6 Bizarre Assumptions Movies Make About Strong Women
Let's give credit where credit is due: Hollywood has started giving us female characters who can kick some ass -- like Furiosa, Black Widow, or the eight-legged kaiju from Godzilla (2014). Unfortunately, it turns out that the whole ovarian shift in our action flicks was a bit of a monkey's paw wish. Yeah, we are getting more "strong" women in movies, but there are some truly bizarre things writers just can't get past. Like how ...
A History Of Traumatic Sexual Assault Seems To Be A Requirement
Tragic backstories are great character development because they show that the hero suffered in the past ("Suffer? Hey, that's what I do every day!"), but was then able to get over it and become a better, stronger person. And they're really varied, too. Batman witnessed his parents' murder, Harry Potter was mistreated by most of his family, Captain Kirk is a Space-Holocaust survivor, etc.
But when it comes to women, it seems they only get one type of tragic backstory: rape.
Look at, let's say, Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous lead of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. She is a capable, strong, ass-annihilating genius with legendary hacking skills ... and also a rape survivor. Now, she was a genius before her assault, but throughout the movie (both the American and Swedish versions), it feels like her rape was the final push she needed to become an avenging angel with a keyboard. And that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing if that wasn't also the case for seemingly half the female action heroes on the market. It's as if when writers try to make a tragic backstory distinctly female, only one thing comes to mind.
There's also an 80 percent chance that she'll be wearing a hoodie while brooding in this pose at some point.
Even in Mad Max: Fury Road, the most kickass, female-friendly action movie out there, every female character under the age of 60 was raped by Immortan Joe, and that possibly includes Furiosa. Olivia Benson from Law & Order: SVU was the child of rape, and this became her main motivation to prosecute sex offenders. The Bride from Kill Bill was raped while she was in a coma, after being shot by a jealous male lover. Gretchen, the psycho operative from Prison Break? Raped. Black Widow? Well, she was made sterile by the Soviets against her will, so her tragic backstory is still connected to males doing non-consensual things to her genitalia.
And in most of those cases, their traumatic past utterly defines their personality. Jessica Jones is a good example.
Superhero name: Gloom Girl.
Throughout her Netflix series, Jones (who has literal superpowers) repeatedly freaks out, drinks, and loses her shit because she was brainwashed and raped by David Tennant's character. The show handled her PTSD beautifully, which really could have added a lot to Je-Jo's character. The problem is that she doesn't have much character beyond that. Jessica Jones isn't really a "person with a dark past." For almost the entirety of the first season, she is her dark past, and nothing more. Everything she does stems from that.
Strong Female Action Star = Tomboy
Remember Ellen Ripley from Alien, and all the makeup / pink clothes that she didn't wear? Given her profession of spice mining and then killing aliens, it's no wonder she had little time to care about her personal appearance. However, this hasn't stopped people from considering her slightly tomboyish appearance (the famous panty scene notwithstanding) as a sign of strength, rather than a personal choice or a necessity.
We're not calling out bad or sexist movies here. Even in great franchises with wonderful female roles, we can't get away from the strength = masculinity thing, whereby establishing a female character's badassery means showing her acting exactly like a dude. In The Force Awakens, Rey is quickly introduced as the type of girl who gets dirty and messes around with car parts. "Don't worry, guys. She's a girl, but she's not girly. That's how you know that she'll be taking action instead of getting rescued." In Fury Road, the female ass-kicker scowls and is covered in axle grease, while the damsels in distress are in makeup and flowing white dresses.
"Ugh, this sand is just not working for me."
Sarah Connor from the Terminator series started out as a damsel in distress, completely dependent on a man for her survival when we first met her. This is signaled by her looking and dressing up in traditionally "girly" clothes. Then in Terminator 2, she turns herself into an action badass by terminating every feminine aspect of her personality. It's all about scowling while doing pull-ups in a tank top.
"Skynet has mascara-seeking missiles ... I assume."
Even Mulan, before she dressed up as a man, was shown as completely clueless when it came to stereotypically feminine tasks. This was of course to show us that she had the makings of a warrior all along -- because, you know, being able to put on lipstick makes it physically impossible to learn how to fight (lipstick does smudge easily).
