Tag Archives: Thor

Strong Female Characters

20 Aug

The New Statesman ran an article this week about Strong Female Characters, and how actually, they are really quite odious. Not in an ‘urgh, laydeez!’ way, you understand, but in a ‘this is a lazy way of satisfying our need for interesting women on screen’.  I read it because I was mildly outraged by the headline and came away agreeing with it quite vehemently. (you can read it too, here: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/08/i-hate-strong-female-characters)

A while ago I wrote something rather similar, at least based on its starting point. I too bemoaned the lazy attempts to make female characters ‘strong’ by not giving them obvious romantic motivations, equipping them with guns, etc. That stuff still stands, I reckon, so I’m going to reproduce it here.

“The film world is choc-full of sensitively portrayed, emotionally interesting, intelligent and personable men. It’s also got its fair share of sappy romantics, gun-toting action heroes, maverick cops, family men faced with difficult choices, cuddly pet-owners and lads about town. Film has all these characters and many more, and actors seem to be able to play any of these they like, in just about any sequence. This is why Daniel Radcliffe can play a boy wizard, a disturbed Victorian gentleman and a Beat poet all before he hits 25. And we love a bit of variety, so let’s not grudge them that.

What about the women? Think of the last two films you saw. I can pretty much guarantee that even if one of them contained a sympathetic and interesting view of women, or at the very least, passed the Bechdel test (that’s the one about a film having female characters who talk to each other about something other than men), the other one didn’t. Unless you make a special point of only watching feminist-friendly movies, in which case, props to you, but I bet you don’t get to the cinema much.

For a bit of light relief I here refer you to the excellent Canadian cartoonist Kate Beaton, who did a great series of drawings of some lady superheroes called Strong Female Characters.  For your perusement and amusement: http://harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=311.

Such violent bare-chested women are not everyone’s idea of a strong female character. That’s ok. That’s the point. As I said earlier, variety = good. But – they do seem to be the prevalent ones that appear in the movies. Giving a girl a gun is apparently sufficient for many directors to feel they have secured the goodwill of the lady demographic who are interested in something other than a romance. And ideally, said girl will also be hot, which will get the men onside who might otherwise be worried about dangerous levels of over-empowerment.”

So. That’s what I identified to be the situation when I wrote that, some time in the spring.

I return now to the New Statesman article. The hatred of ‘Strong Female Characters’ can be summarised thus:

“Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.”

The author, Sophia McDougall, goes on to explain that ‘strength’ is the standard recourse for making a female character more than just an object, a shadow on the narrative. Strength is the substitute for any other characteristic. Strength becomes the only adjectival defining feature of the character. Strength is frequently portrayed as anomalous, ‘not like the other girls’. And strength is limiting, and also boring. We want characters with personalities! Characters that swing between being a bit dippy and useless and inspired and woebegone! Characters like people in real life!

McDougall absolutely rightly and sensibly says – it doesn’t make sense to ask if our favourite male characters are ‘strong’. All of them have different, unusual traits and ways of handling themselves in situations that may or may not be deemed strong. Some of them are unbelievably self-destructive. Some are crushingly indecisive. Some are arrogant dickheads. Tony Stark says he’s a ‘genius, millionaire, playboy, philanthropist’ and that’s a summary. He says that to Thor, a Norse demi-god whose biceps are bigger than Stark’s thighs, but even Thor couldn’t be solely categorised as ‘strong’. Thor (in his own, titular movie, at least) is headstrong. Among other thngs. That’s why these guys are fun to watch, and why we root for them. To shamelessly pilfer yet more of this excellent article, they expand across more than one axis of characterisation.

It’s also assiduously noted by McDougall that an apologist for the SFC phrasing suggests that ‘strong’ actually means ‘well written’. Well. That’s nice. As she goes on to point out, however, a) that doesn’t stop it being misinterpreted by writeres to make their jobs a bit easier, and b) it’s pretty rubbish that it’s considered a perk when female characters are well written, rather than just, y’know, something we should expect to see. ‘The Strong Female Character has something to prove’ she says. She has to be a character in herself but she also has to represent her whole gender, because frequently, she’s the only example of it you’re going to see for the next ninety minutes.

We know that there are three men on screen to every woman. We know that only a tiny proportion of directors are female. There are disporportionate numbers of male to female screenwriters, which is odd when you consider that the gender disparity in other types of writing is not nearly so great. We also, presumably, know lots of women. I mean, half the world is female. Even without the women behind or in front of the camera, there’s no excuse for not knowing what women can be like. Women are as flawed and unpredictable and wonderful and stupid and impassioned as men. But in order to see all these facets, there has to be more than one woman per film to demonstrate them.

McDougall concludes with this:

“What do I want instead of a Strong Female Character? I want a male:female character ratio of 1:1 instead of 3:1 on our screens. I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or netiher, because they are more than strength or weakness. Badass gunslingers and martials artists sure, but also interesting women who are shy and quiet and do, sometimes, put up with others’ shit because in real life there’s often no practical alternative. And besides heroines, I want to see women in as many and varied secondary and character roles as men; as female sidekicks, mentors, comic relief, rivals, villains. I want not to be asked, when I try to sell a book about two girls, two boys and a genderless robot, if we couldn’t change one of those girls to a boy.”

It’s a big change but it’s not an unreasonable one. Right?

Anyway. I’ve added my thoughts. McDougall’s article is really very good and I recommend it to you all once again.

The last thing she writes is a paraphrase of a performance poet. I like to think that in her titular statement, there’s more than a touch of Dorothy Parker’s Hymns of Hate. Maybe someone should write that and take this to the next level.

“I hate Strong Female Characters. They suppress my individuality.”