Why Strong Female Characters Are Bad for Women

Opening Arguments

Last night I finally saw the 2007 Transformers movie.  It was OK, in a Michael Bay sort of way, but it was very clear that it was made for a very specific audience: young white nerdy men who wish they could bone models after watching them sexily fight robots so sweat cascades down their luscious tanned bodies.  All right, fine.  If you must, Michael Bay.  I’d prefer if you objectified some hot men every once in a while, but I also understand that you think that would make you gay, and you don’t want that, Michael Bay.  I understand.

But then I see this quote from Megan Fox, the actress/model playing main hottie of the film:

“Both of the female characters in the movie were very strong characters. Rachel [Taylor]’s character is very intelligent. I thought that they were representing women very well.”

That’s the last straw.  It’s bad enough that they make movies that objectify women, but then to call those women Strong Female Characters?  I do not think that phrase means what you think it means, Megan Fox.

So you know what I say?  I say screw Strong Female Characters.  What we need now are some Weak Female Characters.  My arguments below the fold…

Strong Female Characters: A History

Once upon a time in movieland, female characters were the designated Damsels in Distress.  They were tied to railroad tracks, trapped in burning buildings, falling to their deaths, waiting for Superman to save them.  While the hero fought the Bad Guy, they’d sit in the back biting their fingernails instead of running away to get help or throwing a punch of her own.  Sometimes they’d seem smart, strong, and assured until the villain grasped them by their arm, leaving them powerless.  Oh, and the swooning.  Sometimes there was swooning.

Along would come the Hot Hero, strong, rugged, with a square jaw and stony buttocks, to save the day.  As in the heroic tales of old, their prize for defeating the villain would be the chance to shag the Damsel and live happily ever after.

All in all, the Damsel in Distress was kind of a terrible character, but at least she did end up with the hot hero at the end.  Sure, he might have anger issues or just be a tool; then again, he was also probably a prince or a cowboy or a hot PI or a superhero – or if the hero was a regular “everyman” he’d still be a Clark Gable or Cary Grant or Humphrey Bogart – so it wasn’t all bad.

Somewhere along the way feminism happened and the wymyns were all, “Um, no?”  It took a while, but some writers in Hollywood got the idea.  No more would female characters be Damsels in Distress.  No, there should be Strong Female Characters in cinema– emphasis on “Strong.”  While these women would still be young and hot, of course, they’d also have one characteristic that made them more masculine.  That could be physical strength or a superpower (see Liz Sherman in the first Hellboy movie), the ability to shoot a gun properly (see Princess Leia), or it could be something more metaphorical, like being able to out-drink a guy (see Marion from Raiders of the Lost Ark).  Writers patted themselves on the back, saying, “You wanted Strong Female Characters?  Well, now they’re strong.”

Yeah, the trouble is, although these characters were marginally better than the original Damsels in Distress, they still ended up having to be saved in the final act by the male hero.  There would usually be a scene (or three) where the “Strong Female Character” would be trapped by the villain and put into sexy clothing, I guess as a punishment of some sort.  And even when she was being strong, she was always doing it in the sexiest way possible.  She’d never, say, get a black eye or a broken nose in a fight.  Her ability to fix cars (a powerful, masculine trait) would basically allow her to get sexy grease all over her slippery body.  Her ability to shoot a gun was so the film’s advertisers could put her on a poster wearing a skimpy outfit with a big gun between her legs.  All in all, the “strength” of her character was just to make her a better prize for the hero at the end – and for the horny male audience throughout.

And the heroes got worse, too.  Yeah, these Strong Female Characters would sometimes be rescued by the Hot Hero.  More often, now, they’d be saved by the Schlubby Everydude.  Apparently somewhere along the line directors decided that film heroes should be more like audience stand-ins: lame, scrawny, nerdy.  So you wouldn’t have Hot “Strong” Marion sleeping with Hot Strong Indiana Jones at the end anymore.  You’d have Hot “Strong” Megan Fox sleeping with Weaselly Weak Shia La Beouf at the end.  Um, WHAT?!  If this female character is so strong and so hot and so great in every way, why in the world would she end up with that loser?  Oh.  Because he’s the audience stand-in.  That makes perfect sense.

Some movies nowadays go even further.  They pile up one awesome trait after another on top of this sexy female character, thinking that will make them “stronger.”  For instance, consider Rachel Taylor’s character in Transformers, who, Megan Fox claims, is an intelligent, Strong Female Character.  Of course!  She’s a 23-year-old, model-thin super-attractive super-genius hacker who is SO SMART that everyone in the Pentagon spends the whole movie looking at her dumbly because she’s just SO MUCH BETTER THAN THEM AT EVERYTHING.  Or, as A.O. Scott said in his Wall-E review, this is the female character (like EVE) who is “a supermodel who also happens to be a top scientist with a knack for marksmanship.”

This Super Strong Female Character is almost like a Mary Sue, except instead of being perfect in every way because she’s a stand-in for the author, she’s perfect in every way so the male audience will want to bang her and so the female audience won’t be able to say, “Tsk tsk, what a weak female character!”  It’s a win-win situation.

Except not.

Saying Yes to Weak Female Characters

I think the major problem here is that women were clamoring for “strong female characters,” and male writers misunderstood.  They thought the feminists meant [Strong Female] Characters.  The feminists meant [Strong Characters], Female.

So the feminists shouldn’t have said “we want more strong female characters.”  They should have said “we want more WEAK female characters.”  Not “weak” meaning “Damsel in Distress.”  “Weak” meaning “flawed.”

Good characters, male or female, have goals, and they have flaws.  Any character without flaws will be a cardboard cutout.  Perhaps a sexy cardboard cutout, but two-dimensional nonetheless.  And no, “Always goes for douchebags instead of the Nice Guy” (the flaw of Megan Fox’s character in Transformers) is not a real flaw.  Men think women have that flaw, but most women avoid “Nice Guys” because they just aren’t that nice.  So that doesn’t count.

So what flaws can female characters have?  Uh, I don’t know.  How about the same flaws a male character would have?  This is especially important in comedies, because, nowadays, male writers are so clueless about writing funny women that female characters in sitcoms, sitcomish-movies, and comics tend to be the Smart, Gorgeous Snarky Voice of Reason in an unreasonable world.  In other words, Not Flawed and Not Funny.

I’m sick of it.  Let’s see more female characters

  • that fall down hilariously (like Lucille Ball)
  • that are arrogant (like Zhang Yiyi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)
  • that are realistic or exuberant villains (like Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton or Atia from Rome)
  • that are neurotic (like Elliott from Scrubs)
  • that are mean or cruel (like Elaine from Seinfeld)
  • that are vengeful (like The Bride from Kill Bill)
  • that are forgetful (like Dory from Finding Nemo)
  • that say the wrong things (like C.J. in The West Wing, often, or, again, Elliott from Scrubs, always)
  • that are emotionally repressed (like Marge from The Simpsons)
  • that are nerdy and awkward (like Belle from Beauty and the Beast)
  • that are crazy (like everyone, male or female, from Neon Genesis Evangelion)
  • that are insufferable know-it-alls (like Hermione or Lisa Simpson)
  • that are depressed (I can’t think of one, which is interesting, since women are more likely to be depressed in real life.  Who’s the female equivalent of Hamlet?  Is there one?)

Etcetera.  They don’t have to be physically strong, although they can be (The Bride, the women from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Ripley, Sarah Connor, and even the half-naked Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop are strong Strong female characters).  Strong just means they have their own goals that move beyond “I want to do whatever the male hero wants to do” or “I want to marry the male hero.”  “I want to have a baby” is moderately better – moderately.  Let’s try to be a little more creative, huh?

(Brief interlude: And, by the way, it’s OK if these women are hot.  The characters I just mentioned above [The Bride, the Crouching Tiger ladies, Ripley, Sarah Connor, and Ms. Valentine] are all quite attractive.  But they also DO get beat up and they DO look like they could kick your ass.  Except for Zhang Yiyi, who’s like thirty pounds.  But she at least looks graceful enough that she could fly and kick your ass with a sword, and she looks angry and batshit crazy enough that she’d do it twice.  And they all have their own goals, flaws, and back stories.  I don’t want you thinking I have something against attractive women.  I am one myself, after all :)

Once your female characters have some depth to them, it doesn’t really matter if the male hero saves them or not.  For instance, Batman saved Rachel Dawes a couple of times, but I never saw her as only a Damsel in Distress, because she was her own person with her own moral code and own heroic goals to clean up Gotham with her Lawyer Powers.  There was nothing in her background that led me to believe she’d be able to fight supervillains single-handedly, so when Batman has to save her (just like he saves everyone else), it’s believable.  If, say, she had beaten up the Joker with her super kung fu skills she learned in self-defense class and her super-powered mace she developed in her own chem lab after she got her PhD from Harvard, and her makeup and hair still looked good afterward, then she’d be LESS of a Strong Female Character.  She’d just be some image of what the nerdy male audience wants in a damsel.

