Hitting the Representation Gym With “Strong” Female Characters

I may or may not have a famed print, lunch box, and some mints in my apartment with this image on them.

I may or may not have a famed print, lunch box, and some mints in my apartment with this image on them.

In every undergraduate class I took on the subject of gender, the professor started the semester with the same request: “Raise your hand if you consider yourself a feminist.” Without fail, most hands would stay resolutely on desks, and the only people who would raise their hands would be women majoring in humanities like English Lit. And, no matter how the professors would try to explain that feminism is not about hating men or burning bras or changing the spelling of “women” to “womyn” students, male and female, were still reluctant to call themselves feminists even if they believed in the core ideals of feminism.

Part of this trepidation comes from the negative stereotypes listed above and perpetuated by certain conservative commentators who call any woman who stands up for women’s rights “feminazis.” Another large aspect of the current backlash to feminism, however, seems to be that many believe feminism has no place any more. After, as of a couple days ago, the 19th amendment had been ratified 93 years ago. Women are going to college and in the work force in such great numbers that they’re increasingly the major bread winners of their households. They’re now permitted to join combat forces on the front lines as long as they are physically capable, (a development dramatized in GI Jane 15 years before it was instituted in the real world).

Aaaaand, the women are now the tough characters who kick ass! So, what’s the problem, feminists?

Well, the problem, as I’m sure I don’t have to tell my enlightened readers, is that gradually gaining success and influence while constantly encountering new setbacks and backlashes are not enough to counteract centuries of institutionalized discrimination and enforced gender norms that have negatively impacted both men and women and still in many ways proliferate our media.

This brings us to the subject of the, in some ways, ubiquitous term: “Strong Female Character” or, alternatively, “Strong Independent Woman,” and the issues that pop up when, relatively well meaning people try to get representation right, but sometimes just can’t manage it.

Now, on their own, these terms are sound and positive. Female characters and independent women who are also strong seem like they should be leaps and bounds ahead of the fainting damsels and 2D love interests we’ve seen in many women throughout media.

Recently, however, there’s been increasing debate about both what it means to be a Strong Female Character and whether that trope is truly advancing feminist causes.

For example, an article has recently been shared throughout the Internet titled “I hate Strong Female Characters” written by  Sophia McDougall.  In it, she discusses her irritation with the current way Hollywood depicts SFCs.

But the phrase “Strong Female Character” has always set my teeth on edge, and so have many of the characters who have so plainly been written to fit the bill.

I remember watching Shrek with my mother.

“The Princess knew kung-fu! That was nice,” I said. And yet I had a vague sense of unease, a sense that I was saying it because it was what I was supposed to say.

She rolled her eyes. “All the princesses know kung-fu now.”

No one ever asks if a male character is “strong”. Nor if he’s “feisty,” or “kick-ass” come to that.

Now, I’d object to that last statement, as male characters are often judged by their “manly” traits. I think, instead, I would say it’s less common to ask about the strength of male characters and they have more options to fill multiple roles, but not that “No one ever asks if a male character is ‘strong.'” There are  several other assumptions and opinions in the article I’m not sure I agree with, but her overall point is worth consideration.

Let us remind ourselves that the actual goal here is not the odd character who’s Strong or Effective or anything else. It’s really very simple, but it would represent a far more profound change than any amount of individual sassy kickassery can ever achieve, and would mean far fewer posters like those above. (Posters  The Avengers, Inception, and The Smurfs which all feature female characters in sexy poses and/or shoved in the back)

Equality.

What do I want instead of a Strong Female Character? I want a male:female character ratio of 1:1 instead of 3:1 on our screens. I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness. Badass gunslingers and martial artists sure, but also interesting women who are shy and quiet and do, sometimes, put up with others’ shit because in real life there’s often no practical alternative. And besides heroines, I want to see women in as many and varied secondary and character roles as men: female sidekicks, mentors, comic relief, rivals, villains. I want not to be asked, when I try to sell a book about two girls, two boys and a genderless robot, if we couldn’t change one of those girls to a boy.

McDougall’s point is largely that too many media creators today seem to think physical strength is an appropriate substitute for character development with female characters. Rather than give a woman a deep personality or emotional complexity, many screenwriters and other creators settle for “she knows kung fu.”

Oh, and, as McDougall states:

The Strong Female Character has something to prove. She’s on the defensive before she even starts.

So, I guess that’s some form of personality…

There are multiple problems with this approach. For one, SFCs with something to prove are often depicted as having a chip on their shoulder. They’re ready to fight and kick ass and they’re taking none of your BS.

