Strong Female Characters

Last time I asked, when it comes to actors playing roles, Who Can Play Who? To what degree do characters, particularly fictional ones, have fixed race or gender? How much latitude exists in adaptations of existing stories? Is there an acceptable spectrum from faithful retelling to jazz riff to based on to inspired by and finally to all but unrecognizable? If not, why not?

Last time I focused on race. This time I’ll focus on the gender side of the equation. Sexual differences and sexual attraction add a large and complex additional dimension. The question expands beyond matters of representation and actor swapping.

For instance, there is the additional notion of the Strong Female Character (SFC).

Which has become socially weaponized by both sides. The division isn’t entirely political; it doesn’t seem to be an issue of Left versus Right. It’s more of a feminist issue, but even women are divided. In fact, sometimes it’s hard to understand exactly who is driving this. “Get Woke, Go Broke” is (perhaps slowly) being recognized as an all-too-common reality. Is this driven by a small but vocal minority?

The worst aspect of it might be the implication that the SFC has been absent until the modern woke era. Many of us, regardless of gender or politics, remember too many great roles for women to take that at face value. Things aren’t fair and balanced, but they’re not one-sided, either.

In fact, women have arguably fared better historically in art and entertainment than have POC. The women of a given society, at least those in the ruling classes, have typically had better access than the various underclasses of that society.

To be clear, not that there aren’t massive social gender issues, and as I said last time, these seem more of a Gordian Knot to me than racial issues (which I see as more of a social construct). But, as a second-wave supporter, I’m much more in the Camille Pagila camp than the Gloria Steinem one. Women have always had their own power and place in society (the infamous “woman behind the man” not to mention the importance of continuing the human race). Not always fair place, but a stronger hold than have the poor or socially outside.

I can only scratch the surface of a topic this big. This post can only join an ongoing discussion — introduce topics I’d like to explore going forward.

§ §

As I said, a common reaction from those of us with memories is wondering why so many past examples are ignored. In the obvious sense of apparently not being remembered, but also in failing to understand the lesson of those roles. It’s the latter issue that recently has resulted in some widely, often intensely, disliked female characters.

Yes, I mean the modern incarnations of She-Hulk and Galadriel (by Marvel and Amazon, respectively). They’ve been widely reviled, and it seems the main argument in their favor is that we should support them because it’s the right thing to do.

That… is not how art and entertainment work. (We should support access for all, but the work must stand on its own.)

§

I made a list of strong female roles from movies and TV shows that I’ve enjoyed. In some cases, loved. Many of the women depicted here are role models in the sense of presenting the strengths and character I’d want anyone to have. They’re all wonderful examples of how, yes, women are just as good as men. Especially when it comes to fictional characters.

More to the point, these teach the lessons modern writers haven’t learned.

[Update 9 Oct 2022: I copied the list to a new Page where I added more names. I’ll add more as they occur or are suggested.]

I didn’t spend much time thinking about it, just went over some of my favorite movies and TV shows. I tried to focus on action hero, or at least strong lead, types. Basically, kickass women. Lots of names immediately popped up. I have no doubt that even a small bit of research would make the list much longer.

Just think of the many different roles played by: Scarlett Johansson, Charlize Theron, Michelle Yeoh, Jodie Foster, Milla Jovovich, Sharon Stone, and many others.

And I acknowledge that a similar list of male roles would be longer. The intended takeaway here is twofold. Firstly, there are and have been good strong central female roles. More to the point, audiences do not reject strong women; quite to the contrary, they generally love them as much as strong men. We love heroes! Secondly, therefore it obviously isn’t the fact of a strong female character that’s a problem. Too many examples prove otherwise. It’s the character of the character (and the quality of the writing) that’s at issue.

§

Which brings us to She-Hulk and Galadriel. Or rather, to Marvel’s She-Hulk: Attorney at Law and Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. To my eyes, the latter immediately signals its nature as a cash-grab. That mouthful of a title wants to insure you know it’s more of that Hobbit and Elf stuff you loved so much. (Sorry, no dragons this time. You’ll have to go to HBO’s reprise of Game of Thrones for those.)