Got it?

My work here is done.

107 Comments on “Why Strong Female Characters Are Bad for Women”

  1. Jay #

    Hey – I partly agree. I think your distinction between ‘Strong’ and ‘Strong Female’ is exactly right. Last night I was watching ‘Hellboy’ with Selma Blair saving Hell Boy’s arse and the weak, scrawny guy had to watch them kiss passionately at the end. Poor him. But there was still something wrong. And I think it is the hollywood aesthetic. Until we get away from base hetero characters as standard, stupid special effects and the male-teenage-mind as the pinnacle of the human imagination, I reckon we’ll always face this problem.

     
  2. fenzel #

    Hey, it’s not like Michael Bay didn’t try. Transformers had _Tyrese_ in it. That guy wasn’t exactly there for his chops.

    What you basically want are _good_ characters. Complex characters with flaws who get to do interesting things. And your main problem is looking for them, of either gender, in a Michael Bay movie.

    While I don’t quite buy the charge that Hollywood cheesecakes its women all that much more than it beefcakes its men, I entirely support the push for good characters who are also women — and an end to the “King of Queens” syndrome. That would be a good thing.

     
  3. mlawski #

    Yeah, I definitely was NOT expecting good characterization in a Michael Bay movie. My major problem was Megan Fox then claiming that Michael Bay had written two fabulous female characters and patting him on the back for it. Come on.

     
  4. John #

    WOW! Finally someone who got it right! I’ve been saying this for years. Hollywood’s “Strong woman” has been done all wrong. The greatest men “action” heroes are the ones with flaws. That shouldn’t be any different for a woman character. They always gloss over the woman and make her too tough. That’s why I can’t stand Angelina Jolie. She’s so tough and so over confident that it makes for the most boring drivel to watch. Uma Thurman on the other hand wasn’t afraid to look homely, get her ass handed to her and dare I say, CRY! …and because of that, Uma punches and kicks meant a little more than Jolie’s.

     
  5. Crazy Loco #

    What bugs me about men and women in general, is the strong type is blemish free. We are forced to watch them writhe in gratuitous, oily, nudity with narry a pimple on them. And we see it ALL. If a person of such behavioural affectations(beating up people, etc) is to be blemish free, we are an incredibly, retardedly stupid audience. And yes we are. Everyone stand and take a bow.

     
  6. fenzel #

    By the way, if there were an award for the worst example of a “strong woman” character who is, in fact, a phenomenally weak character, I think you’ve got to give it to Denise Richards as Dr. Christmas Jones in _The World Is Not Enough_.

    Some choice lines that make me throw up a little:

    Dr. Christmas Jones: The world’s greatest terrorist running around with six kilos of weapons-grade plutonium can’t be good. I gotta get it back, or someone’s gonna have my ass.

    James Bond: First things first.

    And, of course, the immortal:

    [last lines]
    James Bond: [in bed with Jones] I was wrong about you.

    Dr. Christmas Jones: Yeah, how so?

    James Bond: I thought Christmas only comes once a year.

    So, not only is she a supermodel-built nuclear physicist qua adventurer who runs around with James Bond in a series of apparently IAEA-issued tank tops, but her final big character reveal, the thing that the hero and audience discover about her that sums her up as a person?

    Multiple orgasms.

     
  7. mlawski #

    John: I’d forgotten all about The Bride crying at the end of Kill Bill, but what an amazing moment. It was then that I realized that I really cared about this character and was very glad that she got her happy ending. It was her crying, oddly enough, that made me finally say, “What a strong female character!” Interesting, that.

     
  8. Gab #

    Ok, you knew I’d have something to say, so here it comes, but it’s not as scathing as even I thought it would be (I freaked out when I saw the title).

    What fenzel said is true, I think what you’re going for is just GOOD characters, ones with depth and realistic qualities. But the focus of this article is on action movies. Yeah, you bring up women from other genres in what you want at the end, but the comparisons you make in the bulk of the piece all have to do with movies where strength in the physical sense is necessary for some of the scenarios that will pop up because of the genre of the film.

    What about political dramas, or historical pieces (fictional or not)? Don’t women deserve better representation there, too? A good character will be able to see the situations they are in and come up with a plan to fix them in the face of whatever opposition comes their way, regardless of gender. Have you ever seen “The Contender”? Watch that. Joan Allen kicks ass in her ethical resolve and takes the better moral path over and over again in that movie- it’s the men doing all of the dirty stuff.

    And what ABOUT comedies? I too am exceedingly sick of seeing fat assholes ending up with hot chicks that love them through all of the shit they pull- Jim Belushi plays one of the biggest (and excuse the gendered insult) DICKS I’ve ever seen, but he’s still married. WHY? You’d NEVER see a show where the roles were reversed, where the woman was ugly and mean and STUPID and the husband was hot and caring and intelligent. I think this is more true-to-life than a lot of people realize. I may be young, but I hardly ever see a good-looking man with an ugly woman. And if they ARE together, she’s above-average in every other category and EVERYBODY knows it, as if this must be popular/common knowledge in order to validate them being together at all. But I see pretty girls/women with varying levels of quality in other areas on the arms of ugly jerks around me constantly. It’s possible for attractive women to also be smart and ethical and stuff, yeah, but why do they end up with guys that really ARE below them?

    I think some of it comes from the patriarchal society we live in, stemming back to its beginnings. Women were feared and locked up by men because of the power we have: the power to give birth. To come up to today, skipping a bunch of history, that fear is still lying in there by the men in charge. The fear of their power being taken away by a woman that could, gasp, be independent, frightens them. The men that are more at the same level as the women that achieve their own success, have ambitions, whatever, avoid these women because they do not want to seem less important or weaker in the metaphorical sense- so these metaphorically strong women are forced to “settle,” for lack of a better term. They can’t find a man that is their equal and wanting to be with them.

    Look at “The Stepford Wives.” All of those women were hot and successful, but they were married to a bunch of losers. That’s how the overall societal structure desires to be. I’m not saying that you or any man actually makes the conscious decision to keep society that way, but not just Western society has a deep and long history of repressing and controlling women and allowing men to do and get whatever and whomever they desire. So why SHOULDN’T a fat pea-brain like Jim aspire for a hot “Mary-Sue” type? Society has encouraged and enabled that since before it was written.

    So anyway, one other point that relates to another discussion: bad writing. In the movies where the woman is meant to be the central character, the writers often turn in hot steaming piles of whale shit instead of quality writing and actions. I look at movies like “Catwoman” and cringe because it’s clear that even though they are TRYING to make her the hero, the idea of a woman taking care of herself clearly DOES NOT SETTLE with the writers, so some semblance of dependency on or need for a man is always present- which dilutes any of the strength or “strength” the character had possessed earlier in the movie. For men in movies, the “love interest” is often an aside, something that seems to be a bonus- like you said, a reward. But when a woman is the main character, her love interest usually has much, much more of an influence over her actions and motivations. And in terms of action movies, she never saves him on her own; in terms of non-action, she either doesn’t get him or does because he somehow comes up with a scheme to get whatever pickle forming the climax un-pickled. The idea of a woman doing it all on her own just doesn’t play out, or it gets caricaturized and made fun of, and the man she saves and falls for is, again, probably not remotely good enough for her.

    I’ll stop now, but I’m glad you wrote this- it proves you don’t have to be a raging feminist to see how uneven the playing field is.

     
  9. mlawski #

    Yeah, this article was obviously very narrow in scope. I was thinking specifically about women and specifically about women in action movies. That’s what happens, apparently, when I write posts after watching Transformers.

    The fact is that there are shitty female characters in non-action movies and TV shows, and there are shitty male characters out there, as well. Now that I think about it, it’s probably wrong of me to focus my energies on dissecting bad female characters so much while letting bad male characters slide. Because if we only bash writers for writing bad women, they’re just going to avoid writing women altogether. And of course we don’t want that, either… although that’s what seems to be happening in Hollywood today.

     
  10. Stokes #

    Fenzel, claiming that Hollywood doesn’t cheesecake it’s women more than it beefcakes it’s men would fly in the face of a large body of film studies writing about something called the “male gaze.” That in itself doesn’t mean you’re wrong (academics have gotten worked up over nothing before), but let me offer a few pieces of evidence for the prosecution.

