Filmmakers, take note: There's more to gender equality than putting a warrior woman on screen.
That was the message The Hobbit star Evangeline Lilly sent at last week's San Diego Comic Con. During a Nerd HQ Q&A with the actress, a female audience member asked Lilly where she found the inspiration for her badass elf character, Tauriel. Lilly refreshingly pointed out that while Tauriel is a fearsome warrior, that's not necessarily why she's so great.
The audience member, a self-proclaimed child of nerds who mentioned she has always been uncomfortable with the representation of female characters in sci-fi and fantasy, praised Tauriel, saying, "There's a lot of ways you could have played that role that would've been really along the lines of what we usually see whenever a girl is in an action movie, where she's not in the adventure, she's the prize. So what specific inspirations did you take playing that role?"
Lilly's response was perfect, as she waxed on the value of celebrating specifically feminine strength.
"When I play 'strong' females, and particularly with Tauriel, it was my mission to represent true female strength," she said. "I was super proud not to be in there as a 'kickass' woman and say, 'Look what I can do, I can slay and kill,' but say, 'Look what I can do, I can protect, have compassion, I can care and be gentle. And be feminine and graceful while slaughtering orcs."
Image Credit: Halfabubble Tumblr
Here's the video of the entire segment. This moment starts at 38:17.
It's important to note that while the terms "feminine" and "masculine" can be a convenient shorthand to describe different notions of strength in and of themselves, they should be divorced from an individual's actual gender; that is, women can display what is considered masculine strength just as men can display what is considered feminine strength.
With that caveat, Lilly makes a fantastic point. So often female characters are evaluated by how well they adhere to a very masculine mold of strength and power. While seeing women kick butt in this way can be inspiring, praise of the archetypal "strong female protagonist" shouldn't come at the expense of celebrating other types of women onscreen, nor should it be a substitute for making these women just as complex as their male counterparts. That's because, as I've written before, "[M]ore stereotypically 'feminine' traits like patience, kindness and adaptability shouldn't be seen as inherently lesser than more 'masculine' ones like physical strength or the ability to lead an army into battle."
What's more, Lilly may be talking about a fantasy series, but her ideas resonate with the real world as well. Perhaps as a sort of backlash to the philosophy of books like Lean In, some women have spoken out against continuously lauding only masculine ideals of success. Back in May for example, Girls star Zosia Mamet wrote in Glamour, "[Women] are so obsessed with 'making it' these days, we've lost sight of what it means to be successful on our own terms. ... We kept the old male ideas of success: power and money. We need new ones!"
Tauriel is an awesome character, but this exchange reminds us that true equality isn't about any one gender being more like another. It's about broadening what we value in the first place.