I can’t let Women’s History Month go by without a little rant about women in the movies.
The way I see it, Hollywood has a problem. The problem is that at least 80 percent of all its writers, directors, and producers are male, while 50 percent of the audience they’re trying to reach is female. And generally speaking, men tend to be not so great at telling stories for or about women. So there just aren’t as many female characters as male ones on the big screen, and when they do appear, they’re much more likely to be one-dimensional and bland. And movies marketed specifically to women are a lot more likely to suck.
Of course, this is changing. We no longer live in a world where it’s okay for the hero’s girlfriend to do nothing but scream, look pretty, and get rescued (with…certain exceptions). We even live in a world where it’s possible for a woman to be the main character in a hugely popular action franchise without ever putting on a bikini! And on television it’s even better. Some of the most popular, acclaimed series currently airing are centred around women, or at least have a lot of them doing awesome things.
So instead of complaining about how often movies have gotten women wrong (there are plenty of other places to find that on the Internet), I’m going to list my favourite times when movies and shows got women right.
But first, let me clue you in on what I’m looking for. I don’t personally think any “type” of female character is necessarily better than any other. Hardcore action girls can still be sexist caricatures, and dress-twirling girly girls can be interesting and complex. What I want from female characters in movies is…well, character. I want them to have serious flaws that they overcome (or don’t) in relatable ways. I want them to have heroic qualities I can root for. I want them to be goofy, serious, smart, stupid, angry, kind, hopeful, depressed, and every other personality trait you can think of. I want them to have dreams and goals, and to fight to achieve them. I want them to be protagonists, villains, comic relief and supporting characters, and in every role I want them to come across as three-dimensional human beings. You know…all those things male characters have been allowed to do since the beginning of film.
So here are some ladies who achieve that for me.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Scully is my TV hero. Her no-nonsense attitude, her determination to find The Truth in the most scientific way possible, and her fierce loyalty to the people she holds dear are all inspiring to me. Thanks to great acting and (mostly) great writing, I can relate to her struggles–whether it’s trying to reconcile her faith in science or God with all the crazy stuff she sees, or just trying to fend off the monster and/or psycho of the week. And while The X–Files couldn’t exist without Mulder, the smartest, scariest and most heart-breaking episodes always seemed to centre around Scully. When you’ve got a woman who’s five feet tall in heels, has the face of a 15-year-old, and is still a believable threat to The Conspiracy, you know you’ve stumbled on a good female character.
Doesn’t really matter which adaptation we’re talking about–most of them are good for the same reasons. (I am partial to the 2009 BBC miniseries, though.) Emma Woodhouse is basically a terrible person. She’s an arrogant, spoiled, naive, self-righteous busybody, but she’s also quite charming and funny, which is one of the reasons she gets away with so much crap (the other being that she’s rich). And if you’ve never met anyone like her, you don’t get out much. Her flaws are so human and so familiar that they make it all the more satisfying when she starts to grow out of them at the end. That’s how you get me to enjoy a love story: make the ultimate triumph about becoming a better person, not just “finding that special person.”
The next trilogy of Star Wars movies could not be in better hands, protagonist-wise. Rey is, of course, a powerful Jedi in the making, but that’s not what makes her special. What I really like about her is the sheer joy and wonder she brings to the screen. Here’s a kid who grew up alone on a desert planet, but never let her depressing life dim her hopes for the future. And when she finally gets to see what the rest of the galaxy is like and discovers her powers, her excitement simply oozes off the screen. She keeps her optimism, her joy, and her determination to do right, no matter what the movie throws at her. And that’s a very likeable trait in a Star Wars hero, especially considering some of her whiny predecessors. Combine that with some awesome lightsaber action, and you get the best thing about the new Star Wars films so far. (And this is coming from someone who liked Rogue One better than The Force Awakens.)
The Marvel/Netflix TV shows have given us a wide range of villains, of both genders. But Madame Gao has always been the most intimidating of them all. She’s a little old lady with a pronounced limp, yet she always seems to be in control of whatever situation she’s in, and she’s clearly the smartest and most ruthless villain in the ‘verse. There are indications that she’s not quite human, she’s able to take down a trained fighter with a single blow, and her whole demeanour is just plain creepy. It’s rare to see a female villain whose primary weapon is something other than her sexuality, and Madame Gao gets things done without ever resorting to that.
Wonder Woman has a chance to change my mind later this year, but as of right now, my favourite female superhero ever to hit the big screen is Mrs. Incredible. She’s funny. She has some of the movie’s best action scenes. Her powers are awesome. And her struggle is one that a lot of non-super-powered women can relate to: balancing her calling as a hero with her equally important calling to be a wife and mother. She embodies the kind of down-to-earth conflict you don’t see enough in superhero movies, and she does it in a uniquely feminine way.
The entire female cast of Mad Max: Fury Road
Now, obviously, my favourite character in Fury Road is Furiosa. But she’s not the first hardcore, no-frills action heroine I’d ever seen in a movie, so she wasn’t what set this film apart. What I had never seen before was an action movie of this caliber where the women with speaking roles outnumbered the men. In most action movies, Furiosa would be the only good female character, and she’d have to be awesome because otherwise feminists would complain about misrepresentation of women. But because there are so many women in Fury Road, no one of them has to stand in for the entire gender, so they’re all allowed to have different personalities. Some of them are wimps. Some of them are strong in a physical way, and some in a more emotional, brain-powered way. Some of them look like supermodels and some look like old ladies. But they’re almost all memorable in some way, and they’re all vital to the story. This movie is a perfect representation of how I would like women to be portrayed in all genre films. They’re not all amazing, but there are more of them, and they’re all characters, not sex objects or plot devices. In fact, the whole story is about them trying to escape from being sex objects and plot devices! I love this movie.
There are so many more I could list, but that should give you an idea of the kind of variety I like in my female characters. Fortunately, good characters like these are becoming more common, but there are still some genres where they’re hard to find–like superhero movies, for example. Wonder Woman, please be good.
I don’t think we’ll see truly equal portrayals of men and women at the movies until there are more women calling the shots behind the scenes. Although there are some sad exceptions (*cough* Twilight *cough*), women are generally better than men at telling things from a female perspective, and that’s a perspective we need to see more often in movies. So I’m hoping to get out and see some more movies with female directors and writers this year.
Who are some of your favourite chicks in flicks? And why?