    1) When you get a film with a notable beefcake factor, people make a huge deal of it. 300 is the clearest example, but I saw like three soft-news pieces about how the shot in Casino Royale where Danny Craig walks dripping out of the ocean was “payback” for the decades of gratuitous Bond Girls. Certainly there is beefcake, but it’s rare enough to be newsworthy. A similar shot of a woman (of which there were several in that film, come to think of it) would not occasion comment.

    2) Shlubby male romantic leads are commonplace, while shlubby female leads are pretty much unheard of.

    3) The English language contains the word “starlet,” for which there is no male analogue. Although I will admit that no one really says starlet anymore…

    4) There are a few actresses who coast on their looks because they’ve proven their ability to open a movie despite their lack of more substantial talents. Now, there are men who fall into the same category (I’m turning my Male Gaze on you, Matthew McConaughey), so these groups more or less cancel eachother out. But there’s also a number of actresses who coast on looks despite not being any kind of box office draw whatsoever, and here there’s no corresponding population of men. The minor male characters in a rom-com are mostly going to be second-tier SNL alums like Rob Schneider. The minor female characters are mostly – mostly – going to be ridiculously hot. This means that the starlet category is still alive and well, even if the word has been phased out.

    4) Finally, and most importantly, take a look at those Megan Fox pictures up above. In the movie, those are Shia LaBouef POV shots. So in addition to seeing (probably ogling) her, we are presented with the fact that he is also ogling her, which serves to normalize the ogling behavior. In this example, it’s over the top enough that we notice it. But shots like that are part of the basic vocabulary of filmmaking, and usually they blend right in. The reverse of that shot, where a guy is ogled, is much rarer. It’s not like it never happens in movies, but the only example that springs to mind is from one of the most notoriously insane movies of all time. And note that even here (watch the first video on the linked page), the oglers are men. And the oglee is the main character of the film: it’s not like he was introduced purely to be gawped at.

     
  11. fenzel #

    I’m familiar with the theories of the male gaze, and I think they have a lot to say in terms of shaping perception and behavior.

    But they’re often written within a dialectical structure that has one foot very firmly planted in a specific sort of heteronormative, patriarchal paradigm that is, in my opinion, outmoded, that equates homoeroticism with homoesexuality and consigns it outside of the male sphere of experience.

    I think practice, especially the practice of watching contemporary action movies (or, heck, action movies from the last 20 years), shows that the male gaze is a reductive way of looking at things.

    I’d posit that the exaggerated male anatomy of comics, largely consumed by adolescent and young adult heterosexual men, shows that, yes, there is a forced perspective in play that is similar to what is being described in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, but it hits a much broader visual vocabulary than many feminists would claim — mostly because feminists’ perspectives are naturally weighted toward noticing the things they care about. It’s funny they don’t recognize that in themselves much, since feminist theory so often associates restricted perception with norms.

    1) I disagree, and I think those articles are mostly the product of the hype machine — a feigned outrage, a socially acceptable way of advertising beefcake. Michael Phelps has been on the cover of the New York Times off and on for a week, and nobody really seems to care that much how much of his anatomy he’s exposing.

    Consider that the lingering shots of women in Baywatch occasioned far more comment than the analogous, lingering shots of men that were also heavily featured in the show.

    2) Unheard of is, I think too strong. I’d suggest looking for examples of henpecking wifes, nagging girlfriends, and otherwise socially unsuccessful, undesirable women, even when they are not obese, as the male leads more often are. Also, I think you are underestimating the basic attractiveness of certain shlubby male leads, including Mr. LeBoef. Jaleel White comes to mind as a good example of a male actor who was put forth as very unattractive and discussed as very unattractive but really wasn’t.

    3) The male equivalent of “starlet” is “hunk.” And, in fact, these days, you hear the term “Hollywood hunk” a lot more than “Hollywood starlet.”

    4) I don’t really buy this, and I’m looking, sadly, in the general direction of Vin Diesel.

    5) You don’t see the shots because you are not looking for them, and because they are usually contextualized in some other way because it is socially unacceptable to identify what is really going on. One classic one is the “wounded hero shows us his scars” shot. Also consider any Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. Consider the naked terminator. There is example after example.

     
  12. weg #

    Most of the movies you mentioned as having poorly written female characters aren’t meant to be the standard bearer of cultural enlightenment. Anyone who learns gender roles or stereotypes from a Michael Bay movie probably doesn’t have a chance of being fair or accurate in their interpretation of gender roles.

    Once you enter the theater, you are enter the theater you are already bombarded with images, events and memories that shape your views on gender. It happens in the home, at school, hanging out with friends, and especially with your brothers and sisters if you have any.

    Movies don’t really have the power to shape or correct gender bias. Quit giving MB and others so much power.

     
  13. mlawski #

    I’m going to get in trouble for this, but…

    1. Michael Phelps isn’t a great example. Of course he’s not wearing clothes! He’s a swimmer. It’s not like the newspapers and magazines are putting him on their covers because he’s hot. He happened to win 8 gold medals. Athlete first, hottie second.

    The same is sometimes true of female athletes (I’m looking at the Williams sisters here), but, usually, it goes hottie first, famous athlete second.

    For instance (enjoy, boys): http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/features/2006_swimsuit/athletes/

    http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/swimsuit/collection/athletes/amanda_beard.html

    http://www.fhmonline.com/Site/Girls/CoverGirls/Article.aspx?Gallery=4609&Picture=1&GirlID=34215

    http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/swimsuit/collection/athletes/jennie_finch.html

    http://www.sports-wired.com/women/AnaPaula_Mancino.html

    http://www.maxim.com/AnnaKournikova/todays_girl/4108.aspx

    http://www.maxim.com/video/index.aspx?filekey=506

    …And so on. Maybe it’s just that female athletes love posing in the SI swimsuit issue, Maxim, and FHM. Or maybe they feel that they’d get more famous for their sports if they showed off their hawtness. Male athletes just don’t have to do that to the same degree.

    But let me be fair. There are a few male athletes who are more famous for their bodies than for their athleticism:

    http://www.popcrunch.com/david-beckham-emporio-armani-underwear-ad-campaign/

    From my point of view, however, it seems that this sort of thing is more of a phenomenon involving female athletes.

     
  14. mlawski #

    2. How often are the henpecking wives, nagging girlfriends, and socially undesirable women LEADS? And how often to they get a hot guy at the end? Of hand, I can think of one example (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), and the main character in that movie isn’t really bad in any way; she just happens to come with an awful family.

    Yes, there are unattractive females in movies. They are the comic relief. They are not protagonists– usually.

    3. Again, this is my point of view, but most of the Hollywood hunks have some talent (Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale, and – I hate to say it – Tom Cruise hop to mind). I have a really hard time thinking of a Hollywood starlet who is also a good actress. I guess Keira Knightly is OK?

    But, yes, of course there are male actors who are no good and are only there due to their hotness. But I’m not sure it’s a trend in the same way for men.

    4. I’d bet Vin Diesel films are enjoyed more by men than by women. Make of that what you will.

     
  15. fenzel #

    “it’s not like newspapers and magazines are putting him on their covers because he’s hot”

    Oh, come on, now you’re just in denial. Look at the pictures they choose.

    Saying that “he’s a swimmer, of course he’s naked” is like saying “of course she’s covered in grease, she’s a mechanic.”

    The big difference here is that everyone is allowed to leer at attractive women openly, whereas everyone but gay men have to make up a context for leering at attractive guys.

    I will posit that the discovery that the male gaze works both ways (or, rather, all ways) — that everybody leers at everybody — is pretty recent. People used to think that people checked out women more than men because they were inherently sexist. It turns out they did it because checking out men for overtly sexual purposes was a bigger social tabboo (connected with the unfortunate illegitimacy of the importance of female sexual pleasure).

    I mean, have you gone into an Abercrombie & Fitch? It’s no coincidence that the exteriors of the stores became dark and secretive at the same time that the photography stepped up to the porn plate.

    “From my point of view, however, it seems that this sort of thng is more a phenomenon involving female athletes.”

    Of course — you’re angry at hurt at feeling your gender is being objectified. And it is – you have every right to be angry and hurt. And it isn’t fair to expect you to feel other people’s problems as keenly as your own.

    I mean, I understand I have biases in this, too. We all do. But each of our own biases is only part of the larger picture.

    We’re all like Chinese sports fans that comprehend that using underage gymnasts are cheating, or Obama or Hillary fans who can’t understand why the other side thinks they’re finks.