I’ve not watched any of these shows (and don’t plan to), so I can’t comment on their content. I can comment on how fans and interested bystanders are reacting. (In a word: badly.) The “discussion” is polarized, both sides mischaracterize the other, and no one’s opinion allows for other opinions. (What doesn’t seem contested is the fact of bad writing.)

Sifting through the outrage, I find some substance. A key issue is how much viewers dislike these two characters. Galadriel, especially, is viewed as lacking morals, yet the show signals her as virtuous and right. Some think the character arc is pride before the fall, but others think it’s just bad writing. (Or, rather, modern writing which often, thanks to post-modernism, is without a moral compass. Or value.)

Two big complaints about the She-Hulk show are the notably bad writing (e.g. the admitted inability to write courtroom drama in a show starring a lawyer) and a departure from the established character in the name of a perceived militant anti-male agenda. The writers seem to be indulging in a power/revenge fantasy. Ineptly.

A big complaint about Galadriel is turning her into an action hero despite her well-established character as a powerful magical being. Another is that, for someone 1000 years old, Galadriel acts like an impatient difficult child. People ask why someone with that much experience, and supposedly that superior to others, wouldn’t have learned the basics of diplomacy. (Of course, writing a mature wise character requires a mature wise writer. No writer can write above themselves.)

§ §

One problem is that giving female characters the same bad traits as male ones is leveling to the lowest common denominator. (Apparently our modern cynicism prevents us from embracing aspirational characters.)

There’s an old question associated with the epithet “bitch” — why is a difficult aggressive man often, if perhaps grudgingly, viewed favorably but a difficult aggressive woman is dismissed as a bitch? (It’s worth challenging that assumption. Many difficult aggressive women are admired.) The obvious implication in the question is that we should also view difficult aggressive women favorably. But I view all difficult aggressive people unfavorably — and call them “assholes” (which is nicely gender-free because we all have one).

In stories, these difficult aggressive people are usually right and heroes because script. And our (inexplicable) love of deeply flawed heroes. There’s a history of male characters like this, and it’s these that writing for women often imitates. I wish it wouldn’t. I wish it would imitate the heroes from the list above. Or the many more I didn’t list.

We don’t normally lead with our asshole. I’m not sure why we do it so much in modern writing. People say it’s more interesting and more like real life, but those assertions seem to contradict each other. I think it’s the same age-old small-town voyeurism that makes soap operas (and public hangings) so popular.

§ §

There is so much more to say about this. As I said up top, I can only scratch the surface of a long-running topic and here can only introduce future scratching.

Comparing Elizabeth Banks and her box office bomb, Charlie’s Angels (2019), to Kathryn Bigelow and (among others) Blue Steel (1990), Point Break (1991), Strange Days (1995), The Hurt Locker (2008), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), is likely a post all on its own. Banks participated in the “Men, this isn’t for you!” early marketing of the film, and when men (the key demographic for action films) took her at her word, she complained they weren’t supporting her. (In a particularly embarrassing moment, she accused Steven Spielberg of never making movies about women, and then someone in the audience mentioned The Color Purple (1985). Oops!)

There might also be a post examining the all-female version of Ghostbusters (2016). The original 1984 film, a cult classic, earned $295.2 million against a budget of $30 million, so it earned back almost ten times its budget. In contrast, the 2016 version earned only $229.1 million against a budget of $144 million, a mere 1.5 times its cost. (The 2016 Charlie’s Angels earned only $73.3 million against a budget of $55 million, a mere 1.3 times its cost, so even more of a BO bomb.)

There is also the topic of objectification and the “male gaze” — that’s yet another post of its own.

So is the problem of ‘unearned awesomeness’ suffered by, for example, the live-action Mulan, Rey Skywalker, the TV version of She-Hulk, and others. A frequent complaint about the last one is how often She-Hulk is verbally praised as being an awesome woman (as if in some new age therapy session or self-help tape loop), but the depiction of the character says otherwise.

So, it’s a lot to talk about, is what I’m saying.

§ §

There’s also at least a post about the The Sandman (2022) series on Netflix. I finally got around to watching the first handful of episodes last weekend. I’m a big fan of the original text, and the Netflix adaptation… well, it isn’t utter dreck without redeeming value (as the live-action Cowboy Bebop (2021) was) but it’s not good. An Eh! rating would be charitable, and I think I’ll end up giving it a Meh! rating once I’ve seen the whole season.

