When it comes to supporting roles, there are plenty of female characters who’ve appeared in recent years who were described as a “strong woman” or a “badass woman” or a “kick ass woman”. Whether it’s Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road or the women of Agents of SHIELD or Brienne of Tarth on Game of Thrones, you’ll find numerous formidable, butt-kicking women all over the big and small screen, who are second or third billed (or lower), but not on the top. Even Rey from Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens is part of an ensemble cast, given 5th billing on screen. How many ladies have gotten star billing in big blockbusters in recent years? You can count them on one hand. Obviously we have Katniss from The Hunger Games, along with Ripley in the Alien films and Lara Croft from Tomb Raider, as well as the ladies from Resident Evil and Underworld. That’s about it in the modern era.
Why is it that despite the proliferation of screen super heroes, only two of the many planned comic book projects due out will star a woman? (Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel.) Why is it that during “the year of strong women” and 40 years after Women’s Lib came into prominence, that this still happening? Is it due to misguided modern efforts at empowerment?
Say what you want about the less-politically correct age of black-and-white films, there were many more film franchises starring women then there are today. Hildegarde Withers, Torchy Blaine, Miss Marple, Sheena the Jungle Queen, Rima the Jungle Girl, the Ape Woman, Nancy Drew, the Perils of Pauline, the Exploits of Elaine and the Hazards of Helen were all adventure film series featuring female protagonists. And that was before the age of feminism. So why have things gone backwards in recent years?
It may actually be the fault of the very people who are giving us these “strong women”. The blame lays at the feet of the Hollywood studios who are offering us a mishandled version of feminism. Recently, a female independent filmmaker from Britain named Chanya Button illustrated the very core of this problem while discussing the irony of “the year of the women”, when she talked about the industry-imposed limitations on women. She said that when you’re making a film, “You can’t allow a woman to fail, show weakness or have a moment of vulnerability. If you do you’re called anti-woman or anti-feminist”.
Similarly, feminist writer Roxane Gay has been labeled a “bad feminist” for pointing out that women “Don’t have to be super human. They just have to be human. They don’t have to be perfect.” She adds that she’s a woman herself and she doesn’t have all the answers; she’s just trying her best. Gay got a lot of criticism for this.
This, in a nutshell, is the core of the reason that women are not getting the prime roles. Any writer, filmmaker, screenwriting professor or critic will tell you that the key to creating a good character is in his/her flaws. An interesting character has to overcome weakness and flaws. If you look at great, iconic characters like James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Batman, Wolverine, Spider-Man or Wyatt Earp, they all have character flaws that make them extremely imperfect. What makes them so engrossing and relatable is that they have to overcome these flaws. A story about a perfect character with no flaws and nothing to overcome is not interesting. The only perfect character who’s ever really been successful is Superman, but he’s the exception, not the rule. Other than him, a character who’s too flawless is just dull if he/she is on screen too much. Such a character is only tolerable is small doses—supporting or ensemble roles—and can’t reasonably be the star of the movie. It just wouldn’t work.
This is the big problem with Hollywood’s erroneous attempts at writing “strong women”. Hollywood has so severely dehumanized—or “superhumanized”—females that they are no longer consumable by the masses. That’s why they have to be secondary to the more detailed male characters. Anyone who’s seen Mad Max: Fury Road can tell that Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is the real star of the film but Max was the more interesting and multi-layered character due to his flawed nature. Furiosa was “strong” but Max was more entertaining.
It’s good that Hollywood has made strides to correct some of its old stereotypes but unfortunately, the industry almost always goes too far to the other extreme to redress a wrong. For example, look at the way it handles Native Americans. At one time, they were written as monosyllabic savages with feathers in their hair and war paint on their faces. Today, Hollywood sees them as spiritual, near-mystic philosophers possessing an empathic bond with nature that the rest of us don’t have. The pendulum swung too far in the other direction.
The same thing has happened with female characters. Certainly it’s good that women are no longer limited to being sex symbols, damsels-in-distress or housewives. However, as it stands today, unless all female characters are flawless Goddesses who must never be questioned, always get the last word over the mere males around them and can outpunch King Kong and Godzilla with minimal effort, they are called “weak”. This shows that Hollywood doesn’t have the insight to understand “different but equal” and can only understand “better or worse”. Women are either inferior or superior, never equal.
Look at some good female action heroines. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was such a great show because Buffy Sommers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) had so many fears and doubts to overcome. She was interesting because she grew so much as a person during the course of the series. Jessica Jones was excellent because Jessica was so screwed up. Xena: Warrior Princess (Lucy Lawless) was constantly fighting against her dark side and occasionally gave in to it. These were truly well written female characters who were also “badass”. (Which is such an overused term, by the way.)
Now imagine that the proposed Agents of SHIELD spin-of about Bobbi “Mockingbird” Morse (Adrianne Palicki) would have actually been produced. How interesting could it possibly have been since she has no faults to overcome. We were told by Agent May (another all-too-perfect woman) that Bobbi was already at “100%” efficiency when she was still just a SHIELD trainee, and that she’s only gotten better from there. Well, what’s inherently interesting about watching someone perfect become even more perfect? That only works if you’re wearing a red cape and have a big “S” on your chest.
Speaking of which, you might ask, “Well what about Supergirl?” Glad you asked. There is an interesting dichotomy in this show because Supergirl is an example of both how to do feminism well and how to do it terribly. On one hand, the character of Supergirl herself (Melissa Benoist) is likable and relatable because she is still learning. She makes mistakes, she has doubts and she admits when she needs help from her two sidekicks (Both of whom are male.) On the other hand, we have Alex Danvers. Supergirl’s sister Alex is impossibly perfect; a formidable, beautiful and intelligent secret agent who is second in command of the DEO, a loving sister and has the ability to beat up super-powered aliens with her bare hands.
We can give the film industry a pat on the head for acknowledging that there was a recurring problem in the roles written for women in the past. Unfortunately, all they’ve done in their efforts to “fix” the problem is to transform one stereotype into another. You might say it’s better to be a strong stereotype than a weak one, however, you can’t ignore that there are actually less female leads in franchise movies now than there were in the classic days of Hollywood. While making female characters stronger, they’ve also made them duller and more one-dimensional.
Hollywood, listen to Button and Gay and return the flaws to the female characters. It’s better to make them interesting than to make them perfect.