    Our brains are keyed into whatever we perceive as our own team, and it’s a difficult thing to do to recognize that maybe the same kind of stuff is being done by pretty much everyone everywhere.

    Has anyone else seen the ads for the show MVP?

     
  16. fenzel #

    4. And as per Vin Diesel and “making of it what I will” — I’d posit that leering at people with good bodies is about more than just looking at people you might want to have sex with.

    I personally think a lot of it is idolization and hero worship — that there’s a behavior in both men and women that is somewhat homoerotic and is aimed at self-discovery and behavioral modeling.

    Which is why reductive male characters (like, say, your average Bruce Willis character, even a good one) are part of a similar phenomenon to reductive female characters.

    Although I clearly think (if you know me), that these cultural expressions are not made unsalvagable, or even necessarily bad, by their reinforcement of reductive self-image and objectification.

     
  17. mlawski #

    Fenzel:

    I think we both agree that people have their own biases, which is why I did use the condition “from my point of view.” My original article was not meant to say, “Objectification and bad characterization only happen to women.” We’re obviously all visual creatures and respond well to sexy images of whatever gender we’re interested in.

    However, saying “well, men are objectified too” or “well, you women are just focusing on this too much” are both rather unfair. First, “objectifying” doesn’t just looking at an attractive body. It’s looking at that person as a sexual object and ignoring that person’s humanity. So, sure, Bruce Willis-type characters are attractive (and may even lose their shirts from time to time), but their characterizations do not boil down to “hawt” and “love interest.” Action heroes are first action heroes (who might be not particularly well-developed characters, sure, but at least they’re cool) and second major hotties. With the lame female characters it tends to be the other way around.

    If men were just as objectified as women in films and TV, then why do feminist critics always have a hard time finding movies and TV shows that follow the Bechdel rules? For those who don’t know, a film passes the Bechdel test if there is at least one instance:

    1. Of two female characters talking to each other

    2. About something other than a man.

    The few female characters in films right now are so flat and sexualized that they often only talk to their love/sex interest, because that’s all they’re there for. If (and this is a big if) two female characters talk to each other, it’s usually a superficial conversation about a love/sex interest.

    If this argument just boiled down to “Mlawski is a woman and therefore is just focusing on women and ignoring the plight of men in film,” then I would expect that it would be just as difficult to find films that followed the opposite of the Bechdel test. In that world, just as it would be nearly impossible to find women developed enough as characters to talk to and about something other than men and romance, it would be just as impossible to find films in which men only talked to or about women and romance. But that’s simply not true. Male characters tend to be the leads, stories tend to be from their point of view, and their characters tend to be more varied. Can we agree on that, at least?

    As I said in my original article, I have no problem with attractive people. We all like looking at attractive people. I just want those attractive people to have personalities, as well. That’s why I watch Burn Notice– the two main male characters are two interesting people… who also happen to wear very tight shirts and exercise a lot. And one of them is Bruce Campbell. Nice.

     
  18. fenzel #

    I don’t think I was disagreeing with you as broadly as you think I was. I went off on a crazy tangent, but it was pretty specific.

    Women have a lot to complain about concerning Hollywood (and Bollywood, and Dollywood, for that matter). You’re woefully underrepresented across the board. The call for “strong female characters” was wrongheaded, and the silliness of its response has shown how wrongheaded it was. I agree with pretty much your entire post.

    But I think a lot of that problem would be solved if they just put more female characters in movies, and in good roles. Filmmakers have shown that they can make competent, good, interesting female characters — they just choose not to do it. It’s not like you need a ton of innovation to do this — there are plenty of perfectly fine movies that do it and do it right, and they’re more frequent and popular that some give them credit for, but they’re still too few and too far between.

    What I disagree with is the idea that this is done out of a malice, incompetence or narrowness of mind specifically geared toward women on behalf of filmmakers. I think it’s largely a choice made out of laziness, a lack of organizational will on behalf of studios to depart from the status quo, and an effort to please a prejudiced audience (Katie Couric’s ratings show that it’s not just men who are prejudiced against female news anchors, for example).

    The five reasons I pursued this whole discussion as far as I did:

    1. I am an overthinker making a nitpicky argument on the Internet, which I enjoy doing.

    2. As a writer, I have a lot personally invested in the idea that a writer is capable of writing to more than just his or her own personal experience (and I tend to believe that, as well).

    3. This problem is serious, and it deserves to be investigated seriously. A solution that misses the point (like the “strong women” solution or the “censor the eye of the camera” solution) isn’t going to help anybody, despite its good intentions.

    New presbyter is but old priest writ large, after all. Replacing old authority with new authority that makes the same mistakes just forces us to endure them all over again.

    4. I think there’s a lot of important stuff for dudes in this kind of discussion that they don’t often hear (which deserves its own posts instead of comment threads so it is not seen as quite as adversarial).

    5. The bourgeoise’s best strategy against the proletariat is to divide us, and dividing us by gender and have us fight each other is a great way to do it.

    ;-) BIG WINK ;-)

    But the important thing to note is that I can still disagree with part or whole of a given idea about the male gaze or how movies set social and behavioral norms and still be a feminist. And I am. But I’m also a bit of a New Critic, which is a somewhat unhappy ideological marriage.

    I’m not a Bushie — this doesn’t have to be a reductive political argument. One point for or aganist isn’t for or against the cause if we’re already firmly on the same side. We can hit the finer pines on it if we want to — that’s where the good stuff is, anyway.

     
  19. mlawski #

    Fenzel: I agree with everything you said.

    ;-) WINK BACK ;-)

     
  20. Stokes #

    Fenzel, re your disagreement with my point 4 above:
    (My first point 4, that is. Dang typos.)

    Vin Diesel cannot serve as a counterexample here. He’s a star. Riddick, xXx, The Pacifier… he’s another McConaughey type, and I’ll admit that those exist in both genders.

    But think about Shannon Elizabeth. She’s in American Pie as, basically, “hot girl.” Later on, she shows up in a slightly larger role in “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back,” but still essentially playing the part of “hot girl.” (You could classify her as the female lead, although it’s not a huge part, but note the difference: Vin Diesel is Riddick, xXx, and the Pacifier. Shannon Elizabeth is neither Jay nor Silent Bob.) In Love Actually, she is LITERALLY credited as “Harriet, the sexy one.”

    As for point #5 (or second point #4, whatever): If I’m not seeing these shots because I’m not looking for them, please feel free to start pointing them out to me. But shots where it’s “disguised as something else” do not count. The whole point is that the ogling of women is commenplace and blatant (inside movies and in the real world) while the ogling of men is surruptitious, covert, or absent (inside movies and in the real world). The shots of Van Damme flexing his business in Bloodsport are plausibly about how incredibly disciplined he has to be to kick that much ass. If you’re uncomfortable with ogling men, you can just parse it that way and keep watching the movie. The shots of Megan Fox writhing around the inside of the car are not plausibly about how toned her abs have to be to rebuild a transmission, and if you’re uncomfortable with ogling women, you just have to squirm or laugh your way through the scene.

    I will say that the extreme version of my own argument, that ONLY women are ever cheesecaked/beefcaked, is demonstrably false.
    The scar-showing-off stuff, for instance, I’ll give you, because generally the characters in those scenes are clearly using the scars as an excuse to check eachother out. Bravo to the five or ten movies where that happens, then… but five or ten movies does not parity make.

     
  21. fenzel #

    Okay, this clearly got a bit out of hand, and I was thinking —

    Why are we arguing about it when we can do it?

    So, here’s the challenge —

    Write up a brief treatment of an action movie.

    With two or women in it.

    And they’re not lesbians.

    And they don’t talk about men.

    Extra points for actual dialogue or scenes.

    Should I ask for formal submissions and make it a contest?

     
  22. Gab #

    Would an anime count for the “contest”? ;)

    Kidding, kidding.

    And actually, even that wouldn’t work with the one I had in mind… Shit.

