By Becky Matthews
The notion of the ‘strong female character’ is a much debated one within the entertainment world. Jos Whedon argues well for the pro camp, and I identify with a lot of what Carina Chocano said in her New York Times piece and notable writing elsewhere including in Dazed and Confused.
As an aspiring screenwriter, fully grown woman and feminist, I felt it was time to reflect on and challenge what I think about it. So here goes.
First of all, I think a lot comes down to how the term is defined: Like Chocano, I feel a big part of the problem may boil down to semantics. The received opinion of the definition is that she is the opposite of a damsel-in-distress. She is a female who is physically and mentally tough, who kicks ass all over the place. In this case, strong refers to a set of characteristics.
I too have a problem with replacing one archetype with another; it does nothing to advance the role of females on screen. However, what I do agree with is the idea of women being strongly written. For me, aside from reductive types, the worst crime a writer can commit against any female character is under writing her. To have a woman whose sole purpose in a show or film is to be a love interest for the lead male is still a big issue, particularly in the mainstream.
In the very alpha male territory of two of my all-time favourite series Breaking Bad and Sopranos, all the women who were in supporting roles were strongly written, complex, conflicted and sharp-witted. On the surface, Carmela Soprano is a loyal matriarch, bound to her husband and the organised crime that frames her domestic life. But she’s nobody’s fool, and more importantly she is far more than an acrylic-nail wearing foil to big, bad Tony, the type of woman so often found in gangster dramas. She wrestles with her conscience, her faith and even her own repressed desires, all suppressed by efforts to keep harmony with her ungrateful family. Yes, she is strong in that she incrementally stands up for herself, but she is also given the space to be vulnerable, to be broken, to re-assess her own identity. Her arc is strong, even if her characteristics are changeable.
I have also been wondering, why does mainstream drama place its leading women in the role of the ‘good’ person so often? I’m thinking particularly in crime dramas from DCI Jane Tennison in the 90s to knitwear loving Sarah Lund in The Killing (At this point, I must confess to being super late to the Scandi-drama party, but save me a comfy spot, I’ll be over soon). I think it’s great to see characters like this, but don’t you think it would be great to see a female who makes you wonder about whose side you’re on?
Film Noir gave us the femme fatale, but all too often ‘bad’ women are antagonists, often written with labels like ‘crazy bitch’ attached. Hell, the phrase ’bunny boiler’ even comes from Fatal Attraction, an example of how audiences wanted to see a bad woman punished, when the original script had portrayed a much complex Alex, with more touches of humanity and even empathy (read the chapter Ask The Audience from Mark Kermode’s Hatchet Job: love films, hate critics book for a great analysis). Elsewhere, Rebecca De Mornay in The Hand That Rocks The Cradle is a schlocky masterclass in evil leading women.
Which leads me to my next point: where are the female anti-heroes?
Sure, there are plenty of women on screen who aren’t just running about saving the day, but they’re not usually leading a show or the titular character in a film. It feels as though we’re supposed to find our leading women likeable or sympathetic, but wouldn’t it be great to have a complicated and evolving relationship with a lead like Tony Soprano, Walter White or even Dexter? Someone whose journey is compelling, but who challenges your own perceptions about their actions and what they deserve to get away with.
The closest I can think of is Claire Danes as Carrie in Homeland (which I cling to like a bad boyfriend, even though I know it’s past its best) Even then she’s kind of playing a more layered Jack Bauer “taking risks and doing dubious things to save the country” role. Her complexity and darker facets are also interwoven with serious mental health issues, so even then her decision-making and personality shifts are answered by something relatively defined. Answers are given to the audience, if would be interesting to see how we might feel about her if her actions weren’t steered by her bi-polar disorder.
Alternatively, there is Piper in Orange is the New Black. Far from a woman-wronged, she did the crime and is doing the time but she is also a woman who took stupid risks for love, and has a very fluid sense of her own sexuality. She’s also smart, crafty, funny and her sense of morality is often steered by self-interest.
Away from the mainstream world, comedy offers some more leftfield options than drama. For my money, most notably in characters like Julia Davis’ delightfully wicked Jill in Nighty Night, a character who is pretty much a-moral and yet it gives me such a buzz to see what antics she can get away with. More recently Alice Lowe’s Tina in the dark comedy Sightseers is a chilling example of an ultra-ordinary woman doing horrific things, seemingly motivated by boredom.
However, the best example I have found recently was not on screen but in modern fiction. In Harriet Lane’s excellent debut novel Alys Always to be precise. Protagonist Frances Thorpe set my moral compass haywire as she turned tragic events to her advantage. She subtly manipulated those around her to elevate her position in life, one where she was a mere background figure, constantly dismissed by friends, colleagues and family. Part of me wanted her to stop, another part of me was thrilled and how bold she could be by almost hiding in plain sight, and by being unremarkable. I was conflicted, entertained and occasionally appalled. I loved every second of it.
Production companies take note: this is a book worth optioning, and one lead character whose story I would love to see play out, beat by agonising beat.
Honestly, I look forward to a day when women are no longer reduced to binary terms, that great parts exist with fewer labels and I will keep that in mind when writing my own characters. I’m going to give the last word to Natalie Portman, who told Elle Magazine,“I want [female characters] to be allowed to be weak and strong and happy and sad – human, basically. The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a ‘feminist’ story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with.” That’s what she said, and so say I.
Becky is a writer and digital content producer from London. She writes about music at www.kidvinyl.co.uk and loves to bang on about pop culture in general. She writes as part of the Kaylosia comedy collective and has written and directed her first short film Double Word Score which is a date film for two people who aren’t really sure if they’re on one. She’s especially fond of vinyl, Kate Bush, Prince, Pixies, red lipstick, Wes Anderson films, Chris Morris, Lena Dunham, Bruce Lee, Bill Murray, noodles, hula-hooping, Hampstead Heath, independent cinemas and puns. Read more from Becky at www.becky-matthews.com