In which Lindsay reveals that her muscles are made of CGI.

Hollywood hates women” is the line going around this week, thanks to Tad Friend’s New Yorker piece (sorry dudes, behind a paywall) about comedienne Anna Faris and the commentary (which I like to call “Internet dust”) it’s kicked up. Though it’s nice to see this conversation taking place in the mainstream media — and Friend’s article is thoughtful and refreshingly plaintive (“Studio executive believe that male moviegoers would rather prep for a colonoscopy than experience a woman’s point of view, particularly if that woman drinks or swears or has a great job or an orgasm.”), it all just prompts me to say, “Well yeah, duh.” Those of us who follow the Women and Hollywood beat know the drill: every year or so, we are treated to one of these State of the Lady in Hollywood exposes, replete with all sorts of quotes and statistics that make us feel totally helpless, and then up from the comments sections spring all sorts of well-intentioned but maddeningly vague rally cries about how we can make it better. “We just need more strong female characters!”, goes one of these refrains. And Hollywood, on the rare occasion that it acknowledges the sound of tiny people shouting, replies with a wave of its hand, “Strong female characters? We’ve got those! Have y’all seen Tomb Raider? And…like…Tomb Raider 2: The Cradle of Life?” Which makes obvious something that we’ve always known: Hollywood has no idea what a strong female character actually looks like.

Blockbuster Hollywood’s idea of a Strong Female Character involves some kind of hybrid between brute, male strength and hyperfeminized sexuality: an Uzi-toting Rosie the Riveter with a 16-inch waist and CGI boobs. In recent years, Hollywood has inundated us with representations of this particular vision of strength, from the aforementioned Tomb Raider (and, for that matter, the entire cult of personality surrounding Angelina Jolie) to Charlie’s Angels to Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle right up to Sucker Punch (the latter of which Sady Doyle terrifically skewered in an Atlantic piece last week).

The problem with this definition of “strength” is that it’s rooted in the patriarchal notion that bigger is better, might is right, and that “weakness,” its opposite, is inherently feminine. For these characters, strength is one’s ability to step in line with a paradigm that is already tainted with misogyny; feminine strength is one’s ability to, in the elegant words of pop phenom Jessie J, “do it like a dude.” (Interestingly enough, this is also the problem that Anna Faris and others experience in the realm of comedy; in Friend’s article, a director praises her for not being “light and sweet…she’s funny like a guy would be funny.”) Once those muscles have been sufficiently flexed, the only “feminine” traits that these Strong Female Characters are allowed to exhibit are those which have been pre-approved by the patriarchy; so, namely, CGI boobs.The Strong Female Character is not one who’s able to provide a personal revision as to what strength is and what it looks like, but one who’s able to successfully navigate the narrow channels in which she’s allowed to be visible in the mainstream Hollywood film.

So if we can’t look to Hollywood for unproblematic views of female strength, can we find them instead in the margins? Not really, says Elizabeth Greenwood, who recently proposed that indie cinema kind of hates women too. In an article entitled “Why So Many Boring Women in Indie Film?” she implicates a number of supposedly more enlightened films for portraying female characters as “meek,” “mild” and “utterly forgettable”  and accuses both male and female filmmakers of “hav[ing] shown little regard for their young female protagonists as people.”

It’s a brave and noble piece, one that articulates something I’ve felt but haven’t quite been able to name — but I only agree with her to a point. First of all, I’ll acknowledge the false dichotomy I’m setting up between “Hollywood films” and “indie films” here; in film as in music, “indie” is no longer synonymous with a  counterculture or a space in which the greater forces of sexism and other forms of oppression are challenged (plus, most of the films she mentions have relatively huge budgets and big names behind them). Greenwood calls out some female characters whose one-dimensional emptiness I find worthy of critique, from the title character in (500) Days of Summer to Michelle Williams’s Cindy in Blue Valentine. But I think she’s too quick to lump a large and varied group of films together — and in some cases her definition of “boring” relies on yet another preexisting paradigm.

“Some of the women Greenwood calls out as boring are deeply sympathetic, brave characters, even if the people around them on-screen don’t always see them for who they are,” Alyssa Rosenberg writes in a response to the original piece. She goes on to defend some of the characters Greenwood initially criticizes. Margot Tenenbaum, for one, she sees as a character who hides her inferiority from those who seek to externally define her. (And of course she’s successful. “What do you know?” her husband is asked right before seeing a dossier recounting the secrets about her love life. “Very little, I’m afraid.”) I’ll extend the defense along to Greta Gerwig’s Florence in Greenberg, a film that Greenwood also faults. Having seen the film twice now, I find Florence’s inarticulateness hugely sympathetic and relatable — even though she’s not a “strong female character” in the sense that she’s ambitious, has a “good job” or could kick your teeth out. Her tangential anecdotes and eccentric sense of humor don’t serve to fetishize her into the film’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but rather convey a disconnect between her and the rest of the people populating her world.  And in contrast with the film’s titular male protagonist, something about her has stuck with me. As my friend Kristen said upon rewatching the film last week, “That movie really should have been called Florence.”

So then, if it’s not the machine gun or the combat boots or a well-articulated interiority, what exactly makes a strong female character? Is it the character’s ability to evade a simple answer to that very question? Maybe. I’m not even sure. But, paradoxically, I have always felt a weird strength in not feeling sure, so maybe there is potential in that: characters who appear before us in the process of working things out. Or maybe, better yet, the word “strong” is too entangled in false, rotted-out visions of masculinity to ever do us any good. To end Hollywood’s hatred of women, I don’t think we don’t need more strong female characters — we need a complete reimagining of what strength is.

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