    I’d have to agree that when men get oggled at, there is more of a context, and if the shot is meant for oggling, it’s a different kind of oggling, an oggling at what they can do, not what they look like. That Terminator reference, it’s supposed to demonstrate the sheer power of the T-Man- he pops up surrounded by lightning and stuff. It’s supposed to be fucking scary and intimidating: he’s so strong, he doesn’t NEED clothes, and the fact that he’s naked isn’t the focus, but his power, the destruction he’s capable of. His muscles are oggled at, but as examples of the danger his character could be for anyone that crosses him, NOT how sexy he is (or isn’t, depending on your tastes in men- he’s a BIT bulky for me). Since I’m still obsessing over Batman, let’s go there: When Bruce takes off his shirt in TDK, I swooned. But there was more to the scene, and I know the intent wasn’t sheerly to make me, a young woman and fangirl, swoon: it’s to show the scars he’s getting as a vigilante, the price his body is paying for the life he lives- and Alfred even gives him crap for those scars, too, with the whole, “Bruce Wayne can only handle so much,” schpiel (sp?). Because of this, my swoon was cut SHORT by the dialogue of the scene, which was the intent. I wasn’t really supposed to be drooling over Christian Bale’s exceptional body, I was supposed to be disturbed by all of the scars and markings his character had from fighting baddies. Similarly, when he does the pushups in his bedroom during “Batman Begins” (please tell me someone else remembers this), I about died, but again, there was dialogue going on to set up and further the plot that made this near death experience last only a second at most: Alfred was again (or, well, I suppose initially, since that movie takes place first…) lecturing him about something, and it was meant to show how Bruce needed to shift his focus a little if he was going to succeed as both Bruce and Bat- his sort of, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” attitude was the point of the scene, not the oh-so-sexy abs and arms.

    But for Christ’s sake, even in “Charlie’s Angels,” the supposed “girl-power” movies (my AAAAASSSSS), any sweeping shots of the women always do the whole fan-in-the-face/hair thing and focus more on the T&A of the shot than anything else. They’re surrounded by sparklies and rays of sunshine (or maybe they drip some rain off as they shake their Herbal Essences hair out of their face). Oh, and they often SHOW people oggling at them, even other women. And the shots are slow, painstaking, giving you PLENTY of time to think about whether those jugs are real and what they’d feel like and yeah, I’m not going there…

    Now, there is a double-standard that relates to the taboo of men looking at men and that last part about oggling at women. As I said, scenes where women get oggled at often show women oggling, too. Why? First, showing a heterosexual woman oggling at another woman makes the object even MORE oggle-worthy, since she’s able to get the attention of her onlooker. It just establishes her as that much hawtter. Second, and this is the more “duh” reason (and why the first is possible), it’s a lot more acceptable in society for a woman to say, “She’s attractive,” than a man to say, “He’s attractive.” If a man ever oggles at a man in a movie, he usually looks uncomfortable and does something like cough a bit or scratch his scalp nervously. Heterosexual women are given a lot more leeway in expressions of sexuality involving other women than heterosexual men involving men. Not that I’m an expert, but if a woman says she’d be willing to participate in a WWM threesome, her heterosexuality wouldn’t be questioned nearly as much or readily as a man that says he’d partake in a MMW one. I personally think this is preposterous and hypocritical, but I postulate it’s because of, again, the patriarchal nature of society: lots of men fantasize about women together, so why should it be thought of as unacceptable for a woman to play into those fantasies by at least alluding to something that could be built on to fulfill said fantasies? Thus, for me to say to my friends, “I’d so do Monica Bellucci,” would get a bunch of laughs and probably agreements from both the men and women in the group, no matter what their sexual preference. But if my friend, let’s call him Bob (nice and generic), said, “I’d so do Eric Bana,” there may be laughter, but it would be a little nervous and/or uncomfortable, and I bet some people wouldn’t even laugh at it, and their gender and sexuality wouldn’t matter there, either. Hell, you men on this site know that men can’t even HUG the same way women can- there’s a certain “man hug” you must do in order for it not to get “weird.” I don’t think that’s fair- men should be allowed to say and do th same things as women to show appreciation or intimacy and not worry, but hey, whatevs. Men set the standards centuries ago, it’s their own damn fault. (I’m sort of kidding, but not 100%, to be quite honest. Maybe about 90.)

     
  23. mickey #

    to mlawski: first off, i really want to thank you for explaining how rachel was not a mary sue, since this was pretty much all i’ve read about her since the movie came out. i could never understand it. either people were talking about batman saving her like it defined her as a character and a person or they were completely ignoring her DA duties altogether.

    and i absolutely have to give a huge WTF? to megan fox, because seriously? seriously? no, i did not consider one female within that movie to be strong. really amazingly hot, yes, but strong? not so much. how strong can you get when all you have to do is flash your abdomen and punch someone in the face? i can do that, but it wouldn’t be as hot.

    thankfully, this got me thinking a lot about women in the media, especially the comics (which is my favorite media off all, seriously.) i can’t help but be a nerd about my favorite women there, and then, being the bat-nerd that i am, narrow it down to my favorite bat!women. needless to say, this led me to an entire essay of a sorts, which i thank you. hopefully i’ll be able to figure out who’s DC toting for the looks or the actual representation of women.

    to fenzel: that should definitely be a contest. i would love to take part in it.

     
  24. "Bob" #

    I would plow Eric Bana like a field.

     
  25. ryan #

    I think when people say “strong female character” they mean something to the effect of “three-dimensional character.” The problem that I see with saying “strong female character” is that it shouldn’t need the ‘female’ bit. It certainly means something to play a “strong character” in a film, but to say a “strong female character” implies there should be distinction between strong males and females. That is where the sexism lies.

     
  26. Ashley #

    This is so true! I feel the same way, glad I am not the only one.

     
  27. Rational Feminist #

    What you say might be accurate. However there are several factors that need to be pointed out. First of all, you are limiting your female character examples to the most stereotypical of movie genres (action). There are plenty of movies in other genres where the female takes on a very strong persona- emotional, physical, whatever.
    Secondly, you fail to mention the fact that the men in the movies you talk about are just as misrepresented as the women. The vast majority of the male actors in action movies are chosen for the exact same reasons- their hot bods and badass demeanors. Maybe the females don’t exactly come off as possessing personal internal “strength” and may be cast as unattainable goddesses but how many men are filthy rich, suave, and agile with rock hard abs? Let’s be honest.

     
  28. Siskoid #

    Great post!

     
  29. Adrian #

    “that are nerdy and awkward (like Belle from Beauty and the Beast)”

    Wait… what?

     
  30. DCM #

    You rule the schools.

     
  31. naynay #

    ugh, why listen to anything that comes out of megan fox’s mouth? her one talent is making a “pork me daddy face” and she should therefor be relinquished to modeling for American Apparel (ugh don’t get me started on those sleazebags). A lot of people give me grief when I say this, but I think Quentin Tarantino deserves some credit as one of the best feminist filmmakers working today. His female characters are always uniquely sexy (Pam Grier in Jackie Brown most of all, no disrespect to Uma) independent and strong. While other characters within the film may leer at and sexualize the leading lady/ladies, he makes sure those characters pay (ie. “Buck” in Kill Bill, “Stuntman Mike” in Deathproof).

     
  32. Emily #

    THANK YOU for writing an excellent, excellent post that pretty much sums up my feelings exactly.

     
  33. Ryan #

    Hooray for your Neon Genesis reference. Ohh, and Maggie Gyllenhaal played a depressant in The Secretary, which is a great film.

     
  34. Tim #

    Fantastic. You break down a complex issue very accessibly. Cultural Studies theorists should study your language and the way you break down your argument to learn how to make their work legible outside the Academy.

     
  35. Gab #

    I wonder how Silk Spectre and Silk Spectre II will be portrayed in _Watchmen_. SSII, for example, is not perfect in the graphic novel, but she’s pretty badass and gets things moving, all of which makes her a strong, believable CHARACTER. But I can see places where she could easily be misrepresented and turned into a sniveling girly thing with no substance outside her relationships with other men.

    Of course, figuring this out will depend on that stupid lawsuit…

     
  36. Brandi #

    Very good article. It sums up what I’ve been feeling about women in film/television for quite a while now. I honestly think we’ve taken several steps back. There were better female characters in the 70’s and 80’s then there are now.

    I do have to point out two female characters that I believe are very well written – Lily Aldrin, play by Alyson Hannigan, and Robin Sherbatsky, played by Cobie Smulders on ‘How I Met Your Mother.’

     
  37. cassie #

    this was a great read.

     
  38. Louise #

    YES! All of what you’ve said is true. And yes, going for ‘bad guys’ is NOT a character flaw! It’s a fact of life.

     
  39. Scott Bieser #

    I’m not sure I understand what your point is. Yes, many movies have Strong Sex-object Women, designed to appeal to nerdy male audiences. But you then also list a copious number of movies with the sort of Truly Strong Women that you prefer.

    So it looks like Hollywood is offering something for everyone, but you’re not satisfied. Is your contempt of nerdy males so intense that you want to deny them the kind of entertainment they prefer? Do you believe that stupidly-written movies _create_ nerdy males?

