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Cardboard Bad Assery
By Zack Budryk
“The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a ‘feminist’ story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with.” -Natalie Portman
The proper way to represent female characters in fiction has been a source of debate for a long time, especially because the alternative is to give more women authors, screenwriters and directors a shot. After centuries of female characters mostly being restricted to mothers, helpless princesses or temptresses, a backlash to this kind of narrative passivity began in the 20th century, with characters like Wonder Woman, Princess Leia and Buffy Summers turning long-established tropes on their head by presenting women who kicked ass themselves rather than waiting for a man to rescue them, marry them and discourage them from working outside the home.
The problem, however, is that since those characters popularized the Strong Female Character as an archetype, popular culture has largely gotten the idea that kicking ass is all a good female character requires; that a spinkick is a personality trait. “Part of the patronising promise of the Strong Female Character is that she’s anomalous,” wrote Sophia McDougall in her brilliant essay “I Hate Strong Female Characters.” “’Don’t worry!’ that puff piece or interview is saying when it boasts the hero’s love interest is an SFC. ‘Of course, normal women are weak and boring and can’t do anything worthwhile. But this one is different. She is strong! See, she roundhouses people in the face.’”
Beyond that, such a rigid definition of strength severely limits female characters in, ironically, much the same way as the domestic stereotypes it was in response to. I discussed this idea with a friend of mine at work the other day. “It seems like that basically defines strength as stuff we associate with men,” she said. And this is perfectly true; the worst-case scenario for the SFC is basically the Disney Princess as Gillian Flynn’s Cool Girl. That’s why I think some of the best female characters out there today are not the ones who beat up a roomful of mooks without batting an eyelash, but rather, the ones who are capable of kicking ass as effectively as so many real-life women, while retaining all the personality facets, vulnerabilities and flaws that those same real women have (and, it should be noted, more male characters than I can name are allowed to have).
For example, on FX’s recent (and phenomenal) miniseries continuation off the Coen brothers’ Fargo, Deputy Molly Solverson, the female lead, is a world away from the door-kicking physical powerhouse with supermodel looks we usually find in a TV policewoman. Molly, played by brilliant newcomer Allison Tolman, is instead sweet, soft-spoken and contemplative; the most violent thing she does in the series, besides non-fatally shooting a man in self-defense, is to tackle a teenage boy who’s attacking his brother with a hockey stick. And yet, none of this keeps Molly from being, to put it bluntly, a stone-cold badass. Throughout the series she proves time and time again to be not only the most competent police officer, but the most competent of any of the show’s good characters, period. Even as everyone else in the small Minnesota town where the series is set moves on, she spends a year sticking with her intuition and pursuing a case against the local insurance salesman (Martin Freeman) she suspects of killing his wife. Importantly, she does this while entering a relationship (and eventual marriage) and becoming pregnant; her badassery and her more traditionally feminine qualities are never for a moment in conflict with one another.
Molly reminded me of an earlier television character I fell in love with, Precious Ramotswe (Jill Scott), the young Botswana woman who establishes the eponymous business in HBO’s much-missed The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, based on Alexander McCall Smith’s book series of the same name. Precious, like Molly, defies the SFC mold in both personality and body type (she is “traditionally built,” as she puts it), but none of that prevents her from going toe-to-toe with the strong, dangerous men who populate her world; indeed, her enormous capacity for empathy is presented as the key to her detective work just as much as her powers of observation. “I know I will succeed, because a woman knows what's going on more than a man,” she says in the series pilot.
HBO’s “Game of Thrones” comes up fairly often in discussions of feminism in pop culture nowadays, and it presents both the best and worst of how the SFC can play out. At the beginning of the show, we’re introduced to patriarch Eddard Stark’s two daughters; the elder, Sansa, is traditionally feminine, dreams of being a proper lady and marrying a handsome prince and knows romantic poetry like the back of her hand. The younger, Arya, is a tomboy who fiercely resists gender roles (and disdains her sister for embracing them) and is learning swordplay under the guise of “dancing lessons.” Sansa and Arya are both among my favorites of the many, many characters in the series, but unfortunately, broad swaths of the fandom can’t stand Sansa, in large part due to her “girliness.” Never mind the fact that the series goes out of its way to illustrate how strong and intelligent she is in her own way, most notably in a scene in which she saves an alcoholic knight’s life by talking her sadistic fiancé out of executing him, or another in which she appeals to his male ego to persuade him to take the front line in a battle. Sansa and Arya are two different types of strength, not an either-or, and a substantial portion of the show’s fans appear to have missed that point.
Giving a shit about the deeper implications of female characters (or non-white, straight characters, for that matter) is a fairly recent phenomenon, and a lot is still being worked out. One of the most important things to remember, however, is that a character—particularly an underrepresented one—shouldn’t exist to prove a point, they should also be as close to a fully-realized human being as possible. As McDougall puts it: “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.”
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