still does her job. But, as we learn in Avengers AOU, her REALLY TRULY AWFUL regret is not that the Red Room turned her into an assassin, but that she can’t have babies.
There’s a pattern here. In the earliest stages, these women are good characters. They push the plot along. They have skills that are useful. They make it work and give 110%. They stand beside their male counterparts to get the prize or save the day or save the world. BUT, as time goes on, as these characters move forward in a franchise or a series, inevitably their storylines are narrowed down to their lady parts. Love. Children. Harry or Ron. Angel or Spike. Which of the other heroes will get together with her? What happens when her womanly weaknesses make her less useful? When she, again inevitably, falls apart? Because that is the other option. Romance or madness. The Bride. Sarah Conner.
That’s it. Those are the only options. Because that’s all women are. That’s all they care about. Love. Children. Feeeeeeelings.
I haven’t seen Inside Out, but I have seen the previews, so please correct me if I’m wrong. The girl is playing hockey, hustling down the ice, and she sees a defender coming towards her to take her out. Does she rely on skill? On her training? On the discipline she’s learned in practice to dodge or pass? No. She has to rely on her emotions to tell her what to do. In this case, anger. I’m fairly sure that any athlete will tell you that getting angry is not the way to win games, it is a distraction.
We’ve all been distracted. We’ve turned our attention from character and story and focused on the simple. The basic. The most primitive urges of humanity. Sex is something everyone can understand. Teenaged romantic pining, too. Don’t have to think about it. No need to analyze it. If all of a writer’s characters interact on a hormonal level, they don’t have to develop personality, or motivation, inner drives or outer responsibilities. Easy peasy. So easy, a caveman could do it, people.
Dumbed down. Appealing to the adolescent – all emotions and hormones. Today’s writers have never read the classics: Bronté, Dostoevsky, Montgomery, or Melville. They didn’t learn history: Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth I. And they certainly never read poetry:
“You misconceive the question like a man,
Who sees a woman as the complement
Of his sex merely. You forget too much
That every creature, female as the male,
Stands single in responsible act and thought
As also in birth and death.”
Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Single. Responsible. Not the complement of another.
In chess, the queen is the most powerful piece on the board. She moves in any direction, for any number of spaces. She protects the King, but moves independently of him. Takes out enemies. Is strategic. No emotions trouble her.
Believe it or not, real women are like that, too.
I hereby call for more Zoe Washburne. More Melinda May. More Hermione Granger. More Emily Prentiss. Jane Eyre. Anne of Green Gables. Jo March. Pippi Longstocking. Give her a role to play. Give her work to do. Give her friends – male and female. Give her victories and failures.
Give her life.