    (Actually, I believe they are created by the real-world Strong-But-Flawed Women whose Hollywood likenesses you champion. Which is why nerdy males avoid those movies. But that’s a whole other argument.)

     
  40. T.Lsss #

    And that list would also definitely include Thelma and Louise, Anastasia, and Anne Hathaway from the Princess Diaries. Wouldn’t you agree?

     
  41. Stupid feminists. #

    Wow. All I’m going to say is that if you have a problem with females being hot, then you have some SERIOUS insecurity issues. I am so tired of feminists whining and complaining that there are girls who are hot and enjoy showing themselves off. I am a girl myself. Some females actually enjoy it.

    Get over it already. Just because these women are making you look bad doesn’t mean you need to bitch and moan about it.

     
  42. Alex Beecroft #

    The Mummy 3 gets the thumbs up from me as an action movie which passes the Bechdel test. Three kickass women with families and jobs who help save the universe as a hobby. Admittedly it’s the only one I can think of at present, but I loved it for that.

     
  43. Alexa #

    Awesome article. This in conjunction with Kalinara’s (from When Fangirls Attack) adage that “‘I hit boys!’ is not a feminist statement.” should be on the back of every screenwriter’s mind when they write their scripts.

    My favorite actually SFC is Leela from Futurama. Yeah, she’s a great starship captain, and she can kick all sorts of ass, but she’s also slightly neurotic, is obsessed with fuzzy animals, and has all sorts of abandonment/comittment issues.

     
  44. PJ #

    Men beautiful female is supposed to be saved by the strong man – that is the way nature (and god) intended. What is there not to understand or desire?

     
  45. mj #

    For some reason, Stokes’ #4 point about the male POV as Megan Fox fixes a car reminded me of “Better Off Dead.” In that movie, Monique, the French exchange student, is still seen from the male POV as she fixes a car, but Lane’s first view of her (IIRC; I haven’t seen it in a while) is of her feet, in sturdy boots. When she slides out from under the car, she’s dressed to work on a car (all in black, I think) and her face is smudged with motor oil. She’s adorably cute, but not really all that hawt; Lane isn’t seeing her as a sexual object (well, maybe a little–he IS a 17-year-old boy, after all), but as this amazing person who is doing something he hasn’t been able to do: get his Camaro to run. Granted, this is an 80s teen movie and not a present-day action flick, but that’s the scene I thought of when I started thinking about the male POV in car-fixing scenes. I don’t really have a point to make with that. :-)

    Re: Depressed characters–Mary Shannon in USA’s “In Plain Sight” seems extremely depressed to me. She’s also a pretty good example of a strong character who is female. She’s often disgusted with the way her mother and sister are *not* as strong as she is, and the conflict among the three of them is interesting, if painful, to watch.

     
  46. mlawski #

    Great comments, everyone, and thanks especially for the notes on depressed female characters and good action movies/TV shows that don’t suffer from Strong Female Character syndrome.

     
  47. Charles #

    I don’t have anything substantial to add to the discussion. I feel that what should be said more or less has been said.

    I just find it overwhelmingly ironic, and amazing, that at the end of this article -for me at least- there was an ad that read “Looking for a beautiful Asian bride?” in which a chubby, nerdy looking guy in a pretty lame outfit was holding a typically beautiful Asian woman wearing a wedding dress. That was pretty awesome.

     
  48. Moll #

    Great post! I got a few pence worth to throw in.

    Gab’s comment on comedies: The dumb, ugly man v clever, hot woman trope makes me very uncomfortable on many levels, partly because since I moved to the US I realised many friends of mine believe in and live out this model in its more nasty everyday variant. As mlawski mentions in her post, the snarky, hot, super-girlfriend makes for very boring and bitchy women. It also tends to result in men who are like doormats. “I’m just a stupid guy who doesn’t mind being bossed around, ordered about and belittled by my girlfriend, because women are always more smart, right?”

    This kind of gender stereotyping I find demeaning for everyone involved: the woman who is constantly looking over her shoulder for someone hotter but can’t bear to give up the obedient doormat she can rely on to “settle down” and do as he’s told, and the guy who thinks he should shut up and do as she says because no-one else would have such a fat and boring loser. There’s a whole dynamic of oppression and rebellion that gets played out in comedy form (‘house training’ a guy, ‘the smarter sex’, ‘the battle of the sexes’, etc etc), that imagines women and men as utterly opposed. If/when the stereotype is played the other way – dumb, stupid and fat girl who does everything the hot, clever and bitchy guy tells her to – people call it abusive. I suspect a lot of this comes down to the idea that to be empowered a woman needs to become a bitch, and that regaining control is about stomping on someone else.

    On another point, I am totally in favour of more unattractive women characters! My utter addiction to The Wire recently comes, I suspect, from its really interesting characters. I’m in favour of the show already for having non-token characters in gay relationships that are on a par with the straight characters. But what really made me gawp at the screen in wonder and joy was the portrayal of interesting, dynamic, but not at all hot female characters, who are not shunned as loveless freaks who can’t be considered attractive! The idea that normal looking people can be considered attractive? And that’s even before we get to the fact that they have other character traits that include flaws, motivations and non-token skills. Wow. They even looked their age! Its shocking stuff and I want more of it.

    And on historic dramas. The Tudors, aside from being inordinately dull TV, is perhaps the most sexist thing I have seen in long time. There is not a single female character that is not a pawn being pushed around or fucked by men. The women have no power, no voice, and no purpose of their own – but what makes it worse is that its allegedly portraying a period of history and a class within which women had a remarkable amount of power. Less educated and intelligent stateswomen, and more pretty slutty play things. Then again, the male characters are mostly stupid and boring cardboard cut-outs as well.

    Oh well. I’m looking forward to seeing the winning action movies!

     
  49. Singing Librarian #

    Wow – really well-written post there, which offers much food for thought. Personally, I’m a fan of characters, proper characters, whether they’re male or female, hot or otherwise. By far the most interesting female characters tend to be played by Dames of the British Empire these days – the Denches, Smiths and Mirrens (she is a Dame, isn’t she? surely?) of the world.

    Catwoman, incidentally, really should be able to be the sort of character mentioned, but certainly isn’t in the Halle Berry incarnation.

     
  50. Chris #

    Excellent article.

    Buffy jumps to mind as a depressed female character, at least in Season 6. Although, I hated depressed Buffy and thought she ruined the show.

    I think River is a great example of a strong strong female character. In fact, all of the women from Firefly/Serenity. They were never ogled for the sake of being ogled (OK, occasionally Inara was, but sex was a big part of her character and it was portrayed as a complex issue for her.)

    To “Stupid Feminists,” you obviously didn’t read the article, since the writer never said she disliked hot women in the media–in fact, she advocated it.

     
  51. mlawski #

    Agreed. River is a pretty awesome character. I also like Cameron on Terminator, so I guess we can say Summer Glau characters FTW.

     
  52. Gab #

    Ok, maybe this is a stretch, but since there is still a huge focus on action films, I’ll insert here that I did admire both the First Lady and Vice President in “Air Force One.” Hell, even the oldest daughter of the president was a pretty strong female, and she was only a teenager.

     
  53. thefremen #

    I think you forgot to mention Lucy from Elfen Lied who is physically strong but mentally worse off than Hannibal Lector.

     
  54. Jesswa #

    I laughed and scowled all the way through Transformers. What a truly godawful film. There was not one young female character in there – including the extras, who appeared for 3 or 4 seconds screaming in peril – who weren’t ridiculously attractive. And don’t get me started on the use of stock black characters: stereotypes there to provide the laughs. Grr.

    My favourite part of that film, though, was the incredibly forced way Bay tried to cram in the obligatory character flaw to Fox’s character. Not just the “I go for the bad guys” thing (which to me seemed more like a favour to the “audience stand-in” that was Shia LaBouf: ‘Don’t worry, audience! The rilly rilly hawt girlz just go for dicks, but they’d love you if you proved your strength and battled an Evil Plot Device!!’), but the entire revelation that her father was a crook. Like, omigodz!!! Something entirely unrelated to her actual personality that we’re meant to believe creates a well-rounded character!

    Shia, of course, finds it within the goodness of his heart to forgive her for this terrible, crippling flaw. Well, she IS rilly, rilly hawt.

    As for the waste of space that was the token intelligent female – just imagine the casting specifications. “We need a Strong Female Character. Let’s make her intelligent.” “She’s still hot though, right?” “Tch – DUH!”

