'Strong Female Characters' Aren't Enough, Goddammit


These days the multiplex is downright lousy with Strong Female Characters. Action, fantasy and science fiction movies all seem to feature some tough-as-nails woman in pleather pants, ready with a glower and a gun. So why does these feel so unsatisfying?

In this piece at The Dissolve, writer Tasha Robinson singles out Valka, the long-lost mom who turns up in How to Train Your Dragon 2. (This trailer gives you the idea.) See, she’s actually a great character—knowledgeable, vulnerable and interesting all at once. Problem is, she’s got jack shit to do, and she’s promptly shoved aside, with dudes driving the plot.

Nor is Valka the only instance: Robinson also cites The Lego Movie‘s Wyldstyle (mostly there to help the male protagonist realize his destiny), The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’s Tauriel (primarily embroiled in a dopey love triangle), Star Trek: Into Darkness‘s Carol Marcus (mainly there to stomp her feet and demand Daddy, how could you?!), etc., etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseam. We’ve all scene movies where some female character introduced as marvelously competent morphs into a ninny who’s just there for the hero to rescue.

This, for the record, is why the casting of Lupita Nyong’o and Brienne of Tarth (pretty sure that’s her real name) didn’t totally quiet my worries about the new Star Wars movies.

Poorly executed Strong Female Characters are such a recurring frustration they’ve been the subject of an entire Kate Beaton comic strip. But even if you create a truly well-written, soulful badass, there’s no point if she doesn’t have any real role in the plot:

Bringing in a Strong Female Character™ isn’t actually a feminist statement, or an inclusionary statement, or even a basic equality statement, if the character doesn’t have any reason to be in the story except to let filmmakers point at her on the poster and say “See? This film totally respects strong women!”

But how else will women’s mags frame their interviews with actresses appearing in summer blockbusters?!

One of my favorite characters in science fiction is Ripley, from Alien and Aliens. She’s beloved as a strong, well-drawn character, thanks in no small part to Sigourney Weaver’s masterful delivery of the line, “Get away from her, you bitch.” But it’s also worth noting that she spends the end of Alien just barely keeping her shit together. Which is understandable, considering the circumstances. She’s a sobbing, panicking mess—who nevertheless remembers to grab the cat!

Point is, I don’t love Alien and Aliens because Ripley is some karate-chopping tough gal with a super-groovy haircut. I love Alien and Aliens because they star a positively depicted, fully-drawn female character.

At the conclusion of her piece, Robinson provides a series of questions for writers attempting to produce a Ripley rather than a Valka. They’re not as pithy as the Bechdel test, but they’re dead-on: “After being introduced, does your Strong Female Character then fail to do anything fundamentally significant to the outcome of the plot? Anything at all?” and “Could your Strong Female Character be seamlessly replaced with a floor lamp with some useful information written on it to help a male hero?”

It’s a good start. But it’s pretty fucking unbelievable that Hollywood needs this much instruction on how to broaden its depictions of women. It’s not rocket science. It’s not even grade-school rock collecting. Damn, dudes.

Photo via AP Images.

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