Their Superpowers Usually Exist Only To Help Some Dude
All of this stuff is usually just due to the realities of the market -- or rather, what filmmakers perceive to be the reality. For example, it's still an unspoken truth that your odds of making money are higher with a dude in the lead (which is why 85 percent of movies star men). So if you're a well-meaning progressive type and want to write in a female character who's just as badass as the hero, your problem is that it is now very difficult to have that badass be anything but a tool to help the hero win.
For example, let's look at three seemingly random female ass-kickers: Leeloo from The Fifth Element, River from Firefly/Serenity, and Hermione from Harry Potter. In order, they are a god in human form, a telepathic martial arts expert, and a super-intelligent magic user. The possibilities are endless! Other than, you know, letting them use their superpowers for themselves.
Or in some cases, dress with even a hint of dignity.
In Fifth Element, it's Bruce Willis who saves the day, by kissing Leeloo. This supposedly restores her faith in humanity and allows her to shoot the movie's Big Bad with her god rays. In the end, she was basically a human gun that Willis operated with his lips. Come on, was this movie written by a 16-year-old? Oh, it was? OK, then ...
River from Firefly/Serenity is in a similar bind. With a few minor exceptions, she never uses her Psy-Kung Fu to get herself out of her multiple serious jams. That's because, in those situations, she didn't have anyone to point her directly at the bad guys and tell her "Sic 'em, girl!" Just like Leeloo, she's essentially a superpowered child.
To be fair, River is supposed to have brain damage / cosmic PTSD, which would explain why she never used her powers to become Iron Fist in space. But then there's Hermione. She's billed as one of the smartest witches of her generation, but the structure of the plot requires her to spend her abilities only to help Harry and Ron, like making polyjuice potions for them and repeating passages from her Magical Books of Exposition. It creates the weird (if unintentional) implication that without them, she would have no idea what to do with her intellect. Which might explain why she used the time-turner to study and not to fight magic Hitler. The guys just didn't tell her that was even an option.
In none of those cases was the writer trying to send some subliminal message to reinforce the evil patriarchy (as far as we know). They were simply starting from the assumption that the audience wants the main hero to be a guy, and worked backward from there. On a similar note ...
Powerful Female Characters Can Never Be Leaders (Unless They're Awful)
A leader is simply the person everyone listens to when there is trouble. Think of Captain America in The Avengers. If you compare him to his teammates, he isn't that powerful, but whenever there is trouble, you will see that everyone immediately turns to him for guidance.
Now try to name a female movie character who comes even close to that without also being portrayed as a gigantic bitch with testicles for ovaries.
A strong female leader who is also a genuinely nice person is something filmmakers have decided we just don't want to see. Take Gamora from Marvel's Guardians Of The Galaxy, who's called "the deadliest woman in the galaxy." First she's a pawn to Thanos, then she becomes a member of a team led by Star Lord. Wait, why couldn't she be the one to lead the team?
"Uh, because she isn't half as adorable as Chris Pratt."
In fact, there aren't a hell of a lot of action ensemble movie (heist movies, spy thrillers, etc) where you've got a bunch of tough macho guys answering to a woman. Imagine everyone answering to Michelle Rodriguez's character in the Fast & Furious movies. Imagine Predator with Melanie Griffith in the Schwarzenegger role. It's like they've decided that having a woman shouting to men about their need to, say, get to a chopper is a bad look for both ("She sounds so shrill and bitchy! And that dude obeying her commands must be totally whipped!").
Edge Of Tomorrow had a great role like this for Emily Blunt, but you can guess what happens by the third act: Tom Cruise grows into the leader role, and at the end has to face the main boss without her. Hell, at the end of the movie, she doesn't even know what happened.
Even Their Own Movies Must Revolve Around A Guy
Have you noticed anything strange about the Fury Road poster?
It's ... not exploding?