    Great post. It’s just ridiculous for people to see this kind of characterisation as just fine and dandy. I’m fed up of seeing mainstream, should-be enjoyable films and feeling like a freak – because everywhere around me, in films, tv, magazines, whatever – I don’t feel like I belong, at all. I’m nothing like the female characters. For the most part, I HATE the female characters. Girls just wanna have fun…and say stupid things, and fall on their face, and save the day, and get into wince-inducing humiliating situations…when’s Hollywood going to get that?

    ~ Jesswa

    PS Great female characters in New Zealand indie film “Eagle VS Shark” – funny, not-hot, sympathetic, strong and wonderfully cracked, subtly observed lead character. I love it. ^^

    PPS No, actually, my favourite part of Transformers was Shia and Megan dry-humping on Bumblebee’s face at the end of the film while Optimus Prime soliloquises inoccuously in the background. And not seeing anything wrong with this. Huh.

     
  55. noella #

    Excellently written and amazingly well-put. I loved reading this!

     
  56. Jean #

    (Chris, you beat me to the Buffy ref!)

    This article explains exactly why I hate the movie Sin City. I was beginning to suspect that I was the only person who could see that no matter how well the character can shoot, it doesn’t make them a strong character.

    To “Stupid Feminists” and others of similar opinion (I realize you didn’t read the article, or if you did that your reading comprehension skills are just plain sad, but I will respond anyway, because I feel like this is a common misconception of feminist attitudes): The trouble with the hotness of female characters everywhere (in my humble opinion) is that it is so narrowly defined. I see a great variation in the kinds of male leads considered hot enough to be leads (from Beefcake to Nerd to that fat guy in King of Queens), but very little among women. I don’t think I’m completely perverted to want to see a chick with curves, whose skin isn’t orange. Yes, I want to see hot people on the screen, male and female. I just believe that Hollywood is so narrowly defining what is “hot” that it’s actually leaving out a lot of hotness.

    To Jesswa: It makes me feel a little better about life, the universe, and everything, that I’m not the only chick on the planet who can’t identify with female characters! Well, except maybe Elliot from Scrubs. (It’s so refreshing to see a female character make a complete fool of herself!)

    Oh, and a quick note on depressed characters. The lack of depressed female characters is probably due less to any gender issues than to the fact that when you’re depressed, you tend to spend a lot of time in bed, avoiding people. Not exactly gripping cinema.

     
  57. yinka wills #

    OH.MY.GOD.

    This is spot on!

     
  58. stitch #

    “she was always doing it in the sexiest way possible. She’d NEVER, say, get a black eye or a BROKEN NOSE in a fight”
    I though feminist movies had some unspoken rule about women ALWAYS have to win it ALL, and second, HITTING girls is wrong REMEMBER ???
    no so much for realism isn´t it.
    not that I mind, i simply change the channel.

     
  59. Trinity Taylor #

    Loved it – absolutely brilliant – not enough of the right female characters on screen and just about every female that’s described as “strong” is still somehow attached to a guy. Depth people. For heaven’s sake let’s have more of it.

     
  60. ListenToReason #

    Against flawed female characters.
    Against Mary Sue female characters.

    Am I the only one who sees this?

     
  61. mlawski #

    Sorry to interrupt the great discussion, but I’m not against flawed female characters, ListenToReason. I’m for them. Reread the article.

    I’m also against Mary Sue (or, Marty Stu, if you will) male characters.

    Got it? Groovy.

     
  62. Jason #

    Yay.
    You’ve mention vitually all of my favourite female characters in one article – Ripley, Sarah Connor, Lisa Simpson, CJ from WW, Elliot. I notice the posters above, have also mention leela from futurama. Excellent.
    Amelie Poulain is a good example of a female lead who is far from 2 dimensional. Great film. Although clearly Audrey Tatou (sp?) is a very attractive woman, this is not what makes Amelie as a character – it is her idiosyncracies that make the audience so enthralled by her.
    Willow from buffy deserves a mention here too, especially in the early series when she had yet to make the transition from geeky nerd to hot lesbian witch.

     
  63. Betti #

    Never read such a trashy piece of shit as this blog.

     
  64. Klaire #

    Thank you!! This was excellent.

    You’ve helped me to realize why I like the characters I like and why I don’t like the ones I don’t.

     
  65. Audrey #

    Truly, it is better to write out all female characters than have a ensemble of two-dimensional cutouts. How shitty would Lawrence of Arabia been with a woman and (inevitably) a romantic arc?

    Great films have been made in just about every genre with male-only casts (12 Angry Men, The Thing, Saving Private Ryan.) But the box-office has never accepted a film with predominantly female leads. Will we ever see a well-rounded female character not defined by a sexual relationship?

    :)

     
  66. Wendy #

    Right on-point. Nobody has ever understood my Megan Fox (is that her REAL name? Really?) ending up with Shia LeBarf objections, and others like it.
    When I saw KillBill for the first time, I almost screamed for joy. Even the female villains are strong female characters, minus the moral code, for whatever that’s worth these days.
    Thanks for the great read.

     
  67. Lawtears #

    I can’t believe you ascribe such importance to American piss. Why do you care so much about this crap? I’d bet 90%+ of viewers aren’t interested. Admittedly, 50% of those viewers watch such films for titilation (I don’t. I use porn for that).

    But what about ‘girly’ films and chick flicks? Or “The Island” where Euan McGreggor v2 has absolutely no sexual interest in the female hero? No strong women in them or are you saving your ire for films which might have a masculine slant and hence the hot sexy body look?

    Lawtears

     
  68. Ann #

    are you trying to say that there is no flaw in megan fox’s character? what about the fact that she was a juvenile because of her father? or maybe the fact that she couldn’t do a steady relationship because she had a knack for bad guys? are those not flaws?

     
  69. Bel #

    A movie I saw recently with what I consider a strong female character was “Happy-Go-Lucky”. Reviews are polarised; either viewers loved it or hated it, but I loved it and loved her for being -among other things- so honest and genuine. Thus, I conclude that HGL was a dead-on accurate characterisation of a strong female character, for despite occasionally being a pain in the ass (that laugh!) you’d trust her with your kids.

     
  70. mlawski #

    Oh mans I want to see Happy-Go-Lucky so bad Bel why do you remind me of these things?!

     
  71. Sarah #

    I appreciate finally reading something which addresses this topic. Personally though, what bothers me more than the lack of truly complex female (or male)characters in Hollywood movies these days is the fact that these “Strong Female Characters” seem to be created as a result of the long clmourings of the feminist community. And since we have clamoured so long for such things, we are expected to appreciate these efforts. I have criticized movies and had it pointed out to me that at least *insert lead female* is a strong female character. Yet these “Strong Female Characters” as you describe are just as much of a one sided stereotype as the damsels in distress that they replace.

    There are plenty of examples of similarly one dimensional male characters-and many reasons to complain about that as well- but there has never been a movement calling for “Strong Male Characters” in film and there has never been an expectation of praise for creating such characters. It is the fact that the movement has fought so hard for female representation in some role other than the “damsel in distress” and we are now expected to be satisfied by this sad substitute for thoughtful chracterization that is truly the damage being done by these “strong female characters.”

     
  72. angela #

    Nice article.

    You pointed out everything that reminds me why I love the character of Xena so much. Although come to think of it, early on she was quite bipolar. When Xena was a warlord villain in Hercules, she once had her army have the victims of the village she pillaged stuck on crosses/pikes, and admiring the blood on her sword with a ‘wow’ look on her face in the first episode, but at the end of the trilogy episode she was uber in love with Hercules. Whatever. Then she went back to her normal self she got her own show, thank goodness ;)

    Although one thing that stuck out to me was your quip about Shia La Beouf. I can safely say LaBeouf post Even Stevens a ‘heathrob’ for young girls lately. If Teen Bop magazine was still around, you bet he’d be in all the centerfolds
    and covers.

     
  73. Sarah #

    amen.

     
  74. catzyblacks #

    bing!

     
  75. cornflakes #

    @ “2. How often are the henpecking wives, nagging girlfriends, and socially undesirable women LEADS? And how often to they get a hot guy at the end? Of hand, I can think of one example (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), and the main character in that movie isn’t really bad in any way; she just happens to come with an awful family.”

    I would argue, quite often actually. Not in action flicks, yes, but in chick flicks like, say, Sex and the City. In these films, the male characters aren’t much more than something for the female characters and audience to swoon over, and a final prize at the end of the film, much like female characters in action movies.

    But I would say it’s a much more noticeable trend in Korean/Taiwanese dramas. In many of those dramas, the female lead is often no more than an audience stand-in, much like how Shia LeBeouf is a stand-in for the male audience. These female characters are often clumsy, clueless, and childish, but always end up snagging the hunk with the dreamy eyes and immaculate hairstyle.

