Which Onscreen "Girl Reminds You Of You"?


“You know what’s better than a prostitute with a machine gun for a leg or a propulsion engineer with a sideline in avionics whose maternal instincts and belief in herself allow her to take apart an airborne plane and discover a terrorist plot despite being gaslighted by the flight crew?” asks Carina Chocano in a Times Magazine essay against the “strong female character” trope. “A girl who reminds you of you.” What would that mean?

The essay makes a persuasive case against using this imprecise phrase, which may either be a function of limited language or low expectation for female characters. “Maybe the problem is semantic. Maybe what people mean when they say ‘strong female characters’ is female characters who are ‘strong,’ i.e., interesting or complex or well written.” (Yes. And still rare.) But she also takes issue with flinty female characters who are praised for their very untraditionally “feminine” qualities.

Chocano posits that Kristen Wiig’s character in Bridesmaids appealed precisely because of its vulnerability. Is that materially different from the kinds of characters that one female screenwriter described to Tad Friend in his ever-quotable New Yorker piece? Specifically: “To make a woman adorable, one successful female, you have to defeat her at the beginning. It’s a conscious thing I do-abuse and break her, strip her of her dignity, and then she gets to live out our fantasies and have fun. It’s as simple as making the girl cry, fifteen minutes into the movie.” (Well, for one thing, in Bridesmaids, Wiig’s character hits rock bottom several times, not just at the beginning!)

Back to “reminds you of you,” which, defined most expansively, seems a function of simply good writing and can easily be conflated, mistakenly, with realistic gracenotes. For example, I recently watched Going The Distance, cracked up at a scene where (spoiler! not really) Justin Long’s character’s roommate DJs his hookups with 80s movie soundtrack hits. When Long and Drew Barrymore’s characters watch cute animal YouTube videos together from their respective coasts, I was like, people I know do this!

But fiction would be a pretty limited form in any medium if we stuck to whether a big chunk of viewers (which one) could narrowly identify with the characters. I don’t know anyone like Jennifer Lawrence’s character in Winter’s Bone, not strictly speaking, but I believed it and her, and I thought it was “good for women” in terms of the practical expectations we can have for these things. And even the
prostitute with a machine gun for a leg is enacting a particular aspect — say, aggression, sexual autonomy, what have you — that could be cathartic without standing for all women. (There’s that special burden of being first/few for you.)

As for “reminding me of me,” I’d probably go with this one. No heavy weaponry necessary, at least for me.

‘Tough, Cold, Terse, Taciturn and Prone to Not Saying Goodbye When They Hang Up the Phone’ [NYT]

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