What Does "Strong Female Character" Really Mean?

Multidimensional Vs. Macho

 

Spunk, Smarts, and Fighting Ability…?

She could win at everything. She could change a tire and dance in a ballgown in the same ten minutes. Maybe with a little streak of grease over her cheekbone, to remind you that she was tough and beautiful, and also to remind you how good her cheekbones were. Now she was wearing a pretty dress but combat boots underneath it, and she also had a gun, to fight sexism. She looked so good. She kicked a guy in the face, and she didn’t even care.

 

“Feminism,” she said to herself, and then put on some red lipstick. “Just because I’m a feminist doesn’t mean I don’t like to look good.” Then she kicked another guy through a window, and he fell all the way. He was probably dead. She had like four guns strapped right on her boobs.

Mallory Ortberg’s “A Day In the Life of an Empowered Female Heroine” may be satirical, but I’m willing to bet most of us recognize the movie stereotype lampooned here.

Trinity in The Matrix, Maggie Madsen in Transformers, Tauriel in The Hobbit… Capable women, held up as proof of Hollywood’s sensitivity to gender equality. Trinity’s a peerless martial artist, Maggie’s a hacker with a knack for marksmanship, Tauriel’s an orc-killing machine. These women are on par with the guys, right? They’re STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS, signed sealed and delivered for box office success.

Except Trinity fails to top her pulse-pounding introduction, fading into the background while Neo takes centerstage. Maggie’s remembered for her smarts and supermodel looks, if she’s remembered at all. Outside of her bow-and-blade-wielding badassery, Tauriel spends her time at the center of a hackneyed love triangle, the only context in which her personality peeks through.

All three characters, like so many female characters in popular media, lack depth.

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From The Matrix Revolutions | Warner Bros. Pictures and Roadshow Entertainment, 2003

This begs the question: how far have we come from the simplistic “Damsel in Distress” depiction of women onscreen, really?

“Nowadays the princesses all know kung fu, and yet they’re still the same princesses,” Sophia McDougall argues in NewStatesmen:

They’re still love interests, still the one girl in a team of five boys, and they’re all kind of the same. They march on screen, punch someone to show how they don’t take no shit, throw around a couple of one-liners or forcibly kiss someone because getting consent is for wimps, and then with ladylike discretion they back out of the narrative’s way.

Today, the phrase “Strong Female Character” is more marketing than substance, suggesting the sole trait a woman must possess if a film is to check the “inclusionary” box: STRENGTH, which far and away has come to mean spunk, smarts, and fighting ability.

What the phrase should mean – perhaps what it originally meant, before it was muddled by the vagaries of semantics and prejudices of Hollywood – is “Strong Character Who is Female.” Here we begin to see “strong” for what it is; not spunk/smarts/fighting ability rolled into a one-dimensional character type, but a qualifier concerning craft.

What makes a Strong Character? The question deserves its own post, but briefly, we might say a strong character is a multidimensional character significant to the story. He/she has strengths and weaknesses, and his/her agency fundamentally progresses the plot.

While working through my backlog of films, I discovered Bridesmaids, a 2011 romantic comedy about the misfortunes that beset Annie after she agrees to serve as maid of honor for her best friend. We’re privy to Annie’s baking talent and admire her loyalty (strengths), but we’re also with her as she faces financial troubles, falls prey to jealousy, and wrestles with questions of self-worth (weaknesses).

She’s a fully drawn person whose actions move along the film’s events; a Strong Female Character in the original sense of the phrase.

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Bridesmaids | Apatow Productions and Relativity Media, 2011

Bridesmaids was a hit, but its complex portrayal of female characters is the exception to the rule.

In fact, many films fail the classic “Bechdel Test”, comprising three simple requirements which together afford female characters a bare minimum of depth:

  • A film must have at least two women in it,
  • Who talk to each other,
  • About something besides a man.