This can be good in some cases, but it seems to have become a default. Now, to be fair, angrier and broodier is a trend we can also observe in male heroes, but, again, there’s a much greater variety of male characters, so it’s easier to ignore or bypass those characters and still find a male character out there to admire.

Female characters, on the other hand, are in much shorter supply, and many of them are only defined or mostly defined by their bitterness and ability to kick ass.

[blip.tv http://blip.tv/play/AYOBwHQC.x?p=1 width=”720″ height=”433″]

Even Wonder Woman has taken a turn for the bitter in her New 52 comic series as she was stripped of her happy, loving childhood. Instead, she was teased as a child, learns that her mother lied to her about her birth, and then loses her entire Amazon family shortly thereafter.

But, hey, thank goodness you no longer have that "weird" (according to this new series) backstory of being created of clay solely out of the strength of a mother's love and the blessings of the gods!

But, hey, thank goodness you no longer have that “weird” (according to this new series) backstory of being created of clay solely out of the strength of a mother’s love and the blessings of the gods!

Oh well. At least she has Superman…

Beyond the simple fact that seeing the same type of character repeated over and over get somewhat tedious, there are other issues with SFCs.

For example, while some may not be as angry as others, they can, alternatively, become male fantasies.

Take the character of Kate

Beckett from the TV show Castle.

She's armed. He's dangerous. (No, that's seriously the show's tag line).

She’s armed. He’s dangerous. (No, that’s seriously the show’s tagline).

Now, I love this show. I have more than one T shirt for this show. It has Nathan Fillion in it and writing jokes. I also like Beckett…for the most part. She’s cool; she’s funny; she kicks ass; she and Castle have great chemistry. She also reads comic books and knows nerdy science fiction TV shows and baseball. She is, frankly, a little too perfect. This isn’t to say she doesn’t have some flaws as a character, she’s not a total Mary Sue, but it seems like the writers sit around saying “You know what my dream girl would be?” And they just put everything they think is hot in a woman into this character.

And it’s not bad, necessarily. It’s not unbelievable that an attractive woman like Beckett would enjoy comics or other nerdy hobbies. It just sometimes feels like they’re laying it on a little thick. Sometimes I feel like there’s going to be this big plot twist and it’ll turn out Castle completely made her up. (Also, that would be awesome, but totally depressing).

Another mishandling of SFCs is when they’re made to be action heroes, yet are still always the damsel in distress.

McDougall briefly mentions this in her article, and there is a TV trope dedicated to these women known as the “Faux Action Girl.”

An Action Girl whose “action” aspect is more of an Informed Attribute than anything else. She’s established from the very beginning as a powerful, capable heroine, but never does anything heroic. She has a well-grounded reputation as a strong fighter in her field, but always fails in the line of battle. Her talents and skills are well known to fellow characters, but they’re never seen by the viewers, outside of perhaps a Day in the Limelight episode.

Her status only exists as an established reputation and depends heavily on Genre Blindness; she never acts like the modern heroine she’s supposed to be. Sometimes, the only way she qualifies as anything more than theDamsel in Distress is if you Take Our Word for It. If the writers are feeling merciful, however, the Faux Action Girl can be relied on to actually defeat her share of Mooks – or, in rarer cases, a female enemy.

The key to identifying a Faux Action Girl is the disproportionate hype – whether she’s overrated or under-performing. Also note that context does play a role; for example, in a show full of incompetents who think they’re tough fighters, it doesn’t matter if a female character behaves the same way. It is also possible to have a female character who doesn’t fight or isn’t as capable as some others for perfectly justified reasons. A Faux Action Girl is much less powerful or competent than comparable male characters for no logical reason. Strangely, villainesses are rarely Faux Action Girls, but there are exceptions.

Some women talk a big game, but, in the end, they’re the ones who always need to be rescued.  Examples can be found on the “Faux Action Girl” tv tropes page (linked above).

Another issue when it comes to evaluating female presence in movies and popular culture is in exactly how that evaluation should be performed. For a while now, a very simple test has existed to show if a movie (TV show, book, etc) has even attempted to represent women in an at all reasonable way.

This is known as the Bechdel test and is based on this comic, and the only requirements to pass are that a movie, or other form of entertainment, feature two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.

bechdeltest

As this video will demonstrate, surprisingly few movies pass this seemingly simple test.

