Why is it that female characters in films have reached a point where they are no longer considered strong or cool unless they employ violence? Is Hollywood teaching the wrong kind of Girl Power? We take a look at this growing trend in films and the impact it may be having.
When the Disney Princess collection was released, using an image of Brave heroine Merida without her bow-and-arrow, it led to big hullabaloo of complaints that the character was no longer cool. Lately, people seem to prefer female characters who participate in action and violence over those who do not. Now some might say “It’s about time! The 20th Century often depicted women as Damsels-in-Distress, so it’s good to see all these warrior women around in the 21st Century.” Perhaps so, but is this trend really challenging obsolete gender roles or is it a just reinforcement of traditional macho male behavior as the only acceptable way to be strong and independent?
Is it really a good message to send to young girls that if you really want to be empowered, you have to physically beat people up? Men have often stooped to a violence-as-a-solution mentality. Do women have to become as violent as men and overpower people hand-to-hand to be on equal footing? Where are all the female role models who show that true strength is more than just punching and kicking?
Lately, it’s become an all-too-common cliché of modern times that a woman needs to be able to physically dominate those around her in order to be a seen as a strong woman and a role model. True, sometimes it is very necessary, plotwise, to have a violent, butt-kicking leading lady; For instance, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Sarah Michelle Geller); Xena Warrior Princess (Lucy Lawless); The Black Widow from The Avengers (Scarlett Johansson); Wonder Woman (Linda Carter); the Bionic Woman (Lindsey Wagner) are all examples of women who logically needed to pummel their opponents. I love all these ladies.
What annoys me is that it’s mostly done these days as a titillating, fetishistic cliché, rather than a necessary part of the plot. I read so many articles and interviews where someone (usually males, by the way) says that they want to see (fill in the name of your favorite female character) “kick some ass.” Some people may say that this is female empowerment. However, more often than not, it’s just an unnecessary gimmick that shows the limitations of a writer or producer’s ability to write a woman as strong and independent without being a female Rambo. It reflects the industries inability to evolve enough to understand and reflect the genuine changes in women’s roles in society.
The problem here is that, according to studies, young males tend to respond to this image of the battling bad-girl even more than young women do. The girls of Sucker Punch in their sexy schoolgirl outfits are designed to titillate males, not inspire females. There is a fetishization of these action girls because they combine hyper-masculine tendencies of violence with feminine beauty. Males prefer Lara Croft over the Ghost Whisperer. It can be argued that the sexualization of violence through these quick-to-kill super-girls can undermine the potential for portraying new models of female autonomy.
There are many, many strong female characters who prove that women don’t have to eagerly draw blood to be seen as cool and interesting. Dr. Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) on the X-Files; Marge Gunderson (Frances Mcdormand) of Fargo; M (Judy Dench) from the James Bond films; Dr. Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) on House, MD; Even young Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) from the Harry Potter stories. These formidable females are fun because their strength is in their brains, courage, compassion and resourcefulness, and they don’t rely on violence as a first option.
Often, the violence is added in for no good reason. In the Robert Downey Jr. version of Sherlock Holmes, Irene Addler (Rachel McAdams) is no longer just shrewd and cunning, as in the original stories. The film makers are no longer satisfied with the fact that Irene was the only person to outwit Sherlock Holmes. Here, she also takes time out to easily outfight two large thugs who harass her. (A fight scene that was completely gratuitous and added nothing to the story.) Being smart apparently isn’t enough, anymore. There had to be some punches thrown in.
The criticism surrounding a bowless Merida reminds me of recent revisionist interpretations of iconic fable females, all turned to violence in modern films…Tim Burton’s Alice in wonderland gave us a sword-wielding Alice leading an army against the forces of the Red Queen. In the last remake of King Arthur, Guinevere was a Xena-type warrior Princess. The latest Robin Hood film had Lady Marion riding into battle on horseback. The newest 3 Musketeers film gave us the once-wily Lady De Winter leaping around, sword-in-hand, doing Crouching Tiger style stunts. Why is this violence-as-as-solution mentality necessary now for these iconic female characters? Do weapons make girls cooler? The idea that Merida of Brave becomes less of an empowering female role model because she left her weapon home on ‘Princess Photos Day’ is ridiculous.
On TV, even nerdy women are great fighters. Nerdy men on TV are always portrayed as wimps who are easily intimidated and get beaten up. But female nerds must be physically powerful. Take the female protagonist of Bones, Dr. Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel). Apparently, being a brilliant, beautiful, anthropologist, forensic expert, successful author and leader of her team of ‘squints’ wasn’t enough for this character. (That should be enough for anyone.) Our brainy leading lady also has to do martial arts and shoot guns well. All her male lab co-workers (Hodgens, Zack, Sweets) are harmless dorks, but obviously Brennan couldn’t be considered a strong female unless she was knocking other people down to the concrete.
The modern thought process seems to be that either a women is a fist-fighting, gun toting, sword-swinging supergirl, or else she’s an obsolete, embarrassing damsel-in-distress. But that’s not the case. There’s a lot of middle ground that people are missing. Women don’t have to imitate male violence to achieve respect.
So the question is...Is this cinematic movement toward hyper-aggressive females a positive challenge to the male oriented genres of action films and TV, or is it subconsciously reinforcing traditionally male behavior as the only way for women to achieve a sense of cultural autonomy?