How about the fact that half the poster is taken up by the words "Mad Max," despite Charlize Theron's Furiosa being the film's real hero? She's the one with a character arc, background, personality, etc. Tom Hardy's Max is at best a sort of helpful NPC, and at worst a stupid sniper-bullet-waster. And yet the entire movie, and its marketing, center on him. Don't get us wrong -- we get that the studio paid for a movie in a known franchise, and it probably wouldn't have gotten made otherwise. (Even though the Mad Max brand can't be that huge these days. But what do you expect them to do? Make something that isn't a sequel or reboot?) But it's hardly the only example.
In Kill Bill, Beatrix Kiddo (aka "The Bride") is the undisputed star of the movie ... but her fate, motivation, the plot, and the fucking title of the franchise all focus on her ex-boyfriend and almost-murderer. Which is really weird when you think about it. It'd be like calling Nolan's second Batman movie Arrest Joker. But even that would have made more sense, considering that the Joker is a prominent character in the movie and Bill barely shows up.
Bill's Five-Minute Cameo Volume 1.
"But," you might say, "it's a revenge movie about killing a specific person!" Well, so was John Wick, Deadpool, and Taken. Hell, not even other Quentin Tarantino revenge movies are titled after the person they're getting revenge on. It's as if there's this (maybe subconscious) thing filmmakers do where they feel like they have to reassure the audience that dudes are involved.
One of the most glaring examples is The Force Awakens. You have a great character in Rey, who pushes the plot forward the entire time. And what is the plot of the film? Finding Luke Skywalker and trying to keep Finn alive. It's like they need to have a giant schlong in the middle of the story that every other character can orbit around. The one tiny bit of good news is that at least Rey got a pretty prominent spot on the poster ...
Right next to the huge male villain.
Women Need To Put Men To Shame In Order To Appear "Strong"
This is one of those crutches writers seem to lean on. To establish a female as strong, we have to compare her to some bumbling, shitty males.
Iron Man 2 introduced the world to the beautiful human tornado that is Black Widow when she and Tony Stark's bodyguard, Happy Hogan, tried to infiltrate Justin Hammer's factory. It was spectacular.
But there was more to that scene. While Natasha was busy signing guys up for the local fracture clinic, Hogan was desperately trying to take down just one guard, and taking a massive beating in the process. As if it's not enough to merely show her handing out concussions like candy on Halloween.
"Did you notice my perfect hero landing, too?"
In Brave, if (tomboy) Merida simply beat all of her suitors in an archery contest, that would have been great. Instead, they had to make it so that the guys she faced were kind of shitty at archering. It actually undercuts the message of the movie, taking it from "Wow, the hero who didn't have a lot of official training beat a talented archer thanks to her hard work!" to "WOW, WOMEN ARE SO MUCH BETTER THAN MEN, HOLY SHIT!"
"DO YOU SEE THIS SHIT?!!"
The Force Awakens can't just show us that Rey is capable; we have to see her successfully repair the Millennium Falcon while Han Solo fumbles around in vain right next to her. In Jessica Jones, the introductory scene is Jones smashing a male client through the glass window of her office door ("And then there's the matter of your bill," she says to the unconscious, bleeding man). In the second season of True Detective, the grizzled cop played by Rachel McAdams is introduced by having her kick a confused, stammering male lover out of her apartment. The Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider movie finishes the opening action scene by having Croft belittle her male assistant, winking at him while he huffs in exasperation.
"Checkmate, Cock 'n' Balls."
It seems to come back to this idea that this is all a zero-sum game, that anyone asking for more female characters really hates males and wants to see them mocked and emasculated. "Oh, you say you want more strong female characters? How about if we just showed them shooting a dude right in the penis? Would that do it?"
In other words, it feels like they might still be missing the point.
You can say hi to Abraham on Twitter here or visit his DeviantArt here. Tara Marie writes about comics and, uh ...also comics. You can talk to her on Twitter (about comics). When Matt Cowan is not writing words for Cracked, he is designing T-shirts that you can buy here.
For more things Hollywood can't seem to get past, check out 6 Reasons Movies Suck (That Hollywood Hasn't Figured Out) and 5 Unwritten Rules Hollywood Needs To Stop Following.
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