In fact, not only do few movies pass this test, but, apparently, many aspiring screen writers are actively taught not to write movies that pass the test because that will drive away white men who, according to studio executives, are the only people who go to movies.

This is a pretty basic test, but it has recently come under fire by those who suggest a new test to evaluate female representation. While the Bechdel test is more of a judge of quantity, the newly suggested test, the “Mako Mori test” is more about the quality of representation, or at least the importance of the female to the overall plot. Suggested by tumblr. user chalia, the Mako Mori test is inspired by lone major female character in this summer’s Pacific Rim, which has received a great deal of criticism for utterly failing to pass the Bechdel test, yet, many would argue, has one of the stronger female characters showcased this summer.

Let’s propose the Mako Mori test, to live alongside the Bechdel test (not to supplant it! My point is not that we shouldn’t care about women interacting—I care about this A LOT—but that isn’t the pinnacle of feminism or the only thing we should care about). The Mako Mori test is passed if the movie has: a) at least one female character; b) who gets her own narrative arc; c) that is not about supporting a man’s story. I think this is about as indicative of “feminism” (that is, minimally indicative, a pretty low bar) as the Bechdel test. It is a pretty basic test for the representation of women, as is the Bechdel test. It does not make a movie automatically feminist. (Many movies/shows would not pass it).

The test is similar in its simplicity to the Bechdel test, but allows for there to be only one female character if that character has her own story. While some entertainment might meet both these criteria, it’s more likely that a movie or TV show will meet one and not the other.

Avatar: The Last Airbender, for example, has been praised for its female characters, yet, for almost the entire first season, it mostly failed to pass the Bechdel test. It did, however, pass the Mako Mori test by heavily featuring the story of Katara, who was viewed by the creators as one of three protagonists. Of course, once the end of the first season and the second season rolled in ATLA was passing both tests with room to spare.

It should be noted, however, that passing either test does not necessarily demonstrate strong female representation. Many female characters can be weak even if their lives don’t revolve around men, and many female characters have had flawed story arcs.

Still, passing either of these tests is, I believe, a step in the right direction.

So, of what or whom do I think when I think about SFCs. Well, there’s Wonder Woman of course. Even in her angry periods, she’s still a forced to be reckoned with, and under the hand of a good writer, she can be amazing. There’s also Barbara Gordon who overcame being forced to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. That’s pretty cool. Both of these characters are physically strong, mentally strong, and emotionally complicated. They have relationships and problems, and they screw up from time to time.

And you know who else comes to mind? Tigress. Yes the one from Young Justice, but moreso the one from Kung Fu Panda.

From Kung Fu Panda 2. Don't let the toughness fool you; this is a very touching scene.

From Kung Fu Panda 2. Don’t let the toughness fool you; this is a very touching scene.

I keep meaning to get a Tigress toy…

Anyway, DreamWorks as a studio has fascinated me with its use of female characters. In many ways, the studio likes to use them in a similar way to Castle as the strong, cool counterpart to the goofy guy. (Shrek, How To Train Your Dragon, Megamind).

In large part, especially in the animated show and second movie, Tigress also fulfills this role. However, there are a few things about her that really make her stand out to me.

1. She’s not a love interest. She and Po start out with animosity that grows into respect until, in the second movie, their relationship develops into a deep friendship.

2. Her issues are realistic. Yes, she’s bitter in the first movie, but she evolves past that in the second movie, and her previous bitterness is explained by her backstory that is hinted at in the first movie and expanded upon for cool kids like me who watch Secrets of the Furious Five (available on Netflix).

3. Her motivation isn’t about finding a man or proving that she can be just as strong as a man. Tigress is the unofficial leader of the Furious Five and is a character largely guided by duty and loyalty. She does want to prove herself, but she moves beyond that in the second movie. (Seriously, few sequels advance the character and plot of a franchise quite as well as Kung Fu Panda 2). One might argue that her plot revolves around a male character in both movies, but his angst is more coincidentally associated with the plot. They’re both part of a bigger story. Plus, she doesn’t define herself by her relationship to that character. This, I believe, is an important distinction.

4. She knows kung fu.

Hey, I’m not saying it should be her only character trait or what defines her entire character, but I still think knowing kung fu is pretty cool.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Hitting the Representation Gym With “Strong” Female Characters

  1. Pingback: Character Flaws and Flawed Characters | The Fandom Learning Curve

  2. Pingback: Girl Fight: Disney vs DreamWorks (Part 2: SKG’s SFCs) | The Fandom Learning Curve

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