Sunday, April 17, 2016

Do Strong Female Characters Make for Better Stories?

(I was really tempted to add "THE ANSWER WILL SHOCK YOU!" I resisted. You're welcome.)

There has been much discussion over the last few years (probably longer, but I might have been too busy reading to pay attention) about Strong Female Characters. Yes, people usually capitalize the first letters of each word when using this term because it’s So Very Important.


Part of the emphasis comes from troublemakers from both sides of the feminist/masculinist divide. There is a type of feminist who would never be satisfied until there are no male characters left in fiction except for killers and rapists; and there are certainly people on the other side who groan in disgust every time a trailer for female-fronted action flick pops up on the theater screen. The issue is in fact that divisive, and politically charged on top of that, even if most of us fall somewhere in the middle and want no part of the drama.


Scratch that last one. We most certainly do want drama. Storytelling drama. Excitement. Unpredictability. Surprise. And this is where some of the current trends fail us. It’s a shame, really. Movies have more and better technology than ever, and book publishing is less and less constrained by the gatekeepers. Yet whether in an effort to adhere to new societal norms or simply to pander to the perceived demands of the market, our stories are swapping new tropes for the old and still leave many of us longing for something more.


To start, I will use an example everyone knows (or should, if I have any understanding of this blog’s readers) even though there have been enough words written about that particular scene to fill several doorstopper-sized novels. In case you haven’t yet guessed, I am going to bring up the semi-controversial scene in The Force Awakens where Rey fights off the bounty hunters while Finn, having realized his help is unnecessary, is watching in slack-jawed awe.


People smarter and more knowledgeable that I have already addressed the realism, or lack thereof, of that scene from the point of view of the physical interactions and fighting choreography. I have a different question for you, and please be honest.


Did you, at any point before or during the confrontation, expect Rey to lose?


Of course not. A woman surrounded by a group of burly thugs who fight for a living? How could she possibly lose? It just isn’t done. Even Finn is apparently familiar with the way modern stories go because after that initial gallant impulse (which was intriguing, and I’d like to know how a Stormtrooper would have acquired it) he decides to just watch. Objectively speaking, the fight looked great. It should have been exciting. We should have worried about our spunky heroine. But we didn’t, not really, because we know the Strong Female Character trope. So all we got to see was a really cool performance. Fireworks with no heat, if you will: great visuals with an unexciting story. If that sounds too familiar, you’re right. And familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then at least boredom.


Mind you, there is an upside to an overplayed trope. A writer can easily set up a situation we think is familiar and have it play out differently. A great example, again from a popular movie: the Mad Max remake. As soon as I saw Furiosa and Max start swinging at each other during their first encounter, I just KNEW what was going to happen. I was already prepared to roll my eyes (especially considering how the early buzz had declared the movie some kind of feminist triumph) and then… whoa, what did I just see? A tough-as-nails heroine with a metal arm does not prevail against a guy who was just thrown from a moving vehicle? Are you kidding me? Did the writers not get the memo? Well, maybe they did, and then decided to give us something fresh instead. The movie was not exactly perfect, and got mixed reviews. Personally, I enjoyed it not even so much for the action as for the fact that, after that one scene, I knew the story would not go by the numbers, and I was mostly right.


To be fair, there are constraints on Hollywood. We as consumers demand to see beautiful people on screen, and the standard of beauty for women still tends to the thin, no matter what the body positivity movement will tell you. I’m not saying it’s good or bad. It just is. As a result, the casting pool of leading ladies, with a few notable exceptions, is filled with women who don’t ring true as realistic action heroes. (Male actors are not without their own problems. I could easily write a separate post on the ridiculousness of Tom Cruise as a slab-of-beef Jack Reacher, with some of the scenes obviously written with a larger man in mind. However, there are tricks to make an actor seem bigger on screen, and an obviously strong upper body certainly helps. There is a reason male movie heroes go shirtless so often, and it’s not just to entice women into the theater. Actually seeing the muscles aids in our suspension of disbelief, so we can go along with the story. But I digress...)


What is the harm, you ask? After all, Hollywood, for the most part, sells us fantasy, whether wrapped in a love story, a hard-boiled action movie, or an over-the-top superhero production. Why expect realism in female characters when there is so little of it elsewhere?


Well, for one, as I pointed out earlier, adhering to the requirement that a woman, no matter how small and thin, must win the fight takes away any possible suspense in terms of storytelling. But there is also a bigger downside. No teenage boy will expect to single-handedly defeat a group of terrorists after watching Olympus Has Fallen (or its much better precursor, Die Hard). On the other hand, a young woman, when confronted by a predator in a dark alley, might very well believe that she could take down a larger man with a single punch to the jaw. After all, she’s seen it countless times on TV and in movies. It seemed plausible enough. To be sure, there are ways to take down a larger opponent, none of them easy, with a firearm being the most reliable if less glamorous. But the false confidence created by unrealistic female action characters is as dangerous in real life as unrealistic body image, if not more so.


The sad part is, the solution to the dilemma, in pure storytelling terms, is laughably simple. One more movie example, if I may. The first Black Widow appearance in The Avengers. As a super-assassin, she probably could, in fact, outfight the group of Russian thugs any time. But she doesn’t have to. She feigns utter helplessness, playing the perfect damsel in distress with no savior on the way, and then, when the time comes, takes them by surprise. In other words, she outsmarts them. Later on, she plays up her vulnerability again, and tricks none other than Loki into revealing his plan. Those scenes are much more memorable and suspenseful than most of her pure action sequences. Why? Because they show a heroine with a different skill set, and because there is an element of surprise that we as consumers so crave.

I find it interesting that while family movies and sitcoms over the last 20-some years have taught us that women are smarter and mentally tougher than men, we rarely see women outsmart, rather than outfight, their opponents. Whether it’s lack of imagination or blind insistence on physical equality between men and women, too often the writers’ choices end up diminishing both the female characters and the quality of the stories. It is high time we got past the tropes and moved on to different, and more exciting, possibilities.