The adaptation is rife with gender and race swapping, and I have to admit it’s really testing my tolerance. Part of what grates is the obvious political motivation in the swapping. It’s not good storytelling. I expected better from Neil Gaiman, someone I thought appreciated the integrity of storytelling.

Stay strong, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

13 responses to “Strong Female Characters

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Saturday evening I began watching The Sandman on Netflix. Sunday evening I learned it was canceled and won’t get a second season. Based on the episodes I’ve seen so far, rightfully so I’d say.

    Once again: Get Woke, Go Broke. When is Hollywood gonna learn that lesson and get back to the business of telling good stories?

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    You ask a lot of good questions. And to address them all would require A LOT of space and time so …

    I agree with you about SFC – there many, many! My latest favorite is Claire Frazer in OUTLANDER. I finished season one last night. Wow! Great on all levels. I’m going to write a brief review next.

    Anyway, we could have a right good time kicking the subject around with some whiskey and beer – and not come close to a solution; but it’d be fun. Cheers.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, it’s a huge topic, and I’m not even sure I can guess what a solution would look like. Feminism has always been confounded by the “one size doesn’t fit all” problem. For every Gloria Steinem there’s a Phyllis Schlafly. Or a Camille Paglia. Maybe the solution is something along the lines of fully inclusive humanism. We all get to be ourselves (within reason).

      I’m not familiar with Outlander, but a search turned up this as one of the first links:

      Why ‘Outlander’s Claire Fraser Is One of TV’s Strongest Characters: Played by Caitríona Balfe, Claire is a healer, a force of nature, and ultimately someone who will do anything for the people she loves.

      So, yep, sounds pretty awesome. Reminds me I should add Sharon Stone in The Quick and the Dead to my list.

      🍺🥃

  • Outlander Series, Season One - Great Debate

    […] more on Strong Female Characters check out friend of Great Debate Wyrd Smyth’s post: https://logosconcarne.com/2022/10/03/strong-female-characters/ […]

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    That’s a great link about Claire as SFC; but I had to stop reading b/c I’ve just started watching. Nevertheless, it reinforces your theory that there is some slight of hand going on here. Which, also, is nothing new.

    I think I’ll drink some dark whiskey, eat, take a nap, wake and watch the Yankees and Judge.
    Hang in there.

    Btw – have you seen MISFITS? with Marlyn Monroe? SFC, and yet?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I might have seen it back in film school, but if so I don’t remember it. Alas, poor Marilyn, the Candle in the Wind. I’m afraid I tend to see her as more fragile than strong. Someone life didn’t serve well. (Likewise, Amy Winehouse.)

      I think we’re seeing how the interweb magnifies the power of the vocal minority. A two-edged sword. Good for those that truly deserve a better voice than they’ve historically had, but unfortunately also for those fringe political efforts that we used to rightly ignore. It’s partly about money. Corporations, those that make films and those that advertise their products in or associated with them, fear some fringe group convincing people to boycott their product, and it terrifies them.

      Ultimately, it boils down to stockholders who want every penny possible and don’t care about much else. Certainly not in the quality or integrity of the products made the corporations they hold stock in. (I’ve been to corporate meetings where the meeting topic was effectively the question of how low our quality could go while still retaining customers. Basically, how much shit will our customers put up with. Outrageous to me.)

      Which is why, if I were Tyrant of Everything, one of my first actions would be elimination Wall Street and the whole notion of stocks. If a company wants to expand or build, let them get a loan from the bank like the rest of us. Stockholders are an evil notion.

      You seem to like westerns. Ever seen Deadwood? I’m not normally a big fan of westerns, although I’ve enjoyed a lot of them. Deadwood was awesome.

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    Love DEADWOOD! Passes all 3 of my consciousness states’ test. Showrunner David Milch’s show was brilliant. There’s a book, DIFFICULT MEN (2013) by Brett Martin that looks at the great series of what he calls “A creative revolution”, beginning w/the SOPRANOS in 1999.

    OUTLANDER is maybe something different – from a female POV. The heroine is definitely a “difficult” woman.

    Yes on MM. I meant the character she played in MISFITS was a SFC. She was an orphan, right? and for sure exploited by the industry and powerful men. But then, she banged 3 of the most dominant men of that time. Made a wreck of DiMaggio. So who knows? Maybe she went out on her own terms?

