Enough With the 'Strong Female Characters', Already


Natalie Portman told ELLE recently that the trend of "strong female characters" in action movies and blockbusters does not mean Hollywood has suddenly embraced feminism. With this insight, Portman joined the ranks of other bad-ass feminist artists, such as Claire Boucher of Grimes, who are speaking out against the subtle sexism of today's entertainment industry. When I read Portman's words, I was instantly relieved. Finally, someone in Hollywood knows what feminism looks like.

"The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a 'feminist' story, the woman kicks ass and wins," Portman said. "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."

As a young feminist, Portman articulates a growing concern I have about Hollywood’s take on the new and improved "feminist" figure. Many movies consider themselves progressive because women suddenly have swords. This new archetype is just as one-dimensional as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. As New York Times columnist Carina Chocano wrote, replacing the damsel in distress with a strong female character only "reinforces the unspoken idea that in order for a female character to be worth identifying with, she should really try to rein in the gross girly stuff." 

As a feminist who likes wearing dresses and doesn’t know how to sucker-punch, this sends me the same message that has been sent to boys for decades: "man up."

That there is simply a lack of dynamic women in the usual blockbuster formula. In fact, women are still outnumbered by men on screen at a rate of 3 to 1.

A good example of an actual feminist film is the movie Bridesmaids. The protagonist is not pinned to one adjective. She may be primarily viewed as "weak" in reductive terms because she is struggling and vulnerable, but exploring complexity and the human condition is kind of the point of any protagonist, isn't it? The women featured in the film are diverse — different women play the sidekick, the best friend, the mentor, the comic relief.

In far too many blockbuster films, there is only one female character who is expected to ambassador for all women. The problem is, not all women are the same. As author and journalist Sophia McDougall pointed out, "We need get away from the idea that sexism in fiction can be tackled by reliance on depiction of a single personality type, that you just need to write one female character per story right and you’ve done enough."

In trying to represent women everywhere, these characters become one-dimensional, unable to demonstrate her uniqueness as a flawed and human character. She has to be the strong character who takes shit from no one. That isn’t a realistic human; it’s an archetype — and a boring one at that. 

Not to mention, these women are often scantily dressed and highly sexualized. While other characters around her may objectify her, the strong female character is portrayed as empowered because she now "owns" her sexuality and uses it to her advantage, looking perfect while being able to fight with the rest of the boys. Even though I have no problem with owning and flaunting your sexuality, I do have a problem if there is little variation as to what other tools a woman can employ when fighting evil villains or solving a plot problem. Even strong female characters still send women like me the message that sex appeal is your most important trait.

The misunderstanding and stigmas surrounding the concept of feminism today may be a primary reason for Hollywood's feminist fallacies. Unlike Portman, celebrities usually have a history of misinterpreting feminism’s meaning. In reality, feminism is primarily defined the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of women. Equality of women does not mean women have the right to suddenly punch a man in the stomach for making snide remarks about her, like Peggy Carter does in Captain America. That is an irrational escalation that the audience would not so readily accept if the gender roles were reversed. Since feminism is about equality, the film (and many others like it) wouldn’t fit the bill. What this does instead is encourage the same type of irrational, macho behavior that has influenced men's formation of the self just as much as the damsel in distress has manipulated women. Feminism seeks to free all genders of these limiting stereotypes. 

While it may have stemmed from common misunderstandings, the existence of the strong female character archetype in film and television is dangerous because it perpetuates the myth that sexism is dead and feminism no longer necessary. It portrays women who have made it to the top and do not struggle. Many of my peers roll their eyes when I call myself a feminist and make jokes about the dated militant feminism of the '70s. One friend has even asked me, "What more do you want?"

Well, there is no doubt that we do have it much better than women did 50 years ago. However, there is still plenty room for improvement. There is still a sickening wage gap between genders, demonstrating that just because we have laws mandating equality does not always mean it actually exists.

What’s being shown on screens can profoundly affect the identity and psychology of new generations. A 2012 study published in the journal Communication Research found that television viewing time directly relates to the self-esteem of pre-adolescent students. For the black boys, black girls, and white girls who were observed, self-esteem decreased with more TV time. On the other hand, the self-esteem of white boys actually increased with the more television they watched. The lack of diverse gender and race representations in media can actually stunt the confidence of people who are exposed to it. The lack of dynamic, three-dimensional women deprive young females of the chance to explore the possibilities available to them.

Like most schools in the United States, women's health wasn't adequately addressed in class; in fact, it was reduced to a one-hour presentation about puberty in my fifth grade class and another one hour presentation about sex in my ninth grade health class (that day, we had a substitute). Movies and television became my education for everything feminine, in the same way many of my male friends cite porn as their primary education in how to "be a man" in the bedroom.

Outside of school, there is no doubt that most teens can be found staring at a screen. So, yes, it is important to think about what it is they are staring at.