    @ “If men were just as objectified as women in films and TV, then why do feminist critics always have a hard time finding movies and TV shows that follow the Bechdel rules? For those who don’t know, a film passes the Bechdel test if there is at least one instance:

    1. Of two female characters talking to each other

    2. About something other than a man.”

    What about a reverse Bechdel rule, replacing male with female and vice versa?

    I’m going to venture and suggest that perhaps the reason feminist critics “always have a hard time finding movies and TV shows that follow the Bechdel rule” is because of their ideological slant. Marxist critics probably also have trouble finding accurate and empowering portrayals of the proletariat in mass media. Which does not mean it’s not there.

    I’m not suggesting that women are not objectified in many action movies. I’m saying that the problem is hardly gender-specific.

     
  76. stokes #

    cornflakes, with the reverse Bechdel test, are you claiming that it’s hard to find movies with at least one instance of two male characters talking to eachother about something other than a woman? Like, seriously? This is almost too silly to dignify with a response, but I’d prefer not to let it be the last word in this thread. So let’s look at only the movies that have won Best Picture in the last few years:

    Slumdog Millionaire – contains scenes of Jamal talking to the game show host about, among other things, Amitabh Bachchan.

    No Country for Old Men – contains a scene of Javier Bardem talking to Woody Harrelson about moral codes.

    The Departed – contains a scene of Ray Winstone talking to Leonardo DiCaprio about what kind of people you are and are not allowed to hit.

    And note that NONE of these movies passes the non-reversed Bechdel test (or if they do, it’s an utterly trivial conversation that neither I nor the plot summaries on Wikipedia remember).

     
  77. Brenda #

    Have you read “Tales from the Town of Widows” by James Canon? Is a wonderful novel about a town where every adult man is taken away by communists guerrillas. The women, as virtual widows, are forced to reinvent their society. Now that’s a novel that shows the true complexity of women as individuals, but also as a community. It’s a bit feminist indeed, but the author handles the politics of it with lots of humor. I highly recommend it. And, by the way, I heard some producer is making a film out of it. I can’t wait.

     
  78. Lyu #

    All of the movies you cited as bad were horribly written. The female characters as well as the males. Both are subject to the exaggeration of Hollywood. It seems your focus on the female characters in action movies should be more focused on the horrible writing of action movies.

     
  79. The Guy #

    “I don’t want you thinking I have something against attractive women. I am one myself, after all :)”

    Prove it. Post a pic.

     
  80. Jenny #

    This is almost right. But don’t knock the girls getting Ph.D.’s from Harvard (or elsewhere). We’re rare perhaps but do exist, and hopefully inspire other girls to go forward with their education :)

     
  81. Samantha #

    bravo I adore your moxie!

     
  82. Aoife #

    Brilliant. I’ve tried to explain all of this to my family so many times, and failed miserably. You said it better than I ever could.

     
  83. Nekroz #

    You explain all I always wanted to do: prove that those Mary Sue suck. And they SHOULD stop to making their, or make more HUMAN characters. (well, you said they should’ve “weak” but I reffering as “human” instead :P)

    Very complete your note, don’t you mind if I make a translation or adaptation in spanish? So, I can difund the message.

    It seem like female characters are hard to do… or just for selling good, they are made objects.

     
  84. Frehley Fox #

    Amazing. Reading all the varied and (mostly) intellectual, inspiring replies was almost as fascinating as the blog entry itself. mlawski, if nothing else i gotta thank you for starting such an interesting debate. and for opening my eyes to some things i never really thought of. (but then i suspect that is one of the functions of this blog – the name gives it away.)

    i have always worshipped goddesses like Angelina in Tomb Raider; i just felt like it was time for women to take over the traditional sphere of male heroism, however they do it be damned. and i don’t think it’s wrong to make such movies, or that it completely demeans women. i do however think it’s time for the Heroine to evolve. meaning what we’ve had so far is fine & right for this phase, bbut perhaps it’s time for a new phase – where both male & female leads are more than beefed/cheesed up ideals; eye candy with no deeper lasting impression.

    remember, superhumans & action heroes have always been hypersexualised versions of the average Joe or Jane. u need look no further than the 1st Marvel comic u see. men are macho in the most traditional sense, with pectorals the size of small islands & ripped six-packs; women all have long flowy hair, are impossibly curvy and sport humongous boobs that defy gravity. in a similar way, movies have idealized their male action figures in such a way that it was only expected of them to impose that hypersexualized standards on the female version. (and then show their curves off from every possible angle; perhaps for the simple reason that women have more curves than men, idk.)

    it is simply time for us to look fondly back at the slightly ridiculous figures we have built over the decades, and start evolving. with perhaps the exception of Michael Bay – and anyone who directs Vin Diesel movies. look, you’ll always have the need for good light entertainment that goes no further than the bottom of the popcorn box…right? ;)

     
  85. Regina #

    Wanna see a REAL Strong Female Character? Good. Here I give you Col. Dr. Irina Spalko from “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”.

    Col. Dr. Spalko doesn’t have one characteristic that makes her more masculine. She has SEVERAL. She has physical strength – she beats the shit out of Shia LaBeouf’s character. She has a superpower – she’s psychic, although we don’t get to see much of it in the movie, but in the novelization she pulls it off. She has the ability to shoot even a rifle properly – not to mention wield a rapier with absolute professionalism. She does not, however, do metaphorical (read: childish) things like out-drink people, although, since she is Russian, she would most certainly be able to out-drink even Marion (she just doesn’t see the point of doing so).

    And, she’s a COLONEL. It doesn’t get more masculine than that.

    Col. Dr. Spalko does NEVER end up having to be saved by ANYONE. Until she meets her destiny at the bitter end, she saves herself every time she gets into trouble. (And she does not get trapped by the villain – she is the villain herself!) Also, she is not put into any particularly sexy clothing. That coverall she wears in the first half of the movie is hardly meant to be sexy. The uniform in the second half does come closer to sexiness, but still, it’s not the sexiest uniform ever seen – it’s not THAT tight and it doesn’t show any skin at all. (In fact, I think Irina Spalko shows the least skin of all the characters in this movie, exposing only face, neck and hands, and sometimes not even hands since she wears gloves in several scenes.) And when she is “being strong”, she is not doing it in the sexiest way possible; her hair gets messy a couple of times, for example. However, that’s the only way we ever get to see her messed up – simply because this character was supposed to have “an impenetrable steel-like quality to her”, as put it by the actress (Her Majesty Cate Blanchett). Spot the difference? Steel-like. Not sexy. (Oh, and btw, the character doesn’t sleep with anyone in the movie, not “Hot Strong Indiana Jones” OR (thank god!) “Weaselly Weak Shia LaBeouf”. She’s got more important things to do.)

    Maybe, just maybe, this character IS to be blamed for being a 36-year-old, super-dominant, super-rational operative agent who is so authoritative that everyone in the Spetsnaz spends the whole movie following her orders because she’s just so much better than them at the mission at hand. Or in other words, she is a top scientist who also happens to be a spy with a knack for leadership.

    Col. Dr. Spalko is not weak, though flawed. Here goes, directly from the list above:

    ¤ She is arrogant.
    ¤ She is an exuberant villain.
    ¤ She is both mean AND cruel.
    ¤ She is vengeful.
    ¤ She is emotionally repressed.
    ¤ She is a little nerdy.
    ¤ She is definitely crazy.
    ¤ And, well, to say that she is an insufferable know-it-all is to underrate it. ;)

    Those flaws’ll do?

    Col. Dr. Spalko has her own goal, or actually, goals. Those are: “I want to kill the male hero. I want world domination. And, most importantly, I WANT TO KNOW EVERYTHING!!!”

    Lastly, Col. Dr. Spalko is hot. There is no other way to put it. She’s simply hot.

    OK, now MY work here is done. Thank you for reading. ;)

     
  86. Erik #

    What about Buffy? She was strong, neurotic, saved the men folk time and again. Also before she was chosen she was like any other valley girl cheerleader, but it wasn’t the power that made her heroic, the power just allowed her to act on that heroic nature once it evolved from her previous, selfish lifestyle. Sure you could say she’s the overly strong character, the girl that is attractive, super powered, and intelligent, but she was never the smartest girl, or even the prettiest. Sure Buffy isn’t someone a girl can aspire too, just like Superman isn’t someone a boy can aspire too, but we can aspire to their character. Buffy was a girl who always did the right thing, when everybody else was too afraid, or too busy with their personal problems, she was the one that was able to get past it all and do what had to be done.