Thursday, March 3, 2011

Strong Females as Characters Onscreen

I really can't resist adding to the "Fun with Feminism" tag here at SHE BLOGGO.  Especially when it has to do with women in the media and how fictional ladies appear to us in pop culture.

So, today, for our consideration, I bring you an article titled Why Strong Female Characters Are Bad For Women.  It's an interesting read, which posits that there is an illusion of "strong female characters" in Hollywood that are actually not so great for the positive representation of Women Onscreen.  In general, this is a fair enough assessment.  The author puts forth the absurdity behind the notion that Megan Fox believed her character in Transformers was a strong character, and representing women well, when really she just looked hot fixing cars and accompanied the hero on his adventure.

The basic breakdown in the representation of women onscreen is exactly that: in the representation.  Who makes movies?  Generally and historically-speaking, men.  Who are movies sold to?  More often than not, men.  Thus, we have the Male Gaze.  So many women onscreen are women in the eyes of men, and serve no other purpose than to be an accessory in the Man's World.  She is the object of his affections, the objective of his pursuit, or the damsel who needs saving.  

So you can have the baddest ass female character who reads and thinks for herself and stands up for what she believes in and rides a motorcycle or tames lions or whatever, but if she is simply in orbit around the lead male character, it is difficult to claim that she's a strong female character.  Sure, if you plucked her out of Movie World and landed her somewhere on this lovely green earth of ours, she could be the realest, strongest chick on the planet - because she's not a character anymore.  There's your difference.  She's not a cog in a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end.  She's just a girl, living her life.

Take, for example, this clip from Cool Hand Luke.  It's a scene where a chain gang of male prisoners watch a scantily-clad lady wash her car.  (She seems to have misplaced her bra in the pursuit of a squeaky clean vehicle.) 



There are so many objectifying things about this scene, really.  Firstly, it has little to no relevance to the narrative.  This character is pointless.  She suds up her boobs, sips water from a phallic symbol, and goes about her merry way.  We don't even know her real name - we only know the name that the men in the scene give to her.  She has no dialogue.  Hell, we barely see her face.  There is more screentime devoted to her ass and her breasts than there is to her eye sockets.  We see her through the men's eyes, and the men just see T&A, and blowjob imagery.

The very worst happens at the very end of the video, though: a gratuitous shot of her breasts pressing up against the window of the car, which is cut back to repeatedly.  Now, I ask you.  Who is in that car?  No one.  Why is the camera in the car, then?  Can the men over on the side of the highway really get a clear glimpse at her boobs through the window of a car that far away?  It's unlikely, and even if they could, well, then the camera should be from their POV outside the car.  No one is in that goddamn car, and the only reason the camera is is because of the horny dudes in the audience.

I realize that this example is a bit exaggerated, firstly considering in that it's from a movie over forty years old and secondly considering that this woman is not meant to be a strong lady character in the first place.  But, it's not terribly uncommon to find a "strong female character" who is basically wielded in the same manner onscreen.  Or worse, the other way around - throw on some glasses and a stern hairdo and suddenly, she's a scientist!  With a great rack, though, because that's important.

I mean, it's one thing if this really great actress who is playing the part happens to have nice boobs.  It's another thing entirely if the male characters spend the whole movie staring at them - or worse, if the camera lingers a little too long in that region.  Or even worse yet, if she's not allowed to have a voice, purpose, or objective independent of her figure.  It all has to do with how these characters - not people - are portrayed.

Consider a more recent example: I Am Number 4.  During press for that movie, Dianna Agron spoke a lot about Sarah being a good character because she's a photographer and an individual and kind of an outsider and she's three-dimensional that way.  And that's true!  Great!  That's a great female role.  But what is her purpose in the movie?  She complicates things for John because he has to protect her and save her and he loves her and she doesn't know the first thing about his situation.  Characters are objectives.  So, what is Sarah's objective?  Does she have one?  And if so, does it have to do with John?

Sigh.  Damsel in distress, party of one!  Sarah's a good example of a great female if you knew her in real life.  She's a good role for an actor to take because she has commendable qualities, and it doesn't involve nudity or bitchy stereotypes.  But she's not a strong female character.  She would be, frankly, if she were Number 4.  Because it makes it her story with her complications, and her trials and growth.  Giving her objectives makes her a strong character - technically she doesn't even have to be the main character, although that helps.

Now, you say, the villain in that movie is a strong female role!  Number Six!  She's badass and snarks one liners about Red Bull and blows shit up and gets stuff done like a boss!  And that's great.  Great female, yes.  And maybe even a great female character, I'll definitely concede.  But she's the villain.  We are meant to root against her.  And also she wears black leather and fights with her hair down, which frankly, I have always found unrealistic. 

