Here at The Plot Bunnies, we love ourselves some female characters. In the past few years, we’ve watched them slowly take their rightful place as protagonists of their own stories. Female characters probably still don’t make the 50% of protagonists that they should but we can’t deny that progress has been made. We like walking into a book store and seeing dozens of books, especially YA novels, that have female names at their back. We like seeing that Frozen and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the two highest-grossing movies of 2013, have female protagonists. We love that more and more projects announced over the internet have female leads. The industry professionals may not be doing this for very glorious reasons and advertising the choice of a female lead as a ballsy or surprising move is probably going to get old very quickly, but it is still exciting. Yay for vagina-havers.
Still, as much as the number of female characters in entertainment has increased, how are women represented in movies, television, books, and others? What is the “strong female character” that everybody keeps arguing about?
What do us Bunnies have to say about this?
Seeing as how the majority of film and TV projects have always been taken over by men, it is always refreshing to see now and then a strong female character who kicks ass without waiting for someone to come and rescue her. It’s not surprising that after centuries of being a protector of the tribe/family/social unit/etc., a man is viewed as someone who is expected and, I guess, supposed to save the day. Right?
Admittedly, no one would mind Captain America sweeping in and saving the world from bad guys, but it is truly fascinating and satisfying to see the ladies finally emerging from the shadows, stepping up and showing everyone who the real boss is. Which also gives them a change to distance themselves from the clichéd image, used in films since the dawn of time.
When it comes to film and TV, it is particularly awesome to see women not only flight alongside men, but also be smartass, sassy and opinionated, always having a witty comeback and standing their ground no matter what. The examples of such portrayal that I, personally, find especially successful are Natasha Romanoff played by the brilliant Scarlett Johansson in the Marvel films and Felicity Smoak, a genius IT Tech from Arrow brought to you by Emily Bett Rickards.
The most common mistake of defining a strong female character seems to be coming from applying the word ‘strong’ only to physical qualities while in reality it refers to the character’s ability to have their own voice that isn’t affected by the male protagonists/antagonists as well as their growth and development as a personality. As a rule, they are progressive individuals that stay outside the box regardless of generally acceptable social norms and views.
While Natasha does, in fact, possess certain combat skills and can fight alongside her male companions, she is also a complex, no-nonsense character with a mysterious past and a set of values and beliefs that guide her decisions. She knows what she wants and would never hesitate to beat the crap out of anyone who would dare stand in her way. Natasha is undoubtedly a perfect example of a strong female protagonist who is well aware of her strengths and weaknesses and who knows how to use them for her benefit.
Felicity Smoak, on the other hand, is more of a think-tank brainiac, although the Arrow team started prepping her for combat – just in case! – in Season 2 of the show. Which in no way diminishes the fact that she is, was and always will be an integral part of the vigilante team who joined it guided by her ideas and belief in greater good. She often serves as a moral compass for Oliver Queen/Arrow whenever his vision collides with his desire for revenge. At the same time, she is not the kind of person who would keep her opinions to herself if she disagrees with what’s going on. She manages to keep the other characters in check while constantly growing on her own, which is, of course, a sign on some damn brilliant writing.
And then – sigh – there is Pepper Potts, who is one of my favorite Marvel characters, and who started off as a promising female protagonist but then was criminally underused in the end, never living up to her full potential. She’s always – not matter what! – stays in the background, never quite having an arc of her own, and to say that it saddens me is to say nothing. “But it’s Iron Man’s story!” – I hear you say. Well, I don’t care! There is always a way to make a female protagonist stand out without stealing the male character’s spotlight (if you insist on him having one). If nothing else, it is just not fair not to give her a chance to be SOMEONE and not just Tony Stark’s shadow. Granted, Iron Man 3 kind of sort of gave her some credit… and then took it all away by wrapping up the Iron-Man storyline entirely (I mean we all know Ultron is coming but still!), putting both her and Tony exactly where they started. If Marvel doesn’t bring up Rescue’s storyline at some point, I’m going to riot.
…And this begs for another rant, which I am not going to go into.
Wikipedia, all hail our knowledge overlords and pray they grant us wisdom, has an article about the “strong female character” archetype. Even better, Wikipedia links to criticisms of this stock character, with complaints about the cliché oversimplification that leads to cold, masculine characters. What we all want are interesting people with a point of view and preferably female characters that exist as complicated individuals regardless of their relationship with a man. So, obviously, I thought about princesses.
I love the pomp of princess style. I love tiaras and gowns and sparkles and castles and knights and unicorns. It’s a fictionalized version of the princess trope, pretty much force fed to me by Disney during my formative years. But I’ve always been convinced that a princess is on her way to ruling a kingdom, which seems like a big job. An important job. She’s smart. She’s in charge.
She’s getting married.
