As a writer and a woman (from a family of strong women) the evolving role of female characters in fiction, especially movies and TV, is a topic that I’ve been following and discussing for a long time.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I was at a writers’ conference on a panel called “Where have the strong female characters gone?” We got to talking about the difference between creating a real, genuinely strong female character vs. writers taking shortcuts to create a token “woman of cardboard.”
The most egregious shortcut is what you could call “weapons=empowerment” or what is referred to in the article below as “faux feminism.” Judging from Disney’s Merida and The Hunger Games’ Katniss, guns are passé for the movie heroine du jour – today it’s all about bows and arrows.
As Forbes columnist Scott Mendelson puts it, :
“Crafting a well-rounded female character in a mainstream picture is about more than just putting a weapon in their hand or giving them a patronizing ’girl power punch’ during an action sequence or two.”
It’s not just a problem in mainstream movies. At the conference I attended, my fellow panelist mentioned how quickly she dismissed the “female empowerment” in the television show Once Upon a Time, which debuted on ABC just a few months after the above article came out. She was unimpressed with Snow White’s self-consciously-presented backstory, which showed her skulking around in the forest as a highwaywoman brandishing – guess what – a bow and arrows.
I actually enjoy Once Upon a Time, and I find its deconstructions and mashups of its Disneyfied fairy tales to be quite clever. But I do see the point my colleague was making. Another egregious example from the same year (2012) was the protagonist of the NBC post-apocalypse-set show Revolution. In what was a pretty blatant attempt to position her as the “poor-woman’s Katniss” on promotional art, she was shown prominently carrying – YET AGAIN—a bow and arrows.
What this boils down to is that for a woman to be taken seriously as a hero, she has to take on the attributes of a man. She must be heavily armed and solve her problems with physical violence. (Why now it’s with a bow and arrows and not a gun is, in my opinion, merely a fashion statement of the moment. After all, 2012 also brought us the male archers Hawkeye in The Avengers and Arrow on TV)
Now, don’t get me wrong – I have always enjoyed female action heroes. When I was a kid I wanted to be Batgirl, Wonder Woman or Princess Leia. In the 80’s and 90’s I cheered for Ripley in Aliens and Sarah Connor in Terminator 2. More recently enjoyed the first Underworld movie, where Kate Beckinsale played a gun-toting vampire who protects Scott Speedman, “dude in distress,” from other vampires and werewolves. And as a longtime comics fan I root for the female X-Men and Black Widow in the newest Marvel movies.
I think all these characters made important steps in the evolution of the movie heroine. (Though female action heroes are still few and far between compared to their male counterparts, at least their number seems to be steadily growing over the years.) I’m not at all saying that it’s WRONG for a female character to tote a weapon and throw a few punches. But after all these decades, it’s time for the writers of popular entertainment to broaden their horizons and their definitions of what makes a hero. This is a problem for both male and female protagonists, to be sure –male movie heroes rarely overcome their challenges with brains rather than bullets either.
However, I have hope for the future, at least for movie heroines and Disney Princesses in particular. That hope can be summarized in one word: FROZEN.
But it wasn’t the marketing that made this movie such a success. Frozen is pretty much THE MOST SUBVERSIVE DISNEY PRINCESS MOVIE EVER. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was written by a woman, either.) The conventions of Disney Fairy Tale movies are deliberately upended – from the storyline’s critique of the “love at first sight” trope, to the simple fact that in this film a Disney Princess is crowned a QUEEN IN HER OWN RIGHT without having to actually marry a prince.
What I found most refreshing about this film was that Princess Anna is a true heroine – but she does it by virtue of her own personality, not the short-cut of carrying a weapon. She saves the day with her own determination, resourcefulness, and sisterly love. Unlike Merida she isn’t necessarily focused on improving her own situation but in saving her sister and her people. Plus the “true love’s kiss” trope (SPOILER ALERT!) has NOTHING to do with loving a man.
What it boils down to is a simple truth. Heroism comes from the heart, not from the barrel of a gun or the point of an arrow. It would be nice to see more male heroes embody this principle as well. It’s a matter of creating a three-dimensional character with a real inner life and inner strength, not a mannequin carrying a requisite set of props.