What if Number 4 were a woman and the villain and the damsel were dudes?  Well, then you'd have an Angelina Jolie movie.  And even those are banking on a male audience coming to drool over Jolie being a dominant lady and wielding a gun with her banging bod.  Without Angelina, that rarely sells, and therefore, it is not made.  You're not going to have a box office hit with a realistic female heroine in an action movie; you're just not. 

But it's not enough to have a woman who is independent and sassy or strong-willed or stubborn or any of the things that tend to be hallmarks of strong females: if her place in the narrative pushes these qualities aside for the benefit of a male character, it's really a step backward.  It all goes back to this: all creative pursuits, filmmaking in particular, involve choice.  It is a choice to have each character be a certain gender, and it is a choice as to how those genders are communicated onscreen.  And as long as males 18-49 rule the box office, it's unfortunately a sad truth that women's roles onscreen will always be limited by the superficial qualities of looks, and that will ultimately affect her role within the narrative.  She will always be subjected to the Male Gaze, because it's the males who are watching her in the theater.

Let's look at television, briefly.  How many awesome well-rounded females are there on television?  There's almost one on every show!  Liz Lemon.  Leslie Knope.  Almost all of the ladies on Grey's Anatomy.  Kate Beckett.  Temperance Brennan.  The list is long, and goes back many years.  But on television, there's so much more room for women to play lead and still be flawed and real.  It's because on TV, you don't have to work so hard to get your audience to come to you.  Everyone in the United States has at least one television in their house, and even though there are a zillion channels to choose from, it's easier to get a household to tune into your television show when all they have to do is click a button after dinner, in the comfort of their own home.  Just throw out some advertising, generate a buzz, deliver a solid show that makes people want to come back, and boom!  You're golden.

But movies?  Movies are different.  Going to the movie theater takes work.  You have to buy outrageously overpriced tickets, you have to put on decent clothes and leave the house, and you have to spend money on overpriced food, and you have to sit in the dark with strangers and devote a solid two hour of your life to this experience.  Movies are an investment, and it's harder to get people to commit to that investment.  More risks are taken on television screens than on movie screens as a result.  Television is better exposure for gay characters, black characters, female characters, you name it - if it's a minority, you're more likely to see it represented well on television than in movies.  Diversity is hard to find on the big screen.

Can you imagine a movie with a Liz Lemon character as lead?  Not gonna happen.  You could maybe get a Kate Beckett on the silver screen, but you'd be certain to see her running in heels, firing a gun, and ending up with Castle at the end.  It's up to you whether or not that's considered a great female character in a film - cop narratives are always a bit tricky.  But I digress.

The original article points out that the best way to create strong female characters is to give them flaws, and in general, I agree.  (I'd stay away from the word "weak," but that's just me.)  The idea is that all characters should be flawed - men, women, black, white, straight, gay, whatever ethnicity or sexuality or whatever.  All characters should have flaws.  That's what makes a good character.  But also, all characters should have an objective.  And unfortunately, women onscreen are often the objective, or worse, objectified.

In a perfect world, women wouldn't have to struggle so hard to find strong characters in their own gender.  In a perfect world, a good character is a good character simply because of their flaws and their strengths, their wants and needs, and we wouldn't have to go on about strong female characters in particular and how there aren't any or there need to be more, or what have you.

But alas, we are not quite there yet.  The gender divide is still alive and well, and it seeps its way into mainstream pop culture in rather influential and far-reaching ways.  There are male characters, and there are female characters, and in general, they are treated differently in how they are manifested onscreen.

Now, are the illusory "strong female characters" (quote-unquote, natch) "bad for women" like the original article suggests?  Well, that's hard to say, and frankly I think they only phrased it that way to get people to read their article.  I'm of the opinion that it's perhaps something of a two-steps-forward-one-step-back scenario.  Strong lady characters are great, but if that isn't manifested in the narrative in a meaningful way, well... it's not quite the strong female character we have in mind when we wax poetic about it.

Give us three-dimensional people with real strengths and real weaknesses, with clear objectives and conflicted emotions, who try hard and sometimes make mistakes - just like anybody, regardless of gender, race, class, or sexuality - and we'll be on our way.

1 comment:

  1. This is very late in relation to when you originally posted this. I often read your blog, especially for the great glee reviews and I really wanted to make a suggestion for a show you could analyze, but blogger doesn't have an ask option like tumblr

    I don't know if you ever consider animated shows or movies when doing gender analysis, but if you are looking for either Strong Female Characters or Strong Characters, Female I would suggest you could start following the Legend of Korra. Its a Nickelodeon show granted, but nowhere have I seen female characters portrayed this well without it being a predominately female cast. (The precursor to this show Avatar: the Last Airbender could also qualify but you might like TLOK better since Korra is actually the Avatar. Also it feels more adult)

    If you decide to look into this, I recommend you stay away from the Last Airbender movie because M. Night Shyamalan pretty much took every awesome quality out of the main female character. There is also some controversy concerning racist casting.

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