    Wall Street? IDK, I’ve made and lost money. It’s for sure an insider’s game, and rigged to some extent. But what else is there? That’s one reason I love DEADWOOD – that’s the way it should be, but we aren’t/can’t go back. The chick in that starts a bank and runs the show, makes a legit fortune by lending money, other people’s money (gold) she keeps safe. But had protection, right? The “difficult” troubled/moody/reluctant sheriff.

    Calamity Jane’s line: “Every day takes figuring out how to live again” – one of the best, and truest, lines ever. Yes?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I asked Google [western with female lead] and was surprised by how many hits I got. I got even more when I asked [action movie with female lead]. Like I said in the post, that list could be a lot longer with a little research. And that’s just leads. Include supporting roles, like Marilyn Monroe’s in The Misfits and the list gets really large. Which is to say, totally agree the role was an SFC!

      Poor Joltin’ Joe. I’ve been made a wreck by a woman, but it was at least half due to me (along with a strong dash of circumstance)!

      Wall Street and “what else is there?” … Keeping in mind I deliberately avoid knowing anything useful about the world of banking and finance, my (perhaps naive) reply is, “Not selling stock in your company to people who don’t care about the company or product but just want to make money.” I’ve never seen why stockholders need to exist. But admittedly, I’m speaking from serious ignorance here.

      Calamity Jane is absolutely right in that every day brings new challenges (which Sabine Hossenfelder recently pointed out is American for “problems”). At the same time, most of the rules turn out to be things we learned (or should have) in kindergarten. Be kind. Share. Be open. Play. Learn. Let the world amaze you once in a while. (It’s autumn here, and the trees are taking my breath away! My favorite time of year. Just wish it didn’t mean winter was around the corner.)

  • Lady from Manila

    Delighted by your lists of strong female leads you liked and loved. Most of them are my faves, too.

    I actually really liked “Atomic Blonde” except for some violent and death scenes that got too much for my sensitivity.

    Characters who could kick ass and keep their femininity side by side with that cold lethal charm mesmerize me.

    For my taste, some of the unforgettables are Lucy Liu’s graceful fight scenes from the movie “Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever”; Zhang Ziyi in almost all her action movies (and so were several other lesser-known female Chinese in Hollywood judo karate films, e.g., Rush Hour movie series).

    Even just pure martial arts flicks by women fascinate me. Gina Carano in “Haywire”, Milla Jovovich in “The Three Musketeers”, Angelina Jolie in “Salt”, and of course, one of my most favorites, Daryll Hannah and Uma Thurman (and Lucy Liu once more plus the Chinese girl in school uniform) in “Kill Bill”.

    On TV, one of the reasons I got hooked on E.R. (besides the young George Clooney then) was the matured female doctors on the show. Same for law and court TV series.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “Characters who could kick ass and keep their femininity side by side with that cold lethal charm mesmerize me.”

      You, me, and I think many, many others!

      Some good entries there. I’m thinking I should copy the list to a Page that I can update with new names from time to time. (Although maintaining any kind of list is a pain, and at some point I usually say enough.) Can’t believe I didn’t think of Uma Thurman in Kill Bill myself! D’oh!

      Yeah, medical and legal (and cop) shows are good for roles for women. Several entries from all three categories already on the list!

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    “most of the rules turn out to be things we learned (or should have) in kindergarten. Be kind. Share. Be open. Play. Learn.” And then what happened? We learn that they lied (the kindergarten teachers), that everybody lies. Santa, the Easter Bunny, aren’t real! “God is dead”. Oh shit. “Bring that bottle over here.”

    Love fall, too. Great fishing!

    Sorry about your bad luck. Hang in there. Cheers.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, life has a way of testing us (exactly at Calamity Jane said). I try not to let the fact that so many forget the basic lessons be a reason for me to do so as well. “Be the change.” But every day is a trial.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    The post contains an update and a link, but repeated here for those who might not notice the change in the post but who are watching the comments:

    I copied the list in the post to a new Page [Strong Female Characters] and added a lot more names to it (more than doubling it in size, so far). I’ll update the list as other names occur (or are suggested).

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