On June 16, 2014, Tasha Robinson posted a great article that’s been circulating the internet: “We’re Losing All Our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome.” In the article, Robinson argues that the media is, at least on the surface, creating “strong female characters”; yet these women still have no agency, and often fade away as the story progresses rather than take an active role. She cites examples from The Matrix, How to Train Your Dragon 2, the second Hobbit movie and other recent mainstream sci-fi/ fantasy movies as examples of female characters who seem smart and tough, but don’t actually do anything. Sometimes, she argues, they devolve from strong characters in ridiculous ways as the story progresses.
Unfortunately, Robinson is right. Most of these female characters play a minor, if any, role in the story. Tauriel is an embarrassment in The Hobbit, and actually insults my intelligence. First of all, I would have been happier if Peter Jackson had never decided to include a randomly made-up, kick-ass girl elf in the story. I am a purist, and would have been just as happy watching all the pretty elf boys do crazy CG ninja tricks without breaking a sweat or tangling their flowing hair. But ok, he gave us Tauriel, whose sole purpose seems to be mooning over a cute little dwarf, to the extent that she hangs up her bow and arrow to pine at his bedside. Because, you know, when we women see cute boys, we just no longer want to be awesome warriors, but instead must become swoony nursemaids. She is, effectively, out of the story thereafter.
Tauriel is in good company. The lack of agency in the main plot, as Robinson points out, is the rule rather than the exception. And when showrunners, producers and novelists do succeed in creating some well-rounded female characters with a purpose, they often find other ways to discredit or diminish them. On February 27th, 2014, Karen Valby of Entertainment Weekly published “Hey TV: Stop Raping Women,” arguing that rape is often used as a story device to weaken a strong female, create compassion for an “unlikeable” female character, or give a “boring” character something to do. This, too is an ugly trend. Valby cites shows such as Scandal and Downton Abbey, but one need only look as far as Game of Thrones to find evidence for this trend. Rape abounds in GoT, but one of the greatest controversies this season surrounded the rape of Cersei Lannister by her brother Jaime—a scene that was clearly depicted as consensual sex in the novel. Why did the showrunners find this change necessary? What purpose, other than diminishing a strong (and much-disliked) female character, does such an alteration serve? The most disturbing question is this: are we, the viewers, supposed to feel compassion for Cersei, or rejoice that she “had it coming?” Anytime we see a rape onscreen or read it on the page, we should ask ourselves the purpose of that scene, and examine our responses. Maybe then this particular trend will fade away, and violence against women will no longer become an acceptable way to remove agency from or create sympathy for our otherwise capable female characters.
I haven’t even touched on the concept of strong female characters as object, which I believe is a huge part of why we even see so many leather-clad, buffed up, or even half-naked beauties in our movies and comics. Sometimes, “strong female character” seems synonymous with “token hot girl”. I love Black Widow, particularly in the Avengers franchise. She's skilled and smart, and I wish the male superheroes’ club gave her more cool things to do. However, I suspect a large percentage of moviegoers are content with just the occasional ninja kick, because let’s face it: she looks hot. Me, I’m looking forward to really seeing her use her brain. Maybe someday even in a Black Widow movie, should we be so lucky to see more movies in which strong females actually drive the whole story.
The ongoing synergy between movies and theme parks also sends a clear message about the roles of female characters. When my younger daughter was about 9, her dad took her to Magic Mountain, where they have many cool superhero themed rides: Batman, Superman, Joker, Spiderman. When she had the opportunity to meet with the new president of the park, she asked, “Why don’t you have a Wonder Woman ride?” He told her it was a good question; they would work on that. She’ll be 15 this summer, and she’s still waiting. With movies like Wonder Woman constantly “in development,” who knows if she will see a female character –themed ride in her lifetime.
Are we doing better? Yes. But we still have a lot of work to do, as both creators and consumers of entertainment. The biggest problem seems to be determining how to define the word "strong" when it comes to our female characters, and deciding what kind of message society is willing to send about the roles of women. The creators have their role, but we have a role to play, too. We need to demand more from our entertainment: better representation of gender and diversity, more agency for all characters. There’s been a great deal of progress since I was a kid, but I don’t want my daughters have to wait until they’re 40 to see some legitimate female characters onscreen and on the page.
~ Kim Vandervort
~ Kim Vandervort