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Is the strong female character role a myth?

BY Drew Turney

18th Aug 2023 Film & TV

Is the strong female character role a myth?

With films and TV shows full of seemingly “kick ass” strong female characters, are they really a sign of change?

Shuri. Furiosa. Sarah Connor. Hermione Grainger. Captain Marvel. The last few decades have given us so many female heroes you'd think feminism had won and Hollywood had settled the culture wars. But have things really changed?

The way we see females on screen was first affected by a change in the demographics Hollywood began chasing. Films used to be made for adults, but as economies changed it became all about four quadrant animated family fare and CGI smash-‘em-ups targeting teenagers.

Superheroes for young girls?

And when pre-known properties became Hollywood's hottest ticket, the IP most ripe to plumb for CGI smash-em-ups was comic books. Women were portrayed in films a new way because Hollywood was making a new kind of movie.

Through the sounding board of the media, and with a new awareness of feminism and MeToo, we started asking where all the decent female characters were, and in image-aware Hollywood, minority or female representation was suddenly as critical as visual effects in your average blockbuster.

"Maybe, instead of decrying why it's taken so long to get such role models, we should be asking if we're getting the right kind"

Social media and the film press still lights up in frenzied celebration with every new example because we're “finally” getting a hero little girls and young woman can look up to.

Maybe, instead of decrying why it's taken so long to get such role models, we should be asking if we're getting the right kind...

Fighting chance

Hidden Figures film posterHidden Figures tells the story of three female Black mathematicians who worked at NASA during the space race. Credit: 20th Century Fox

Now, we should be demanding (and getting) complex female characters, and we've had plenty of smart, realistic women in the ladies of Hidden Figures, Jo March in Little Women, Eleven in Stranger Things and many others.

But claims female heroes should be an inspiration because they (in a phrase you still hear ad nauseam) “kick ass” are ever-more common, becoming so pervasive they had their own media moment.

"We should be getting more complex female characters, like the smart women in 'Hidden Figures', 'Little Women' and 'Stranger Things'"

Should we really consider female characters fleshed out and interesting because they “kick ass”? Nobody's suggesting women on screen should stay home to cook and have babies, but when did the cornerstone of womanhood we're supposed to look up to become the ability to beat someone up?

Maybe it would be truly revolutionary if—instead of seeing female characters high kicking, driving fast or blowing things up—we saw them safe from an insidious rape culture, having access to reproductive control of their own bodies or earning as much as their male peers for the same job.

Only fantasy

Black Widow film poster
Drew Turney argues that films like 2021's Black Widow could be dangerous for young girls

Of course, films are harmless fantasy and entertainment, and we're all adults here, aren't we?

Well, no. Kids' experience of violent and inappropriate media is a long-standing issue—a link between exposure to TV violence and aggression in children was established as long ago as 1982.

And consider another possible effect. Imagine a ten-year-old girl seeing an endless procession of female heroes throwing men twice their weight across dingy bars or using fists and shapely legs to clear a of room full of bad guys.

If she comes up against sexual harassment or physical assault one day—maybe from an intimate partner—will she expect to simply throw a roundhouse kick to his head and take him out like Wonder Woman or Black Widow?

As adults we understand the physics of gender body mass and muscle density, but might young girls be desensitised, conditioned by years’ worth of “strong female characters” they've been subtly trained to emulate?

Strong = sexy?

Harley Quinn poster for 2016's Suicide Squad film
Is Harley Quinn overly-sexualised in 2016's Suicide Squad? Photo credit: Warner Bros

Another trope straight from comics—a medium whose traditional audience has always been men and boys—is the overt sexualisation of women. Before we celebrate the feminist triumph kick-ass female superheroes are meant to represent, consider the way they're dressed. If they're not in skin-tight leather or swimwear, you're watching the wrong genre.

The men of 2016's Suicide Squad wore various outfits reflecting their characters as assassins or soldiers. The sole female, Harley Quinn, wore high heels and booty shorts. In fact, it was another role that fetishised and sexualised star Margot Robbie to what one writer considered an alarming degree.

Contrast that with Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) wearing the same coveralls as the rest of her crew in Alien or Princess Leia in tactical battle gear (when not performing royal duties) in the Star Wars saga decades ago. When today's kick-ass heroines have deep cleavage or fishnets to fight alien invasions or terrorists, have we really moved forward?

Is this really change?

The moral of the story seems to be that the mythical attribution “strong female character” really only requires two things—the ability to fight and the illusion of sexual availability.

To some, including this author, talking about “strong female characters” like they're a rare animal is part of the problem—male characters are already assumed to have strength, direction and agency, after all.

"The mythical attribution 'strong female character' really only requires two things—the ability to fight and the illusion of sexual availability"

But in the face of all the hashtags, comments section vitriol and token concessions to equality by screenwriters and producers we celebrate as triumphs of inclusion, is the way we're portraying female characters really changing?

Banner photo: Wonder Woman. Credit: Warner Bros

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