Right. Well, there’s nothing wrong with falling in love. Just because you’re the wife of a prince doesn’t mean you aren’t an independent lady with important shit to do. Unless you’re a Game of Thrones character, because then you’ve probably been married off to some lord in exchange for his fleeting fealty.
It’s my princess paradox.
By some modern definitions, the word princess has been transformed into an “attractive girl or woman who is treated with special attention and kindness.” So, you know, when you’re being a cunt about something people can call you a princess. Merriam-Webster lists an “archaic” definition of princess as “a woman having sovereign power.” I know, even in Canada our monarch doesn’t have much power anymore so why would a princess?
Because in fiction, we get to make shit up! And I want a princess! But I don’t want more damsels who need rescuing. I’m looking at you Peach, Zelda, even Leia. I want more Paper Bag Princesses.
I want Princess Bubblegum.
It’s amazing to me that an animated show on the Cartoon Network could perfectly capture my feelings about the princess as a strong female character. Bubblegum is ruler of the Candy Kingdom and an expert scientist. She speaks Korean fluently and is a tough but fair monarch. She’s been places. She’s seen things. She might have had a past lesbian fling with a vampire Queen. Yeah, deal with that shit. She’s interesting.
A princess can be literally strong, or intelligent, or beautiful, or magical… But her goals and secrets, her insecurities and flaws, are what make her compelling. And placing her on a graph. Because statistics.
I feel like a lot of writers still feel weird about writing women. The simple fact of telling a writer to write a woman tends to result in a lot of sulking and groaning and “women are hard to write” and “women are not interesting”. Of course, if writers think of women as some dull alien life form, some problems are going to arise. Case in point: the Chosen Ones.
The Chosen Ones are a particular type of character, this because they are supposed to be a very special someone that is destined to save the world in one way or another. It makes them harder to write because it’s easy to give into making them way too good and too strong and stripping them of all interest they could have as human beings. You thought female characters were often depicted as « strong » in the literal sense of the term to make up for poor characterization? Female Chosen Ones are probably the worst.
There are many things to be said about books like Divergent or Frozen. However, there is nothing about them that saddens me more than realizing that women wrote both of those books and, when came the time to build strong female characters, they still chose to make them perfect women in the eyes of society. Both Tris and Natasha are beautiful, smart as all hell, strong, and, of course, different. But female Chosen Ones don’t just have to be special, they have to be Special, to make up for the fact that they were born with lady bits. Tris is some kind of trained soldier and a Divergent, which is the equivalent of being able to both bake cakes and read books. Natasha Kestal has magical powers that would destroy any other being and also make her badass at everything. One of the most cringe-worthy things to me, though, was to that realize romantic relationships with men still made up for a huge part of those characters’ growth. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against female characters having a romantic life. But does romance have to always be their life?
As much as I enjoy seeing female protagonists popping up everywhere, what I’m really afraid of is that the increasing number of female leads will just serve to carry on more clichés about women.
Korra from The Legend Of Korra is one of the most inconsistent characters I know. Sometimes she’s wise and calm. Sometimes she’s really, really dumb. She’d rather firebend her way out of most situations. She sucks at interpersonal relationships. She fucks up a lot.
Ofelia from Pan’s Labyrinth is just a kid. She likes fairytales and pretty dresses. She thinks her Mom is the most extraordinary being in the universe. She has a good heart. She’s cunning. She’s also shy, not very careful, and kind of inaccessible to those around her.
Both of those characters are Chosen Ones. They are also incredibly flawed and that is why we love them. They’re people. Women are people. Write us like people.
Zoe Saldana has recently said “I like being in space because there are better parts for women in space. I don’t have to subject myself to just being the love interest or playing a character that doesn’t feel relevant to the story or playing a woman that doesn’t feel like an actual depiction of a real woman. When I read films in space and I’m working with these kinds of filmmakers there’s a neutral sense to the way they develop characters. It makes me feel very significant, very relevant and very excited.”
First off, I don’t get what space has anything to it, for Neytiri would be completely irrelevant if she wasn’t the love interest to Senor Jake Sully. While her statement is kind of wishy-washy, she does touch upon some real issues. Unless you’re a well-established woman in the industry, the chances of you getting a role where people actually take you seriously are far and few between. You’re more likely to get slotted as ‘Background Bimbo #3’ than Evelyn Salt from Salt.
So what’s the verdict? It’s hard. It’s fucking hard. Opportunities are far and few between. Women have to work even harder to be recognized for their talent, and even when they finally reach the limelight, the scrutiny and criticism is harder to deal with. But I have faith. With shows like Girls and Orange is the New Black, complicated characters with incredible stories to tell, I believe we’ll get to a point where there are plenty kick-ass, interesting women showing us how it’s ok to be complicated, messy, and not entirely likable. It’s what makes us strong, after all.
– The Bunnies