Writer Walt Hickey provides some startling examples:

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” contains fewer than two named women and thus fails the test on the first criterion. And while “The Avengers” has at least two women in the film – Pepper Potts, Black Widow and Agent Hill come to mind – they don’t speak to each other, so it fails on the second criterion. And while the wives of Doug and Stu are both named and do indeed have a conversation in “The Hangover Part 3″, it’s about Alan, Zach Galifianakis’ character, so it fails on the third criterion. The animated film, “Frozen”, passes the test since two central female characters, Anna and Elsa, discuss the isolationist policies of Arendelle, plans to build a snowman, and the time Elsa locked their civilization in an eternal winter.

Frozen met with critical and commercial success in 2013. A good year for women in film? Perhaps in part, but according to researcher Martha M. Lauzen, female characters made up only 15 percent of protagonists and 30 percent of all speaking characters in that year’s top 100 grossing movies.

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From Frozen | Walt Disney Studios, 2013

Why do so many films fail the Bechdel Test? Why does “Strong Female Character” mean “macho” instead of “multidimensional” to so many?

Certainly, longstanding gender bias plays a part. “Let’s be honest,” a top studio executive exhorted The New Yorker, “The decision to make movies is mostly made by men, and if men don’t have to make movies about women they won’t.”

To be clear, as Manohla Dargis of The New York Times puts it, “There isn’t a back-room cabal of cigar-chomping male – and female – executives conspiring against female directors, at least that I know of.” Instead, she describes the reluctance to fund films by and about women as symptomatic of a conservative industry afraid of change, even if embracing change could produce higher Returns on Investment.

Whatever the reasons, the reality is that the creation of strong characters – in other words, plain old good writing – is optional when it comes to the representation of half of the world’s population!

Why do audiences accept such a dismal status quo?

“Well, what choice do we have?”, you might fire back. As discussed recently here at Lights, Hollywood tends to “play it safe”. The same sorts of films get made over and over because they bring in the bucks, so we’re barraged by content that assumes the same simplistic perspective, year in and year out.

We’re conditioned to expect and offered few alternatives to the spunk/smarts/fighting ability of Hollywood’s one-dimensional “Strong Female Character” type.

It’s important to note this conception of strength is a perfectly viable, if somewhat clichéd, triad of traits to build into a character. But if your goal is to create a strong character, you need more dimensions. How will your character’s strengths and weaknesses fundamentally progress the plot?

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From Alien 3 | 20th Century Fox, 1992

In the Alien franchise, Ellen Ripley takes on a malevolent creature, but her terror is often palpable. In Terminator 2, Sarah Connor realizes her obsession with stopping Judgment Day is turning her into a monster, so she finds a less compromising way to stop research into Skynet. In the Battlestar Galactica reboot, Starbuck’s guilt surrounding the death of her fiancé affects her ability to train new Viper pilots.

In moving their stories from Point A to Point B to Point C, Ripley, Sarah, and Starbuck kick ass, but like all human beings, they’ve got their issues.

Of course, not every film features a Strong Character Who is Female, and that’s fine. “A character’s gender, like their religious upbringing or their faith, like their favorite book or food, like their sexual orientation and experiences, like their education and their childhood, is a component of character,” writer Greg Rucka reminds us. It’s a single star in a constellation of narrative considerations.

But it does shine especially bright in a world waylaid by sexism.

We encourage you to be sensitive to the status quo. Push past the boundaries Hollywood tends to set for itself, and remember: your priority is to create strong characters, be they male or female. Show their strengths and their weaknesses, and make them essential, not incidental, to the plot.

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From Boyhood | IFC Films, 2014

Change comes slowly, especially in the movie business. But it does come, as suggested by strong female characters in recent films such as Boyhood and Still Alice, as well as by this year’s Golden Globes, honoring films in which women got to be “actual, lovable people.”

Maggie Gyllenhaal put it well in her acceptance speech for “Best Actress in a Mini-Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television” (The Honorable Woman):

What I see, actually, are women who are sometimes powerful and sometimes not, sometimes sexy, sometimes not, sometimes honorable, sometimes not. And what I think is new is the wealth of roles for actual women in television and in film.

As writers and filmmakers, let’s do our part.

 Michael Koehler, with


Eager to learn more about how to create strong characters?

Then check out our in-depth online filmmaking course here at Lights Film School, designed to keep with your vision and schedule from concept through final cut – more guided than a blog, more interactive than a textbook, more flexible than traditional film school.

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